A man rides a bike past a traffic circle on the intersection of Parker and Ellsworth in Berkeley, Calif. Thursday, August 2, 2018. Photo: Daniel M. Kim
A man rides a bike past a traffic circle on the intersection of Parker and Ellsworth in Berkeley, Calif. Thursday, August 2, 2018. Photo: Daniel M. Kim

More than two months after a neighborhood outcry over the fate of trees and plants in Berkeley’s traffic circles, the city has not yet decided what role neighbors may play in tending them in the future.

Tuesday afternoon, the city announced a community meeting for next week, Oct. 23, to provide some background on the history of the circles, and an update about what comes next.

City staff last met with neighbors in August after announcing that trees in Berkeley traffic circles would be removed in the interest of safety. Neighbors were upset, and staff promised to put any big decisions on hold until there could be more of a public process.

Berkeley Public Works Director Phil Harrington said Tuesday that a decision about what neighbors will be allowed to do has yet to be made: “Right now I’m just establishing communication with the community groups and listening to their concerns … to see if we can connect on some common goals and objectives.”

Staff said back in August that neighbors, some of whom have been tending the traffic circles for quite awhile, would no longer be able to do any direct maintenance due to liability issues, among other reasons. Staff also said the city now has more capacity to take on the job, and would do so going forward. Staff said neighbors would be consulted, but could only provide an advisory role.

Neighbors pushed back hard and the city said it would consider letting them do more. Staff made no commitment however, and said another meeting would take place in the future, along with further discussion. Now, the time for that meeting has come.

A man rides a bike past a traffic circle at Ward and Fulton streets. Photo: Daniel M. Kim

Back on Aug. 8, several dozen neighbors concerned about the fate of Berkeley’s traffic circles attended a meeting with staff, Mayor Jesse Arreguín, Councilwoman Lori Droste and Councilman Ben Bartlett.

Staff apologized for telling neighbors that decisions had already been made about the circles, and promised to slow down the process — including the calling off of any immediate removal of trees.

After some initial comments, neighbors all around the room shared their stories and perspectives at length. Many reported deep connections with their neighborhood traffic circles and said the city would be wise to take note.

Rafael Jesús González, Berkeley’s poet laureate, described some of the history behind the traffic circle in his neighborhood: “We were very clear that what we were doing was a sacred act,” he said, of the ceremony to recognize the creation of the circle where he lives. The ceremony involved “calling in the four directions,” he said. Before planting the tree in the circle, neighbors buried quartz, jade, turquoise and mother of pearl — “the sacred elements.”

“It brought the community together,” González said. “We have to look at what makes Berkeley Berkeley — and that is the community, the spirit that we bring together, and that commitment to beauty, truth and love. We have to honor those uncodifiable elements that lend meaning.”

One neighbor described what he saw as a recent botched pruning job on his South Berkeley block: Trees he had tended for years had been damaged beyond repair by city workers, he said.

The man said neighbors who live in Berkeley would do a more careful job tending to the circles than city workers might do, if the “brutal modifying of trees” that happened in his neighborhood was any indication: “If this is the best the city can do, let us do it.”

His comments seemed to capture the will of many in the room, and were met with applause.

“We’ll just do it a lot more sensitively,” the man continued. “I planted some of these trees. They’re not going to recover. They can never look in my lifetime like they used to.”

Other neighbors said the time has come for the city to formalize its relationships with volunteer groups that care for parks and other areas. To date, they’ve said, there has been little coordination and sometimes tension over how best to manage the two perspectives.

“I think that’s a really excellent point,” Mayor Arreguín said, in response to the suggestion.

Neighbors said they wanted to continue to care for the circles and that the city should expand its list of allowable plantings. Over the summer, the city released a list of specifications for traffic circle vegetation, and said this had been largely dictated by an interest in public safety and creating a “line of sight” from one side of an intersection to the other.

