In defense of protected bikeways
Hutton Marshall | The Spoken Word
Through a program with new Belgium brewing and its annual Tour de Fat, I donated my car and pledged to live car-free for a year in exchange for a commuter bicycle. I’m using the experience to take a look at the state of bicycling in San Diego, and how it fits into the city’s economy, culture and future growth.
New bike lanes are coming to San Diego — a lot of them. During the next four years, SANDAG, a countywide planning agency, will install a $200 million dollar network of bicycle lanes weaving throughout the bulk of San Diego’s urban districts.
This is a big deal due to the sheer quantity of work that will be done with this project. Over 77 miles of bike routes will be installed throughout the County over the next decade.
But that’s not all. San Diego already has bike lanes, but there aren’t many like what SANDAG plans to install. The agency will put in a bike lane not often seen in the city, but to understand why that’s significant, we first need to look at what already exists.
There a few different types of bike lanes seen around San Diego. The first, which can hardly be considered a bike “lane,” is the bike “sharrow” or bike route. I’ll get into the effectiveness — and the point — of these in a future column. “Sharrows” are routes marked by signage encouraging cars and cyclists to share the streets. In my humble opinion, sharrows are about as effective at protecting cyclists as praying to the Sun God for safe passage.
Another common sighting is what the city identifies as the “Class 2 Bike Lane.” This is the striped lane on the right side of traffic, usually between traffic and the curb. It’s probably what most people think of when they hear the term “bike lane,” and is the most prevalent type of bike route in San Diego. As of 2010, it made up more than 300 of the city’s 510-mile network of bike infrastructure.
SANDAG plans to install “protected bikeways” in the city, which are essentially bike lanes with a protected buffer between cyclists and traffic. They’re considered much safer and result in drastically higher usage, but installing them entails much more than simply restriping the street. That’s why the community input and planning process for this project has spanned several years. It’s likely to significantly impact the existing infrastructure along the dense urban areas where it’s proposed.
In the coverage area of Uptown News, residents of Hillcrest have been particularly concerned about the impact such a plan might have on what politicians have called the neighborhood’s most heated issue: parking.
Critics of the route claim that trading parking for protected bikeways would be harmful to Hillcrest’s business district. Others claim that the trade-off is unfair to residents who rely on driving because of their age or disability. That’s another topic for a future column.
On Nov. 9, an event called “CicloSDias” shut down several miles of Hillcrest streets for most of the day, giving free reign to cyclists, runners and others getting around with the power of their glutes.
The route stretched along University Avenue between Normal Street and Sixth Avenue, which is a particularly contentious area of the proposed SANDAG bike corridor.
Local land-use development firm KTU+A saw CicloSDias as a unique opportunity to do a little rogue community outreach, so with the city’s permission it constructed a display along University Avenue of what a protected bikeway would look like.
One thing SANDAG could do, which KTU+A simulated, is take out one lane in each direction on the sprawling eight-lane University Avenue, and switch the angled, front-in parking to parallel parking. (As an aside, front-in parking really makes my spokes quake as a biker. “Just go ahead and back up, George. I bet no one’s coming!”) Lack of visibility equals danger for bikers.
KTU+A’s simulated bike lanes could admittedly only do so much, seeing as there were zero cars on the road that day, only other bikers, which sort of took some heat off the fire. I am also skeptical that there were many bike-lane skeptics in attendance at the bike event.
Still, it was a good way to visualize the project, which showed that the road’s homeostasis could still be maintained with the loss of one traffic lane. Whether the same could be said for the denser portions of Hillcrest and North Park remains to be seen.
But even if these bikeways do prove to cause some urban planning headaches for our Uptown communities, I urge all to take a couple Advil and think about the positives.
In 2012, American Journal of Public Health analyzed 690 bicycle injuries in Toronto and Vancouver, Canada, and found cycle tracks, or protected bikeways, to be nine times safer than streets with parked cars and no bike infrastructure.
There’s also evidence the change will have a huge impact on ridership in San Diego, which is a goal for both SANDAG and the city of San Diego in the recently released draft of its Climate Action Plan.
A study by Portland State University’s National Institute of Transportation and Communities analyzed a massive amount of data on five U.S. cities installing protected bike lanes. The study found that ridership increased along improved routes by an average of 75 percent in the first year alone. About three-quarters of this increase came from cyclists changing their route to go along the safer route. New cyclists made up the other quarter of the increased bike traffic. So while overall usage surpassed expectations in all five cities, some were underwhelmed by the amount of new cyclists the routes immediately produced.
One thing is clear: These protected bike lanes are heavily used, and they save lives. Those two factors alone make this a worthy endeavor. What’s unclear is whether these bikeways motivate enough locals to make the switch to a bike commute. This is of course a factor in the economic viability of the project.
My theory: The benefit of these protected bike lanes — their superiority to essentially playing Frogger on El Cajon Boulevard — is more readily apparent to bikers. The reason people aren’t immediately switching to commuter biking is because the stigma of the unsafe, traffic-dodging cyclist still exists. These bike lanes, however, create a safer environment for bikers right away. This, in turn, will eventually dissipate the popular sentiment that biking to work is some sort of death wish.
—Got a bicycle topic for Hutton to look at next? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the land-use development firm KTU+A.