Amid a push to prioritize pedestrians on the road, Berkeley took its first step toward potentially banning cars from making right turns at red lights Thursday.
The proposal, made by Councilmembers Terry Taplin and Susan Wengraf at a city council meeting, aimed to install “no right on red” signs on intersections with traffic lights—either only along high-injury streets or eventually at all of Berkeley’s 135 intersections, according to Berkeleyside. The councilmembers noted that Berkeley would not be pioneering anything new—major cities like New York City and Seattle have already restricted right on red.
“What it’s trying to do is encourage better motorist behavior and slow folks down,” said Walk Bike Berkeley coordinating committee member Barnali Ghosh. “It’s protection for all of us who use the streets.”
Making right turns at red lights used to be banned across many parts of the country until the gas crisis of 1970, when the ban was lifted to reduce car idling at intersections, according to Taplin and Wengraf’s proposal. However, research on the ban has shown that it saves only between 1 and 4.6 seconds of driving time—but increases pedestrian crashes by 60% and bicycle crashes by 100%.
In addition to the immediate goal of saving lives and reducing near misses, Ghosh said banning right on red could be a part of a systemic, long term solution to encourage walking and bicycling instead of driving. As around 60% of the city’s total annual greenhouse emissions come from transportation, the policy can also lower emissions by creating safer streets that encourage more people to walk or bike instead of drive, she noted.
“At Berkeley, we know there is a gap between people who are interested in doing that but are afraid to do it because the streets are not designed for walking and biking,” Ghosh said. “We need a shift in who we’re prioritizing on the streets.”
Proponents of the ban, such as East Bay Transit Riders Union activist Darrell Owens, cited pedestrian safety as one of their main reasons for supporting it. However, critics on social media brought up concerns around sufficient enforcement of the ban and suggested alternative physical traffic calming solutions like speed bumps and narrower streets.
While Ghosh said that Walk Bike Berkeley considers engineering solutions as more effective, banning right on red would be an easy solution to implement in the meantime. However, she noted that the city should de-prioritize police enforcement of the ban—which is expensive and could disproportionately impact people of color—and should instead focus on public education campaigns.
“Berkeley is a city…that has a lot of people walking and biking but the infrastructure doesn’t always reflect that,” Ghosh said. “There’s a lot we need to do, and this is a good step towards that goal.”