Infrastructure: Death by a Thousand Curb Cuts

Two weeks ago, Roman Mars of the brilliant Oakland-based 99% Invisible podcast, told listeners that 99pi is being sold to podcast network Stitcher, itself a property of satellite radio giant Sirius XM. He followed the announcement with a rebroadcast from 2018, which I assure you is very good, for reasons that will become abundantly clear shortly. All corporate blowback aside, I’m certain Mars and company will be able to keep up the quality of the shows. 

The rebroadcast show’s topic was the humble curb cut, the sidewalk ramp you’ve seen proliferating in cities and suburban neighborhoods over the past few decades. The episode discusses the origin of the curb cut, which came partly because of the work of Ed Roberts, a disability rights pioneer who attended UC Berkeley in the 60’s and created the Center for Independent Living, whose purpose is to empower those with disabilities.

Curb cuts (or curb ramps in the EIR’s parlance) are the transitional ramps from sidewalk to street usually found at intersections. Initially meant for wheelchair use, they also help people with strollers, bicycles, even wagons, shopping and hand carts. In many commercial and residential areas throughout the country, ADA guidelines dictate the implementation of curb cuts. Those guidelines were revised over the years. Last year I saw a ramp near my house dug up and replaced with a different, more gradual ramp.

Map of project area with locations of needed sidewalk infrastructure improvement

Those of you who followed my story over the past few years are probably aware that as part of my post-stroke rehabilitation process in 2018, I was given a rental wheelchair. It was not powered, and I was fairly weak to push myself around in that thing. It was enough of a hassle that it motivated me to get walking sooner, and with my brother’s help, that’s exactly what happened. Those few wheelchair-bound months gave me fresh perspective on the struggles the disabled go through on a regular basis. I also started going to a gym in the Phoenix area called Ability 360, which is geared towards independent living for people of varying abilities. I got to see a few wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby (a.k.a. “Murderball”) games, which showed me just how tough these athletes are.

Eventually I returned the wheelchair and built up my walking regimen, which these days is 4+ miles (10,000 steps) per day. I may not walk particularly fast (23-25 minutes per mile), but I have no trouble negotiating distance. Yet I’m still concerned about Howard Terminal which, regardless of which BART or Amtrak station you travel from, is easily 3 times what would normally be considered a reasonable distance walk of a quarter-mile or 400 meters. 

Today’s (5/13) step count

The A’s are promising a range of solutions to help bridge the gap to mass transit and parking in Downtown Oakland. The gondola is one of them, though you rarely hear about it anymore. Instead there will be a transit hub with shuttles to the three nearest BART stations and possibly the Jack London Square Amtrak station, which is actually 0.8 miles from the Howard Terminal ballpark site. Ridesharing services (TNCs) should fill some of the gaps, though they don’t exactly remove cars from streets. The project also proposes a Transportation Management Program (TMP) to better route traffic away from the bubble envisioned around the ballpark. Side streets are planned to go on road diets to reduce cars and speeds. A bunch of shuttle buses seems like a highly inelegant if not ineffective solution, which project opponents have been quick to point out. But with a BART infill station in the area ruled out along with a Broadway-based streetcar, it’s obvious that there is no magic bullet to the transportation problem. The A’s aim has been to reach a specific goal of reducing the Vehicle Miles Traveled number by 20% compared to not having a TMP at all, in compliance with the CEQA streamlining bill. How do they do that without a real mass transit solution? Bike lanes and curb cuts.

MLK Way at Embarcadero West outside Howard Terminal: Left side has a curb cut, right side does not

Back to the other infrastructure being discussed. At this point you may be wondering: Why weren’t those curb cuts and bike lanes in the area in the first place? That’s more of a philosophical issue than anything else. In traditional downtowns and central business districts, it makes sense to put in curb cuts and bike lanes to encourage non-vehicular travel. ADA mandates it. For decidedly industrial areas like Howard Terminal, there is less momentum behind such changes because they encourage pedestrian and bike traffic, which most industry wants to avoid at all costs. Cities have to direct scarce resources throughout their jurisdiction, which includes deciding which types of infrastructure should go where. Around Howard Terminal, a large swath of which doesn’t have sidewalks or curbs, that infrastructure will have to built from scratch. That’s in addition to the pedestrian bridge that will bring some – but not most – fans to the transit hub where they will take a bus to BART.

