For decades, Alameda's two main business thoroughfares, Park Street and Webster Street, allocated the majority of their width to auto drivers. The pandemic provided a new need and an opportunity to re-evaluate those priorities. In May 2020 (while those who could were working from home), city staff and consultants rapidly re-allocated space on the central blocks of both streets. Where previously there were four full "thru" lanes of auto traffic, now there was space for "parklets" against the curb, operated by adjoining restaurants and retails businesses, and an inner lane of public parking, with many spots designated for to-go pick-up and delivery vehicles. Those who needed to drive still could, using one "thru" lane in each direction, as well as many "pocket" turn lanes at intersections. While the changes were only made with paint, plastic posts, and other "quick build" materials, the Alameda Commercial Streets program indicated a new set of balanced priorities for the streetscapes of Park and Webster.
Now, three years later, those "quick build" materials and paint have done their duty but are showing their age. It's time for a refresh. It's also time to tweak details, especially for on-street public parking and for cyclists.
Next week, staff are presenting new plans for re-striping the core of Park and Webster. Here are my own initial impressions and suggestions for improvement.
Bike lanes on Park Street
Staff propose adding bike lanes along Park Street from San Jose Ave north to Webb Ave. These bike lanes will provide direct access for shoppers/visitors/residents/workers to the businesses that line the core blocks of Park Street. Instead of having to strategically select a side street from which to approach Park Street on bike, cyclists may enter Park Street and travel up or down the core blocks as needed.
These bike lanes will also provide options to connect to key east-west routes:
- San Jose Ave (currently a Slow Street, to be redesigned as a Neighborhood Greenway bike boulevard)
- Encinal Ave (to get Class II bike lanes, although minimal in width, as part of a recently started Caltrans repaving project)
- Central Ave (Class II bike lanes)
- Santa Clara Ave (Class II bike lanes to the west of Park Street)
The concept plans don't seem to indicate any accommodations for cyclists making turns at those key intersections. If they aren't already considering this, staff and consultants should look into ways to add green paint for bike boxes, turn queue boxes, and other ways to indicate to everyone how cyclists should turn on to and off of Park Street.
The bike lanes will only run as far north as Webb Street — specifically the southern edge of that intersection. (By expanding the project area by just a few more feet, staff and consultants could also add some green paint to indicate how cyclists can turn into and out of Webb Street... to reach the Alameda Bicycle shop on the northeast corner of that intersection.)
Bike lanes on Park Street north of Lincoln Avenue
These plans ignore Park Street north of Lincoln. They won't help any adults cycling to the food businesses in the Marketplace complex or kids cycling to Subpar Miniature Golf, for example.
There will continue to be no cycling facilities alongside the sign advertising Alameda's status as a "Bicycle Friendly Community":
We shouldn't forget about someday improving bike access on Park Street north of Lincoln. There are already some key destinations on these blocks. Zoning changes adopted by Alameda City Council last year are enabling more mixed-use development on empty or under-used parcels in this area.
Still, the the re-striping plans for San Jose to Webb are on their own a great and useful addition even without addressing north Park Street. (In contrast, the re-striping plans for Webster are too small of an extent to be meaningful; more on this momentarily.)
Parking on Park Street
While parking spots currently hug the inner lanes of thru lanes, the re-striping plans move parking out to the curb — parking spots will alternate with parklets.
On the plus side, this should help to reduce confusion about where drivers can legally park. Parklets will also be retained (although some have already been reduced in width and a few more will be modified as well, to fully fit within the designated parking/parklet "lane").
The downside is the the parking lane will not provide a protected buffer for the bike lane. This means that drivers are very likely to be tempted to use the bike lanes to double park.
Here's a preview:
Double parking in the Class II unprotected bike lane will be a safety hazard for cyclists. When cars or trucks park in a bike lane, they force cyclists out into the auto thru lanes unexpectedly. These situations also increase the chances that cyclists may be "doored" (hit by a person opening a car door).
Double parking sounds like a normal, everyday hazard for cyclists if we're thinking of "vehicular cyclists" — that is, adults who are athletic, fast, and willing to take risks.
But do you want your kid, or your grandparent — or yourself, if you are a less than superhuman on a bike — to face a car or truck unexpectedly blocking the bike lane while just trying to take a low-key roll to, say, get some ice cream at Tucker's on Park Street? No, you don't — this is a big safety risk that can lead to real injuries.
