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The debate over bike lanes and what it means for climate action in San Diego

 February 25, 2022 at 12:00 PM PST

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This week on roundtable , it's all about how we get around and what that means for fighting climate change to a fierce debate over bike lanes , to investments in traffic safety and whether or not we can realistically achieve our goals.
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We're diving into it with those covering San Diego's climate story.
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I'm Matt Huffman and this is KPBS Roundtable.
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As we respond , my administration is using every tool at our disposal to protect American businesses and consumers from rising prices at the pump.
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As I said last week , defending freedom will have cost for us as well.
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And here at home , we need to be honest about that.
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But as we do this , I'm going to take robust action to make sure the pain of our sanctions is targeted at the Russian economy , not ours.
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That's President Joe Biden warning of a potential consequence of the war in Ukraine.
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If you caught yourself doomscrolling this week , you're not alone.
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Just as it seems like we finally made progress on the pandemic , another major issue is on our doorstep.
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While we look at the images coming out of Ukraine , the impact 6000 miles away in San Diego could be seen in the rising prices at the gas station or on our energy bills arriving in our mailboxes.
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So what can we do about it ? Changing our habits isn't easy.
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And even our best actions might not be enough.
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We'll get into that a little bit later.
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But first , the push back to doing even the bare minimum.
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If people are going to take fewer car trips , they need a safe and inviting alternative.
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Protected bike lanes are a part of that solution , but once again , there are complaints about the city's investment and its impact on neighborhoods.
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Emily Alvarenga found that out when her story this week for the San Diego Union Tribune drew response from all sides.
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Welcome to roundtable , Emily.
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Thank you.
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Your story is about the new bike way in North Park.
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It's along 30th Street.
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The UT , KPBS and a lot of other outlets have covered its rollout.
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What do you make of the response ? I mean , like , what sort of feedback are you getting and does any of it surprise you ? Honestly , the feedback has been just as the response to the bike lanes it's been , it's been mixed and there's people on both sides of this.
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And there have been since the plan was first proposed a few years ago.
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Now there's businesses in opposition , there's businesses who love it.
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There's also residents who love it or hate it.
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A lot of detractors of these bike lanes say that fewer parking spaces means less visits and less money being spent at the local businesses.
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Is there any data to support that theory ? Yeah.
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One of the businesses went back and tracks the data and says that they have lost 50 percent of the revenue since the bike lanes were installed.
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And how do they trade that back to bikes ? They have not.
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Unfortunately , there's no way to tell for sure that that was directly related to the bikes.
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It just this time this year versus last year.
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Obviously , there's a lot of factors that go into that into play.
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At the other end of the spectrum , there was commentary on Twitter from bike advocates here.
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What are they saying about the criticisms of this project ? They are saying that , you know , it has overall improved conditions for them.
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They have said that it makes it more bike friendly and safer for them , but they know that the parking situation has been a problem and and are saying that the benefits outweigh the costs.
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And do we know if those bike lanes in North Park , do we know if they're actually getting use ? I remember seeing something about the city putting out like some sort of trackers , whether it be for bikes or scooters.
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Yeah , they have put in a bike counter , which is at the corner of University Avenue and 30th Street.
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It counts.
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I believe it counts every person that goes through it.
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So not every bike that every person.
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So if there's a few tandem bike then comes to a city has said that about 100 or 200 people go buy per day.
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And since the bike lane counters were installed about a month ago , over 8000 have gone by.
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But that data is available on the city's website , and it's linked to in my story as well.
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One of the complaints from those who are opposed to this type of project is that there's just not enough people using it to justify the disruption.
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Is it a bit more of a chicken and the egg debate here ? I mean , does the city need to create these more inviting spaces , you know , before people sort of feel comfortable using them ? Or do you think that they want to see demand coming first ? You know , definitely I can go both ways.
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There's a big push in the city's climate initiative to , you know , figure out ways to enhance public transit or even just ways for people to bike or walk more.
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So in the long run , they hope that will pay off , but I don't necessarily think they need to see the demand first.
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They want to try and initiate the want for it.
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Emily Alvarenga is a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune , and she's our guest on roundtable.
