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For Those Touched By Traffic Deaths, Bike Safety Delays Are Especially Painful
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Photo by Andrew Bowen
Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News
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."
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."
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.
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.
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."
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