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What Will It Take to Make the East Bay’s Most Dangerous Road Less Deadly?

For years, Niles Canyon Road has forced drivers to white-knuckle it down the winding pass. Can anything be done to straighten things out?

Editor’s Note
: This is one of many stories San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the June 2018 East Bay Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

The first time
Spanish soldiers bushwhacked their way through the steep, dense canyon formed by Alameda Creek, they were set upon by a grizzly bear. Over a century later, in the 1930s, the trail was paved over and hailed as one of the most scenic drives in the country; locals, however, claimed it was haunted by the ghost of a young girl who’d been hitchhiking to San Francisco. All these years later, the curse appears not to have lifted.

Between 2000 and 2014, Niles Canyon Road—a 7.1-mile stretch of Highway 84 between Sunol and old-town Niles—saw 507 collisions, including 14 fatalities and 390 injuries. Despite a modest drop in cross-median collisions following the introduction of rumble strips in 2007, last year saw five fatalities, including the heartbreaking death of 18-year-old college student Jayda Jenkins, making it the deadliest year for the road in recent memory. It’s not just about the sheer number of collisions, either. Accidents here are uncommonly severe: About 54 percent of collisions on Niles Canyon Road involve a death or significant injury. The federal Highway Safety Manual reports an expected average of 32.1 percent on similar two-lane roads.

The narrow, curvy highway presents a perfect storm of driving challenges, and efforts to make lasting fixes have invariably run aground after opposition from community and environmental groups. Steep, rocky canyon walls abut the road in several places; elsewhere, train tracks and the creek creep up to the side of it. For long stretches, there is no shoulder at all, or just a foot or two of it before a steep drop. At railroad undercrossings, visibility around the bend is limited and there’s zero margin for error; cyclists have to speed through, hoping a car doesn’t try to overtake them. The sun glares into motorists’ eyes at dawn and dusk, practically blinding them.

According to Caltrans, fixing Niles Canyon Road would require widening much of it—carving into the canyon, installing guardrails and retaining walls—while adding streetlights, redesigning the approach to the 90-year-old Alameda Creek Bridge, and, most drastically, replacing the bridge entirely. Twice, however, the department has been thwarted. In 2011, protesters were able to halt construction over objections to Caltrans cutting down 150 riparian trees; the Alameda Creek Alliance sued the department in 2017 over its bridge-replacement plan, then again in early 2018 over its road-widening measures.

At the heart of opponents’ concerns is this: Improving the road could make it more deadly, not less. Niles Canyon is a rural road, designated a State Scenic Highway in 2007. Widening it would essentially make it a commuter highway, shuttling drivers from Silicon Valley to the interior of the East Bay. More drivers, driving at higher speeds, could lead to even more accidents. Rather than make Niles Canyon an easier drive, the argument goes, efforts should be made to slow people down even further—or, better yet, get them out of their cars entirely.

To this end, there’s another, separate effort in the canyon that locals have gotten on board with. Last fall, two Alameda County supervisors hosted the Niles Canyon Stroll and Roll, in which walkers and bicyclists had free rein over the road. Soon, it is hoped, a new, 10-foot-wide trail will follow the creek through the canyon, mostly mirroring the route blazed more than 200 years ago by Spanish soldiers. No cars will be allowed.

Originally published in the June issue of
San Francisco 

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