Park Boulevard: the anatomy of a city street

The San Francisco Chronicle had a “Chronicle Watch” feature the other day about one of those solar-powered displays that cities put up to let drivers know how fast they are going (the Chron’s “Journalism of Action” in action!). The display in question, which briefly wasn’t working because its solar battery was dead, happens to be a few blocks from me on Park Boulevard (where the marchers were protesting recently).

I’ve actually spent a lot of time thinking about Park Blvd, because I face its problems every time I cross over it, walk down it, or bike up it. In some ways, Park is a nice street: it curves gently up shallow valleys and ridgelines, from humble flatland beginnings at Kragen Auto Parts and Church’s Fried Chicken to a posher terminus in hillside Montclair. There are several parks alongside the street, and numerous shops, restaurants and cafes. You wouldn’t call it bustling in the way that some other Oakland neighborhoods such as Chinatown or Fruitvale are bustling, but compared to the strip malls of Fremont or Fairfield, it’s an urbanist’s dream.

And yet lower Park, from E. 18th Street to Interstate 580, is clearly not living up to its potential; cars drive at dangerous speeds past the occasional pedestrian who stands helplessly at a crosswalk, businesses routinely disappear for lack of customers, and some neighborhood residents avoid the sidewalks and parks because they don’t feel safe.

Earlier this week, I was eating lunch outside a bagel shop on Park Street in Alameda, and I was surprised to realize that Park Street has just as many lanes as Park Boulevard. The streets could hardly feel more different: Park Boulevard often feels like a speedway running through a semi-deserted neighborhood, whereas on Park Street, the sidewalks are thick with pedestrians popping in and out of thriving businesses, drivers obey the speed limits, and people can cross the street without putting their life at risk.

I’m not a city planner or a traffic engineer, but a few explanations for Park Boulevard’s deficiencies come to mind. First is the width of the street itself. At some point, Oakland’s planners must have decided that every neighborhood should have a broad boulevard whose primary purpose would be to feed cars to freeway entrances at high volume. So in addition to the numerous highways slicing Oakland’s neighborhoods into semi-isolated chunks, there are many wide streets designed with one purpose only: to keep as many cars as possible traveling as fast as possible from the side streets to the freeways. Park Street in Alameda bears more traffic (or so I would guess) on the same number of lanes, but is a much narrower street, forcing cars to drive more slowly.

While Park Boulevard isn’t as wide as some other arteries such as 27th St. or West MacArthur, which have three wide traffic lanes in each direction, it still seems far too wide for the amount of traffic it gets. At many times of day, drivers have no other vehicles nearby, so they tend to drift from lane to lane as the road curves left and right, encouraging the sense that they are on a racetrack and not a city street. Could you really blame the guy in this white pickup if he drove this stretch of road as if he were at Indianapolis Speedway? (The radar-equipped speed sign is just around the next bend.)

Park Boulevard Speedway

And could you really blame the woman with the stroller at the left if she decided that she’d rather drive down to the nearby cafe or playground instead of making this desolate walk? Imagine if this street had one traffic lane in each direction, with perhaps a median strip, or a center lane for left turns only. Imagine wider sidewalks, with some trees planted right next to the roadway. It would no longer look like a wide open thruway, and would look a lot more like a city street built to a human scale.

In addition to the excessive width of the street, the lack of median, and the barren, narrow sidewalks, this particular stretch of Park Boulevard is entirely lacking in traffic lights or stop signs for over half a mile, from the intersection with E. 18th St. to the intersection with Spruce and 7th Avenue. Below is an aerial shot of that section of Park Blvd from Google Maps, with E. 18th marked in red at the lower left, and Spruce marked at the upper right.

Park Blvd on Google Maps

You can see that this is not some remote or sparsely-populated part of the city. There are many side streets coming in, apartment buildings on all sides, a major merger/intersection with 5th Avenue (near the center of the image), two city parks on opposite sides of Park Boulevard (one of which includes a children’s play area, basketball courts, and a community center) and several crosswalks — but not a single traffic light or stop sign. And even the crosswalks that do exist are pathetic; with one exception, they are two thin lines painted across the road, instead of the thick white bars that make up a proper crosswalk.