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And I'm curious , do you think that any of this pushback reveals , you know , some of the limits that people have in terms of changing their own personal routines ? You know , in order to like , sort of collectively deal with the climate issue , I really don't think so.
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More of the feedback that I've heard so far is that it more so reveals an infrastructure issue that was already in place.
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The people who are biking were already biking , people who are using it now.
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They like it , but it just more so the infrastructure.
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That's the problem.
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And so we're hearing a big no hear from some businesses in the bikers obviously like this.
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But what about just general people in the community ? Did you have a chance to hear from any of them on sort of where they stand with this ? Yeah , there was a few residents who kind of I spoke to and they're on both sides as well.
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There's residents who say that there's less parking and that it's been difficult for them , even in their own community.
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But there's also residents who love it and are cycling more than they used to considering the response here.
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Do you plan to follow up on this topic in North Park or are there any other , you know , bike lane projects that are going on that you think at ? Tracked the same amount of attention.
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I think that this will be just the first one of many , I know that the city is planning on installing more bike lanes , but I'm definitely I'll be doing follow ups in this community , as there was also a lot of solutions that were brought up until see if there are any of those that get taken.
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And just generally , why do you think that when it comes to biking and scooter and bike lanes , why is it such a hot topic ? You know , I think that it is a hot topic because of the climate initiatives that the city is pushing that everyone is talking about.
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Biking is a very good way to get around , but you have got to be able to do so safely.
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And we know that you're relatively new to the Union-Tribune and this new beat.
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What are your goals for covering San Diego's communities and any stories in mind that you like really want to tell ? Yeah , my goals are really to just give a voice to the community and issues like this one.
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There really is no boundaries , whether it's , you know , a community member or , you know , a business who has a problem or even just a unique story to tell.
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That's really my goal.
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Well , we know that this topic isn't going anywhere any time soon.
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Emily Alvarenga is a community reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune.
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And Emily , thanks so much for your time today.
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Thank you for having me.
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Let's turn to one of our own reporters at KPBS , who has covered cycling local climate politics and traffic safety extensively.
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We're talking about Metro reporter Andrew Bohn and Andrew.
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Welcome back to roundtable.
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Hey , Matt , thanks.
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So that story by the Union Tribune , it got a lot of local traction in cycling circles this week.
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What do you make of the response ? Well , ultimately what I think this story in the U.S. found was that a lot of people are still really unhappy with the 30th street bike lanes , even now that they're a done deal.
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And there is a persistent unwillingness or for some people , maybe an inability to just move on and figure out ways to adapt to this new reality.
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And cyclists are frustrated with that.
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They've been fighting for years for these kinds of improvements to safety in San Diego.
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Bike lanes where you know , parents can ride with their kids and not feel like their their lives are at risk.
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And it's not an overstatement to say that this kind of infrastructure can literally save lives.
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Also , legally speaking , this debate is settled.
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So in 2015 , when the mayor and the City Council stood together unanimously and declared that they would triple cycling in the city , that , you know , people in San Diego saw that as as a promise that things were going to get better.
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There was also that same year in 2015 , a pledge to or setting a goal to end all traffic deaths and serious injuries.
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That was , it's called Vision Zero.
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So cyclists in San Diego saw these promises made by city leaders , and in the following years they saw , you know , that they just weren't kept.
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And it's frustrating for them , I think , to see this never ending debate over issues that they thought or at least hoped had been settled.
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And just to kind of , you know , bring this home.
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Seventy two people died in traffic collisions last year.
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That's a 22 percent increase in 2015.
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So , you know , if the city is serious about meeting the goals that it set for itself , it's going to have to figure out ways to get people on board with these types of projects.
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The North Park Bike Way was a project that started under previous San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer , and it's clear that our community has shifted more resources into these projects , which prioritize alternative transit.
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Andrew , do you think we can expect more of these ? Yes , there are some pretty big projects underway right now , actually.
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Friday morning was the ribbon cutting for the fourth and Fifth Avenue bike lanes that connect Hillcrest through Bankers Hill to downtown.
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They're similar in design to what you see on 30th Street in North Park , where there's a physical barrier protecting cyclists from traffic.
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But they're actually even better because the barrier is that is concrete.
