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Public Works…Works!

If you’ve read some of my old posts here, then you may have noticed that the only things which can cause me to swoon or to find religion are bike lanes. So it may not come as a shock that a bike lane is what has roused me from my blogging slumber.

I commute back and forth to Alameda by bike several times a week, and in late August, I was almost crushed by an SUV when it drifted into the bike lane (which is to say, drifted into me) rounding the curve on Kennedy Street as we approached the Park Street bridge. It’s not unusual to see automobiles take the curve too tightly and cross into the bike lane on that street, but usually drivers have the decency, and the awareness, to avoid doing it when a bicyclist is actually in the lane. Luckily, I was more alert than the driver, and was able to slow down to avoid getting knocked over as the SUV quickly transformed a 5-foot bike lane into a 4-foot, then 3-foot, then 2-foot, then 18-inch bike lane (at which point my shouts of “What are you doing?! Bike Lane!!” may have finally penetrated the thick shell of the SUV and the even thicker skull of the driver, who drifted back out of the bike lane and continued on her oblivious way).

All’s well that ends well, and as auto/bike conflicts go, this one was minor, but it reminded me of why some cyclists argue that old-fashioned, unseparated bike lanes like the ones on Kennedy Street are worse than having no bike lane at all: bike lanes created by simply striping off a 5-foot section of the roadway can give riders a false sense of security, without actually giving us any actual protection from plentiful hazards such as spaced-out drivers, illegally-parked cars, or opening car doors. Bike lanes may also implicitly give drivers permission to be oblivious or hostile to cyclists on streets without bike lanes, by unintentionally sending the message that bikes do not belong on the same roadways as other vehicles.

Those are debates for another day—personally, I prefer the inadequate, dangerous bike lanes which are prevalent in Oakland to not having any bike lanes at all. The bike lanes on Kennedy Street, however, were poor even by Oakland standards—some of the paint striping was so faded that one couldn’t see it at all, and the painted markings designating the shoulder as a bike lane were so worn away that the words “bike lane” were only legible if you already knew what it said and the icon of a bicyclist looked more like a unicyclist.

It’s no wonder that many drivers drifted into the bike lane as they rounded that curve! Kennedy Street bears a lot of the traffic heading from Oakland to Alameda, and is heavily used by trucks serving the nearby industrial areas. Kennedy Street also abuts two cement plants, so a lot of sand granules end up on that stretch of road, grinding away the paint as cars and trucks roll by. Combine those problems with the fact that the Kennedy Street bike lane has been around for years, and you have a recipe for a very degraded bike lane. Given that the Park Street bridge is one of the main access points for cyclists going to and from Alameda, Kennedy Street gets a lot of bike traffic, so the faded bike lanes going around the curves on Kennedy Street seemed particularly worrisome.

After my irritation with the SUV’s driver had subsided somewhat, I decided that instead of, say, slashing the SUV’s tires or firebombing an auto dealership, a more fruitful way to channel my anger might be trying to get the bike lanes repainted. That night I went to Oakland’s Department of Public Works website and reported the degraded bike lanes as an “Unsafe Condition.” I really had no idea whether anything would be done—while I did believe that the condition of the bike lanes on Kennedy Street created a hazardous condition with potentially fatal consequences, there are dangerous street conditions all over Oakland (potholes, etc.) and new bike lanes being added every year, so I wasn’t sure that re-striping an existing bike lane would be deemed a priority.

So when I rode to Alameda yesterday, I was pleased to see freshly painted lines and a new icon of a cyclist in the bike lane. I don’t know if they will also repaint the words “Bike Lane,” but the work done by yesterday evening is already a big improvement (my photo doesn’t do justice to how much more visible the new paint is, and they also repainted the bike lane on the opposite side of the street, which was even more faded):

It’s easy to become cynical about Oakland’s municipal services, since it sometimes seems that all one hears are rants about lazy, unhelpful, or incompetent (or worse!) city employees. And to be sure, many people have complained of ineffectual responses when they’ve reported problems to the Public Works Department, but the two times I have reported specific problems (the bike lane striping and a burnt couch which was blighting 12th Avenue early last year), the city has responded with alacrity. It’s nice to know that even with layoffs and furlough days and all its other problems, the city can still get some stuff right, at least some of the time.