Neighbors said they are willing to work with the city’s guidelines, particularly if the specifications can be revised to be more flexible. They noted that new signs the city had installed in some circles were so low to the ground that they actually block more views than any existing vegetation. Neighbors also said they had taken it upon themselves already to cut back or remove problematic plants, and would continue to do so.

“Many of us really want to continue to maintain our circles and do it right,” one woman told the city. “People in Berkeley want to be involved, so let’s make it a positive experience.”

John Steere, who runs volunteer group Berkeley Partners for Parks, said the city had reached “a low point … around stewardship” in the past 15 years.

“You can see the wisdom in this room that’s been neglected,” he said. He said the traffic circles were created as part of a city-community partnership and urged the city to invest in a coordinator — similar to Oakland’s approach — to ensure the city is making the most of those who want to donate their time and energy. He said the traffic circle discussion could be a turning point in that relationship.

“Engage the neighborhoods,” he said. “We should not be having private contractors maintain these circles.”

Councilwoman Droste said it might also make sense for the city to lower its criteria for traffic-calming measures so more neighborhoods have the benefit of elements that make streets safer.

Mayor Arreguín said it was also important to acknowledge that the trees “in and of themselves are not the cause of unsafe conditions at intersections.”

In late September, Droste, the mayor, Bartlett and Councilwoman Cheryl Davila asked for the creation of a new city-community task force to take a closer look at the traffic circle issue.

The plan to overhaul and review the city’s traffic circle landscaping was released soon after the city announced a $2.15 million settlement deal it had reached after a woman was struck in a crosswalk at Stuart and Ellsworth streets in December 2015. She survived but suffered serious injuries, according to court papers.

At the time of the August meeting, neighbors also noted that some of the traffic circle trees had been painted with a white dot, which they were told indicated the trees would be removed. None of the city staff in attendance were able to explain definitively where the white dots had come from, but promised no trees would be removed in the near-term.

Another woman in the room told the city she would not go quietly if her neighborhood tree, a dawn redwood, was at risk. The tree had a white dot on it at the time of the meeting.

“I’m going to turn it into a green dot with a peace sign in it,” she said. “If it comes down to it, I’m going to chain myself to that tree.”

She called the dawn redwood “my tree,” adding, “I will put my body in front of it.”

Over the summer, staff completed an assessment of all the city’s traffic circles to look at what’s growing now. They found that 31 of the circles have trees, including live oaks, coastal oaks, dawn redwoods, cypress trees and crepe myrtles. Six or seven of the traffic circles have large trees, according to the inventory.

In total, Berkeley has 60 or so traffic circles scattered throughout its neighborhoods to slow motorists down.

Meeting details

Public Works staff will hold a community meeting regarding traffic circle landscaping Tuesday, Oct. 23, from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Frances Albrier Community Center at 2800 Park St. The primary purpose of the meeting, the city said, is to provide an opportunity for the community to help inform the vision and maintenance plan for landscaping in all City traffic circles. See the agenda.

Emilie Raguso

Emilie Raguso (senior editor, news) joined the Berkeleyside team in 2012. She covers politics, public safety and development. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...

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39 Comments

  1. Me too. I love the traffic circles. Lifelong berkeley cyclist and walker with 2 school children

  2. Here is a picture to show why there should be a stop sign added on Allston to make Allston and California a 4 way stop.

    When you stop at the limit line, you have very little visibility from California onto Allston. You can only see oncoming traffic after you pull out into it.

    Consequently, drivers there look left and right as they cross Allston, and do NOT look straight ahead to see pedestrians in the crosswalk. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e366474ab6fdbe8fd4321d1a69e9d8ce7a4047d96a54a09780b2af9040e2ed6e.jpg

  3. Those circles are dangerous near schools. On top of high vegetation on corners it makes it very hard to see kids cross the street on foot and bikes. Specifically the one at Ellsworth and Stuart. On the NE corner the vegetation is so high you can’t see them until they are about to cross.
    Plus some of those streets are through way and most people do not slow down to check for pedestrians.

  4. Traffic circles: the bad idea that just keeps giving. Glad people are reminding the City that it is their stupid signs which obscure most of the cross-circle visibility.