Given the curvy thoroughfare, and the frequency of the side streets, it is almost impossible for a walker to know if a speeding car is about to appear, so even if the coast looks clear, I find myself rushing to get across. And I’m a young, agile person who isn’t usually transporting any cargo. Think about what the woman with the stroller in the photo above is facing if she wants to get to the playground: over half a mile of wide, fast street without any way to safely cross over to the park on the other side. This is almost criminal. To take her kid to the playground, she has to either walk out of her way to one of the streets that has a proper crossing light, or she has to cross her fingers, murmur a quick prayer, and take her chances at one of the “crosswalks,” or she has to get in her car (assuming she owns one) and drive to the park.

If she does decide to drive to the park, then that itself has all sorts of ramifications, none of them good. I’m not thinking of fossil fuel use or exhaust emissions; I mean more local, tangible effects. For one thing, if she chooses to drive to the playground, then the only pedestrian on that particular stretch of Park Boulevard would not be there, leaving the sidewalk entirely empty, and therefore less welcoming to any other neighborhood residents who might consider walking down to a local restaurant or the movie theater a few blocks away.

And if the woman with the stroller chooses to drive her kid to the playground, then there’s a decent chance that she will decide to go to a less local playground. The park across Park Boulevard has some history of drug dealing and related problems, and while it’s much less blighted than it used to be, the playground is still unused a lot of the time, so it would be perfectly reasonable for the woman to take her child to another park where she will be more likely to find other parents and children, and less likely to find any sort of trouble. This will in turn mean that the local playground is even more deserted that it would have been, and therefore less hospitable to prospective families and more hospitable to dealers or their customers.

I won’t descend any further into fictional speculation, but I assume the point is clear: whenever we are dealing with a complex system like a city neighborhood, where thousands of people are making thousands of decisions about where to live, where to shop, where to eat, where to play, and how to get to all those places, then things like traffic lights, median strips and populated sidewalks have consequences, and those consequences have consequences. (A good Boston Globe Magazine article in August, “The Future of Crossing the Street,” provided some fascinating examples from Boston about how urban space and human behavior interact in subtle ways.)

With fewer crossing lights, people are less likely to walk places. With fewer pedestrians around, drivers are less likely to slow down. With cars going faster, people are less likely to walk places. With fewer people walking places, the sidewalks will be more desolate, so people will feel more vulnerable to muggers (or worse). With pedestrians feeling more vulnerable, they will be less likely to want to walk places. With fewer pedestrians walking places, cars will be less likely to watch out for them, and more likely to hit them. With cars more likely to hit pedestrians, people will…you get the point: everything “ramifies endlessly,” as Philip Larkin put it.

So that solar-powered, radar-equipped speed display is all well and good if it causes drivers to slow down, but it is just a tiny start in what needs to happen to bring Park Boulevard closer to its potential. The street has a lot in its favor — the beloved Parkway Theater, several nice restaurants and coffeehouses, the two parks mentioned above, and more. If Oakland’s government wants to get serious about improving Park Boulevard and the surrounding neighborhoods, beyond installing one electronic display, then they can look across the estuary to Park Street for some guidance.

In Alameda, not only do they post a speed limit and perhaps an electronic display telling drivers how fast they are going, but they actually give tickets to drivers who speed on city streets. In Alameda, not only do they install crosswalks at intersections, but they actually make them prominently visible to drivers. In Alameda, not only do they make crosswalks visible to drivers, but they actually give tickets (and quite large ones, I hear) to drivers who fail to stop for pedestrians, even when there is no traffic light at the crossing.

I would personally much rather live in Oakland than Alameda, but that doesn’t mean that Oakland couldn’t learn a thing or two from other places about how to make the city’s neighborhoods safer and more vibrant — in other words, more citylike. I’m happy to report that I did see one small but promising sign yesterday.

