Fatal bicycle accidents—which naturally evoke a gut-wrenching, visceral reaction—are spiking in San Diego.
Countywide, 13 bike and scooter riders have been killed in street accidents in 2021. That’s more the double the number of annual deaths in recent years.
Ominously, it’s possible we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg relating to death and injuries related to trouble spots for bicycle safety on our local streets.
A national study shows bicycle sales increased by 57 percent in 2020. Likely led by home-based workers feeling cooped up by the pandemic, sales figures were higher in some San Diego bike shops.
Even before the ridership boom, local officials were planning to increase the number of protected bike lanes. However, construction of those lanes has been on a slow roll.
Recent deaths are being attributed in part to project delays.
Two fatalities on Pershing Drive sparked a quick response from the City of San Diego.
A winding connector between downtown and North Park, Pershing Drive is slated for bike lane improvements that would begin next year and are scheduled to be completed in 2024.
After the Pershing Drive deaths—and during a summer where a half dozen lives were lost—San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria ordered the immediate construction of plastic bollards to help define bike lanes on the hilly roadway.
The mayor won praise for taking quick action. Still, biking activists say the overall process for improvements takes far too long.
Currently attracting ire: A Fifth Avenue Bikeways enhancement project. It’s one of five segments aimed at connecting downtown with outlying neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, in its current state of construction, some argue Fifth Avenue is more dangerous now than when the project began over a year ago.
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It’s the implementation that has them concerned.
A series of Uptown Bikeways are funded and approved. They include traffic calming measures, improvements for pedestrians, high-visibility crosswalks, curb extensions and rapid-flashing beacons.
The Fifth Avenue Bikeway spans from downtown’s B Street to Washington Street in Hillcrest. It will someday activate the first “curb-protected” bike lane in San Diego.
In this design, a cement median is built to distinctly separate a bike path on one side of the street from active-traffic car lanes.
The Fifth Avenue Bikeway is slated to be completed in early 2022. It’s been under construction for more than a year.
“We understood that the project would take some time,” says BikeSD secretary Nevo Magnezi. “Our biggest concern is the current lack of a temporary bike lane along the route. Prior to construction, there was a buffered bike lane.”
While Magnezi considered the former buffered bike lane “imperfect,” he says that was much safer than the current arrangement “where bike riders are now forced to share the lanes with fast-moving traffic on an incline.”
Indeed, before construction began, most of Fifth Avenue (which is one-way) had designated parking spaces on both sides of the street. There were three lanes available for moving traffic. One of those three lanes was designated as a bike lane.
Today, physical construction of the median-protected bike lane is finished. However, that bike lane is blocked off for usage by various barricades.
It’s there—but frustrated cyclists can’t use it.
Building the new median took away parking spots on the west side of the street. Those parking spots have been replaced by eliminating the traffic lane that had been designated for bikes.
The result: For the remaining construction time needed to finish the Fifth Avenue Bikeway, cars and bicyclist on Fifth Avenue are sharing two lanes instead of three.
“No doubt, removing a bike lane, even for the construction of a superior facility, is having a negative impact on ridership,” Magnezi says.
“Amazingly, SANDAG felt it appropriate to immediately replace the parallel parking along the construction route in segments, but inappropriate to open the bikeway concurrently,” he adds. “This is just another instance of San Diego’s prioritization of people in cars over people who use micro-mobility vehicles.”
SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments) is a regional public agency for decision-making that is comprised of 18 cities and governmental bodies within San Diego County.
Bike safety improvements fall under the Countywide TransNet program. First approved by San Diego voters in 1987, TransNet was refunded in 2004 and extends to 2048.
As executive director of the San Diego County Bike Coalition, Andy Hanshaw has promoted safety for a two-wheeled constituency for more than a decade.
“We know that Fifth Avenue is going to be a good, quality and safe project—based on all the input that’s gone into this for years and years,” he says. “But we’re asking to accelerate the process that gets these projects done.”
Hanshaw says time delays have been caused by SANDAG being a regional agency for the funding that has to work closely with cities to make changes in roadways.
I asked Hanshaw the morbid question: Will it take a bicyclist’s death on Fifth Avenue to speed things up or spur action similar to the installation of bollards on Pershing Drive?
“God, I hope not,” Hanshaw says. “If what happened on Pershing isn’t enough to wake you up, then what is? Or, the 13 fatalities this year in the county. It’s alarming and completely unacceptable.”
Hanshaw concurs that for the moment, Fifth Avenue is less safe than when construction on the Bikeway began.
“It’s not rideable,” he says. “Yes, it’s a little worse than it was before. It needs to be completed. It’s a subject the public asks us about every week.”
Despite the Fifth Avenue Bikeway being slated to open in early 2022, a SANDAG spokesperson says it’s possible the project—or a portion of it—will be completed in December.
Jim Linthicum is SANDAG’s chief of capital programs and regional service. He was willing to address several criticisms of the Fifth Avenue project.
“The reason that it looks done and it’s not, is the traffic signals,” Linthicum says. “If you look at it close you can see that there are traffic signal heads that are turned so traffic can’t see them. Those traffic signals are for the bikes. When all the physical work is done, the last thing to do is turn those things on.”
In addition to the signals, there is still signage—including striping and road markings—that have to be added.
“That’s actually a fairly complicated process working with the city of San Diego,” Linthicum says. “Because the signals all have to be integrated with the existing traffic signal network. It’s more complicated than just flipping a switch. When those things do get flipped on, then we pull out those plastic barricades and people can start using the bike lane.”
He says SANDAG does not favor automobile drivers over bike riders.
“We’re in a transition stage throughout all of urban San Diego where the streets are being re-imagined in different ways,” Linthicum says. “The community is always very concerned about parking. We try to accommodate the bikes and the traffic and parking—and do it safely.”
He does not consider Fifth Avenue less safe now than when the Bikeways project began.
“It’s a very similar situation as was there for decades before we started construction,” Linthicum says. “Parked vehicles along the curb and bikes mixed with vehicle traffic…yes, with one less lane.”
The Fifth Avenue Bikeway project traverses the City of San Diego’s Third Council District.
District 3 Councilmember Stephen Whitburn responded to written questions about the project.
“While we understand that SANDAG’s construction has caused some traffic delays and other issues on the street, we are not aware of any major safety incidents that have occurred on these streets during construction,” Whitburn said in a statement. “The safety of users of all forms of transportation is of utmost importance.”
SANDAG’s Linthicum says the planning agency could look into building future Bikeways projects in segments. And consider opening them piece by piece. That approach might increase safety during construction—but is definitely a costlier way to proceed.
San Diego Mayor Gloria says he’s on top of reducing delays.
"My administration has taken a number of steps to help reach our Vision Zero goal of eliminating fatalities and serious injuries on our roads, including establishing a new team to create bike lanes more quickly, joining the National Association of City Transportation Officials to learn and adopt best practices, and working with SANDAG to reduce the time it takes to process a bike infrastructure permit by 75 percent,” Gloria says.
BikeSD’s Magnezi supports a revamped process.
He points back to the multi-year delays that stalled the long-planned Pershing Drive upgrade. It was originally proposed back in 2012.
“Lengthy delays on projects like Pershing Drive recently resulted in the death of two people who would be alive today had that Bikeway been built when originally planned,” Magnezi says. SDSun
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