Balboa Park street project tests San Diego's commitment to biking, transit goals
The central theme to Todd Gloria's campaign for mayor was that San Diego is a big city that too often acts like a small town. And big cities, he reasoned, have better options for people to get around without cars, which are the city's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
"I'm the guy who wrote the Climate Action Plan," Gloria said at a debate in August 2019. "Now I'm running … to be the guy who implements the Climate Action Plan."
In his first year as mayor, Gloria announced a new and more ambitious climate plan that aims for 50% of all trips in the city to be made by walking, biking or public transit.
But just how far Gloria is willing to go to achieve that goal is being put to the test with an upcoming transportation project on Park Boulevard in Balboa Park, where the city is preparing to replace an underground water main. After the street is repaved, officials want to redesign it.
A presentation to the Balboa Park Committee on May 5 laid out the options. The one that offers the biggest improvement to bike and transit riders would remove on-street parking and a travel lane for cars to make space for a protected bike lane and a bus-only lane.
"Increased safety for all road users is one of our primary goals," said Everett Hauser, a program manager in the city's Transportation Department. "This area is right smack in the urban core and serves a lot of people. It's some of the highest-used bus routes in the city. So, increasing that efficiency just makes transit a more attractive option for people to get around."
Bus-only lanes are few and far between in San Diego, though they're widely regarded as one of the easiest and cheapest ways to improve public transit because they allow buses to bypass congestion. Similarly, data show protected bike lanes are safer for cyclists and more effective at attracting new riders — especially women, seniors, children and people with disabilities — compared to bike lanes made with paint but no physical barriers.
Park Boulevard features bike lanes both north and south of Balboa Park. But on the roughly 1.4-mile stretch that goes through the park itself, cyclists must share a lane with cars.
Madison Coleman, policy advocate for the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign, said Gloria's administration has not shown a clear roadmap for how it will achieve its sustainable transportation goals.
"It's really, really important for (the mayor) to stand up and be the model for the region to create really safe and efficient transportation opportunities for people to feel like they can not rely on their cars as much as they probably do right now," Coleman said.
Resistance from inside the park
But as with several other bike and transit projects in San Diego, the redesign of Park Boulevard faces resistance. The Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, which represents the park's museums and attractions, argues that removing parking would make the park less accessible — especially for people traveling long distances who cannot bike or take the bus.
"Some 90% of people coming to the park, or over that on most days, would be coming in vehicles," said Peter Comiskey, the group's executive director. "And they're often coming in groups, very often families. Those families aren't able to use rideshare. Those are not solutions for them."
The park's central mesa currently offers 7,468 parking spaces, 335 of which are on Park Boulevard. Removing that street parking would represent a roughly 4% reduction in the area's parking supply, city officials say.
The city is studying design options that would preserve street parking at the expense of bike and transit riders. But Comiskey said he doesn't like those options either, and that the city should complete a mobility and parking management study first.
"Historically a lot of the solutions that are forced into the park are done … in a very piecemeal and reactive way, instead of having a really solid strategic approach," Comiskey said.
Meanwhile the city's own measurements indicate it is behind on shifting commutes away from cars. Modeling also suggests the county's regional transportation plan is woefully inadequate at achieving the city's climate goals.
Before his election, Gloria acknowledged he would have to do a lot more than his predecessor to improve car-free transportation in the city.
"When we have these fights about bike lanes and pedestrian improvements, this is often about a can of paint and the ability to just move forward with leadership," Gloria said at the debate in 2019. "We're going to start supporting public transit and active transportation because it's critical to the future of our quality of life."
Whichever design Gloria selects for Park Boulevard, the street is scheduled to be restriped by December.