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Activists Growing Impatient With San Diego's Bike Program

A bicyclist rides on the sidewalk of Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach, April 21, 2017.
Kris Arciaga
A bicyclist rides on the sidewalk of Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach, April 21, 2017.
Activists Growing Impatient With San Diego's Bike Program
Activists Growing Impatient With San Diego's Bike Program GUEST:Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS news

May is national bike month. Cities and nonprofits are holding events throughout San Diego County. The city of San Diego wants to triple the share of people who commute by bicycle in the next three years mostly by building out the network of bike lanes. A Metro reporter explains that progress is not as fast as some would hope. I am ready when you are. I'm biking along Garnett Avenue with Kathy. It's one of the main commercial streets there were bars and thrift stores and yoga studios and a lot of restaurants. Most of them we see our writing on the sidewalk which is illegal. People tell you how they feel about the infrastructure by where they ride. The bicycle is our thing we need to do better on the street. Garnet Avenue is the most dangerous streets there were at least 20 by collisions last year. That's white it was highlighted in the plan which aims to eliminate all traffic deaths in the city by 2025 piglets also called out for improvement in the city's bicycle Master plan which aims to build a citywide bike network. I asked Ernest Gallo of 1 to 10 them how would you rate the progress? I would say we are probably 85 or six right now. We've done that easier pieces. Now we are in the difficult part filling those gaps and that's going to be harder and he's going to it's going to take more money to get it done. More money because often there is a need for a bike lane but not enough space to create one. Some tight requires taken away parking and some residents and business owners see those things as deal breakers. Change is scary for people and their businesses on the line so I understand the fear in that conversation. What I think is as we do more of these projects as we have ambitious plans and start to install them people will see that it is possible to live without some of that street parking. We have a number of projects that we've completed. She is a deputy director in the Transportation Department and says the city is it just taking the easy route to building the bike network. We have just received over $5 million for University Avenue improvements. That's going to be a big project also. We are widening sidewalks doing traffic and replacing traffic signals with roundabouts. There's a big project in the past year. There are other examples of projects the city put forward the have not lived up to the vision that's part of the bike master plan. El Cajon Blvd. is supposed to have a painted bike lane but when city traffic engineers redesign the section of the Boulevard most of the project area had no bike lanes at all. They say that is because the city has to balance the needs of all modes of transportation. It is about the car and the cyclist and the pedestrians and transit. It is about all the modes. We are constantly balancing improvements for all the modes. The staff is about working with the bike advisory committee on ways to improve the buildout of the city's bike network. The biggest challenges is measuring success counting bicyclist is harder than counting cars and San Diego needs good data on cycling to make sure they are doing enough to get more people out of cars and onto bikes. Joining me is Andrew Bowen. So Linda used a phrase I hope you can explain traffic calming. What does that mean? It describes measures that slow down traffic and mostly cars. They could be narrow lanes, speed bumps, dips, roundabouts. A lot of neighborhoods want these things because cars drive fast undersea streets and it makes it dangerous for both other motorist and dangerous for pedestrians and bike lists. The goal is not to slow down cars to the point that it takes so long to get somewhere. The goal is to increase safety in a byproduct is to maybe encourage people to bike and walk because it is safer. Southern California Bill urban environment around the automobile. Changing that is an extremely difficult endeavor. Do you know why the city thought it could change this dynamic in such a short period of time? Greenhouse gas reductions that are rated written in state law were based on climate science. They agree that's about 2°C above preindustrial levels. From their the question is how to weed the carbonized and by how much. So how much admissions can we cut from our energy production and from transportation and waste management? The change in our commute hazards is not meant to be what is easy it's meant to be what is necessary. Payment so therefore what is a feeling among the biking community about establishing different routes for biking that connect to but are not on major streets like El Cajon Blvd. or Garnet Avenue question I think bicyclist want options not just one road that you can bike on. Some people might prefer residential streets and even streets where the end up sharing a lane with cars and others might prefer faster street so they can get to their destinations more quickly and sometimes biking on major streets is unavoidable because that is your destination where you have to go. So what we have right now on the speak streets is a patchwork. There's a bike lane for a few blocks and then it just ends and it may we appear a mile later. There has to be a safe and comfortable trip from one that point to another. This was already approved and voted on by the city Council when they passed the master plan in 2013. What are some of the ambitious plans that they alluded to that may convince businesses they don't need on street parking? I think the most ambitious plan that city officials point to is a downtown mobility plan. This was passed last year in the summer and it creates 9 miles of new bike lanes downtown. They want more of so there is a physical barrier separating the bikes from the cars. This requires some removal of on street parking. When I spoke to Linda she called this a game changer at the time with this was passed the city said that it would build the bike lanes in the plan in three years so by June 2019. That pledge was made for we knew of the consistent budget deficits that are happening right now as we speak and in the coming years so 75% of the bike portion of the plan is still currently underfunded and we have yet to see that three-year commitment reflected in the Mayor's budget. So you mentioned that it is difficult to get data on success by counting the number of cyclists do we have any data on how strong support is for the changes being made to city streets to promote cycling? It is a tough thing to measure because if you ask people do you support having more bike lanes or improving bike safety most people will say yes if you asked them if they would be willing to pay the real price of the bike lanes so that we can fund them? I think you are going to lose people there. This is where I think leadership comes in. The city Council has made these promises to the residents of San Diego and they Vardy made this commitment to change our car culture and it's up to them to make some difficult and even unpopular decisions to do what is necessary. In the meantime, there are conflicts between cyclists and motorist. I am wondering do you see these tensions continuing to rise as the debate continues which Mark I don't have an answer to that. I think the cities reengineering of the streets that they're going through right now with traffic measures is meant to minimize those conflicts so give bicyclist more space so that it is difficult for a car to really incur on that space. It is up to the city to fully commit to the projects and pay for them and if it is successful, I think there's safety in numbers so motorist might become more aware of how they need to behave toward the bicyclist and as more motorist themselves tried to take occasional trips on bicycles they might empathize and understand what's necessary to create safer streets for everyone. I've been speaking with Andrew Bowen. Thank you. My pleasure.

