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Why It’s So Hard to Get Cars Off the Road

Several blocks of Telegraph Avenue on the south side of the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, have been a contested space on and off for the past 60 years. In the 1960s, the street became the center of an anarchic West Coast counterculture of hippies, artists and dropouts once described as “the greatest freak show on earth.” In 1969, a group of radicals inspired by the nearby People’s Park fight created the Berkeley Liberation Program and sought to turn the stretch of Telegraph into a “strategic free territory for revolution.”

The fighting over this commercial stretch of record and book stores and cheap student eateries continued into the late ’90s. A group of cyclists who were part of a movement called Reclaim the Streets engaged in a takeover of Telegraph Avenue to protest the ubiquity of cars in American culture. “The streets are a public space and more and more are taken over by cars which are antisocial,” a protester told The Daily Californian. “People are in boxes that are annoying, noisy and toxic.”

Throughout it all, there has been one victor: cars.

For today’s newsletter, I wanted to answer a question that’s been bothering me for quite some time: Why is it so difficult to get cars off the road? Most of us seem to agree that personal, gas-powered automobiles are destructive to the environment. They can also be lethal to pedestrians and drivers, of course. And they contribute to an atomized society of people living far apart from one another. Yet a car-free future seems almost impossible to imagine.

The benefits of getting rid of cars are especially obvious on a street like Telegraph. One would think the citizens in this progressive and environmentally conscious city would need little persuading. A walkable plaza in the heart of the city would mean less driving, more incentive for people to ride bicycles, more outdoor seating for Telegraph’s restaurants and more foot traffic for its businesses. Many of those who live around Telegraph are college students who walk to campus or ride their bicycles, so there shouldn’t be much concern about impinging on the driving of nearby residents.

Given the long history of mobilization and activism to turn Telegraph Avenue into something more useful for the public, why are there still private automobiles driving on it today?

Last Saturday, I headed down to the corner of Telegraph and Haste Street. The scene would have satisfied tourists wanting to see what they expect of Berkeley. A mix of college students and old men played chess on folding tables. A large speaker perched on top of an old pickup blared the Grateful Dead. Across the street sat Amoeba Music, one of the avenue’s famed record stores. People’s Park, which is currently the site of a homeless encampment, sat a short walk away.

I was there to meet up with Brandon Yung, a 22-year-old from South Pasadena who graduated from Cal this spring. Yung is the co-founder of Telegraph for People, an organization that wants to see Telegraph Avenue go completely car-free on three blocks near the U.C. Berkeley campus. Yung is tall and enthusiastic — one of these young urbanist types who likes to point out needlessly wide streets, poorly designed sidewalks and pointless parking structures.

He had been interested in transportation advocacy when in 2021, Rigel Robinson, the city councilman who represents the area around campus, including the contested blocks of Telegraph Avenue, invited him to a meeting discussing a redesign of the city’s core streets. (They met when Yung was a freshman reporter at The Daily Californianassigned to cover Robinson’s campaign.)

With his fellow classmate Sam Greenberg, Yung, who was a senior at the time, began to take action. He soon realized that he might be taken more seriously if he were part of an organization. So a few weeks after sharing their ideas with the city’s Transportation Commission, the pair founded Telegraph for People and began recruiting fellow urban studies majors to the cause of eliminating cars on the city’s most storied street.

Robinson, a progressive Democrat who has prioritized building new housing in the city, has been trying to make Berkeley’s streets more bike- and pedestrian-friendly since he was elected to office in 2018. In February 2022, after years of political wrangling, he introduced a recommendation to convert four blocks of Telegraph into a pedestrian plaza. It passed unanimously. What had been missing was input from the community, which, in Robinson’s district, mostly would be college students.

Robinson wanted Yung to be a voice for students on campus and reached out to him last fall. This past March, Telegraph for People marched from campus to Telegraph Avenue and shut it down for several hours. The group’s goal was to show the public what the street might look like as a pedestrians-only space. You’d think that the appeal would be obvious.

But a handful of business owners and landlords on Telegraph are against the change because they fear it will make it harder for their customers to park. Even though the resistance isn’t significant, in land use fights, especially in California, the will of local politicians and young people rarely wins out over the interests of businesses and homeowners.

Moe’s Books is a Berkeley institution that was started in 1959 by a New York City transplant named Moe Moskowitz who would go on to participate in countercultural activity around campus and Telegraph Avenue, including the free-speech movement and the antiwar movement.

Today Moe’s is owned and operated by Moe’s daughter Doris, who is one of several business owners on Telegraph who oppose closing the street to cars. She told me in an email that Moe’s, which has four floors of books, many of which are secondhand, depends on a constant supply from the community. She says they need to make it possible for a Berkeley resident who, for example, wants to sell his collection of first edition Beat Generation poetry volumes, to park in front. “Books are heavy,” Moskowitz wrote. “The community service that we provide depends on community access to our buying counter.”

