For decades, activists and community members in Berkeley have dreamt of turning Telegraph Avenue into a car-free street. Many prior campaigns have fallen through, but the fight still continues today. Some even say it’s different this time around — revived with new promise and support.
In Berkeley’s storied 1960s, the Berkeley Liberation Program sought to transform Telegraph Avenue and Southside into a “strategic, free territory for revolution” with efforts to “close areas of downtown and South Campus to automotive traffic.”
Later, in 1984, the Center for Independent Living, or CIL, reported that “auto traffic, bicyclists, moped riders, wheelchair users, dogs, and people walking are often competing for the same paths of travel” on Telegraph Avenue in an accessibility survey. The CIL described a “bustling” streetscape, but a “frustrating experience for the auto worshiper invading pedestrian turf.”
The movement continued into the 1990s, when Berkeley mayor Loni Hancock proposed transforming Telegraph Avenue into a “pedestrian promenade.”
In 1998, demonstrators ousted cars from the avenue. They biked through Southside streets, occupied Telegraph Avenue and held signs reading “Cars kill. Roads kill. Ride bikes.” and “Cars don’t rule the streets. People do!” While the protest resulted in property damage, then-councilmember Kriss Worthington maintained that it allowed community members to “express themselves.”
In 2016, the unsteady relationship between cars and pedestrians on Telegraph Avenue once again became a topic of discussion. The city council and Telegraph Business Improvement District, or TBID, endorsed the Telegraph Public Realm Plan, which recommended a curbless pedestrian-oriented street with “plaza-like paving … across the street” where cars could still drive.
In addition to the storied history on this avenue, Telegraph Avenue is full of student life. Thus, it might be the most natural location to serve as a center for music and culture. Yet, according to the Telegraph Public Realm Plan, it’s also an avenue that “has not been improved comprehensively since the 1970s.”
In February of 2021, the City Council approved the Berkeley Southside Complete Streets project. Southside’s stretch of Telegraph Avenue has the second highest pedestrian volumes in the East Bay with an estimated 18,000 pedestrians per hour during peak hours. It hosts equally high amounts of car traffic to match, according to documents in the project proposal.
With cars, cyclists and pedestrians all operating in the same tight quarters, safety on Telegraph Avenue remains a major concern, as street conditions create a “challenging walking environment,” according to the Berkeley Southside Complete Streets project.
“Every year, an average of three people die and at least 32 people are severely injured in Berkeley due to traffic violence,” according to the city of Berkeley. In October 2022, two pedestrians were hit in a car collision on Telegraph Avenue, adding to a growing list of pedestrian deaths and injuries in Berkeley. From 2011 to 2021, there were at least 2,259 accidents involving a motor vehicle and a pedestrian or cyclist in the city of Berkeley, as estimated by SafeTREC mapping.
As evidenced by the recent safety concerns on Telegraph Avenue, the competition between cars and pedestrians is still a reality. Today, however, Berkeley residents continue to push for change.
Today, the movement is again seeing a renaissance, and it’s different this time around, supporters say.
Telegraph for People is a student-led organization working to improve streets in Berkeley, including a push to ban cars. Meeting at Bauer Wurster Hall, members frequent city council meetings, work to reduce pedestrian and bicyclist deaths in Berkeley and host watch parties for city meetings. They do it all with a uniquely youthful spirit; at their Oct. 10 meeting, 2010 pop hits played as members wrote public comments for the upcoming city council meeting.
Like its predecessors, Telegraph for People has also occupied Telegraph Avenue. Last March, it held a rally and occupied the avenue, demonstrating what the avenue could look like car-free. These efforts resulted in features in the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times last year.
“I don't know if I can name a better candidate for pedestrianization in any college town in the country,” said co-founder and former president of Telegraph for People Sam Greenberg in an interview. For many students, living in Berkeley is the first time they’ll experience living in a dense urban area.
Greenberg and Cecilia Lunaparra, a member of Telegraph for People, both find it concerning that there is no place for outdoor dining on the many blocks of Telegraph Avenue.
“There are so many street vendors that bring such an important culture to Telegraph, and they're crowded onto the sidewalk and not given priority,” Lunaparra said in an interview.
Greenberg described Telegraph Avenue as an artery for the campus and the city. “Right now it just feels like a place to pass through. There are so many things that we give up just so we can shove cars down the street, from accessibility to aesthetics to business volume,” Greenberg said.
The Southside Complete Streets project will improve transportation conditions for Berkeley's Southside neighborhood along Telegraph Avenue, Bancroft Way, Fulton Street and Dana Street. For Telegraph Avenue, the original proposal contained four design options, spanning the section of Dwight Way to Bancroft Way.
