Explore San Diego By Bicycle

A stunning city with a lot of cycling potential. Economic incentives and city backing could be the push San Diego needs to increase its cycling mode share.

By Samantha Ollinger

Sky Boyer, owner of Velo Cult bike shop in South Park, may have come up with the perfect plan. He has managed to increase the number of transportation cyclists within the City of San Diego’s urban core by devising a very simple, yet ingenious, financial incentive to get more non-cyclists on the saddle.

Boyer’s bicycle discount program encourages both new and experienced cyclists to travel to their destinations by bicycle, and gain a sense of accomplishment, save a few dollars and support locally-owned businesses in the process. Participating businesses benefit from this arrangement by getting more customers into their stores and by becoming popular destinations frequented by hip, forward-thinking residents – visualize rows of bicycles parked outside front doors. The community as a whole benefits through the reduction in car traffic, improved air quality and healthier residents. It’s a win-win situation.

This is taking place in a county of 19 local jurisdictions that has spent a minimum of $1-million per year on bicycle infrastructure since 1987 and still has an abysmal commuter cycling mode share of 0.6 percent. Previous regional bicycle plans didn’t envision a cohesive cycling network and facilities for cyclists. The legacy of these older regional plans is evidenced by the present-day lack of basic bicycle infrastructure, such as racks for parking, well-maintained bike lanes and bike lockers at public transit stations.

County government officials are now reassessing the needs of residents and are in the midst of creating a comprehensive region-wide plan to increase the bicycle mode share to 10 percent by 2020.

Making the Grade

Dr. Esteban del Rio, an assistant professor at the University of San Diego, believes that “one of the greatest things about San Diego is that we have the mountains. So, 40 miles [64 kilometers] out of the city, you’re 6,000 feet up.” It’s this radical topography – made up of canyons and river valleys, coupled with rugged terrain – that can make cycling in the county both challenging and incredibly rewarding.

The terrain, coupled with the rise of the automobile, all but dictated the county’s built environment. The automobile became the dominant mode of transportation and bicycling was soon relegated to fitness enthusiasts – thousands of road racers and triathletes train along the county’s coast every weekend – along with environmental ascetics and those too poor to drive. The few cyclists who were brave enough to venture onto the roads, especially outside of San Diego’s core urban neighborhoods, often didn’t have access to bicycle-specific infrastructure, such as bike lanes or bike paths. Today there is a total of just above 510 miles (821 kilometers) of bike lanes, paths and routes. The percentage of trips by bike in the City of San Diego is a small, but strong, 0.9 percent.

William Karstens, a resident of Rancho San Diego – a suburb of the city of San Diego – has been commuting by bicycle to downtown San Diego for the past decade. He’s noticed that, as the number of cyclists on the road has gradually increased, “drivers seem to have grown accustomed to seeing cyclists on the roads and have learned to give them space.” This is partly due to the fact that the county is composed of what Beverly Franklin-Atkinson calls “many separate, but distinct communities.” As a result, both Karstens and Franklin-Atkinson described pleasant exchanges with other cyclists and drivers they repeatedly encounter on their commutes.

Franklin-Atkinson, who lives in suburban Lemon Grove, believes that, despite the terrain and lack of a unified center, the separate but distinct 19 regions in the county have contributed to a shared identity among its residents. She was inspired and motivated to begin commuting to work by bicycle when she found a job 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) away and a bike lane striped along the entire length of her route. In Lemon Grove, marked bike lanes on every major thoroughfare are the legacy of a former bicycle coordinator who was also a cyclist – a rarity in the county.

An Evolving Movement

The first San Diegan to enter the public arena and advocate for a new approach to urban cycling was John Forester, a transportation engineer who moved to San Diego over a decade ago. Forester was one of the first advocates who fought for cyclists’ right to share the road and be given the same treatment as other vehicle operators. He was the first to codify a cycling philosophy that informed cyclists of their rights and taught them to be assertive while riding in an environment with minimal to no bicycle infrastructure. Unfortunately, this also meant that the growth of cyclists in the region was largely limited to the brave or the foolhardy.

The second significant event in the region was the creation of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, formed in the early 1990s. With the appointment of Kathy Keehan in 1999, the coalition’s first executive director, cyclists throughout the county finally had an advocate to speak on their behalf to decision-makers. Despite San Diego’s reputation for being conservative, residents also began to make changes.

