Car-free streets are no longer just an urban fantasy. In cities across the nation, a movement is growing to return the streets to the people. In this episode, we talk to two advocates about their quest to ‘pedestrianize’ Telegraph Avenue and their grand vision for a more walkable, bikeable future.
- Telegraph for People’s Plan for a car-free Telegraph Avenue
- The Edge episode 6 ‘Are Cities Over?’ featuring Vishaan Chakrabarti on the major problems facing our cities and why we should ban cars altogether
This episode was written and hosted by Laura Smith and Leah Worthington, and produced by Coby McDonald.
Special thanks to Pat Joseph, Margie Cullen, Rigel Robinson, and Sam Greenberg. Art by Michiko Toki and original music by Mogli Maureal.
LEAH: Hi Laura!
LAURA: Hi Leah!
LEAH: So what are we talking about today?
LAURA: Yeah, let’s get right to the point. We’re talking about the movement to abolish cars. Or at least banish them from certain spaces. You know, return the streets to the people…
LEAH: Oooo, and we should mention that this is the beginning of our abolish series.
LAURA: Right, so for the next few episodes we’re going to discuss a different social or political movement to abolish something…like schools, work, a few other things. And today, we’re talking about the movement to abolish private vehicles from our streets.
LEAH: [REACTS] OK so…is this happening now? Are people banishing cars?
LAURA: Well, it’s actually quite an old movement and that a lot of people have been working on it for a long time. So for several decades people have been creating what they call “pedestrian malls.” A lot of those didn’t work–the word mall, really doesn’t have that sort of free-spirited, returning the streets to the people feel–
LEAH: No, I’m imagining an indoor mega mall where you buy…pedestrians?
LAURA [reacts]: but the basic idea of having a place where people can gather on foot, did work in a lot of places. In fact, there’s a thriving one near my alma mater, UVA, in Charlottesville, Virginia. There’s also one in Burlington, Vermont, Ithaca, New York, Boulder, Colorado….the list goes on.
LEAH: These are all university towns.
LAURA: Exactly. Which makes Berkeley–where our office is located–or where the Edge is recorded a prime candidate. And sure enough, there is a movement here to turn parts of Berkeley car-free…most notably, a four block stretch just south of campus on Telegraph avenue.
LEAH: OK, so we’re talking about making certain areas car free, not entirely eliminating cars.
LAURA: Well sort of. I think the groups that are leading this fight see these locations as just the beginning of what could eventually become a much larger movement. Increasingly activists are seeing private cars as both a climate change concern, but also sort of an enemy of cities thriving. So yes, while we’re talking about just doing this in specific areas, the ambitions of car-free activists are much larger. And we’re in a really rich time for this kind of imaginative thinking about cities. Do you remember our “Future of Cities” episode where we talked to VISHAN CHKRABARTY about how the pandemic created a lot of opportunities to reimagine how we live and work in cities?
LEAH: Of course, that episode is one of my favorites, I think about it all the time.
LAURA: We’ll link to it in the show notes. But like Vishan said, the pandemic forced people to try new things quickly and a lot of the bureaucratic hassles that had held people up previously from making community gathering spots, slow streets, or having parklets for restaurants, sort of went away overnight. And it changed a lot of people’s minds about how cities should look. And this kind of silver-lining of the pandemic is playing out here in Berkeley, on Telegraph Avenue.
LEAH: So what’s happening on Telegraph?
LAURA: The initial part of the plan–creating a dedicated bus lane just got approved by the Berkeley city council, but the rest of the plan, including making Telegraph entirely rid of cars from Haste to campus–it’s about 4 blocks–, is a long term goal.
LEAH: Will it happen?
LAURA: The details are still very much being debated, but there’s more support for it than ever before.
LEAH: Laura, for our listeners who are not super familiar with Telegraph avenue, maybe we should explain what it is.
LAURA: Yeah good point. Well, Telegraph Avenue is kind of a big deal. It’s really seen as the center of “radical Berkeley.” It was ground zero for the Free Speech movement in the 60s and since then, there’s been a lot of activism and protest occurring on Telegraph. There are also a lot of iconic Berkeley shops there, like Amoeba records, the head shop Annapurna, and Moe’s books have been around forever. And there are a bunch of restaurants, smoke shops, clothing stores, you name it. Michael Chabon even wrote a novel about it.
LEAH: So in a lot of ways, I guess you could say that if radical change is afoot, it might start on Telegraph Avenue.
LAURA: This is The Edge, a podcast produced by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association.
LEAH: In this episode we talk about the car-free movement in Berkeley and across the nation.
LAURA: I’m your host Laura Smith.
LEAH: And I’m your other host, Leah Worthington.
