Let “The Right Thing” Be Our Guide

“On the merits, I think a full bike corridor would obviously be better.” That was Anthony Bernal, City Council District 3 candidate, and Director of Business and Community Projects for Councilmember Todd Gloria, responding to Voice of San Diego’s Andy Keatts when asked what was the best plan for the Hillcrest segment of the Uptown Bikeway — the Transform Hillcrest design, or the severely constrained University Avenue design approved by the San Diego Association of Governments’ Transportation Committee on June 5th. Fellow District 3 candidate Chris Ward quickly agreed.

“On the merits”. Let that sink in. With respect to the bikeway decision and so many like it, ‘but – politics’ doesn’t need to be said. It is so heavily implied. While an admission like that should take your breath away (its candidness and clarity so rare in political discussion), it came and went without much fuss during that live-audience podcast taping — a sure sign of our acquiescence to the cynicism which has permeated civic life and service. It doesn’t have to be that way.

University Ave & 5th Ave. Bike corrals like this won’t fill up if we don’t build a safe environment to ride to them.

“It’s the right thing to do.” Simple — perfect. It should guide every decision one makes. People will always disagree as to exactly what constitutes “right”, but when Mayor Kevin Faulconer chose those words as a blessing of the City’s draft Climate Action Plan, the sentiment’s simplicity left understated the kind of leadership he and Councilmember Todd Gloria displayed in bringing it to passage. It is a plan, that if realized, could help transform the way we live and move about this beautiful city. It is bold and aspirational, and would mark San Diego as a global leader in efforts to mitigate Climate Change. If the Climate Action Plan is to live up to its promise, however, we will need our elected officials to display that leadership in even greater measure to counter those who would champion policies to weaken its impact.

With the SANDAG decision to move forward with a constrained University Avenue bicycle corridor, one which our District 3 City Council candidates believe fails “on the merits”, we saw that the fight to adopt and fulfill the city’s Climate Action Plan won’t be easy. One of the key components of the plan is to change how San Diegans get around the city. Part of that strategy includes increasing the number of people who commute by bicycle — to work, to run errands, or to go out to eat — from the current rate of 1 percent, to 6 percent by 2020 — and to 18 percent by 2035. These goals are ambitious, and their achievability rests largely on “induced demand” — the principle that increased supply of something serves as its own catalyst for its increased use. For example, expanding highways does not alleviate traffic, but attracts more drivers to use them and fill the expanded capacity. The same principle applies when building other transportation infrastructure, including that for safe, ubiquitous bicycling. We’ve all heard the short version: “if you build it, they will come.”

The Transportation Committee had the opportunity to answer the question: would we build it? For more than two years, through 70 meetings, SANDAG engaged bicycle and pedestrian advocates, transportation designers, community planning groups, business organizations, and passionate citizens, all of whom gave time and energy to a process designed to produce a transformed sense of community and place in the heart of our urban core. Unfortunately, last minute design changes recommended by SANDAG staff were set to undo all that effort and built trust. First on the chopping block was nearly all of the improved, protected bicycling infrastructure which would have been the very catalyst for increased bicycle ridership. The recommendations were adopted almost unanimously, thereby stating: we would not build it. While some have defended (even praised) the changes as ‘simple concessions’ designed to move something forward, in truth they fundamentally alter the character of the design: streets that actually are, and feel, safer thanks to the separating of auto and bicycle traffic, and its calming nature.

As I sat in the audience listening, it was a striking thing to witness the excuses given on why we needed to proceed with this modified plan that would discount the community consensus brought about by more than two years of thoughtful and open community process. It was enough to wonder whether the plan’s staunchest public proponents actually believed in its compounding impact to deliver fundamental change. Many times, the Hillcrest Business Association publicly declared their support for the Transform Hillcrest plan, all while retaining the influential lobbyists of California Strategies to pressure decision makers to gut the most important safety features of its design — no matter that their concerns for lost business do not bear out in data. Don’t let anyone be fooled into thinking the Uptown Bikeway was neutered because a single engineer was concerned about a slower flow of traffic through a community thoroughfare. Slower auto traffic was — and always has been — an integral upside of the plan. Reducing car speeds saves lives. Full stop. And it is paramount to any future design of University Avenue, the most deadly corridor for pedestrians and cyclists in the City of San Diego.

There is no time like the present to correct this mistake. Where there is political will, no plan truly withers on the vine. We see that playing out with renewed push for a parking structure in Balboa Park, as well as a recent shift in attitude toward building a non-contiguous expansion of the Convention Center. Now is the time for the people we’ve elected to do the job, to stand up and be counted. Can men and women of character turn to those who would stall broader civic progress, acknowledge their concerns, assuage their fears if possible or dismiss them if necessary, and announce that from time-to-time we are in fact going to address the big problem, and transform this city for the better along the way? I believe Mayor Faulconer and Councilmember Gloria can. The Climate Action Plan is, after all, the plan they’ve championed. Now we need them to stand up for what will make it work. It’s the right thing to do.