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Instead of these flimsy plastic poles that you see on 30th SANDAG , the regional transportation agency also just started construction on the Pershing Bike Way through Balboa Park that will offer a two way separated bike path.
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And this , by the way , is the same street where two people were killed last year a cyclist and a scooter rider.
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Their names were Laura Shin and Johnny Sepulveda.
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And , you know , in addition to those regional bike projects , Mayor Todd Gloria has also talked a pretty big game on improving bike infrastructure.
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He got money in the current fiscal year budget for a team of staff that will supposedly be able to go out and install protected bike lanes right away.
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And to just to be clear , these types of bike lanes that we see on 30th Street with mostly just paint and plastic poles in the ground can be finished in literally days , and they cost the equivalent of pennies to the city.
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And the mayor has the absolute legal authority to do this today.
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So there you know , a lot of expectations , and Gloria made a lot of promises on the campaign trail and also since taking office.
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But , you know , I think if I were to think politically about this , he's probably looking at the quotes in that Union Tribune story.
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He's reading emails from angry constituents who are.
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Complaining about parking and traffic and maybe asking himself , you know , how much political capital does he need to spend on fulfilling these campaign promises and is it worth it to him at this moment in time ? We asked Emily Alvarenga this question Do you think that some of this pushback reveals maybe some of the limits that people have in terms of changing their own personal routines to collectively deal with the climate issue ? I think if you were to pull all of the bike lane opponents and ask them if they're concerned about climate change and want the government to take action on it , most of them would probably say yes to that sort of abstract question.
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Everyone likes to think of themselves as as sustainable and pro-environment.
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But when those things involve sacrifice , when they involve big changes to the neighborhood , when they involve big changes to the city that you grew up in and feel , you know , some sense of ownership over.
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That's a tough sell for some people.
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And so.
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And in addition to that , there may be some types of businesses in North Park that will have to change significantly to adapt to this new reality.
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Figure out ways to attract the new cyclists who were using these bike lanes instead of the typical customers who would be driving normally.
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But you know , the changes to the business environment and North Park has been happening for a long time with or without these bike lanes.
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We've already seen some legacy stores in North Park , where I used to live shut down because of the pandemic and because of some of the other changes that the neighborhood has been going through over the last couple of years.
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But you know , to the question , do people have their limits with climate action ? I think this story and and what you hear from some folks in that neighborhood is absolutely and they're willing to say yes , yes , let's lower greenhouse gas emissions , but don't ask me to drive , you know , don't ask me to walk a couple of blocks after parking to get to my destination.
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Don't ask me to make a different choice about how I get around because that's not something that they see themselves as even capable of at this point.
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And earlier this week , you spoke with KPBS Midday Edition about your feature report.
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It was about what's being done to improve safety for cyclists.
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Some people might remember the city's Vision Zero campaign here.
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What sort of feedback have you received on what's being improved or maybe not being improved ? Yeah.
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Well , like I said , there were more traffic deaths last year than there were in the year that the city adopted its goal of ending traffic deaths.
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So this problem is getting worse , and there's definitely a sense of frustration that improvements have not been fast enough and that every you know you got to fight like tooth and nail for for every inch of bike lane that you get in San Diego.
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The story that I did this week took more of a focus on the criminal justice system and how it deals with drivers who are in a serious injury or fatal collision , whether they are at fault or not , and and how many of them kind of get off without much scrutiny from law enforcement and many who are at fault end up facing pretty minimal consequences.
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The feedback that I've gotten is is been so far very positive.
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This is a story that could use a lot more reporting from journalists , and there are lots of stories out there just waiting to be told.
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And I'm curious , you mentioned that traffic deaths are going up.
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So when we're talking about the city's Vision Zero campaign , our city leaders indicating to you that they think that they can actually achieve this goal , or is it more of just a good tagline ? Well , you know , it was always meant to be the type of goal where , yes , it's it's aspirational and it's a moonshot goal.
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But if we set that goal and we're really serious about it , you know , it's just going to require us to completely throw out the book and change the way that we do things.
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That action hasn't happened , and I don't see the City of San Diego meeting its Vision zero goal by 2025 , which is just three years away.