LAURA: Ok so today I’m talking to Rigel Robinson and Sam Greenberg. Rigel is the Berkeley City Council member for district 7, which includes the campus and the area of Telegraph we’ll be talking about today. And he’s also an alum, class of 2018. And Sam Greenberg is an Urban Studies and Political Economy student at Cal. And he’s also the co-founder of Telegraph for People, an advocacy organization pushing for a car-free telegraph.
Laura: So starting first with you Sam. make the case for why telegraph should be car free.
SAM: So telegraph, near campus and South Side specifically, has the second highest pedestrian volume in the East Bay, behind Oakland Chinatown. And it is basically the gateway to campus.
SAM: just generally pedestrian streets are really successful in college towns. So the reason that we’re really pushing for carfree telegraph is because we think it’s not only just a perfect candidate in terms of comparing it to other examples, which we point to Burlington, Vermont, Boulder, Colorado, we think just it is the best example we can think of, of a college town that should have its main street for students pedestrianized because this is not just a place within town that a lot of students go to, it’s the place students pass through as well, which I think is really unique. And basically, all freshmen are passing down telegraph to get to campus. It’s kind of just how it works. And it is a currently crowded with cars.
SAM: And really the street wasn’t designed for cars. It was designed for streetcars way back in the day. And we’ve kind of tried to force cars in as much as possible. And that makes it incredibly unpleasant to be on Telegraph, there is no outdoor seating, there is no reason to stand around and people watch, there are very few spaces you could really call public spaces to sit around. And it’s just you kind of filed down the crowded sidewalks. And it’s just, it’s not the pleasant experience. It shouldn’t be. And really, we see carfree telegraph as a way to revitalize telegraph to make it a destination rather than just a place to pass through.
NARR: How about you Rigel. Why Telegraph?
RIGEL: It is a rich commercial district that has dense housing and tenants largely students who live walkable lifestyles. Like Sam said, It is the perfect candidate for pedestrianization to really build a rich cultural community that puts first do events in the days that make telegraph most special. We close telegraph routinely for street fairs for festivals for concerts.
RIGEL: Americans love visiting cities like Paris, and Madrid, because the cities are so beautiful. And it’s such an intuitive and charming and natural experience to explore these paid places as a pedestrian.
Rigel: when we talk about running a dedicated bus lane through Telegraph Avenue, that can sound deeply radical, and in some ways it is but we would all benefit from reminding ourselves of telegraph Avenue and actually used to be a streetcar line connecting Berkeley to Oakland. This is about restoring the sort of public transit priority that used to be what principally govern our streets. There is a movement happening all over the country to redesign streets around people, not just cars. And we have an incredible opportunity here to make Telegraph Avenue, a beacon of that progress.
LAURA: So can you
paint a picture? A verbal picture of what would be different about telegraph?
NARRATION: and I should mention that you can go to telegraph for people.com to actually see the design they’re proposing.”
SAM: the kinds of elements that we want to see that we don’t have right now are much wider sidewalks. I mean, right now, it’s like you cannot pleasantly walk down Telegraph Avenue without bumping into people. It is it is incredibly cramped it should not be.
SAM: Additionally, we want space for parklets for businesses. And that’s not just for outdoor dining. I’ve recently visited Santa Barbara and on State Street, there were stores that just had parklets filled with all of their merchandise that you could basically look at outside it was beautiful, it also invited you into the store stores that you would normally not walk into that kind of thing is something that I think businesses don’t really know is an option. But that we would give up, for example, clothing stores would have that option, which is incredible. I mean, that would also make the street so much more lively. And additionally, within that same space, there would be space for loading. So basically, we would have loading would be accessible in the mornings, which it currently is.
SAM: it wouldn’t, the sidewalks would be continuous and the street would be at sidewalk level and continuous. And that’s actually going to be built under Southside Complete Streets already, which makes the pedestrian experience a lot safer and a lot more enjoyable and a lot more accessible for people with mobility issues, for example.
NARRATION: And for listeners who don’t know what Southside Complete Streets is, basically, it’s just a project to improve conditions on Telegraph and a few other streets.
LAURA: what would you say both of you, would you say, has been the greatest impediment to this happening historically? And then now? Sam?
SAM: basically, anytime you want to redistribute street street space at all from from motorists to any other users, basically anywhere in the United States, there will be opposition from businesses. And that’s been the case, in the past two carfree, telegraphed, like, you know, pedestrian mall proposals, that once again, go back to the 60s. This is a very old idea. And also, more recently to bus lanes running down telegraph from Berkeley to Oakland, were killed from business opposition about 10 years ago. And there is still business opposition today. But one thing I’ll note is that the business opposition has been significantly reduced compared to 10 years ago, what killed even just running bus lanes down this section of telegraph 10 years ago, is now a very quiet couple of businesses.
