Meet Liza Lutzker, and her daughter Thea. They bike together each school day north up Milvia Street, past Berkeley High School and through the downtown area. Here’s a quick interview with Liza about her family’s bike commute:
What neighborhood in Berkeley do you live in and how long have you lived there?
We live south of downtown Berkeley on Milvia St. We’ve lived here since 2009.
Tell us about your bike commute in the morning with the kids and then again in the afternoon?
In the mornings, I take my almost-4 year old daughter Thea to preschool. I start from our house at Milvia at Parker, somewhere between 8 and 8:30am, and I go north on Milvia St. to Virginia St. Her preschool is right there, so it’s a pretty straight shot. Usually my daughter rides on the back of my Xtracycle, but some mornings she rides her own bike, on the sidewalk all the way. After dropping off my daughter, I go to my office, which is on University and Oxford. To get there, I take Milvia south to Hearst, then up to Oxford.
In the afternoon, I do the reverse – from my office to preschool (via Berkeley Way to Milvia), and then from preschool home (straight down Milvia). When I pick up at preschool, my 5.5 year old daughter is also there (for her after school program), so the three of us ride home together, usually with the two of them on the back of my Xtracycle. We usually head home between 4:45 and 5:30 (so in the middle of winter, it’s dark or dusk).
What are some of the problems and challenges of bicycling on Milvia Street?
Morning - northbound
- Going north through the intersection at Blake, sometimes cars don’t look for bikes because of the traffic barrier - they assume if there are no cars coming from that direction, then no one must be coming from there.
- Between Blake and Channing, there is no bike lane and the road is quite narrow, with parked cars in both directions. Traffic is not as heavy as in the evening, but cars are often impatient with bike riders who take the lane. There is a stop sign at every intersection, which is difficult.
- At the intersection of Milvia and Dwight, there are 2 lanes on Dwight heading east. When I stop at the stop sign, if there is a car in the south lane of Dwight, the cars in north lane can’t see me.
- From Channing to Allston, riding by Berkeley High at drop off time, is extremely difficult. Although the road is wide and there is a bike lane, riders in the bike lane get assaulted from all different directions – cars pulling into and out of parking spots through the bike lane; left side doors from parked cars opening into the bike lane; right side doors from cars stopping in the driving lane opening into the bike lane; cars simply pulling into the bike lane and stopping there until their kid gets out; kids crossing n the middle of the street without looking for bikes (or cars); cars trying to exit the area and turning quickly through the bike lane onto Bancroft or Kittredge. When my daughter rides her own bike through this area, on the sidewalk, there is the additional challenge of helping her navigate the narrow and crowded sidewalks, again with cars turning quickly on and off Bancroft and Kittridge streets. It’s pretty nerve-wracking!
- I will say that the ride from Channing to Allston at non-Berkeley High drop off times is pretty nice and not problematic.
- From Allston to Center, the street is still very wide, but the bike lane disappears. Some bikers move left to take the lane, others stay right (and sometimes try to pass me on the right). The lane distinction here is confusing - I feel like a bike lane on this block is a no brainer.
- From Center to University, the road is again very narrow, with no bike lanes and parked cars in both directions. There is a lot of traffic here – bikes try to slip past cars (and other bikers) on the right; cars get very impatient with bikers who take the lane, etc.
- The yellow light phase at University is very short. Especially when going north, I often find myself entering the intersection when the light is green and having it turn red before I’m even halfway across. This is due to the uphill and diagonal nature of the intersection, exacerbated by my slowness when I am lugging kids and stuff uphill on heavy bike. I’ve contacted the city about this and was told a traffic engineer looked into it and it was “fine.”
- North of University, the ride gets much easier. There is less traffic and cars seem less aggressive here. However, the bulb outs create some problems. If a car is passing on the left, riders can get squeezed where the bulb outs jut into the road. Also, there are some curved white markings around the bulb outs that cause confusion as to whether there is a bike lane separate from the general traffic lane. The other thing here is that, north of University, Milvia has no stop signs. This is great for cyclists’ momentum, but I think that many drivers on streets intersect with Milvia assume there is a 4-way stop. I’ve had people tell me I missed a stop sign when there isn’t one.
- North of University, the same issues related to the bulb outs and stop signs apply, but again this part of the ride is pretty easy.
- Southbound through the intersection at University is dangerous because of the cars heading north and turning left onto University. The intersection is awkward because of the diagonal - the cars are often looking left for pedestrians crossing, but they aren’t looking uphill for bikes heading straight at all.