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And I think there will be a lot of soul searching to do at that point when that sort of symbolic deadline has arrived.
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And San Diego is , you know , wherever it is.
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What were the missed opportunities along the way and what can San Diego do going forward to , if not completely eliminate traffic deaths in the city , at least make them much , much less common ? Because , as I've said a couple of times already , this problem does appear to be getting a lot worse , not better.
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You can stream Andrew Bowen's story on our KPBS YouTube page , and you can catch his earlier segment from the KPBS midday Edition podcast.
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Andrew , thanks so much for your time.
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My pleasure , Matt.
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Andrew just brought up the notion of aspirational deadlines as a tool for addressing these interconnected issues for San Diego County , the year 2035.
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It's an important one.
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That's when we're supposed to reach net zero carbon emissions.
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In her latest piece for Voice of San Diego Environment reporter Mackenzie Elmer , talk with those tracking our progress.
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And spoiler alert , it's not a great outlook.
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Welcome to Roundtable , McKenzie.
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Hi , thanks for having me again.
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Great to have you back.
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We might hear the term net zero a lot in this segment.
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Can you define what that means for us ? Sure.
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It took me a while to figure it out , honestly , because it sounds simple , but it can get rather complex if you refer to like the United Nations definition of net zero.
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Net zero was when the greenhouse gases humans create equal their balance , how much nature can absorb.
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And it's why policymakers and scientists often refer to this problem in terms of a carbon budget.
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We have to balance the budget , so to speak.
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So humans are kind of spend , spend , spend , meaning we burn fossil fuels way more than nature can handle.
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And nature's kind of in the background working to save our butts by storing carbon in the bank through sort of a long term savings accounts like forests and wetlands that suck carbon out of the air and store it in the ground or in trees for a very long time.
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But what net zero really requires is humans actually increasing nature's capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere by restoring natural habitat or developing technologies to actually suck carbon out of the atmosphere , which is called direct air capture.
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But that's a technology that's way far off from being developed to the point where we need it to be.
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And as a story points out , there's far more humans creating emissions than nature can absorb.
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And so that's really the crux of this climate change crisis.
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And one of the underlying reasons that we're getting this progress report is sort of the change in political leadership at the county.
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How did climate policy , you know , become like a bigger priority with that recent shift ? So Democrats took control the Board of Supervisors recently , and now they have a three two majority and can pass more progressive climate goals much easier.
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And so the kind of jumped on the bandwagon with President Biden passing net zero goals.
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A lot of different liberal , progressive led political bodies are passing these kinds of goals these days.
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You write that the board hired scientists to analyze what it would take to reach net zero and what did they come back with ? So , yeah , the board hired some scientists and some economists from the region from University of San Diego and you and University of California , San Diego , and they came back with a 600 page report called the Regional Decarbonization Framework , and it basically addresses and looks at all the greenhouse gases that different sectors of our local economy create from transportation to energy , and also takes a look at the natural environment as well.
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And another big piece that they looked at was that the climate action plans that various cities have proposed all throughout San Diego and some of them have passed and some of them are in the middle of updating them.
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And one big takeaway from that was even if we completed all of the things in those climate action plans that are laid out today , we still wouldn't get to our goal of net zero by 2035.
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So even if we're doing everything right , scientists are saying that it's unlikely that we're going to reach net zero by 2035.
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If you can sort of paint a picture for us here.
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You know , aside from driving electric cars , what would an ideal situation look like ? One important thing to point out about this study is it says that it's unlikely we'll reach net zero with the plans in place now.
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That's a very important distinction.
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So , for instance , the City of San Diego proposed an update to its Climate Action Plan that sets a net zero goal , which is much more ambitious in terms of the amount of emissions that aim to cut under their current plan.
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And the current plan is the one that the the scientists took a look at.
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So they haven't accounted for the other types of emissions that , for instance , the City of San Diego plans to eliminate.
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So we may we may reach net zero.
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It's just that , as on its face right now , with all the plans and policies in place , it does go perfectly to plan.
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Scientists predict that we're only going to have reduced our emissions by about half.
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So that's really what this study really shows is the magnitude of effort needed to actually keep our climate promises an ideal situation for us to actually reach net zero , according to the researchers.