Critical Mass rides, which started about a decade ago, inspired many cycling advocates and encouraged them to draw attention to the unfriendly design of the region’s streets. Energetic and enthusiastic cyclists got together to ride on the last Friday of every month. Soon, what began as a ride consisting of a few dozen individuals became a ride en masse with participation numbering in the thousands. Although not without its fair share of controversy, San Diego’s Critical Mass rides brought cycling issues deeper into the arena of social and political debate.

Funding Headaches

In the County of San Diego, the largest source of funding for bicycle infrastructure comes from TRANSNET – the half-cent sales tax that funds all transportation projects. Funding also comes from the TDA (Transportation Development Act), which annually awards funds derived from the sales tax.

Often the data on bicycle mode share is based on the entire San Diego region, which takes into account people outside the city centers where cycle-commuting is more accessible. According to Stephan Vance – board member of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition and senior planner at the regional planning agency, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) – this watered down approach to calculating actual ridership in urban centers “diminish[es] the impact that bicycling is having in specific areas” in the eyes of policy-makers.

Despite the low numbers of bicycle mode share in the County of San Diego, unofficial counts of bike mode share in the urban core can be as high as 20 percent. But because of the official counts, the region as a whole suffers. This can mean the difference between having the money to spend on future bicycle infrastructure projects or not.

Even with some available funds, the lack of a cohesive, region-wide bicycle network persists and can make it seem to the casual observer that the county is bicycle-unfriendly. In Vance’s opinion, it will largely be up to business owners and San Diego citizens to spur on change in this otherwise conservative working-class border town.

One such citizen is Katie Mayfield, a San Diego transplant originally from Kentucky, whose father was a strictly spandex cyclist. Mayfield admits to becoming enthralled with the idea of cycling for transportation. She learned to dress for the destination rather than the mode of transportation during a trip to Holland in her teens. It is there that she witnessed the transformative power of a bicycle-based lifestyle.

After moving to San Diego, Mayfield decided to make the city a place she could be proud of, and to lead by example. Mayfield admits her life has always had a soundtrack. So the song that carried her through those initial first days in San Diego was, “Amsterdam” by Swedish band Peter Bjorn and John.

Mayfield didn’t want her mode of transportation to dictate what she wore,so she cycles in dresses and heels year-round. She was recently married in the most communal of spaces, a bicycle shop. The soundtrack, she admits, has now changed to “Hooked on a Feeling,” a sentiment she said echoes how cyclists feel after the act of riding daily changes from the obligatory to joyful. It was this feeling of joy that Mayfield wanted to share by getting married in a bicycle shop, a venue that she feels could be the vanguard of positive change.

Mayfield’s vision of having better bike infrastructure and a stronger bike culture in San Diego could soon become a reality. Recently, a comprehensive and far-reaching bicycle plan was released by the regional government. Chris Kluth, the “guerilla planner” and primary architect of this region-wide bicycle plan at SANDAG, is one of many in San Diego who is slowly developing a plan to change the hearts and minds of policy wonks. Rather than creating isolated, and politically popular bicycle projects, such as the Bayshore Bikeway – a 24-mile (39-kilometer) bicycle facility that includes 13 miles (21 kilometers) of bicycle paths – Kluth wants the region to spend the bicycle funding on creating unified bicycle networks. Funding to the tune of $360 million dollars has been earmarked for implementing a region-wide bicycle network. The challenge now is to ensure the fruits of this investment encourage more residents to choose two wheels instead of four.

Community Commitment

Along with the region-wide plan to change the built environment, a welcome and much needed online community has sprung up to cater to all manner of cyclists who live, work and ride in the county of San Diego. The San Diego Fixed forum is a resource for local cyclists interested primarily in riding fixed gear; it also provides a common space to organize rides, races and games, such as bike polo. The San Diego Bike Commuter forum is an online space that encourages and inspires new and old cyclists to ride by providing route suggestions, promoting group rides and running bicycle-based community gatherings. These groups are steadily growing and becoming more visible on the streets.

The next 40 years may provide the change that San Diegans have been waiting for. Decades from now, people may point to the increasing gasoline prices, a slow yet gradual change in political will in the region or even the bicycle discount program started by a lone bike shop owner in South Park, as the precursors that led to the county’s transformation into a haven for cyclists. Time will tell whether the region will seize this opportunity.


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