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Creating Bike Safety In A City Built For Cars

The death of a cyclist on Montezuma Road near San Diego State last month has rallied San Diego's bike community to protest the dangers of taking to the road. KPBS reporter Tom Fudge tells us what it would take to make our streets safe for bikes, even though they were built for cars. Five years ago, Fudge ended up in the hospital after being hit by a car on Montezuma Road, just 200 yards away from where Charles Gilbreth was hit and killed. (Video by Katie Euphrat)

— It was on Montezuma Road near San Diego State. That’s where 63-year-old Charles Raymond Gilbreth died after being hit by a car while riding his bike on April 20. It was an event that set the local bike community in motion.

Over the following week, fellow bikers chained a white “ghost bike” to a sign on Montezuma to remember him. Others took part in a memorial ride from Balboa Park to downtown San Diego. Philip Young was part of the memorial ride, and he knew Gilbreth. He described him as a very religious man who was commuting home from work when he was hit.

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The death of a cyclist near San Diego State leads to demands the city do something to make streets safe for bikes.

“You know, he tried to do everything the right way,” said Young. “He had lights. He had bright clothing and a mirror. So he was doing everything right, and unfortunately he was killed while riding in the bike lane.”

Bike advocate Samantha Ollinger, with BikeSD.org, said because Gilbreth was doing the right thing, San Diego must do the same for cyclists.

“It’s an outrage, and we want the city to know that something needs to be done,” she said.

Data provided by a City of San Diego study show more half of all traffic fatalities in public rights of way are pedestrians or people riding bikes. Among the many problems with San Diego streets are multilane thoroughfares like Fairmount and Montezuma that feel like freeways to motorists.

Civil engineer and cycling enthusiast Tom Adler said streets that encourage speeding and discourage slowing down or stopping at intersections cause great danger. Speaking with me near Nimitz Boulevard in Ocean Beach, he pointed out another problem with traffic design: high-volume streets that funnel cars into diagonal exit lanes, where they don’t have to yield to bikes.

“Anytime you have high speed cars, and you’re at an intersection, and they’re not stopping, you have a potential conflict,” said Adler. He referred to an old-fashioned video game, saying, “The biker has play Frogger to get to the other side.”

Bill Harris is with the City of San Diego’s traffic department said the problem is San Diego streets weren’t built for bikes.

“This community was not developed with bicycling as a primary mode of transportation in mind,” said Harris. “San Diego grew up as a community based on rapid transportation between home and work. We’re making up for lost ground.”

Harris gave an example of trying to regain lost ground by showing me a bike and pedestrian bridge over Rose Creek, near Mission Bay High School, that connects Mission Bay Park with Pacific Beach. Built at a cost of $2.9 million, it continues Mission Bay’s recreational bike circuit.

It also allows cyclists to get to Pacific Beach without taking the Grand Avenue Bridge, just to the north, that’s filled with fast-moving cars. This gets to one fundamental question about bike routes and bike safety. Do you integrate bike and car traffic, or do you separate them?

There are two ways you can create a bike lane. You can pour a little extra concrete off the road so the bikes can be separate from the car traffic. Some people call them bike paths. Or you can paint a couple of lines on the edge of the road, so the cars know that’s where the bikes are supposed to be. You can create a bike lane with paint, or with pavement.

The problem with paint is it offers no physical protection. Charles Gilbreth was in a painted bike lane, and he was still hit and killed. But Harris said physical separation of all bikes and cars would be practically impossible.

“We are not going to be able to build redundant bike facilities – redundant to the roadway – in every single location. So we have to start with as much identification, identifying markings, as we can,” he said.

Cyclist Tom Adler said when separation is not possible, cities need to find ways to slow down car traffic by, for instance, narrowing lanes.

“So that provides a lot of ‘side friction,’ so when you’re in the car you don’t feel like you want to go fast,” said Adler.

The story of Charles Gilbreth comes very close to home for me. Five years ago, I ended up in a hospital after being hit by a car, while riding my bike, on Montezuma Road, just 200 yards east of where Gilbreth was hit and killed.

Back at the memorial bike ride for Gilbreth, cyclist Timur Ender said making streets safe for bikes is not just about protecting people and saving lives.

“It’s about the bigger picture. It’s about creating a more sustainable city, healthier people, and better air quality,” said Ender. “And we can’t do that if the very people who exemplify their actions on a daily basis by riding bicycles are being killed at a rate of once a month.”

Video by Katie Euphrat

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