Double parking will also be an impediment for fire trucks and ambulances. Emergency vehicles can deal with traffic — but they can't deal with drivers who walk away, leaving their cars or their trucks blocking the ability of others to shift their vehicles out of the way.
In the long run, a more permanent redesign of the overall Park Street corridor should switch to alternatives to Class II bike lanes. (Permanent redesigns should also look at Oak Street, which has a lot of potential when combined with Park to create one or more cycletracks.) But there's a lot that can be done in the meantime to mitigate double parking:
- the stick of enforcement
- the carrot of parking policy reform
Putting the right price on parking on Park Street
Parking policy reform sounds much more "hand-wavy" than enforcement — but the two are both needed to succeed.
The staff report proposes some changes to allocating parking spots to disabled drivers, delivery drivers, and all others:
As part of the re-striping, staff will work with the Business Districts to identify locations for dedicated parking spaces for people with disabilities and additional short-term parking zones to accommodate the increased reliance on delivery drivers. The latter will help reduce double-parking, which causes safety hazards, slows transit and auto traffic, and would block the proposed bike lane.
—Staff report 5/24/2023
This approach is fine, but it's limited to only consider a few types of drivers/parkers, it's static, and it will have a limited impact. To accomplish this goal of having a sufficient number of spots, the city needs to use all of the "levers" available — not just whether a single spot is designated as open for all, reserved for delivery vehicles, or reserved for disabled drivers.
I'm not a libertarian, but this is one of the few aspects of our modern world where we should make more systematic use of the "lever" of pricing, instead of other more slow moving and fixed policies. Parking directly on Park Street in front of a business is valuable. It shouldn't just be by chance and by luck that someone gets to park there. It should be because they are willing to pay for it.
The city already has parking meters on Park Street. Public Works has recently been upgrading the computerized cores of the meters. They should do this one additional change as part of the Commercial Streets program: set the price to park to an amount high enough to have a sufficient number of parking spots open at every hour, on every day, on every block of Park Street with Class II unprotected bike lanes.
Here's why: When a legal parking spot is visible to drivers, they will use that instead of double parking.
Using the lever of pricing also makes it less necessary to permanently mark spots for disabled or delivery drivers. California law allows disabled drivers to park for free at parking meters. This is problematic in others ways — but for considering parking on Park Street, it means that as long as some paid spots are available for any driver, they are also available to disabled drivers. Paid spots that are open can also be used by delivery drivers. They'll have to pay. But better that they pay, say, $2 for 10 minutes of parking than they double park in the street.
$2 for 10 minutes of parking?! That's $12 to park for an hour! That's $30 if you want to park for 2.5 while you go to the movie theater! You can't charge that much! It will ruin downtown Alameda! It will put our local businesses out of business! Don't we want to encourage people to come to our downtown to spend money at our local businesses and watch movies at our movie theater? Should we even be charging anything to park? Instead of $2 for 10 minutes, shouldn't we charge $0 and just set a time limit?
If those thoughts are going through your head, let me disagree. We really should be considering charging what feel like exorbitant amounts to park specifically in the spots directly on Park Street directly in front of businesses.
If someone wants to park to stay for a 2.5 hour movie, they don't need to park on Park Street. The Alameda Theater gives all of its patrons a validation for up to 3 free hours in the city-owned parking garage next door as part of the cost of buying a movie ticket. According to the parking garage website, "other Park Street merchants may also offer validation coupons" in the future.
This is how parking pricing can be more dynamic than the static means of designating some spots for limited use. The price of parking can depend on the location: more expensive right on Park Street, cheaper on side streets.
The lever of pricing can also take the place of the "lever" of time limits. When parking is priced properly, it encourages people to only park as long as they actually need to, while still giving them the flexibility to stay longer if needed. For example, my spouse and I recently had a birthday party for one of our kids in a business directly on Park Street. We drove to bring things to the party. But we had to leave at the 2 hour mark to move cars, as we couldn't park in a single spot for longer. For that special occasion, we would have payed a premium to be able to pay to park as long as we needed. We would have paid $30 to pay to park for 3 hours that one day (and we would have complained about it, but it would have been very useful!).
Again, remember that drivers with disabled permits don't have to pay for meters, so not having time limits benefits them as well.