- From University to Center, same issues as the morning – narrow lanes, lots of traffic, impatient drivers and bikers trying to pass cars and bikes on the right.
- From Allston to Channing, going south past Berkeley High at pick-up time, there are some of the same issues as in the morning, but to much a lesser extent. (Pick up timing is evidently much more spread out than drop-off timing, so there is just less congestion, and there is no cross traffic on Kittredge and Bancroft. If my daughters are riding home in the evening, the sidewalk going south is continuous and fairly wide, so that much easier than in the morning.) However, there are often large sports-team buses parked in the bike lane that need to be passed and create blind spots.
- At Milvia and Channing, often other bikers often don’t anticipate that the bike lane is ending and that they need to merge left. Frequently other bikers swing in abruptly or try to pass on the right as they go through the intersection.
- Between Channing and Blake, there are all the same issues as in the morning, except generally there is more traffic here than in the morning, so this stretch is again difficult.
What do you think of the idea of protected, curbside bike lanes on Milvia Street?
I would welcome the idea with open arms, especially through Berkeley High and the heavily trafficked areas between Blake and Channing and Allston and University. I would feel totally safe letting my kids ride on the street with a protected bike lane on Milvia. I think I would prefer two 1-way protected bike lanes over a 2-way one (but I would need to think more about that).
South of Channing Way, what should a better bikeway look like?
Fewer cars, fewer stop signs. Less parking or a protected bikeway in the narrow area between Channing and Blake would be amazing. South of Blake, Milvia is pretty good (except for the condition of the paving), but it would be nice to have fewer stop signs, especially since the cross streets are not heavily trafficked.
North of University, what should a better bikeway look like?
This part of Milvia is actually pretty good - I wouldn’t prioritize this above other Milvia projects. That said, I would remove the white markings around the bulb outs to avoid confusion about the presence of a bike lane. Also, maybe there’s a need for signs on the east-west streets up there saying “cross traffic does not stop” so that cars crossing Milvia take more care to really look out for bikes (and other cars).
What do your kids say about bicycling on Milvia Street? Or about bicycling to school?
Generally, they love biking and it gives them a freedom and sense of responsibility that kids usually don’t have. They really wish they could ride in the street more often (we let our older daughter ride in the street from Parker to Allston and Hearst to Virginia during non-commute times, and we let our younger daughter ride from Channing to Allston on quiet weekends). When Milvia had protected lanes on bike to work day, my younger daughter was over the moon that she could safely ride in the streets.
About Berkeley in general, what other improvements could make Berkeley a more bike-friendly city?
A really big one would be safer intersections between bike boulevards and busy streets. The biggest problems we’ve run into are: Virginia at MLK, Russell at Shattuck, Hillegass at Ashby, King at Alcatraz, California at Dwight, 9th at Cedar.
Disappearing bike lanes is a big one too. Obviously, Oxford at Bancroft, but also east on Hearst at Shattuck, south on Milvia at Channing, and south on Adeline at Ashby.
More proactive bike parking (especially since it’s paid for). Lots of blocks have no bike racks at all, or really insufficient numbers of racks. I think a goal would be a rack per block everywhere in the flats (including residential neighborhoods) and at least 3 or 4 racks at any workplace or place of business. We’re trying to get more racks outside of my daughter’s elementary school. Although there are racks inside the school play area (which is locked except for 30 minutes at pick-up and drop-off time), there are exactly two racks on the school perimeter for a school of 360 kids plus their teachers and parents. That’s crazy. I know the same is true for lots of BUSD schools.
Anything else you would like to add?
I know Tom Bates says he wants Berkeley to be the most bicycle-friendly city in the country. I would love this, but I think there’s a lot going on now in the city that doesn’t really support this idea. One example is the continued targeted ticketing campaign against bikes not stopping at stop signs. I know about this because our corner (Milvia and Parker) is where they set up this sting every month. I am all for obeying the law when biking, but they are stopping and ticketing anyone who does not come to a stop with a foot on the ground no matter how stopped they are. I have seen some serious overstepping of bounds here, with people stopped (i.e., no forward momentum at all) but ticketed because they did not put a foot down. This sort of thing really discourages biking in the city. Someone who may not be super-dedicated to biking will just be turned off from biking immediately if they get hit with a ticket.
I think one challenge in all of this is considering equity - I know the infrastructure benefits everyone equally, but it would be great to see Bike East Bay and the city of Berkeley involved in outreach and possible grant making to increase ridership (and safety - locks, helmets, lights) among the more disadvantaged neighborhoods in Berkeley and elsewhere.
Thanks for your thoughts Liza.