Opinion | Getting Cars Off the Road Is Harder Than It Should Be

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.