By KENDRA SITTON | Downtown & Uptown News
2020 brought many unforeseen changes and also highlighted pre-existing disparities in society. Just one of the industries affected by the pandemic and a renewed focus on racial inequalities was bicycling. The year of the pandemic brought new cyclists on the road from many diverse backgrounds and abilities.
Ridership went up over 40% from March to August 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, according to data from SANDAG.
John Cooper of City Heights, owner of a mobile bike repair shop called Stay True Cycleworks, said he went from trying to get his name out there as a new business that began in January 2020 to his phone ringing off the hook as soon as the pandemic started. Since then, business has not slowed down as many people dusted off bikes that had gone unused.
“A lot of people who weren’t cycling the last couple years found a new hobby. I know a couple people they don’t like running too much, but since the pandemic they started biking more and more and they’re very active. They found a new hobby for themselves,” Cooper said. “So, I think it’s changed for the better.”
“There’s definitely been a boom in cycling. People are looking for alternatives to stay mentally sane and busy outdoors,” said Julio Garcia, a volunteer with City Heights based co-op Bikes Del Pueblo.
Garcia taught 13 classes to new cyclists about safety and repairs with a social justice lens. Many of his students were youth in City Heights or South Bay.
“It gets them involved in looking at the way they move around their community in a different way. We teach them about transportation and why is it that sometimes in their communities there’s more car accidents or why their sidewalks are not maintained or they’re cracked, there’s potholes,” Garcia said.
Despite the increase in biking, injuries actually went down during the year. SANDAG noted a decrease in the number of injuries sustained by cyclists in 2020 in their August report. This was attributed to less vehicular traffic as well as safer infrastructure.
As San Diego continues with its regional plan to add protected bikeways with barriers like planters, parked cars and concrete, the road is becoming safer for more cyclists, so novices, the elderly and children can ride their bikes with less concern about being hit by a car. Still, the construction is slow to roll out and has faced opposition in many neighborhoods and business districts that want to preserve parking.
While construction on planned bikeways continued throughout the pandemic, the city also unveiled a temporary Shared Streets program that closed off some streets from cars so people biking and walking could use them while maintaining social distancing. However, the program received criticism for not going far enough in protecting pedestrians and cyclists: drivers could pull around the barriers and still use the protected roadway. In addition, many of the streets were only one block long so did not take up significant space for exercising.
“These were, in my opinion, a good idea but it didn’t go all the way. Cars would disregard the sign and drive through them and that was really disappointing because it made it like ‘Okay well, nothing’s gonna stop cars from making it a little bit unsafe for bicyclists [even when] the street is specifically for them,” said Alexandra (Alex) Flores, one of San Diego County Bicycle Coalition’s new board members.
She has pledged to use her platform on the board to make it safer for women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color). When Flores began cycling as an adult a few years ago, she initially would not bike alone because she was afraid of being in a hit-and-run collision. She did experience drivers yelling at her or throwing objects at her while riding. She now bikes almost everywhere but still wants safer bikeways for everyone.
“Making [biking] more accessible to the most vulnerable population or less experienced population would make it so much easier for people to see themselves riding their bike to work or to the grocery store. Some of the new the new bike lanes are going to be fully protected and I think that’s truly amazing because it really cuts the fear of being next to cars,” Flores said.
With advocacy from Garcia and Flores, the face of cycling is changing.
“A lot of the cycling that we see is more geared towards like white men and clip-in shoes,” Garcia said. “We’ve been excluded from that mainstream idea of cycling. I’m kind of breaking that.”
He was recently honored with the Educator of the Year Golden Gear Award through the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition for his role in teaching underserved communities.
“A lot of folks in the cycling community, they’re like ‘Don’t bring race and class into cycling. It’s just a sport.’ But race and class are linked to everything in our society,” Garcia said. “Biking is not just a sport. It’s a mode of transportation. There’s a lot of inequities that kind of show that in each community.”
Flores is hopeful that as biking becomes safer, more people can take part in it for transportation as well as recreation, which is good for meeting climate action goals.
“Hopefully in the future it will be safer for everyone to ride their bike,” Flores said.
— Reach Kendra Sitton at firstname.lastname@example.org.