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I mean , we need some sort of massive societal changes.
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Not only would everyone need to basically drive an electric car and all trucking should become electric as well.
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We would also need to reduce the need for travel in the first place , and we also need to protect all the habitat that we have currently that stores carbon and then also expand that to the greatest extent that we that we can.
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And the researchers also say , you know , all power should essentially be transitioned to 100 percent renewable electricity , which is going to take , you know , perhaps large utility scale solar being built.
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Other types of renewables being developed.
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It's basically kind of an all hands on deck development of all the types of resources that we can make to.
00:20:00.810 --> 00:20:12.390
Get rid of the fossil fuels in our economy , and then not only that , but basically every nation could probably say this , that we need to develop this technology that can actually take carbon out of the atmosphere.
00:20:12.600 --> 00:20:15.110
Call that direct air capture that I mentioned earlier.
00:20:15.120 --> 00:20:22.510
And when you talk to a lot of policy makers , they're all kind of really hoping and banking on those technologies being there in the future.
00:20:22.530 --> 00:20:25.950
But we really don't know if that's going to be there in time.
00:20:26.220 --> 00:20:33.570
It's a sobering result , but it's imperative that policymakers are actually looking themselves in the mirror on this issue , which is what I think this study actually does.
00:20:33.900 --> 00:20:39.120
And do we know what the biggest contributor to emissions is locally ? Do we know if it's still vehicles ? Oh yeah.
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Vehicles driving our cars , our trucks , our fossil fuel powered ones account for forty seven percent of the region's emissions , according to the study.
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So that's really the biggest portion of emissions we have to reduce , and that's something that local policymakers don't really have a whole lot of control of.
00:20:55.320 --> 00:21:00.600
They can expand bus systems , they can offer options to citizens , but it really comes down to individual choices.
00:21:01.050 --> 00:21:05.460
I'm speaking with voice of San Diego Environment reporter Mackenzie Elmer and Mackenzie.
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People might be listening to this conversation we're having and get a little discouraged here , which could be an important thing to consider since a lot of these changes , you know , they rely on our individual behaviors.
00:21:15.510 --> 00:21:30.750
I'm curious , what's the message to those who feel like this is a challenge that isn't going to be able to be met ? Yeah , I was actually surprised at the amount of sort of despair these stories generated from readers comments on the story and on Twitter about Oh , we'll never get to net zero.
00:21:31.050 --> 00:21:32.330
Like this story ? Points that out.
00:21:32.340 --> 00:21:36.700
So what's the point ? My take away is actually the exact opposite , but maybe I'm an optimist.
00:21:36.720 --> 00:21:45.960
I mean , I look at the study and I see the region doing science based work so we can actually pinpoint what sectors of the economy we need to work the most on when it comes to climate change.
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It's kind of the first step in holding ourselves accountable and especially those we elect to make these policies whose ultimate responsibility it is to help us save the planet as we know it.
00:21:57.150 --> 00:22:05.010
Governments can come up with all these detailed plans , but they can't force people to change their own behaviors , and that was part of the response from El Cajon city manager.
00:22:05.020 --> 00:22:06.210
He's part of your story.
00:22:06.480 --> 00:22:13.440
Do you think that that's the root challenge in all this , you know , getting people to buy in and actually change their daily routines ? Yeah , it's like anything.
00:22:13.950 --> 00:22:16.980
Human behavior takes time to change and not everyone will follow.
00:22:17.340 --> 00:22:20.630
We have to tackle climate problem at both the big and the small.
00:22:20.640 --> 00:22:29.070
And so to challenge entire governments , corporations and economic powerhouses to trigger societal changes like the recent electric vehicle craze is one example.
00:22:29.520 --> 00:22:43.800
And then we have to make caring for the planet convenient enough that regular people will maybe take the bus once in a while or maybe shop at a thrift store , sometimes that of buying new and just sort of make those little changes that ultimately calculate up to a big drop in greenhouse gas emissions.
00:22:44.310 --> 00:22:50.760
The big story this week is Russia's invasion of Ukraine , and a side effect of this is a renewed focus on the price of energy.