Cars on sidewalkAs I walked down to the Parkway to see whether there was any chance of getting in to see the inauguration there (there wasn’t — at 7:15 am, the line for the theater was already two blocks long), I saw a parking cop ticketing cars that were parked with their tail ends on the sidewalk like the ones shown here.

Along with cars parked in bike lanes, cars parked on sidewalks really irritate me, because the message seems to be, “My convenience is more important than your right to use a public right of way safely.” And since most of the people who park on sidewalks or in bike lanes would never consider parking in the middle of a car lane, the message also seems to be, “Cars are more important than pedestrians or bicyclists, even on sidewalks or bike lanes.” And since I see cars parked across sidewalks every day, and never see them getting ticketed for it, I always assumed that the police felt the same way. It was nice to see that at least one City of Oakland employee disagrees. Maybe she was inspired by the imminent dawn of the Obama era, or maybe she just had a quota to fill. Either way, I was happy to see it — there’s a reason they’re called sidewalks, not sideparks.

21 Responses to “Park Boulevard: the anatomy of a city street”

  1. ng says:

    This reminds me of Jane Jacobs’ ideas about livable cities, and I wish more people would listen to both of you.

  2. other says:

    Great pictures to illustrate your ideas!

  3. Eric Fischer says:

    It was interesting reading this just a day after seeing another blog post (http://oaklanderonline.com/2008/12/17/106/) talking about what a successful street they though (upper) Park Boulevard was. I wish I knew what the cure was for making Park and Oakland’s other radial valley streets into places where people want to be.

  4. dc says:

    ng: Every post like this should probably have a verbal tip of the hat to Jacobs somewhere in it, but that might get repetitive, kind of like tipping your hat to oxygen every time you take a breath. I’m glad that we now have someone in the White House who thinks that the Death and Life of Great American Cities is “a great book,” although progressive urban activists are all furious right now about his lack of commitments to mass transit infrastructure and such.

    Eric Fischer: thanks, I hadn’t seen that post about upper Park Blvd. I agree that Glenview is much more pedestrian-friendly, and I’ll note that the part of Park Blvd that passes through Glenview has traffic lights at nearly every corner and a median strip with trees that makes the roadway feel more confined. Coindidence? I doubt it, although there may probably demographic and other factors at play also.

  5. wordnerd says:

    Boulevard comes from an old French work bollevart (bulwark is related), meaning rampart converted to a promenade–so there’s hope.

  6. dc says:

    I try to be a boulevardier as I stroll down this section of Park, but somehow it doesn’t seem to work there.

  7. eric says:

    Good post. It also looks to me, from the photo, that the street is indeed too wide, not only because the cars speed by un-checked, but because such a wide street, without taller buildings lining it, just LOOKS desolate. I live a block from a wide boulevard (Mass Ave in North Cambridge) that has none of the problems you decribe
    (it’s got lots of stoplights, nice thickly painted crosswalks, and no curves, so you can see traffic coming from a mile away) and is in fact well-used by pedestrians and moms with strollers and so on. BUT it still feels desolate and car-dominated. Now, f it were only one lane, would it be better? Yes, no doubt. But what would make it FEEL even better would be tall buildings on either side. But when I suggested changing the zoning at a neihborhood planing meeting, a neighbor said that he was worried that taller buildings would mean more people, and that Mass Ave could end up “looking like Calcutta.” More density was, of course, exactly what I’d had in mind… Anyway, that’s one of the things I don’t like about the American west–the streets are too damn wide.

  8. dc says:

    Calcutta! I hear fears of “Manhattanization” a lot (my reaction: bring it on!), but Cambridge-as-Calcutta shows true imagination.

    You’re right about the width of the street versus the short buildings, and streets in the West. That’s one reason that SF is such a successful city — its density. The buildings along Park Blvd are actually taller (3 stories average, I would say) than the buildings lining most arterial streets in Oakland, which are one-to-two stories. I was reading recently that a 1-to-1 ratio of building height to street width is considered ideal for creating a street that people actually want to use.

