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For Those Touched By Traffic Deaths, Bike Safety Delays Are Especially Painful

Andrew Bowen
Mary Elliott stands next to the spot in Talmadge where her husband, Bill, was fatally injured on his bike, Oct. 4, 2018.
For Those Touched By Traffic Deaths, Bike Safety Delays Are Especially Painful
For Those Touched By Traffic Deaths, Bike Safety Delays Are Especially Painful GUEST: Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News

I'm Jane Hindman. It's been five years since transportation officials approved a plan to build a network of bike lanes across San Diego County. Bike advocates were thrilled but many of the projects have faced long delays as metro reporter Andrew Bowen takes a closer look at one bike project that some say could make the difference between life and death. Every time that I ride past the section on my way home. That's where I hear the ambulance in my head. Mary Elliott is a resident of Talmage. We meet near the corner of 44th Street and Monroe Avenue in March 2017. She was biking home from dinner with her husband Bill. A woman parked too far from the curb opens her door without looking back. Then she caught the front of his bike tire and with such force that it and the where she caught him she flung him in so he landed on the. Metal manhole cover and had. Severe. Brain injury had multiple skull fractures. He had a broken pelvis and was 70 years old. Sam. Elliot's husband was on life support for four months. He died one week after their 25th wedding anniversary. Bill Elliott left behind a daughter two step kids and seven grandchildren. The San Diego Association of Governments has plans to improve bike safety and Talmage with the Monroe Bikeway. The project would add traffic calming and street markings alerting motorists to watch out for bikes sandbag presented its latest design to the Kensington Talmage Community Planning Group this summer. But residents objected over impacts to traffic flow and parking. David Mody is the planning group's vice chair. There's a lot of traffic. It's a narrow road that's a narrow 1920s road. That the city has turned into an arterial without actually improving the road. So it's very difficult to squeeze all the uses into the road. The bikeway design includes a roundabout at Monroe and Euclid where we meet Modi traffic was pretty light this morning but he says that's unusual. The roundabout he says will make traffic worse for residents so that gives preference to the cut through traffic and it leaves that very very difficult for people who live in the neighborhood to get into the intersection and actually go to work. People don't want to give up their cars. Yet they complain about traffic. Elliott says if San Diego has any hope of meeting its goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and end all traffic deaths it has to start putting the safety of bicyclists over the speed and convenience of driving. It's pretty frustrating for me because I think that if you're in a car. You are traffic and you don't get to complain about traffic right. Amen at the very least support people who want to use alternative transportation. So I want to cycle to work. I don't want to take up a parking space. I don't want to add to the traffic. So support me on that right. Maybe give up a parking spot or at least allow for bike lane. That gives some visibility for cyclist. After five years of planning engineering and redesigns the Monroe bikeway is in limbo this summer. City Councilwoman Georgette Gomez asked city engineers to analyze more traffic mitigation. She says she doesn't know when that analysis will be complete. Elliott says watching this and other bike projects drag on while the streets remain dangerous to cyclists is painful. Why is it that someone like my husband who I was married to for 25 years who loved to stepchildren loved his children. Why was he collateral damage while these very slow processes move forward and take decades and decades to get done. Being in that extreme extremely painful. Devastating situation is you know that's when those thoughts. Surface and it's extremely frustrating painful. Ever since her husband's death Elliott has found it hard to get back on a bike. She's not afraid. She's just sad seeing the Monroe bikeway get done she says. We'll be healing that. I think you know would lift my spirits enough. I would love to ride on opening day way and get this project move forward I would love to be there on my bike have my son there and that would be more of a celebration of life. Than a sad moment. For now Elliott will have to keep on waiting. Earlier sandbag had planned on having the project open next year. Its latest estimate has pushed that back to 2021 but with the most recent delays even that timeline is uncertain. Joining me now is PBS metro reporter Andrew Boe and Andrew thanks for joining us. Thanks for having me. In your piece Mary Elliott asks why it is that someone like her has been had to be collateral damage while these processes to get safer bike lanes move so slowly taking years to get done. Why does it take so long. I think the main reason is community opposition so the city has pretty limited right of way lands that they can control you know and designed for the movement of people. And when you have that small space the vast majority of which is currently dedicated to cars in the form of travel lanes and on street parking adding space for bikes sometimes often requires a bit of give and take. So in many cases beefing up bike safety means sacrificing parking or a lane for vehicles. And that's where many residents draw the line they might not oppose bike lanes in general but if that bike lane means adding a few extra minutes to their