00:22:50.970 --> 00:22:56.310
Here's President Joe Biden from Thursday , pleading with gas companies not to take advantage of the situation.
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Gas prices are at record highs locally , Mackenzie and the violence is expected to push those prices even higher.
00:23:02.880 --> 00:23:10.380
Do you think this serves as an example of why there's a push to reduce dependence on fossil fuels beyond just the environmental benefits ? Yeah , we could.
00:23:10.410 --> 00:23:20.700
We could talk hours about geopolitics and fossil fuels , but I'd much rather join you on the opposite end of the table interviewing an expert than pretending I am on this particular topic.
00:23:20.700 --> 00:23:34.020
But generally speaking , you know , history has shown that it's better if people have choices , and that's why nations seek to diversify their energy resources , or at least one reason so diversifying not only where we buy it from , but the kind of energy we buy.
00:23:34.050 --> 00:23:40.770
And so that way we're not left in the dust off our main gas pipeline bursts or is shut off due to geopolitical tensions.
00:23:41.220 --> 00:23:45.390
And the other thing is , you know , oil and gas fields aren't in every nation.
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They're not located all over the planet , but the sun shine and the wind blows and the water flows and most of these areas of the world.
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So that's certainly a reason to add renewables and diversify your energy resources that way.
00:23:58.680 --> 00:24:02.310
Mackenzie Elmore covers the environment for Voice of San Diego and Mackenzie.
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Thanks so much for joining us on roundtable.
00:24:04.380 --> 00:24:04.800
Thank you.
00:24:04.800 --> 00:24:05.310
It's a pleasure.
00:24:17.360 --> 00:24:23.840
The reality of the situation is that most of us still rely on our cars to get around , and most of the time they're powered by gas.
00:24:24.170 --> 00:24:31.430
CFPB's is staying on top of these record gas prices , with several reports this week , including this one from Kitty Alvarado.
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No matter where you go in San Diego County , gas prices continue to hover at around $5 a gallon.
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AAA says gas prices are up four cents a gallon just from last week and a dollar 12 more than last year.
00:24:44.390 --> 00:24:51.440
It's a struggle for people like Sean Pratt , who does in-home support services for clients who live on opposite sides of the county.
00:24:51.530 --> 00:25:06.830
How do we afford gas if it's that high and afford California's rent and water and gas ? Electricity and food supervisor Jim Desmond says he's getting about 10 to 15 calls every day from people wondering the same thing.
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And so people are very concerned.
00:25:08.300 --> 00:25:12.530
And so I sent a letter to the governor saying , Hey , there's a surplus.
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It's the surplus of state taxpayers.
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It's their money.
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And so how can we put this to good use ? Gov. Gavin Newsom's office says his proposed budget does include a postponement of a planned gas tax increase until next year.
00:25:26.630 --> 00:25:42.560
Kitty Alvarado KPBS News Thank you for tuning into this week's edition of KPBS Roundtable , and I'd like to thank my guests Emily Alvarenga from the San Diego Union Tribune , Andrew Bohn from KPBS News and Mackenzie Elmer from Voice of San Diego.
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If you missed any part of our show , you can listen anytime on the KPBS Roundtable podcast.
00:25:48.380 --> 00:25:49.310
I'm Matt Hoffman.
00:25:49.340 --> 00:25:51.530
Join us next week on Roundtable.

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City of San Diego road crew paints a diagonal path on Montezuma Road to help bikes cross a fast-moving turn lane near the corner of Collwood.
Neiko Will
City of San Diego road crew paints a diagonal path on Montezuma Road to help bikes cross a fast-moving turn lane near the corner of Collwood.
A status check on the major bike lane project in North Park, how it fits into the region's larger climate strategy and why scientists say we're falling short of reaching net-zero emissions by 2035.

KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman hosts a discussion on climate and transportation stories in the news this week. The San Diego Union-Tribune community reporter Emily Alvarenga updates us on the use and reaction to a new protected bike lane in North Park. KPBS metro reporter Andrew Bowen adds more detail to the region's bike infrastructure plans. And, Voice of San Diego environment reporter MacKenzie Elmer explains why scientists believe San Diego is unlikely to reach its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2035.