    I wonder if more mixed-use buildings would help Park Blvd also. Right now there are businesses clustered at certain intersections, and mostly residential buildings on the stretches in between. Although businesses currently have trouble staying open in some of the existing storefronts, it seems possible that adding to the supply of available space would (counterintuitively) increase demand for those locations, because they would be part of a true commercial district instead of isolated stores surrounded by residential buildings.

  9. OaklanderOnline says:

    Like your Park Blvd. post! The comparison to Park Street was also useful, especially in regard to pedestrians. Park Street, for instance, has these crosswalks with embedded, flashing lights; peds can push a button (much like with a walk sign light) and then the lights alert oncoming cars. Of course, as you point out, drivers move more slowly in A-town.

    Roaring traffic is a problem even on upper Park Blvd. also. Just the other day, I was walking with my friend across Wellington Street, and this car totally cut us off as we started to cross the street. With a walking street light. And with a baby in tow. Wha’? Not cool. I try to set an example by driving slowly up and down Park and letting the hot-shots pass me by.

    Certainly, we need more crosswalks. Desperate peds often walk on the medians at various points along Park Blvd., which doesn’t help maintain the plantings there. I know that the GNA (Glenview Neighborhood Association) is always trying to keep the median gardens growing. This is hard to do when they’re trampled on a regular basis.

    Not that I’m an advocate for more streetlights. But how else will we slow drivers down? I remember a car flipped over a median right in front of my house, and landed on the wrong side of Park. Blood pooled up underneath and luckily, my nurse neighbor ran out Superman-style to help until the ambulance arrived. Seems like folks need to do some deep breathing…

  10. ruth gutmann says:

    I really like your close observation of your surroundings. I too immediately thought of Jane Jacobs – who wrote about downtown New York City. (I think she died in Canada).
    Incidentally, pedestrians are also threatened by cars, that, perfectly legally, turn right while the pedestrian is crossing the street. If only they would do it at reduced speed. The worst case is when the vehicle is a truck, and the pedestrian is not visible to that driver.

    Don’t forget though that there is also a subjective element in how we perceive our surroundings. To me, on good days Beacon Street in Brookline still has the quality of a boulevard. On bad days it’s just a highway with some trees.

  11. eric says:

    Beacon Street is like Mass Ave in some ways–good in places, terrible in other places. Of course, when it comes down to it, Haussman’s boulevards are like Mass Ave in some ways. Speaking of urbanists, I always enjoy Kunstler’s newsletter (“Civitas”? Something like that) about Saratoga Springs or wherever he lives. I also have always wanted to get that big book by that guy who laid down rules for urban planning, rules of thumb like the one you cite about the ratio of street width to building height.

    Ruth, I think you had left NYC before one of its recent republican mayors put up big barriers preventing pedestrians from walking across the street along ith traffic. If you wanted to get from, say, the northeast corner to the southeast corner of fifth and sixty-third streets (if 63rd goes east), you’d have to cross 5th, cross 63rd, and then cross back over fifth. I think the barriers are gone now, leaving pedestrians free to get killed by big trucks.

  12. eric says:

    One more note about commercial space: it all depends on the bigger ecosystem. Right now there are at least a dozen storefronts vacant along mass ave. between porter square and the arlington border. I think part of the problem is that the avenue is just a long line, with stores spread evenly along it–so it’s more of a car throughfare than a pedestrian district. It helps if instead, as you say, there are little clumps that can become mini-destinations–like that place out there–Rock Ridge, or whatever it’s called. All this must be standard urbanist fare, right? It is pretty interesting.

  13. dc says:

    OaklanderOnline: Thanks! I agree that deep breathing would be helpful for a lot of people in our culture. Unfortunately, the people who are most likely to take some deep breaths, or meditate, or do yoga, or go for long walks, are probably the people who need to do it the least.

    eric: Yes, Rockridge. Oakland actually has quite a few little commercial districts that are thriving pedestrian zones, including Rockridge, Piedmont Ave, Temescal (Telegraph from 47th to 51st or so), pockets of downtown, Lakeshore Ave near me, and as I mentioned in the post, Chinatown and Fruitvale, which are both buzzing immigrant neighborhoods. I just don’t like how dead all the dead patches in between are. Parts of Telegraph, for instance, are pretty deserted after the sun goes down, which is weird since less than half a mile in either direction you can find busy restaurants, bars, cafes, etc.