The quintessentially Berkeley feel of Telegraph, the nostalgia of it, does come in large part from the fact that there are consignment stores and places where students can still browse through vinyl and secondhand books.

Moe’s certainly isn’t the only business on Telegraph that opposes Robinson’s plan. In the window of a vintage clothing store, there’s a large poster that reads “SAVE TELEGRAPH AVENUE” and lists all the reasons the City Council’s plans will doom businesses along the corridor and actually increase pollution from cars that would be forced to take a lengthy detour.

As a compromise, Save Telegraph, the opposition group behind the posters, which seems to be made up of a handful of local business owners, suggests a dedicated lane for bikes, scooters and skateboards. (Save Telegraph did not respond to requests for comment.)

I’ve written quite a bit about this clash between the interests of people in California who want to build denser, more affordable, walkable cities and the demands of homeowners and businesses to keep things the way they are. Even under relatively favorable political conditions, it takes a mammoth effort by local politicians and activists even to broach the question of a street without cars. A student organization like Telegraph for People might be able to grab press coverage from actions like taking over the street, but they are usually no match for well-run, trenchant homeowners associations and business organizations.

Yung told me he will be traveling to Taiwan this summer and doesn’t know if he’ll return to live in Berkeley. The same is true for many of his fellow organizers in Telegraph for People. When the activists are gone and it’s the City Council versus the business owners who, like Moskowitz, do make some reasonable claims and have the status quo on their side, it may be hard to keep up the energy. That’s when proposals get tabled for years.

The most powerful weapon the businesses have on their side is plain attrition. If a proposal like a car-free Telegraph gets passed, it then has to be processed through reviews that can take years. Every time a shovel needs to go into the ground, established forces can block the actual construction of the thing through a variety of tactics, including legal action. Last August, a judge ruled in favor of a Berkeley community group that, upset with the city’s overcrowding, sued the university under an environmental protection statute. Until the state legislature stepped in, Cal was going to have to cut 3,000 incoming students and $57 million in lost tuition from its rolls.

Currently, Robinson and the City Council are waiting for plans to come back from Berkeley’s Public Works department that will give a range of options for the street along with some reports on what impacts any changes might have on nearby traffic. At that point, the City Council will vote on two separate issues. The first: if they will spend the money to make Telegraph look like a pedestrian plaza by raising it to be level with the sidewalks. The second: if the plaza they build will actually have no cars on it.

Given that Robinson’s initial proposal passed unanimously, a few victories seem likely: raising the height of the street and creating a dedicated bus lane, which at the very least will reduce personal auto traffic down to one lane. But the question of whether any cars will be allowed on Telegraph Avenue is still very much an open question.

“What makes this ironic to me,” Yung told me, “is that the people who own these businesses used to be us — young, progressive people who wanted a better place for everyone. Now they’ve grown older and they’re the ones standing in the way of progress.”

Consumables

For the foreseeable future, I want to end this newsletter with a few recommendations of things I’ve been enjoying. This could be anything from children’s books I read to my daughter to movies I’ve watched to podcasts and newspaper and magazine articles. I’ve always wanted to foster a sense of community with this newsletter, so if you have any thoughts on these recommendations or want to send any my way, please let me know at kang-newsletter@nytimes.com.

Blood Rites” by Barbara Ehrenreich

Ehrenreich’s 1997 treatise on the theories of war, in which she explores central questions in her inimitably thorough, engaging and thorny way: Does mankind have an innate impulse for domination through violent conflict? Are wars proof of “human nature” or is there some learned ritual passed down through the generations that makes us capable of mass killing in the name of some abstract ideal?

Becoming Richard Pryor” by Scott Saul

A comprehensive biography of Richard Pryor that spends quite a bit of time excavating stories from the comedian’s childhood in Peoria, Ill. As most fans of his comedy will know, Pryor grew up in a brothel run by his grandmother. Saul fills in those details and also provides the most comprehensive portrait of one of America’s great geniuses both as a child and then as an adult.

“First Person” with Lulu Garcia-Navarro

A new podcast from Times Opinion, hosted by Lulu Garcia-Navarro.It’s a show about everyday people, the difficult choices they have to make, and how those experiences shape their outlook on the world.


Have feedback? Send a note to kang-newsletter@nytimes.com.

Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

Correction: Monday’s edition of this newsletter misidentified a jurisdiction in Louisiana where homicides rose sharply between 2019 and 2021. It was East Baton Rouge Parish, not the City of Baton Rouge.

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