commutes or having to park their car a block or two away from their destination they often oppose it. Another reason is that many of those street design elements in these bike projects are not familiar to the City traffic engineers that are involved with approving these projects and so they might exist in other parts of the country but not here. So it takes them a bit more time to review. So some of the delays don't even have anything to do with sandbag the transportation agency itself but more have to do with the staffers at the cities where these projects have been proposed. So how does the Monroe bikeway fit into sandbags larger bike lane network. So the Monroe bikeway is part of the larger Northpark mid city bikeways network and that's an effort to create a safer and lower stress environment for cycling and the city's more densely populated urban core. So there's the Monroe bikeway which is an important East-West thoroughfare connects to other bike lanes that lead up to you where we are right now. The Georgia meid bikeway and Howard orange bikeway are two other sort of important East-West corridors. There is that Pershing Drive bike bikeway which would connect north park to downtown. It's also an important sort of to population centers. There are the uptown bikeways connecting downtown with bankers Hill and Hillcrest. That's a really a big network and this Monroe bikeway isn't the only bike project in San Diego that's facing some delays. What are some other projects with uncertain timelines. So virtually every project that I just mentioned has been delayed by by multiple years so let's take the uptown bikeways for example. These are two protected bike lanes that would be on Fourth and Fifth Avenues again connecting Hillcrest with downtown and protected bike lanes are really the gold standard. They've been shown in other cities to be the most effective at attracting new riders. So two years ago Sandweg thought that the construction would be wrapped up by this year but it hasn't even started yet and the current budget that sandbag has approved has the construction starting next April and then opening to the public two years from now. There's also a downtown Mobility Plan which is not sandbag project that's with the city of San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer had originally pledged to build this big network of protected bike lanes throughout downtown. By next summer. But that has also been delayed and now the best hope is that we'll have a small fraction of that network open next year. But there's no timeline for the full network. So then what do bike advocates say about all these delays. So they're very understandably upset about all of these delays especially when they hear the city and sandbag talk about these broader goals of creating safer streets eliminating traffic deaths reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I feel like I should have it tattooed on my forehead that cars and trucks are the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in San Diego. So there is no local climate action without encouraging more people to give up their cars. So then what has to happen in order for them Monroe bikeway to actually move forward. So the next step to proceed to construction on the project is that sanding has to get environmental clearance. This is just a legal requirement. So they have to hold a public meeting and then have the board of directors take a vote on it. But before that can take place and this is not a league or a crime it is just kind of tradition that there has to be a vote at the Community Planning Group the Kensington Talmage Community Planning Group and that was supposed to happen this summer. But as I mentioned in this story the city is now taking some extra time to analyze other mitigation for whatever traffic congestion might be made worse by this project. So the timeline is totally uncertain Sandbag has completely abandoned setting a deadline for itself altogether and on the board agenda this week the opening date is listed as to be determined in addition to bike lanes. What's standing in the way of paving a network of bicycle trails throughout the San Diego area like they have in other cities with far less sunshine and far less pristine weather. So to name a few of those cities Minneapolis Chicago New York Seattle Vancouver all cities not known for their sunny weather like San Diego but they have managed to increase bike mode share by creating these broader networks of safe bike lanes so the most important thing I think is to create a safer safer bike network. Advocates say that many more people are interested in biking but they don't do it because they don't feel safe on the roads. I think we would also need more robust support from elected officials in the city of San Diego and across the county and then overall I think we need a cultural shift to just as I said in the story place a greater value on the safety of bicyclists and on the benefits of that biking can bring to to society cleaner air there's less stress on the roads better community health and to just bring this story back to Mary Elliott. There are literally lives at stake here. Mary acknowledges that she'll never know if the Monroe bikeway would have made a difference in her husband's death. But what she does say needs to happen is that we need to see a sense of urgency in getting these projects done. And judging from the many delays that we've just talked about that sense of urgency simply doesn't exist right now. I've been speaking to PBS metro reporter Andrew Boe and Andrew thanks for joining us. Thanks Jade.

When Mary Elliott stands next to the spot where her husband was fatally injured on his bike last year, traumatic memories come flooding back.