    Things do seem to be improving slowly.. When I moved to this neighborhood there was one coffeehouse within a 10 minute walk. Now there are four, all of them friendly independents. If I’m willing to walk 15 minutes, then I can probably find 10 or more. Not too shabby. I hope this lousy economy doesn’t do too much damage (unemployment reached 9.3 in California in December — probably over 10 by now).

  14. Frankie D says:

    This has been one of the best posts I’ve read regarding a problem street in Oakland. I am very familar with Park Blvd. as a pedestrian, driver and cyclist. Shoot, I almost got hit by a car while in the cross walk on upper Park Blvd. just this morning, no harm was done and the driver was very apologetic. The post WWII mentality among Oakland officials was to let the traffic engineers run rough shod throughout the city to improve vehicular access to the freeways at the expense of pedestrians and neighborhoods. This mentality persisted among city officials even into the late 1980’s and could still possibly exist with some today. This along with other factors resulted in neighborhood safety spiraling downward, from a lack of pedestrians due to unwalkable, unsafe streets. Of course at the time the traffic engineers were first dreaming up what was to become these “expressways of fear”, gas was 30 cents a gallon and we were all going to be in flying cars by 2009. The cosmetic changes to make the lower part of Park Blvd. as nice as the part above 580 or even Park Street in Alameda are not that cost prohibative. It just take better education of the public and the elected officials, which you are providing with this post and active community organization.

  15. dc says:

    Frankie D: Thanks. It’s nice to hear that other people in the area feel the same way about Park Blvd. I find that a lot of drivers are very apologetic if they realize that they cut off or almost hit someone who was on a bicycle or on foot. While there are of course some real jerks behind the wheel, most drivers around here seem well-meaning but somewhat oblivious.

  16. Joe MacCarthy says:

    Great article. I live by Park and 580 and drop off my kids at a daycare on Park everyday. Traffic on Park goes unchecked by the police and the speeds probably hit 50mph on regular basis. Have you ever talked to the Traffic Engineers about your redesign of the street or other ways to slow down the traffic. I know budgets are tight but there has to be some sort of solution. Thanks for the post!!

  17. dc says:

    Joe: Thanks. I haven’t talked to anyone in officialdom about Park Boulevard (except for one police officer who was working a speed trap on Park in September). Given the improvements to some other streets like Lakeshore and Harrison, there might be hope for similar efforts on Park, but I have the feeling that resistance from a lot of drivers would be fierce, since any changes to Park would be (accurately!) perceived as an effort to slow their access to the freeway. Even more than Lakeshore, I think Park is seen as a commuter artery instead of a city street.

  18. dc says:

    A postscript: I was pleased to read today that a traffic signal is planned for the intersection of Park Boulevard and Newton Avenue, where F.M. Smith park’s community center is. This is a big step in the right direction—with that park and its playground right there, it’s appalling that families are currently forced to brave that crosswalk, since most cars don’t stop for pedestrians at the crosswalks on Park Boulevard unless they also have a red light…

  19. KenO says:

    Sounds like Park Blvd in Oakland needs a road diet.

    Works well for the emeryville overpass by ikea which increased the bike lane safety margins substantially (yay eville! muahaha.)

    Seems to work well in Albany.

    I’m sure sooner or later “some people” will paint real crosswalks onto Park Blvd. If not that, then parking cars/dumping trash/growing food in the median for blocks at a time to trim the road down.

    Zoning needs to go out the window…then we’ll be able to live that idyllic existence of ordinary human poverty, mumbai style. =]

  20. KenO says:

    solution2- take control of the two inner lanes on park, put in concrete berms to keep cars out, add dirt and gardens, trees. (also perhaps some depaving except where there are pipes…oops!) then it would be like stanford ave in oakland/emeryville, but with gardens.

    google “depave portland”, “portland city repair”

  21. KenO says:

    stoplight will help. bravo. later add bulbouts, etc.

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