Stand on Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach for just a few minutes, and you are bound to see some bicyclists riding on the sidewalk. The practice, while technically illegal, can be seen on streets throughout San Diego where people want to bike but do not feel safe doing so alongside moving cars.

Kathy Keehan, an avid cyclist and member of the city's Bicycle Advisory Committee, said it is a sign of San Diego's shortcomings.

"People tell you how they feel about the infrastructure by where they ride," she said while observing traffic on Garnet Avenue on a recent Friday afternoon. "Those bicyclists (on the sidewalk) are saying we need to do better on this street."

May is national bike month, and cities and nonprofits across San Diego County are holding events to highlight the benefits of biking: better health, fewer cars on the road and lower greenhouse gas emissions. But while bike advocates are leading many of the celebrations, there is frustration with what they see as weak progress on building out San Diego's network of safe bike facilities.

Keehan gave a presentation to the City Council's Environment Committee last month on how San Diego can speed up the implementation of its Bicycle Master Plan. The plan was approved by the City Council in 2013 and seeks to create an interconnected network of bike lanes. Its implementation is a key component of the greenhouse gas reductions in the city's Climate Action Plan.

Activists Growing Impatient With San Diego's Bike Program

Keehan acknowledged the progress city officials have made, primarily by painting new bike lanes or widening existing ones as the city resurfaces its streets. But she said the city has to do more to improve and expand its bike lane network.

"If there was room on a street for a bike lane, we've provided that bike lane on that street," she said. "Now we're in the difficult parts, filling those gaps. And that's going to be harder, and it's going to take more money and more political will to get those done."

Bike Advisory Committee member Kathy Keehan and KPBS reporter Andrew Bowen bike along Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach, April 21, 2017.
Kris Arciaga
Bike Advisory Committee member Kathy Keehan and KPBS reporter Andrew Bowen bike along Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach, April 21, 2017.

2020 biking goals

San Diego's goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions rely heavily on big changes in the city's commuting habits. By 2020, 6 percent of people living near a public transit stop are expected to bike to work — a share that, by the city's best estimate, is at least triple the current rate of biking.

Linda Marabian, a deputy director in the city's transportation department, oversees much of San Diego's efforts to expand its network of bike lanes. Asked if she thought the city was on track to meet the goal of 6 percent, she answered without hesitation.

"Yes," she said. "We have a number of projects in the works now, (and) we have number of projects we've completed."

Marabian said the city had received more than $10 million in grants over the past year to fund projects that include improved bike facilities. Those projects include new street engineering for sections of University Avenue in City Heights and Market Street in Chollas View.

San Diego Bike Improvements
San Diego lists the number of bike lane miles that have been added or improved over the last four and a half years.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

Marabian also pointed to the Downtown Mobility Plan, which was approved by the City Council last summer. Officials said at the time that its nine miles of new bike lanes downtown would be designed and built within three years, by June 2019.

That commitment has not yet been reflected in Mayor Kevin Faulconer's budgets. While the cost of implementing the plan's bike lanes is estimated at $10.5 million, only $2.5 million has been set aside, according to city spokesman Anthony Santacroce.

Fifteen percent of the bike lane miles proposed in the Bicycle Master Plan have been implemented since its passage, Santacroce said, and 22 percent of the existing network has been improved — usually by adding a painted buffer zone to give bicyclists more space. But he also acknowledged errors in the original Bicycle Master Plan's maps: The entirety of Grand Avenue in Pacific Beach is shown as already having painted bike lanes, when in reality the lanes exist on less than half of the street's 2.5 miles.

Transportation engineer Linda Marabian speaks in an interview with KPBS, April 26, 2017.
Katie Schoolov
Transportation engineer Linda Marabian speaks in an interview with KPBS, April 26, 2017.

Multi-modal network

The Bike Advisory Committee members will soon start working with Marabian and her staff on ways to speed up implementation of the Bicycle Master Plan. Frequently, Keehan said, the addition of bike lanes comes into conflict with residents and business owners who fear the consequences of removing on-street parking or a lane of traffic.

That conflict was what led city traffic engineers to eliminate bike lanes from most of a proposed redesign of El Cajon Boulevard in City Heights. The Bike Advisory Committee recently sent a letter to the mayor and City Council saying the project is inconsistent with the Bicycle Master Plan.

Keehan said she understands people's fears of losing on-street parking, particularly when a business owner sees that parking as essential to their livelihood. But she said that fear would eventually be disproved.

"I think as we do more projects, as we have ambitious plans and we start to install that infrastructure, people will see that it's possible to live without some of that on-street parking," she said. "It makes their neighborhood better to install this infrastructure for bicyclists to make it easier and safer for people to ride their bikes."

Marabian said the city's transportation network had to take into account the needs of motorists, and that improvements had to be a "multi-modal."

"It's about the car, it's about the cyclists, it's about the pedestrian, it's about transit," she said. "We are constantly balancing improvements for all the modes."