NARRATION: So for listeners, basically, 10 years ago, there was an initiative to create a dedicated bus lane on Telegraph. It would have made it easier for people from Oakland and other parts of Berkeley to get to the campus area, and it would have put the emphasis on public transit, rather than private cars, but, like you said, Sam, it got shot down by the city council.
SAM: And I think people are realizing in a lot of places where they’ve started, for example, building protected bike lanes that take up parking, businesses are initially scared, but then they start realizing that people on bikes people walking are their customers. And actually, the city did an analysis where they surveyed business owners, and then they surveyed their customers on Telegraph in South Side A couple of years ago. And they found that business owners overestimated the amount of their their customers who arrive in cars, which is actually second to last only ahead of arriving by Uber Lyft. Really, people on Telegraph are arriving by bus, they’re walking, they’re biking.
RIGEL: I think Telegraph Avenue has always been a symbol of change. It’s the home of the free speech movement. It’s the home of the Center for Independent Living first, public curb cuts in the United States was on Telegraph Avenue, that slow plaque commemorating at Durant it’s the home of the Berkeley free clinic and, and so much more. But across those decades, one thing hasn’t changed. And that’s the streetscape itself.
RIGEL: Sam talked a little about the story of bus rapid transit in Berkeley from a little more than a decade ago in 2010, which is deeply relevant today. This was a project that the region was deeply invested in to build a stronger bus connection between the city of Berkeley and the city of Oakland along Telegraph Avenue to plan for the growth of both cities to plan for the growth of the university. But the city of Berkeley killed that project, for reasons that I think are easy To understand fears about parking loss fears about the impacts of construction. But now looking back, it is so obvious how myopic and short sighted that decision was, that project would have been better for the region’s economy, it would have been better for our emissions would have helped more residents choose to live car free lifestyles, and it would have been a spine that brought the East Bay together, we passed up on that opportunity.
NARR: Rigel, why do you think there’s resistance to this kind of thing?
RIGEL: A project like this is intimidating. We know there’s a lot of anxieties on the Avenue from merchants and small business owners about it. And we, we understand that I think, you know, much of that comes from a really good place that we need to recognize construction is scary, if we’re going to totally redo the street, from storefront to storefront, that’s going to be a significance event that’s going to affect the avenue for four months, maybe a year. It’s it’s hard to tell. But my hope is that we can bring everyone along because I truly believe like so many of these other projects like Times Square, which was pedestrianized, not so long ago, when this work is done, it will be impossible to imagine that it was different before that we allowed cars to speed down Telegraph Avenue, and that pedestrians only had so far to walk alongside each other. And that we hadn’t built the district around the merchants around the street vendors are round the concerts and festivals that make it so special. It’s a really inspiring future out of us. It’ll just take a few million bucks in a couple of years for us to get
LAURA: Realistically, what do you think? Could we see car free telegraph in 2025?
RIGEL: Oh, that’s a good number. I like that number. You know, I would be pretty thrilled with that number. You know, I think what’s interesting, as part of this conversation, too, is the role of pilots and quickbuild approaches. I think there’s absolutely universe where we could have much more frequence effective street closures for private automobiles before a final version of that is implemented. There’s a lot of ways this could trickle out. But we’re hoping that you know, at least some of the streets will start construction next year, which is really huge.
LAURA: So looking way forward, and both of your careers and in your vision for area or the world. Where do you see this kind of thing going?
RIGEL: There are opportunities like this. All over the country and all over Berkeley, frankly, you could pretty concisely design a little shortlist of pedestrianisation opportunities and particular blocks of commercial districts, even just in Berkeley, I’m thinking of one right off of Downtown Center Street. Right now we’re exploring a similar idea, which is really exciting. And you know, these can be a natural fit in all sorts of places that achieve so many varied interests. It fits into our work to design walkable communities, it fits into our work to create destinations and to enrich the commercial atmosphere and vitality of a district contribute store work to encourage people to live carfree lifestyles, it’s a it’s a beautiful thing and from create aesthetic scenes and opportunities for real placemaking in our cities. So my hope is that we can create a model that can be emulated and can be an inspiration for our own city in other spots in town, but also for the other jurisdiction in the Bay Area for every other college town in the country that already has a dense, walkable community that would embrace a project like this. There’s a lot of places this can go.
LAURA: This is The Edge, brought to you by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association. I’m Laura Smith.
LAURA: This episode was produced by Coby McDonald, with support from Pat Joseph. Special thanks to Rigel Robinson and Sam Greenberg. Original music by Mogli Maureal.
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