    Also don’t want trees cut? 9 penny nails are cheap. Just make sure to warn facilities that the trees are spiked.

  5. Many traffic circles are a disaster waiting to happen. And personally if I’m ever in one of those disasters and live to tell about it, I’m pretty sure I’ll be suing the city since they know full well of the danger. Or they should know.

  6. I use a power wheelchair and regularly walk up and down Allston Way. I cannot turn my head, so must turn my whole wheelchair to look both ways before crossing. These traffic circles are terrifying; especially on roads with a steeper slope, making the center of the road higher than the curbs. Even barren traffic circles are difficult, and trees with low branches definitely contribute to the problem. But the biggest hazard of all are shrubs, grasses, tall flowers, etc. that block my view and make me invisible. I can’t see or make eye contact with drivers, and I can’t rely on knowing that they see and will stop for me. All pedestrians know it’s foolish to assume that drivers will always see us and will always honor our right-of-way.

    When I’m walking with an ambulatory companion, they must walk out in the street before I do, pause, make sure oncoming cars see them and stop, stand there visibly blocking the way, and then I cross. It feels as though I have reverted back to childhood needing a parent to supervise my excursions, not because I have poor judgment, inexperience, or impulse control difficulties, but because traffic engineers deemed the needs of wheelchair users as unimportant, and benevolent gardening neighbors are ignorant of my sitting-down perspective and experiences.

    When walking alone, I must wait for there to be no cars, instead of simply waiting for cars that I can actually see and that I know have stopped for me. During high-traffic times that wait can be very long, or I have to beg a favor from a stranger, “Can I walk with you so that a car doesn’t kill me?”

    I already have to be cautious about walking down Berkeley sidewalks watching out for tree roots, toys, gaggles of horse-playing kids, oblivious cellphone users, creepy men, overgrown shrubbery, wild turkeys, trash cans, illegally parked cars, angry people with mental illness, bicycle riders, dogs straining their leashes, people pulling in/out of driveways, other wheelchair users, joggers, luxury giant strollers, etc.

    I appreciate the beautification of traffic circles, but only for that brief moment before I remember how frightened I am of trying to scoot around the pretty beasts without getting hit.

  7. As a cyclist, it is not the trees or plants in the traffic circles that obstruct my vision, it’s the cars parked right up to the end of the street at all sides.

  8. You’re correct about the brake pads on electric cars, but not just Teslas. I have a first year Nissan Leaf I purchases used and at almost 29,000 it still has the original brake pads because of the regenerative engine braking that slows the car while charging the battery.

    “It also seems like the pollution of restarting might be a function of top-speed and vehicle mass, and would be reduced by cutting top speeds and using lighter vehicles.”

    That’s true to an extent but I imagine vehicle age is the biggest determiner. You could have several heavy vehicles made in the past decade collectively put out less emissions than one 30 year old car with aging/ineffective emissions controls.

  9. I use a power wheelchair and regularly walk up and down Allston Way. I cannot turn my head, so must turn my whole wheelchair to look both ways before crossing. These traffic circles are terrifying; especially on roads with a steeper slope, making the center of the road higher than the curbs. Even barren traffic circles are difficult, and trees with low branches definitely contribute to the problem. But the biggest hazard of all are shrubs, grasses, tall flowers, etc. that block my view and make me invisible. I can’t see or make eye contact with drivers, and I can’t rely on knowing that they see and will stop for me. All pedestrians know it’s foolish to assume that drivers will always see us and will always honor our right-of-way.

    When I’m walking with an ambulatory companion, they must walk out in the street before I do, pause, make sure oncoming cars see them and stop, stand there visibly blocking the way, and then I cross. It feels as though I have reverted back to childhood needing a parent to supervise my excursions, not because I have poor judgment, inexperience, or impulse control difficulties, but because traffic engineers deemed the needs of wheelchair users as unimportant, and benevolent gardening neighbors are ignorant of my sitting-down perspective and experiences.

