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Berkeley Bike Boulevards

In Berkeley, Calif. a citywide network of bicycle priority streets called Bicycle Boulevards allow cyclists to navigate safely. They are marked by smart traffic management, bountiful traffic calming, and the aura of livability and putting people first, cars second. Among their most unique trademarks are the purple signage and street stencils larger than a car!

In this trip to Berkeley, StreetFilms' Clarence Eckerson Jr. talks to advocates and users of the boulevards about their history and benefits.

Bike Blvd Sign

[intro music]

Sarah Syed: [00:22] The bicycle boulevard network is an idea to create a system of bicycle priority streets that can really provide a safe way for people of all ages and abilities to bike across Berkeley.


Cathy Rion: [00:38] I love being able to bike around and not drive and have that flexibility. And the bike boulevards and the bike lanes are what makes that possible.

Kris Worthington: [00:48] I bicycle to work at City Council every single day, and to my meetings all over the city and beyond, not just on the bicycle boulevards, but if I’m going a long distance I can take my bike on the bus or I can take my bike on BART.

DeAnna Tibbs: [01:05] Safety is one of the number one concerns of why people don’t choose to bike because they feel like it’s dangerous. And streets like these really make people feel the safety that they need to actually get out on their bikes, to bring their kids out on their bikes.


Dave Campbell: [01:22] We’re out on Russell Street which is a bicycle boulevard in town. We’ve got a couple of bicyclists coming up the street, a couple of pedestrians walking across. That’s the whole goal of the programme here is to make the streets safer for both. One thing we’ve done to do that is put huge bicycle stencils down on the street. It’s the same size as the Stop sign symbol and that’s key, any other city looking to do this, to keep that in mind. The idea is that you want to create the same, you know, optical image that the Stop sign stencil creates to a motorist. The bike stencil’s just as wide as the Stop sign stencil and it’s actually much longer because it has more information in it.

DeAnna Tibbs: [01:59] Cos it really gives a cyclist a sense of owning the road and being able to take the lane, being able to be in the middle of the street where they can avoid the door zone. Cars are expecting that they’re going to have to wait for bikes, they’re going to be seeing bikes, you know, it’s not going to be a confrontational thing if a cyclist is in the middle of the road because it’s expected on these streets.


Dave Campbell: [02:22] The signs we use on our boulevards here in Berkeley is purple. We use big purple signs that tell you you’re on a boulevard and give you information about where you’re going. But in addition, the actual street signs are purple for the boulevard streets, and you can see that here with the Russell Street sign. Why purple? There’s only a few colours, really noticeable colours, that traffic engineers don’t already use. Purple was one of them. Every street block has a purple sign. So the combination of those two things, and the stencils on the roadway, is to raise motorists’ awareness that there are more bicycles out here, so drive more cautiously.

Sarah Syed: [03:01] Berkeley does have a very broad traffic calming programme that was installed primarily in the 1970’s.

Heath Maddox: [03:08] We have numerous different obstacles for cars. Berkeley was one of the first cities to experiment with traffic calming and traffic reduction in the neighbourhoods. And so there was a pretty comprehensive citywide network of diverters and barriers and half-barriers that went in to create a hierarchy of streets.

Sarah Syed: [03:26] The idea with that is that you can still have an urban grid to preserve through movement for cyclists and pedestrians, while getting some of the benefits of a cul-de-sac when it comes to auto traffic.

Heath Maddox: [03:39] The original barriers and diverters that went in in the early ‘70’s, they didn’t really consider cyclists at that time, but all along the bicycle boulevards we’ve actually modified the existing barriers and upgraded them so that cyclists can pass through more easily. There’s a hole in the barrier for cyclists and/or emergency vehicles to continue through. This is an example of one of our nicer ones, it’s been very tastefully landscaped.


Heath Maddox: [04:07] So we’re riding up to Channing bicycle boulevard, approaching Martin Luther King Junior Way. And there’s a special signal here which detects cyclists, it gives you protected area and allows cyclists to continue straight while motorists can’t. Martin Luther King as you can see is a major street, four lanes. There are two magnetic inductive loop detectors in the pavement meeting up to the final detector just before the crosswalk. And these detect the presence of cyclists and give them a green. Behind me is a right turn only sign, this is for motorists. You can see below it in small letters it says “except bicycles” and that’s to keep the motorist from continuing straight on the bicycle boulevard.

Dave Campbell: [04:50] To prevent all traffic from going through they put a little staple down in the ground, it’s actually a big metal staple, that these days prevents only cars from going through, it really doesn’t prevent an SUV or any kind of vehicle at height chassis from going through. But all of our traffic control stuff is designed for emergency access. This is a semi diverter. You’ll see the sign says emergency vehicles and bicycles are allowed through, but the cars can’t continue on this way. It’s a semi diverter so the neighbourhood can get out of the neighbourhood, but cars won’t be using this street as a cut-through.


Dave Campbell: [05:28] We’ve put in a lot of traffic circles, about 30 to 35 in the last couple of years. You’re going to see two or three traffic circles in this street which has a lot of beneficial effects. One, if you’re a motorist driving down the street you’re going to slow down just cos you… the street looks smaller, it looks narrower and it doesn’t look like a through street that you would just travel down real quickly to get to where you’re going. The neighbourhood adopts their circles, so the plantings in here are watered and kept up by the neighbourhood.


Charles Siegel: [06:00] During the 1980’s a group of people got together and proposed a slow street on Milvia, which we hoped would be the beginning of a slow street network all over the city. And we flipped the parking from one side of the street to another so there’s a curve in the middle of the block. In order to make the street curve, we put these bulb outs here and similar bulb outs in the centre. The trees are further out into the street than the ordinary street trees and the planting strip are, and so they narrow the street visually. We also added the speed humps. The speed humps are designed to slow traffic to 15 miles an hour. All these generations of traffic calming devices have ended up creating lots of locations that are safe and comfortable places to bicycle, where there’s either very little traffic, or the traffic is very slow.

Heath Maddox: [06:52] In Berkeley really everybody’s using the bicycle boulevards and I think one of the reasons that they get such wide currency is because they feel safe.

Cathy Rion: [07:01] You can get pretty much anywhere in Berkeley on the bike boulevards. If I want to take my godson in the bike trailer, take him on the bike boulevard, know that we’ll be safe even when it’s dark out, knowing that there’s not going to be that many cars, and if they are they’re going to be going slowly.

Kris Worthington: [07:14] It really isn’t a dramatic change from, you know, what the street used to be, but the fact that people are told that these are bicycle boulevards makes more bicyclists likely to ride on it.

Sarah Syed: [07:26] In many cases these were formerly bike routes and now we’re trying to make improvements that will really increase the convenience and comfort of cycling across Berkeley.

DeAnna Tibbs: [07:37] I think that it not only makes for a more beautiful city, but just is kind of positive reinforcement, you know, it kind of starts help that cycle of getting people out of their cars and onto their bikes and decreases pollution and decreases the need for people to have cars.



Clarence Eckerson Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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