However, despite historical and current disapproval of cars on the avenue, none of the project’s initial options were car-free.
“We thought (Telegraph Avenue) deserved a fifth option that actually completely deprioritized automobiles and really focused on giving the street back to the people as it (Telegraph Avenue) was originally intended,” Lunaparra said.
So Telegraph for People made one.
After conversations with stakeholders, including AC Transit, TBID and city staff, as Greenberg explained in his interview, Telegraph for People released option 5 in January 2022. On three blocks from Bancroft to Haste, the street would be remade to be at the same level with a bus lane running through the middle of the street, a redesign aimed at prioritizing public transit and pedestrian safety.
Option 1 is the only option with a dedicated bike lane, while option 2 is the only option that converts Telegraph into a two-way street. Option 3, the closest to the current Telegraph Avenue design, provides a one-way version of option 2. Option 4 is perhaps the most pedestrian-friendly, behind option 5, with a total of 32 feet of sidewalk width.
“The level of enthusiasm and care that student leadership has shown on this whole topic is a really positive thing,” Knox, executive director of Telegraph Business Improvement District, said in an interview when asked about his thoughts on option 5. “There's a lot to appreciate about option 5,” he added.
As Telegraph For People rises from the city’s history of failed plans, Rigel Robinson, Berkeley’s city councilmember for District 7, says that this movement stands apart from the unsuccessful attempts of Telegraph Avenue’s past.
“Telegraph for People has completely transformed the discourse around the future of Telegraph and Southside,” Robinson said over email. “They’ve generated an amount of excitement and energy that is unprecedented, and it has absolutely moved the needle.”
In February 2022, the council recommended the Southside Complete Streets Project for approval, specifically choosing option 4 — budget permitting — with a curbed version as a lower-cost fallback. Updated designs include four versions of option 4. For the city, this option would allow streets to be operated differently with vehicle restriction, according to the updated project design documents.
While this design might not immediately be the car-free scenario that Telegraph for People is advocating for, it paves the way for a potential car-free Telegraph Avenue in the future. Telegraph for People’s plan moving forward is to “make sure (the Telegraph Avenue) section of the project is fully funded and to continue advocating for car-free Telegraph,” Greenberg said.
While construction is set to take place in 2023, Knox believes that vision is a long way off. In an interview, he has stated there aren’t enough funds to move forward with the project.
“The reality is that the timeline is going to be dependent on outside funding and the internal staff capacity we have to apply for grants and do the planning work,” Robinson explained.
Recent developments have also reinforced this viewpoint. Although the city council approved Robinson’s request for an additional $1 million in funding for the Southside Complete Streets Project, increased construction costs mean that the $1 million will only be used for Dana, Bancroft and Durant. Telegraph will be treated as a separate project, according to current Telegraph for People president, Rebecca Mirvish.
Another group to consider is the business owners on Telegraph Avenue. Some have previously voiced their hesitancy when it came to the topic of reshaping Telegraph Avenue.
“It's totally reasonable, I think, for anybody who's been doing business on the avenue to be reticent about it, because it can seem like the city's just going to do this, but what about all these unanswered questions?” Knox said in an interview.
Greenberg, however, does not see eye-to-eye with Knox on this issue. “Businesses are just opposed to change… Businesses really perceive potential losses way more than they will perceive potential gains,” Greenberg said.
“We're going to be doing some canvassing in the spring and talking to businesses directly,” Greenberg said in response to addressing business reluctance. “Some of (the businesses) are receptive in that they are just interested in having heard all the arguments, which is really encouraging.”
Despite project setbacks and reluctance, Telegraph for People remains committed to ensuring that the approved project does not become a bureaucratic dead end.
Members of the organization stay motivated in their fight for a car-free Telegraph Avenue because they believe students deserve to have resources spent on them in the city, as relayed by Greenberg.
“We are regarded as temporary residents. Our voices are consistently diminished,” Lunaparra alleged. “But the truth is, I might be a temporary resident but students are not temporary residents, and I feel that it is my responsibility — along with the city — to take student opinions into consideration,” she continued.
Despite setbacks and bureaucratic mazes, one thing is for sure: the fight to transform Telegraph Avenue doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon.
Arfa Momin is a projects developer. Contact her at email@example.com, and follow her on Twitter at @arfamomin.
Tyler Wu is a projects developer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This project was developed by the Projects Department at The Daily Californian.
Information for this project come from the Berkeley Southside Complete Streets Project.
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