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‘The sting of defeat’

By Ken Williams | Editor

Bicycling advocates optimistic despite setback over University Avenue project

Down but not out. That seems to describe bicycling advocates’ reactions after the region’s transportation panel voted against a compromise plan with broad community support that had been proposed to improve biking along University Avenue from Washington to Normal streets.

“As you can imagine, we as advocates in the bicycling community and more broadly, as supporters of safer streets and vibrant communities, were very disappointed with the June 5 vote by the SANDAG Transportation Committee to move forward with the constrained University Avenue segment of the Uptown Bikeways Project,” said Andy Kopp, Bike San Diego board president.

“As the main east/west alignment for the bike corridor, having robust, fully protected bicycle infrastructure on University Avenue is paramount to achieving truly safe cycling and increased ridership goals.”

At a standing room-only gathering at SANDAG offices Downtown, which spilled over into another meeting room where the discussion could be viewed on a monitor via an Internet feed, more than 70 people spoke in favor of the protected bicycle lanes for University Avenue through Mission Hills and Hillcrest. Many stressed safety issues, since this Uptown area is considered one of the most dangerous in San Diego for bicyclists and pedestrians because of the traffic congestion and narrow streets.

A handful of people supported doing nothing for bicylists, mostly business owners who said they were concerned about losing parking spaces, and possibly customers, as a result.

After three hours of public comments and deliberations by the Transportation Committee, member Ron Roberts (county supervisor) made a motion to approve a watered-down version of the project that was seconded by Chair Todd Gloria (city councilmember) and passed.

This graphic shows the five proposed routes of the Uptown Bikeways project with the goal of creating safe “low stress” streets. (Courtesy of SANDAG)

This graphic shows the five proposed routes of the Uptown Bikeways project with the goal of creating safe “low stress” streets. (Courtesy of SANDAG)

What was approved was essentially doing little on University Avenue from Washington to the State Route 163 overpass. SANDAG will paint sharrows (shared lane arrows) to indicate to drivers that bicyclists are entitled to share the lanes with motorists. The stretch from the SR 163 overpass to Normal Street — where University Avenue widens considerably — will be reconfigured to provide fully protected bicycling lanes.

Gloria told the audience that the eastern stretch with the fully protected bicycling lanes will become a model for the rest of the city. That did little to please some bicycling advocates but Andy Hanshaw, executive director of the San Diego County Bike Coalition (sdbikecoalition.org), saw room for hope.

“People will notice the impact. It’s unfortunate that it does not continue, but getting something done that will demonstrate effectiveness to improve safety and bicycle ridership and ease congestion will be welcome,” Hanshaw said.

Kopp was disappointed by the process.

“There was so much good work done over the course of more than two years to produce a design which would transform University Avenue in Hillcrest into a thoroughfare worthy of such a great neighborhood,” Kopp said.

“With the Transform Hillcrest alternative design, it seemed as though everyone was working in good faith to take in the concerns of businesses, community groups, and advocacy organizations, alike. In the end, we no longer feel that was the case. While publicly supporting the Transform Hillcrest design, the Hillcrest Business Association employed the lobbying services of California Strategies to pressure elected officials and key decision makers to strip the plan of the key infrastructure necessary to succeed as a robust cycling corridor,” he said.

“In the end, the community lost because it was outgunned by a group with deeper pockets and misplaced concerns, acting only in its narrow, perceived self-interest, instead of for the greater community,” Kopp said.

The day before the vote, Johnathan Hale, president of the Hillcrest Business Association, shared with the media a letter he sent to Gloria.

“HBA representatives recently met with SANDAG to discuss the revised scope, and we appreciate SANDAG’s commitment to improving the pedestrian experience along University Avenue while also providing additional bicycle infrastructure along Washington Street and University Avenue. Equally important, it is our understanding the revised scope will maintain eastbound vehicular access to University Avenue from Washington Street, and it will also minimize the parking loss along University Avenue throughout the Hillcrest business core,” Hale wrote in the letter.

Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of the HBA, was among the speakers at the meeting who advocated for the plan that was ultimately approved.

For Kopp, even the eastern stretch with protected bicycle lanes is a cause for concern.

“It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s possible that adding those few blocks of protected cycling lanes on University Avenue could actually be more dangerous. Cyclists exiting the lanes will have to re-establish themselves in auto lanes with drivers who weren’t expecting their presence,” he said.

“That merge is a hazard for cyclists and motorists, alike, and the confusion it creates could lead to the increased tensions of motorists who already don’t like to share the road. We’ve already heard from experienced cyclists who would just as soon remain in their position in the auto lanes, to say nothing for potential cyclists who will likely choose not to ride at all because of safety concerns. The only solution that will result in the increased mode share goals for cycling is to build fully protected, ubiquitous cycling lanes to separate auto and cycling traffic,” Kopp said.

Bicycling advocates said they will continue to push officials to make University Avenue safer for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“Yes, we are looking at options for that now. It’s a serious safety concern to have this gap along what is statistically the most dangerous corridor in the city for bicyclists and pedestrians. It must be addressed through the city or whatever means necessary to save lives and make our city bike-friendly,” Hanshaw said.

“Despite this setback, we’re very optimistic for the future, not only for the overall Uptown Bikeways, but for revisiting the constrained section of University Avenue, as well,” Kopp said.

“More and more studies, including one just released by UCSD [read it at tinyurl.com/ps5envw], keep reinforcing a simple and compelling truth: Adding safe, protected cycling lanes to a community improves business. One of our jobs as advocates is to make sure that studies like these can no longer be ignored and to let our elected officials know that we expect them to stand up and lead on the issue,” he said.

“Bike San Diego is continuing to advocate for revisiting this segment of the Uptown Bikeways Project, while also not losing sight of the bigger picture. There are many projects in the pipeline and the city simply cannot afford to see them weakened one by one. There are lots of competing interests surrounding every one of those projects, so we, as well as San Diego County Bicycle Coalition need folks to join us in this effort.

“With respect to the University Avenue segment specifically, our two organizations along with DecoBike, are hosting a new, weekly Share The Road ride on University Avenue to raise confidence and awareness for experienced and casual cyclists, alike, while riding in the full lane,” Kopp said. “But that’s not enough. We’re exploring every avenue possible to bring this segment back to the drawing board, to restore the public’s trust in a process gone awry, and for our elected officials to correct this mistake.”

Hanshaw said his group would not back down.

“The safety concerns will not go away unless they are addressed by more than just the bicycling community. It should be a dialogue that everyone participates in. We have to begin to implement the funded projects in the Regional Bike Plan and in order to do so, people need to be willing to think about more than parking and car access to their communities,” Hanshaw said. “Studies are clearly showing that bike lanes make for safer streets and increased business activity. Why wouldn’t we want this?”

Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and Mission Valley News and can be reached at ken@sdcnn.com or at 619-961-1952.

3 Comments

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