Much of the infrastructure proposal, the part outside 55-acre Howard Terminal that the City of Oakland will have to be funded via tax increment, includes the shuttles, curb cuts and bike lanes introduced by road dieting. The gondola could provide a 5-7% car trip reduction depending on when a game or event is held. We don’t yet know how much the gondola will cost to build or operate, but there is a lesson from the Oakland Airport Connector, which was built by gondola vendor Dopplmayr. The connector was criticized as an expensive boondoggle at the outset which started gaining ridership as airport users became more familiar with the driverless people mover. That usage eventually was negated by the advent of ridesharing, as users decided it made more sense to Uber/Lyft to the Coliseum BART station or elsewhere along the BART network or away from the network entirely. That lesson has to give the City and the A’s pause, as someone has to pony up to build and operate the gondola. As it stands, the gondola is going to be dependent on ballpark visitors, local residents, and tourists. I’m not sure how good a business case that is. If the gondola doesn’t materialize, what does that do to the overall project business case?

With all the debate going on about what defines infrastructure from a federal budget standpoint, it may be easy to ignore the impact of a curb cut. It isn’t sexy like a gondola or monorail. In the long run, the combined impact of numerous sidewalk improvements may prove more useful than a magic bullet solution. All the same, all that new concrete, painting, signaling, and signage won’t be cheap. It adds up.

The real issue is the timing. The A’s are facing backlash from the Howard Terminal project’s sticker shock. Yet they had two bills passed during the 2019 California legislative session to shepherd these improvements through. Wouldn’t it have been prudent to spend some time between then and now educating the public (citizens, fans) about the advantages of these changes? The A’s didn’t do that, probably because they didn’t want to admit how much it was going to cost. They didn’t hire a PR firm to massage the messaging. Now you have random supporters trying to pick up the slack on social media when they are clearly not trained or educated enough to do it. 

What are we left with? MLB’s playbook has always been to intervene when a team’s ownership proves itself incapable to hammer out a deal on their own. Admittedly, Rob Manfred gave the A’s a lot of rope in the past to figure things out, even though baseball chose not to help the A’s with San Jose. We’re at the point where Manfred and the rest of The Lodge are fed up. Maybe idle relocation threats will make the City of Oakland flinch. I doubt the City will take a premature vote on a project that hasn’t been fully studied just because a bunch of A’s fans desperately want it. As I wrote three weeks ago, I wouldn’t be surprised if the City Council let the voters decide on Howard Terminal, taking the decision out of the Council’s hands. Meanwhile, we’ll continue to hear leaked reports about meetings with different cities, all of whom will scramble to cobble together coherent ballpark plans. They might have something at some point. They don’t have anything yet.

P.S. – Check out former Marlins President David Samson’s podcast on CBSSports.com. In this episode, he practically gives up the whole stadium extortion game, which, well, here’s my reaction:

2 thoughts on “Infrastructure: Death by a Thousand Curb Cuts

  1. What a hot mess! Imagine (say) a family of four from Fremont getting season tickets to a HT ballpark; ingress/egress 81+ times per year, whether it’s via BART or 880. This thing is soo complicated, expensive and difficult to implement that I have to wonder if secretly the A’s already have one foot out the door, with this whole HT fantasy acting as one big feint.

  2. A’s are long gone. Howard Terminal in the 2001 HOK ballpark Study was the most expensive of all the sites and they had a site adjacent to the one they are proposing today. It was not close, it was deemed then infeasible due to infrastructure cost.

    855M from Oakland for infrastructure? That will be the day…..even if the A’s plan on paying it back from the development, it would take a decade to recoup the cost and it could take even a decade to build there with all the obstacles.

    It is so sad to see it come down to this, Las Vegas and Portland have all the land in the world to simply gift to the A’s and it is far cheaper to build there and the A’s would not have the Giants 12 miles away in their beautiful waterfront park either……they would own their market.

    Unless somehow they granted some kind of rights to look at San Jose again (or the south bay in general), it is over. The downtown SJ site has been gobbled up by google so they would have to look to North SJ or some other site in the region.

    Or they look back to the Coliseum and do a development there…..that would be day in its own right too.

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