The Island Problem

I was born and raised in Alameda, a quirky, quaint town nestled next to Oakland in the San Francisco Bay. Literally, in the Bay. Alameda is an island, approximately 7 miles long by 2 miles. It was formed when the port of Oakland decided to cut free a peninsula from its tether to the mainland and complete a shipping estuary. As a result, Alameda is a hidden gem, hard to find, sleepy and relatively free from crime compared to its gritty city neighbor. This is in large part because there are only four ways off the island (not counting by boat).

On the East End, where graceful victorians and craftsman houses crop up from elm-shaded streets, the are three draw bridges. These have two-way bicycle and walking lanes that make it easy to ride or walk from Oakland’s Fruitvale district.

The West End, where I live, is another story. Here, a vast chunk of the island was a naval air station up until the early 90s. The homes are less grand, there are fewer trees and more liquor stores and laundromats. And there is only one way off the island on this side: the Posey and Webster Tubes.* These are impressive landmarks. The Posey tube is the oldest under water vehicular tunnel on the West Coast, built in 1928. It connects Webster street into Harrison street in Chinatown. The Webster tube moves traffic the other direction. And it works great…for cars.

The only way to get out of West End Alameda without a motor vehicle is a 3-foot wide side path through the Posey Tube. I’ve seen a few brave souls on bikes or on foot, navigating the path, only sporadically my entire life. Those without personal cars use the bus or the free commute and bike shuttle to Laney College (a great resource added by the City last summer). Today I missed the bike shuttle, and I decided to try the tunnel.

It was difficult to find the entrance. I alternated between side streets and sidewalks and finally rode past it and made two u-turns. As I began to descent, the first thing I noticed about the tunnel was the noise. It was far worse than it ever sounded while in a car. It’s a wailing, screaming of air and tires and engines roaring. The constant reverberation is punctuated by the whiplash zoom of the cars as they pass you. Cars go fast in the tunnel, and I admit to speeding myself. Walking along this little ledge a foot or two from the cars, I truly felt the velocity and power of the vehicles gunning at 45-60 miles per hour.

Posey Tube path Alameda

The Posey Tube path. Photo courtesy of “mirnanda” via Flickr.

The path is merely an access platform, it can’t really be called a path. It’s not even as wide as a standard sidewalk. At first I tried slowly riding the slope, letting my feet hang off the pedals in case of a sudden stop. Ten seconds later my handle bars had turned a fraction too close the wall and bounced of, hitting the chest-high railing on the other side. My front revolved 180 degrees and wedged completely between the gap. I fell.

So much for biking. I got untangled myself and started walking my bike. I was smeared in soot from falling against the tile wall of the tube. The soot covers everything a quarter of an inch thick. As I walked on I saw in places travelers had written graffiti into it. In the exposed parts I saw turquoise tiles gleaming.

It takes only a few seconds to drive through the tube; it took me nearly 10 minutes to walk it. The noise became more painful, taking the clamor of a freeway and bottling it, multiplying it inside a cylinder. I wished I had earplugs. Halfway through the tunnel slowly begins to slope upwards again. Two minutes later I could see white light at the end. There was a figure there making its way towards me. And now I realized, I had no idea how we would get around each other if she had a bike. As we got closer, it was clear she did. A spandex-clad older women with a light aluminum machine. Ten feet away, she stopped, lifted her bike, rotated it and propped it up over the railing. Cars zoomed by under it. I slowly siddled by her, yelling “Thanks!”. She gazed past me stoically; she had done this before.

When I made it out into the sunshine, I laughed with relief. I will be sure to catch the shuttle back through the tube. I’ve biked up and down cliff sides and regularly commuted in downtown San Francisco. This was the most unpleasant experience I have ever had as a pedestrian/cyclist.

Right now I’m filled with sorrow for my poor Alameda. The entire West side transportation infrastructure, like the island, is frozen in time. It is a petrified version of our car-dependent past. There is no safe, decent, accessible way off the West End without a car. The tunnel pedestrian path is a joke, and should be condemned. But what can we do? Could we build a bridge? Schedule more free shuttles? This is a problem that needs be addressed as we move forward as a City.

There is a long standing and urgent discussion over how to develop the old navy base. It constitutes acres of decaying and unused urban land in a land-starved metroregion. In January, I was lucky to hear planner Peter Calthorpe speak at SPUR on the need for housing as jobs grow in the Bay Area. He rightly pointed to the Alameda base as a place where several thousand new residents could be placed. Back in 2008 he and developer SunCal proposed adding personal rapid transit (PRT) as a light rail-type option to connect 6,000 new homes to Oakland and the BART system. This would be supplemented by ferry and bus services.

While SunCal’s plans were voted down by Alameda residents for many reasons, this transportation proposals have merit. The West End desperately needs more transportation options. But beyond that, beyond more vehicles to move us here and there, we need a viable way to walk and bike off our Island. While our city officials spend money on beautifying the East End’s Park Street with landscaping, I suggest they all take a bike ride through the Posey Tube and consider some serious investments in transportation infrastructure.

* The Alameda-Oakland ferry offers a “short jump” option from Alameda to Jack London Square for $1.50. Unfortunately, the ferry only goes the other direction–back to Alameda–once a day.

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