Guest Post: San Diego Epitomizes the Failure of Government to Actively Cultivate a Viable Urban Community

This post was written by Dr. Esteban del Rio who is an Associate Professor at the University of San Diego

Making the Sunset at Dogs Beach
Making the Sunset at Dog Beach. Dr. del Rio and his daughter. Photo from Dr. del Rio.

I mostly enjoy my commute from home in La Mesa to Linda Vista, where I work as a professor at the University of San Diego.  I ride quiet neighborhood streets until Montezuma Rd, where the bike lane appears and disappears, then descend the hill carefully before taking the bike bridge over the 8 interchange, after which I’m unceremoniously spat out right into traffic as I try to hurdle speeding vehicles to make the left turn along Camino del Rio North.  I’ve learned a few tricks in trying to get over to the left, but its often rather hairy.  Then, it’s a lovely ride along the river on Camino del Rio, then through the strip malls of Mission Valley, cutting through Fashion Valley to Friars Rd., then up to campus.

Riding home is more of a gamble.  My thoughts lie mostly in imagining dinner with my family and holding my two small children in my arms when I arrive.  But the road is less inviting.  Everything’s fine until I think about climbing back up Montezuma.  I cut over to Camino del Rio South at the strangely-named “Mission City Parkway,” which is a tidy bridge over the 8.  That way, I avoid four very dangerous interchanges that face the cyclist or pedestrian going from Camino del Rio North to Montezuma.  Instead, I get only two very dangerous interchanges, while trying to make my way home from work to eat dinner with my family: Fairmount and Collwood.  It doesn’t get better at the top of the hill, when the bike lane becomes laughably narrow just as a rider goes the slowest and cars go the fastest because of some psychological burst that comes with driving up to the top of the hill (it seems to me that motorists drive more recklessly uphill than downhill).  There’s a sorry-looking chain-link fence at this point “protecting” pedestrians, and relegating cyclists into caged risk-takers.

I think about this every time I ride up Montezuma.  But I paused, a bit shaken, and took a moment last Thursday when I rode home from work, one day after Chuck Gilbreth was killed on this same stretch.  His death represents a horrible tragedy, caused by reckless driving that deserves strict prosecution.  But why else is it so dangerous to Chuck and all of us who ride or walk it?  Well, it is obvious that the infrastructure does nearly nothing to ensure cyclist or pedestrian safety.  In fact, the design is a lesson in willful neglect.  The wide lanes, and freeway-style ramps encourage speeding.  But one can find these conditions throughout the county.  We have a culture of speeding in San Diego, facilitated by these kinds of roads all over town.

More than anything, traffic calming must become an absolute priority in city and county transportation policy.  Is there a reason any surface street should have a speed limit above 35 miles per hour?  High speed limits on city streets encourage speeding, increased fuel consumption, traffic, and accidents, while discouraging people from walking, cycling, and children playing outside.   Planners have pushed civic life into hiding – children and the elderly stay inside.  Commuters stay in their cars.  Citizens become isolated, the streets more dangerous.  Perhaps this is what government officials want – a populace so disconnected from each other that we couldn’t come together to challenge official complacency and the culture of cronyism that characterizes San Diego political leadership.  Perhaps this is why people who ride bikes are so troubled by recent deaths – it’s the failure of governments not only to facilitate safe travel for non-motorized means, but it is also the failure of government to actively cultivate a viable urban community.

The beginnings of a sea change are easily within reach, with something as simple as paint, and as complex as political will, needed to alter the urban and civic landscape.  In this case, with Montezuma Road, narrow the lanes, make the speed limit 35 mph, lay a divider for much of the road for a cycletrack and wide sidewalk, put in signals at the on and off-ramps, use green-painted bike lanes when needed.  For the throngs living in La Mesa, College, City Heights, and many other neighborhoods, Montezuma is a lifeline to work in Mission Valley and many points north of the 8.  Don’t even get me started on the other options, characterized by broken routes along University Ave., El Cajon, Blvd., and Mission Gorge/Friars Rd.  All of these require the same kind of changes for San Diego to become more livable.  More livable. – this seems like such a simple goal for policy-makers.  I wish San Diego decided to become more livable before we lost Chuck Gilbreth .