    When walking alone, I must wait for there to be no cars, instead of simply waiting for cars that I can actually see and that I know have stopped for me. During high-traffic times that wait can be very long, or I have to beg a favor from a stranger, “Can I walk with you so that a car doesn’t kill me?”

    I already have to be cautious about walking down Berkeley sidewalks watching out for tree roots, toys, gaggles of horse-playing kids, oblivious cellphone users, creepy men, overgrown shrubbery, wild turkeys, trash cans, illegally parked cars, angry people with mental illness, bicycle riders, dogs straining their leashes, people pulling in/out of driveways, other wheelchair users, joggers, luxury giant strollers, etc.

    I appreciate the beautification of traffic circles, but only for that brief moment before I remember how frightened I am of trying to scoot around the pretty beasts without getting hit.

  10. Speaking as a pedestrian, I hate those circles, whether or not they have trees. First of all, not all cars slow down; some have figured out how to navigate them at top speed. And I find that they are actually a danger for pedestrians because, when I see a car coming from any direction, I can’t tell which way it is going to go because they always have to start out by turning towards the right. If it weren’t for the circle, it would either go straight or else start to turn in the direction in which it was actually going. Since so many drivers refuse to yield to pedestrians at crosswalks, I just stand there and wait till there are no cars coming in any direction for at least a block away. Then I cross quickly before the next speeding car comes along. What we need is law enforcement!

  11. In our neighborhood, families have put memorial markers in the traffic circle (which was planted by the whole neighborhood during a block party).
    I assume other neighborhoods may have something similar.

  12. yes, here in McGee Spaulding the public parks are limited to the Tomko Tot Park, which is not generally used by adults.

    If you include school playgrounds, there is also the Washington Elementary School on the far east side of the neighborhood, but which is not very inviting, and is only available to the public off school hours.

  13. which one is that?

    I would like the one at California and Allston to be a 4 way stop. Leave the traffic circle as is, but add the stop sign on Allston. The reason is when you sit in your car on California behind the stopping line, there is no visibility of oncoming traffic on Allston. You can only see it when you pull out halfway, and then you are a sitting duck.

  14. I haven’t been here long enough to have an attachment myself but I can say that I’ve had three different neighbors independently bring up their passion for our nearest traffic circle. The first one to mention it was a neighbor that has been in the neighborhood for longer than I’ve been alive and she was very upset. I think in the same way that someone might have pride in the plants they have in front of their house, for some the neighborhood traffic circle is a reflection of the appearance of the neighborhood and their participation in it.

  15. The statement is not affected by the popularity of electric cars because electric cars are not popular. In Berkeley they make up fewer than 2% of cars on the road and much less than 1% of the total vehicle miles travelled.

  16. “Vehicles starting up from a stop pollute far more than vehicles which merely slow down to enter an intersection”

    I am curious how that statement is affected by the popularity of hybrid and electric cars.

    I have heard that the brake pads on Teslas basically last forever, since so much of the braking is done by energy recapture.

    It also seems like the pollution of restarting might be a function of top-speed and vehicle mass, and would be reduced by cutting top speeds and using lighter vehicles.

  17. Berkeley could do a lot worse than lowering the speed limit on all residential streets and removing stop signs. Vehicles starting up from a stop pollute far more than vehicles which merely slow down to enter an intersection. Proper roundabouts would be great to see, but most of our intersections are too cramped for those. The “traffic” circles are annoying, but do help slow down traffic and prevent left-turn collisions.

  18. The other issue is that the intersection is not wide enough for the circle…so cars are bombing the circle like a slalom course. They dropped this circle with no sight lines in a squeezed up area.
    Circles are designed for flow management NOT traffic calming. It makes it more fluid with no stops.