"Every time that I ride past this section on my way home — it's very close to my house — I think, 'That's last place I saw you,'" Elliott says. "That's the last place I had a coherent conversation with you. That's where I hear the ambulance in my head."


Elliott and her husband, Bill, were biking to their home in Talmadge in March 2017 when a woman, parked too far from the curb, abruptly opened her car door without looking back. The door caught Bill's tire, throwing him from his bike onto a metal manhole cover.

Bill suffered severe brain injury and multiple fractures to his skull and pelvis. He died after four months on life support — and one week after he and Mary's 25th wedding anniversary — leaving behind his wife, a daughter, two stepchildren and seven grandchildren.

The collision took place on 44th Street about 200 feet from Monroe Avenue, where the San Diego Association of Governments is planning a $2.5 million upgrade to bike infrastructure. The project would add traffic calming features, curb extensions and a buffered bike lane for a short section of the street.

SANDAG presented its latest design for the Monroe Bikeway to the Kensington-Talmadge Planning Group last July, with the goal of completing the project's environmental clearance by this fall. But several residents and planning group members objected to some of the design features, fearing they would worsen traffic congestion in the neighborhood.

"It's a narrow 1920s road that the city has turned into an arterial without actually improving the road," David Moty, the planning group's vice chair, said of Monroe Avenue. "So it's very difficult to squeeze all of the uses into the road."


RELATED: Mayor Faulconer Nixes 2019 Deadline For Downtown Bike Network

One of the most contentious design features is a roundabout at the intersection with Euclid Avenue. Moty said drivers coming from the more densely populated City Heights neighborhood to Talmadge's south would have preference entering the roundabout, making it more difficult for Talmadge residents to leave the neighborhood by car in the morning rush hour.

Elliott said she often experiences the same traffic on Monroe Avenue, but that a few more minutes on her morning commute would be a small price to pay for safer streets.

"People don't want to give up their cars, yet they complain about traffic," she said. "At the very least support people who want to use alternative transportation. So I want to cycle to work. I don't want to take up a parking space. I don't want to add to the traffic. So support me in that, right? Maybe give up a parking spot, or at least allow for a bike lane that gives some visibility for cyclists."

Mary Elliott
Bill Elliott sits with two of his grandchildren in this undated photo.

The Kensington-Talmadge Planning Group ultimately postponed a vote to support or oppose on the Monroe Bikeway at the urging of City Councilwoman Georgette Gomez, who represents the neighborhood. Gomez said her office is waiting for city traffic engineers to analyze changes to the parallel El Cajon Boulevard in hopes that more vehicles would use that street instead of Monroe Avenue.

"I'm embracing this project, but I also get that the flow of vehicles is a concern," she said. "The city of San Diego needs to do a better job in improving the flow altogether."

Gomez said while she is committed to getting the Monroe Bikeway built, she had no estimate for when the city's additional analysis would be complete.

RELATED: After Public Shaming, SANDAG Has More Bike Project Delays

The stalled progress on the Monroe Bikeway is a common story for SANDAG bike projects. A presentation last month to the agency's Transportation Committee found SANDAG had spent roughly $94 million on its bike program, but that only 7.5 miles of new bikeways had opened to the public. Nearly every project in SANDAG's bicycle "early action program" has been delayed, often because of neighborhood concerns over traffic and parking impacts.

As recently as last year, SANDAG had the Monroe Bikeway opening in October 2019. Its most recent estimate has pushed that back to 2021. With the latest delays, even that timeline is far from certain.

Elliott acknowledges the improvements to Monroe Avenue may not have made any difference in her husband's death. But she said watching the seemingly endless delays to bike projects is frustrating and painful, especially considering San Diego's stated goals of ending all traffic deaths and shifting large numbers of commuters away from driving toward biking, walking and riding public transit.

"Why is it that someone like my husband, who I was married to for 25 years, who loved his stepchildren, loved his children — why was he collateral damage while these very slow processes move forward?" she said.

Ever since her husband's death, Elliott has found it difficult to get back on a bike — not because of fear, but sadness. She said seeing the Monroe Bikeway finally get done would be healing.

"I would love to ride on opening day if we can get this project moved forward," she said. "That would be more of a celebration of life than a sad moment."

For Those Touched By Traffic Deaths, Bike Safety Delays Are Especially Painful