How can we make our streets more inviting to all its users?

In 1990, a lifelong cyclist, Richard Allen Dreger was killed in a hit-and-run while riding his bicycle southbound on Pacific Highway by Barnett Avenue. As any cyclist who has ever ridden that stretch in San Diego knows, it is a fast paced road that is extremely unfriendly for cyclists to ride on. But alternatives to that route are few or far away and so it remains a primarily auto-dominated route. Twenty one years after Dreger’s death, the City of San Diego striped a buffered bike lane on Pacific Highway by Barnett Avenue after Dreger’s parents tearfully pleaded with the City to do something to fix that road section at the 2010 Bicycle Master Plan Update Open House.

Buffered Bike Lane on Pacific Highway. Photo by Randy Van Vleck

Last year Jim Swarzman, a local cyclist, was killed while riding a brevet on Highway 101 in Encinitas. It is a stretch of road that could greatly benefit from a road diet and thus encourage more residents and tourists to ride along a beautiful stretch of the Pacific Coast. The Traffic Engineer in Encinitas, is considering striping a buffered bike lane on that same stretch of the Pacific where Swarzman was killed.

However, a buffered bike lane is not currently in the auto-centric California Vehicle Code – the manual that has codified all road treatments that affect all its road users. Clearly the antiquated California Vehicle Code ought to be upgraded to acknowledge the existence of all its road users.

In what seemed like a promising start to 2012, a state bill that is currently moving through the California Assembly and could have resulted in an incredibly progressive change in our transportation system recently got watered down in the State Assembly Transportation Committee. The bill’s language was amended by an organization that calls itself CABO, California Association of Bicycling Organizations. This small and relatively unknown, group argued that rather than create a law that would have created the sort of bicycle facilities that people around the country repeatedly keep asking for, they argued that it was instead more prudent to establish an experimental process that would study “nonstandard planning, design, and construction features in the construction of bikeways and roadways where bicycle travel is permitted”.

What may seem like a rather reasonable amendment deliberately fails to acknowledge that many of these road treatments that will get more people riding have been implemented and tested and shown to work well beyond initial predictions or expectations all around the country. It seems disingenuous to refer to these bicycle facilities as non-standard coming right on the heels of New York City’s announcement that the city experienced the lowest number of traffic fatalities in over 100 years as a result of looking at the streetscape through a different lens. Mia Birk, the former Bike Coordinator in Portland, transformed Portland into one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the country by looking at the city creatively and offering the public alternative choices to transport themselves besides the automobile.

So what does this have to do with California? As Bob Hawkins at the Union Tribune wrote last week, San Diego’s minimal investment in bicycle infrastructure and lack of creative thinking in how we should be redesigning our roads, manifested itself in an economic loss when we lost Velo Cult Bike Shop to Portland. Velo Cult’s Sky Boyer moved to Portland primarily because of his frustration in dealing with a bicycle unfriendly city administration. This is something that Jay Porter the proprietor of The Linkery and El Take it Easy, has also experienced in dealing with the City’s unwillingness to do more to get cyclists riding. Living in a region where our local administration is terrified of thinking creatively in order to address problems that affect us is ensuring that San Diegans will continue to have less choice in how they transport themselves.

Thus in watering down the language of AB 819 CABO has ensured that for the time being California will continue to be conservative in its transportation policy while cities and states all around the U.S. accelerate change before our very eyes. While California continues to reel from national and international economic catastrophes, we should be looking for ways out of this financial gutter, not ensuring that we continue to be backward in how we view our transportation sector.

Buffered Bike Lane on Pacific Highway. Photo by Randy Van Vleck

Thankfully, people like Jim Lundquist was willing to exercise his engineering judgment to ensure that cyclists would be allowed to ride safely on a popular commuter route and thus ease up on our growing traffic congestion. What remains to be seen is whether cyclists in Encinitas will also be given that same choice. In order to gauge public interest in a buffered bike lane, I have created a petition that will be forwarded to the Traffic Engineer in Encinitas. CABO representatives maintain that a buffered bike lane is not a safe option. While I remain unclear about CABO’s real intentions, offering more choices to Californians should be the cornerstone of our transportation policy. And our willingness to learn from other cities and states around the country should determine how we tackle the problems we face now and in the future.