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San Diego Presents Watered-Down Redesign Of El Cajon Boulevard

City nixed bike lanes amid fears of parking loss, slower traffic

San Diego Presents Watered-Down Redesign Of El Cajon Boulevard

GUEST:

Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS

Transcript

Officials with the San Diego Planning Department this month are unveiling a proposal to redesign a small section of El Cajon Boulevard in the mid-city area. But while the project began with ambitious plans to improve pedestrian and bike safety and encourage multi-modal transportation, it has since been so watered down that some of its original champions no longer support it.

The Complete Boulevard Study covers roughly three-quarters of a mile of El Cajon Boulevard from Highland Avenue to 50th Street between the City Heights and Talmadge neighborhoods. City planners studied 14 different design alternatives with new features including landscaped medians, protected bike lanes, crosswalks and bus-only lanes.

The city's final preferred alternative contains a median separating the two directions of traffic, meant to provide a "safe refuge" for pedestrians crossing the street, and curb extensions to decrease the crossing distance. But it has no protected bike lanes — only a buffered bike lane, which separates bicyclists from motorists with lines of paint rather than a concrete barrier. It runs on one side of the street for about half the project area.

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Beryl Forman is a marketing and mobility coordinator for the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association, which helped secure the grant that funded the study (the grant did not include any money to build the project). She said while she was pleased to see some pedestrian improvements, the overall outcome was disappointing because it lacked more robust bike infrastructure and traffic-calming measures.

Photo by Kris Arciaga

A pedestrian surrounded by cars crosses El Cajon Boulevard in City Heights, Jan. 11, 2017.

"If cars are moving at a speed higher than 30 miles an hour when they come in contact with a pedestrian, it's very likely that someone will be killed," she said. "We know we need to come around to slower traffic and safer amenities for all people who travel up and down El Cajon Boulevard. And so not including a safe amenity for bicyclists is a real shame."

Forman added that the study also had a goal of branding the Little Saigon district with cultural artwork, but that this aspect of the final study felt like an afterthought.

"It's not a home run project," she said.

Share the road?

Alyssa Muto, a deputy director in the city's planning department, said while the majority of the project area had no dedicated bike lanes, planned bike lanes on parallel streets north and south of El Cajon Boulevard could serve as a substitute. And, she said, other design aspects would slow down cars, making it safer to ride a bike in traffic.

"The improvements that are being proposed are a major improvement to the existing conditions," she said.

Where the project area lacks a dedicated bike lane, it has "sharrows" — white chevrons painted on the pavement meant to remind motorists to share the lane with bicyclists.

But sharrows are only suitable for quieter residential streets with low traffic volume and were never meant to be used on major arterial streets like El Cajon Boulevard, according to Kathleen Ferrier, director of advocacy for the nonprofit Circulate San Diego.

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Letter to Planning Department

Letter to Planning Department

Circulate San Diego wrote a letter opposing San Diego's redesign of a section of El Cajon Boulevard.

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"People are going to continue to bicycle down El Cajon Boulevard because they want to directly access those stores (on the boulevard)," Ferrier said. "That's a good thing for stores, because bicyclists will spend money in those stores. And so by providing them safe access where they want to be, they will be safer as a result."

Ferrier signed a letter to the San Diego Planning Department stating that the city's design choices did not accomplish the project’s goals, and that they were incompatible with policies adopted by the City Council. Those include Vision Zero, which aims to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2025; and the Climate Action Plan, which calls for dramatically increasing the share of people who bike to work.

"This overall preferred alternative is being proposed as a compromise," Ferrier said. "But unfortunately what's being compromised is safety."

Fears of parking loss

While much of the project’s design is meant to slow down traffic, that is precisely why some in the adjacent residential neighborhoods opposed earlier versions of the project. Kelly Waggonner, who lives in Talmadge and sits on the area planning group, said she and her neighbors feared slower traffic and losses to parking on El Cajon Boulevard would divert more vehicles to their residential streets.

"It's not safe for our neighbors, our pedestrians, our bicyclists, our children, our pets, to have to be sharing what should be neighborhood streets with 20,000 to 25,000 cars a day," she said. "We expect and anticipate that this area of San Diego is going to grow substantially. With more housing and with more density come more cars, and comes the need to make sure that traffic flows properly."

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Rudy Duran rides his bike through a lane shared with motorists on University Ave. in City Heights, Jan. 17, 2017.

Waggonner and other residents turned out in strong numbers at public presentations of the study to advocate for no loss in parking, and she said she was pleased to hear the city's final preferred alternative maintained most of the street parking on both sides of El Cajon Boulevard. Alyssa Muto, the deputy planning director who supervised the project, said she did not expect the redesign would cause a significant diversion of traffic to adjacent residential streets.

So of all the stakeholders, who is being asked to make the greatest sacrifice? Rudy Duran lives in City Heights and rides his bike to his job at a bike shop in North Park. He said while he tries to stick to quieter residential streets when biking around, sometimes large arterials like El Cajon Boulevard are unavoidable. He said the city's plans leave bicyclists behind.

"It's been my experience that the majority of people biking in City Heights are just working-class people who use department store bikes so they have an affordable means of transportation," Duran said. "For the city to have only about four to five blocks worth of bike lane seems like an enormous failure for these people. And it seems like the city doesn't really care about their safety."

Georgette Gomez, the newly-inaugurated City Council member representing City Heights and Talmadge, was elected last November on promises to "shake up city hall" and to invest more in alternative transportation. Her spokesman, Roberto Torres, said while the study would not please everyone, "It's a good step in the right direction."

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