  19. The trees are not the ones impeding visibility …mid-size shrubs year round and some tall annual crops during the summer should not be allowed in those circles. Trees can be pruned back heavily during its formation without compromising its overall integrity and growth . One the tree reaches its adult stage the tree is going to look magnificent, it will not impede the visibility of drivers, and cyclists, and the scars of the heavy pruning will disappear under the bark. However, not all tree species are recomendable for these circles; native mid-size columnar or pyramidal fast growing trees are the optimal choices

  20. As has been noted elsewhere, these traffic circles are NOT the same as European roundabouts. Traffic circles are designed to slow (aka “calm”) traffic, not to allow traffic to flow without stopping.

    That said, they still need clear sight lines for safety. Planting and maintaining trees in these circles is just stupid. The traffic circle near Malcolm X school used to have bushes that made it impossible to see children in the crosswalk on the other side of the circle. That’s been remedied.

    Any planting that obscures sight lines should go, notwithstanding any objections from the community. Go ahead and tell them that’s a non-negotiable rule. Consult with the community on any other non-safety issues.

  21. Seeing as how the recent UN Climate Report warned we have 10 years (that is, the amount of time passed since Obama was first elected president) to prevent the worst case global warming scenarios, maybe we could table the trees-in-circles discussion and instead take all car traffic off bicycle boulevards citywide (save residential parking) by March 31, 2019. Then we could bring BRT to all major thoroughfares in the city by 2021 to take commuters from satellite parking structures we’ll be building at all of our I-80 exit ramps.

    That’s about the pace we need to set as a city to reply meaningfully to this dire matter.

    Sound impossible? Go visit the Rosie the Riveter museum in Richmond, where the story is told of entire battleships being built in 96 hours. In the meantime, here’s a summary of the stakes —

    https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/session48/pr_181008_P48_spm_en.pdf

    Did somebody say EIR? THAT’S an environmental impact review.

    Ask not for whom the bell tolls, Berkeley handwringers and bureaucrats and climate skeptics and serial litigants. It’s time for a major, rapid shift in thinking, and then action, real action. As the gals said, we can do it!

  22. Oh No… You beat me to it. I was going to post the same thing.
    Something is really off if we have deep connections to traffic circle and we place it above the safety of people walking on streets.
    My feeling is it is the same old. People who yell the loudest and given a platform. I wonder how a vote would turn out. Unfortunately those of us who are busy cant worry about the deep connection to a traffic circle. Crazy town here just crazy.
    I wish we would get rid of them.

  23. The City doesn’t understand the circles. In Europe, they increase traffic flow, carbon emissions and allow traffic to flow without stopping if there are no other cars. Stop signs are wasteful or no one pays attention to them and they blow them. If you stop for no reason, that probably increases the c02 emissions by 3x to slow and start again.
    But the clown act up at City Hall told residents to take care of them because they ran out of budget to add irrigation. So residents planted TREES and massive bushes. That kills sight line and nobody can see the other side of the circle. This is a classic, telltale of how inept the thinking is at City Hall. Take a design , make it politically correct and it does the 180 degree opposite. You go anywhere in Europe and the circle has a wide circle and a sight line.Total, 100%, CRETINS

  24. Hmmm. Maybe that’s going to end up being Berkeley’s answer to the housing problem — build apartments on our park land and call the traffic circles “green space”? I imagine Berkeley could quickly call itself the town with the most parks a/k/a green spaces in the entire country!

  25. And here I am wishing there was a way to get rid of the one that was dumped in my neighborhood, without notice and, as I understand it, at the cost of something around $19K, when we had a well-functioning four-way stop. Can’t please everyone, it seems 🙂

  26. The city lowered the signs from about 5 feet to about 3 feet. Much better visibility across the intersection. That should be a no-brainer.

  27. If the neighbors in a particular area feel invested in the plantings in their traffic circles, they’ll do a much better and more sensitive job maintaining them than city employees who come by once or twice a year and whose main tools seem to be chainsaws, weed whackers and leaf blowers.

  28. Some people said their neighborhood has no park, so it’s the only green space around. In addition, the people who do the work — some of them daily — put in that time and energy so they are invested.

  29. “Many reported deep connections with their neighborhood traffic circles and said the city would be wise to take note.”

    really? to a traffic circle?