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Cyclists Battle Over Bike Lanes

As American cities like New York and Portland race to build more bike lanes, San Diego’s bike-lane activists face some interesting opposition: fellow cyclists.

During morning rush hour, La Jolla Village Drive near I-5 is a noisy snarl of speeding cars, trucks and busses. There are eight lanes of traffic and no bike lanes, but that didn’t stop Serge Issakov from riding his bicycle to work on this street for the better part of a decade.

“This is where everybody thinks I’m crazy, but if you ride clearly in the lane, it works,” said Issakov, who serves on the board of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition (SDCBC), the region’s largest bicycle advocacy group. Issakov subscribes to a philosophy called vehicular cycling, which maintains that bicyclists are safest when they act like drivers. That often means mixing with cars in traffic lanes on high-speed roads like La Jolla Village Drive.

“It’s totally non-intuitive, but once you do it a few times its like, ‘Wow, why don’t I do this all the time?’” he said of the vehicular approach. “Thinking like a driver completely changes your experience out on the road.”

Issakov doesn’t think La Jolla Village Drive needs a bike lane—that with the right training, anyone can ride here comfortably like he does. In fact, some in the vehicular cycling movement, which has followers all over the world, are vehemently against bike lanes.

“They were designed to shove cyclists off the side of the road,” said John Forester, the Lemon Grove man who literally wrote the book on vehicular cycling. “I oppose bike lanes not for the physical harm they do so much as for the political and behavioral harm that they create.”

As a former president of the League of American Bicyclists and a still-prominent voice in advocacy circles, Forester has fought for decades to preserve bicyclists’ legal right to use public roads, and he thinks bike lanes send the wrong message about where bicycles belong. According to the California vehicle code, bicycles are allowed to go anywhere cars can go (except, in most cases, on the freeway), regardless of whether or not there’s a bike lane. But Forester and Issakov worry that if we build separate facilities like bike lanes, those rights could be lost.

The question of where bicycles belong inspires endless debate among bike geeks—not to mention some gentle ribbing from the comedy show Portlandia. In San Diego, an argument always seems to be simmering between vehicular cyclists like Issakov and his fellow SDCBC board member Samantha Ollinger, who lives in San Diego car-free and blogs about bike issues.

“Many of my friends are afraid of riding in high-speed traffic,” she told me at a coffee shop on El Cajon Boulevard in North Park as trucks and vans roared past. “I don’t like the fact that that is the only option.”

Without a striped bike lane, El Cajon Boulevard is the kind of fast-moving, busy street that poses no problem for a vehicular cyclist like Issakov, but can intimidate a less experienced rider. Where Issakov stresses training over infrastructure, Ollinger think the city should do more to make streets appealing to bicyclists.

“I’d love to see a bike lane, I’d love to see a cycle track. I’d love to see something that everybody feels comfortable riding on,” Ollinger said. “You need to have a certain level of nerve to ride on a street like this.”

Some of the bicyclists on El Cajon were riding on the sidewalk, which can be not only dangerous but is actually illegal in some parts of town.

“People ride on a sidewalk because they’re responding to an environment,” Ollinger said. “They may feel more comfortable separated from traffic. I think the city needs to look at that as something that’s deficient in the street, because that’s how people are responding to it.”

In a city like San Diego, with relatively few bike lanes and paths, people who ride a bike for transportation often have no choice but to mingle with traffic at some point on their commute, and vehicular cycling offers some useful techniques for doing so safely. But as an advocacy strategy, the movement has its critics.

“I equate this with the young men who run with the bulls in Pamplona in Spain,” said Denmark-based mobility consultant Mikael Colville-Andersen, who also runs the popular site Copenhagenize.com. “It’s a big kick and they’re rushing down the street with the bulls after them, but this is really nothing that appeals to the 99% of the population.”

Colville-Andersen travels the world advising cities on how to promote bicycling for transportation, not just recreation. That’s important in San Diego, where planners hope to triple the number of people who commute by bike in order to meet California’s new limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

“Separated infrastructure sends the message that bicycles belong, that bicycles are a feasible, accepted and respected form of transport,” he said.

What do you think? Should bicyclists continue to adapt, as Issakov has, to the existing conditions in their city? Or should cities change to accommodate their cyclists and attract even more? Ollinger, for one, knows what she’d like to see.

“My grand big picture is that everybody in San Diego who wants to ride has the ability to ride,” she said. “It should not be just something that only the very brave do. It should be something grandma can do.”

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