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Let’s give Telegraph Avenue back to the people

Telegraph Avenue is Berkeley’s most historic and famous street, but its current design is unsuitable for students and needs to change. We use Telegraph Avenue to meet our basic needs. We shop on Telegraph, have lunch, buy our essentials and travel to and from classes. But its current design puts cars first and we – pedestrians, cyclists and transit users – last.

By 2031, Berkeley will add 9,000 housing units, and many of those units will be in Southside. Telegraph Avenue and the surrounding area will only become denser, so we need to redesign the streets of Southside for a sustainable and pedestrian future.

On the closest four blocks to campus, Telegraph Avenue pushes pedestrians onto narrow sidewalks and forces bus riders to wait as cars crowd the street in front of them. It is so dangerous for cyclists that most of them avoid the street altogether.

Fast traffic also makes Telegraph Avenue intersections particularly dangerous for people with disabilities. People with disabilities often cannot drive, and they rely on Southside’s cramped sidewalks, dangerous crosswalks and delayed buses to get around. Making Telegraph Avenue car-free would make it much more accessible for people with disabilities to meet their basic daily needs.

Most students walk, ride, cycle, and take public transport; in fact, 95% of UC Berkeley students use these sustainable modes of transportation to get to class. We need to re-evaluate how we use the precious space of Telegraph Avenue and prioritize accessibility to mobility.

There is a difference between accessibility and mobility in the transports. Accessibility means that people of all abilities can travel to a range of destinations. Mobility means that people can travel great distances.

On Telegraph Avenue, we currently prioritize mobility over accessibility by routing as many cars as possible down the hall. We do this at the expense of pedestrians, cyclists and transit users who simply want to access a variety of destinations – many of which are necessary for everyday life – nearby, safely and comfortably.

With so many destinations within the small radius of Southside, we need Telegraph Avenue to be as accessible as possible.

Certainly, some streets must be used for mobility. Highways, for example, transport people and goods from one city to another. But some streets, especially compact city streets like Telegraph Avenue, shouldn’t. In its current state, the street devotes two-thirds of its 60-foot right of way to cars.

This is not how it should work. There are so many other routes that motorists can take, but there is only one Telegraph Avenue. A street as special as it should be a destination, not a place of passage.

Our streets weren’t always primarily about driving, and they don’t have to be forever.

Cities around the world have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to return precious urban space to people.

For example, restaurants in San Francisco have rediscovered alfresco dining, turning hundreds of parking spots into bustling parklets. Residents and restaurants loved this new outdoor public space so much that the San Francisco board of directors decided to keep it.

In its current configuration, Telegraph Avenue from Bancroft Way to Dwight Way has no space for businesses to provide outdoor dining and display their wares and very little space for people to congregate and socialize. Instead, pedestrians hurry down cramped sidewalks to get from place to place, without having time to fully appreciate their surroundings.

Imagine a Telegraph Avenue where the restaurants we all love have space to build parklets and provide outdoor dining. Imagine a Telegraph Avenue dotted with more street musicians than ever before. Imagine a Telegraph Avenue where spontaneous, transaction-free connections, such as Jesse’s routine chess club at the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Dwight Way, are everywhere. Imagine a Telegraph Avenue that helps students meet their needs, foreshadows a healthier and more sustainable urban future, and represents a revolutionary beacon of hope for Berkeley.

There is no reason why Telegraph Avenue – the street we use the most as students to access destinations and meet our basic needs – should be dominated by cars.

It’s time to act. Currently, the City of Berkeley is redeveloping four streets in Southside to better serve pedestrians, cyclists and transit users. Telegraph Avenue is one of them.

Unfortunately, none of the designs offered by the city would fundamentally change the street we have today. None of them alter the distribution of the limited space of Telegraph Avenue. To fix Telegraph Avenue, as students we have to fight for the city to stop kicking the streets and finally make Telegraph Avenue car free from Haste Street to Bancroft Way. This is a once-in-a-decade window of opportunity, and we must seize it.

It is important that students not only make their voices heard, but also contribute to the discussion. Tell the city what you think Telegraph should look like instead. Together, we can transform Berkeley’s most inspiring street into a space rich in human expression, connection and vitality.

Sam Greenberg is an undergraduate student and co-founder of Telegraph for People.