With the right hardware and software, parking pricing can change based on time of day, day of week, and even the real-time availability of spots on a block. The SFpark program, which piloted many of these techniques for the first time in the nation in San Francisco, used all of those dynamic aspects. But it's really not necessary to have all of those dynamic controls for parking pricing to have a useful effect. From what I hear, the real-time availability monitoring often failed during the SFpark pilot, and yet the pilot still produced meaningful results. Here's one of the results from SFpark that's most relevant for Park Street:
What this shows is that many drivers start breaking the rules and double parking when parking occupancy increases above 80% (when a block with 10 spots only has 2 spots available).
SFpark set its target parking occupancy to 60% to 80%. They used all the dynamic controls available to set pricing high enough to achieve that approximate number of open spots per block.
As part of the Commercial Streets re-striping program, Alameda should, at a minimum, decide on a target parking occupancy rate for the blocks of Park Street (also Webster Street) with Class II unprotected bike lanes. And along with that commitment, the city should perform occasional but still regular counts of how many spots are full and how many are unoccupied. Fancy sensors aren't necessary — just asking parking enforcement officers to tally the number of open spots per "block face" at preset times on a monthly basis is sufficient. No fancy software is necessary — just a spreadsheet.
Even better would be for the Commercial Streets re-striping program to replace the proposed disabled and delivery spots with pricing changes. The city doesn't need any fancy new whizzbang sensors like SFpark tried. Nor does the city need outside consultants (even though they would benefit from a full re-evaluation of parking in the business districts). The city just needs to pick some sufficient high prices to put on small increments of time on the meters on Park and Webster that are right next to the unprotected bike lanes. Then adjust the pricing every month or quarter based on the observed counts of used and available parking spots.
"Doris Day parking" is a cute phrase that planners sometimes use to talk about drivers pulling up to a spot directly in front of their destination. I imagine that's the dream in the heads of some public commenters when they call into Alameda City Council meetings and decry the re-allocation of road space on Park and Webster. Here's the good news: by making changes to parking policies and programs (and continuing to improve parking enforcement by civilian staffers), Alameda could actually have a better experience for drivers and a safer and more comfortable experience for cyclists and pedestrians in our core business districts. Drivers will have to pay for that privilege (or have a disable permit), but the net results will be better for all.
Pedestrian plaza on Alameda Ave
Let's go back to the concept plans so I can share one more specific suggestion. Let's zoom into the pedestrian plaza on Alameda Avenue:
The pedestrian plaza is tentatively planned to be made permanent. These re-striping plans should support that plan. Planners should consider redesigning this concept to continue the bike lane through the upper (western) leg of the intersection. Or consider using paint to designate how the bike lane and the crosswalk are an extension of the raised sidewalks. If Alameda Ave is going to remain a pedestrianized plaza, then the re-striping plans should help to designed that as the edge of a pedestrianized plaza.
Stunted stubs of bike lanes on Webster Ave
This blog post has been almost entirely about Park Street because the plans for Webster Street are... well... pretty sad.
The good news is that the proposal retains the road diet of auto "thru" lanes for this handful of blocks at the very core of Webster.
The bad news is that the proposed Class II unprotected bike lanes look like they will be almost useless. For much of their length, cyclists will be mixing with auto traffic. Unfortunately, this is probably a firm constraint of the ways that AC Transit buses need access to their current boarding islands.
But even worse is that these bike lanes cover so few blocks of Webster and connect so few adjoining low-stress cycling routes. Santa Clara Avenue, to the east, is the only adjoining street with bike lanes.
Let's be real: To be successful, bike lanes on Webster Street should probably extend from Central Ave up to Atlantic Ave (to connect to the Cross Alameda Trail). Could that happen as part of this re-striping plan? I have no idea. But if city staff are not seriously studying this now, I hope they can start right away for the next phase of improvements to the Commercial Streets program.
Main streets for all
It's to the credit of Alameda's local businesses, the two business district associations, city staff, and city consultants that in the early months of the pandemic they worked together so rapidly to open up space for outdoor dining, more comfortable walking, and more safely using the downtown business districts during a global pandemic.
This proposed round of re-striping will carry forward those improvements and make useful refinements for people who are cycling or who are parking their vehicles. Even with the limitations I'm putting a finger on, these concept designs are still a vast improvement over the past status quo of too many lanes of auto "thru" traffic. This is better balance for the streetscape of a meaningful length of Park Street and a too-small-but-still-much-better-than-nothing-length of Webster Street.