Pandemic Brings More Biking And Fewer Crashes — But Can It Last?
One of the few positive things to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic has been a renaissance in cycling. Quieter streets with fewer cars, along with a desire to escape the isolation of working from home, have prompted many San Diegans to explore the city by bike.
Data released by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) this month show a 42% increase in bike trips throughout the county. The data compared trips from mid-March to mid-August in 2020 to the same period in 2019.
In addition, data provided to KPBS by the San Diego Police Department showed a roughly 19% drop in cyclist injuries from collisions over the same time period, going from 162 to 131.
Bike advocates are hoping the trend sticks post-pandemic, particularly with newer cyclists such as older adults and families with children who don't match the stereotype of urban cyclists.
Oscar Tavera, a board member of BikeSD, helped organize a small group bike ride this month along the recently created Black, Indigenous and People of Color History Ride. The self-guided tour, launched as part of San Diego Design Week, includes stops in Balboa Park, University Heights, North Park and City Heights.
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"This could be a simple thing that you could start doing on the weekend, and it's not a 20-mile commute but maybe just starting around your block in the neighborhood," Tavera said.
County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said he sees a window of opportunity right now, with the potential to make lasting cuts to traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.
Last week, Fletcher's office launched Pedal Ahead, a program to give away up to 400 electric bikes to county residents. Participants agree to ride an average of five miles per day over two years and to track their rides with an app. If they do this for two years, the electric bike is theirs.
Fletcher said e-bikes are especially promising in San Diego, which is spread out and has lots of hills.
"This program is a perfect complement to come at the right time to inject electric bikes in there, which are much easier to use (for) commuting than a traditional bicycle," Fletcher said. "So I think we really need to think about, as we come out of this, how do we maintain and expand the progress that we've seen in this area."
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Perhaps the biggest missing piece preventing many county residents from biking is safe infrastructure. That is slowly changing — last week SANDAG opened its eighth roundabout included in two bike projects that traverse North Park, Normal Heights and City Heights. The roundabouts are meant to slow down cars and increase the visibility of cyclists.
SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata said while the roundabouts are an improvement on the status quo, more has to be done.
"Eventually we have to get to a place where we figure out how to separate bikes from traffic," Ikhrata said. "And I think our long term vision for (the) San Diego region will envision a bike network that will provide San Diegans the ability to ride without having a fear of (being) hit by a car."
Ikhrata also acknowledged many of SANDAG's bike projects have been delayed, often because of opposition from residents who don't want to sacrifice any road space currently dedicated to cars.
"We need our communities to be willing to give up something they got used to," Ikhrata said.