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Spokes People

A movement of “citizen cyclists” is growing in San Diego as bicycling breaks out of the spandex ghetto and goes mainstream


All over the world, the bike is re-emerging as a viable and trendy mode of transportation. In the States, bicycling is up 44 percent since 2000, according to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey. Blogs celebrating “cycle chic” have proliferated from Sacramento to Seville, Spain, publishing photos of fashionable urbanites pedaling around their cities wearing suits, heeled boots — and not a stitch of spandex.

“The bicycle in North America has suffered from four decades of branding as only a sport or recreational activity,” says Mikael Colville-Andersen, founder of the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog, who also consults on biking issues for cities around the world. “Only two generations ago, the bicycle was considered a normal transport form. In Los Angeles in 1900, 20 percent of all traffic was bicycles. It was similar in San Diego. Rebranding the bicycle is important.”

A new local group is looking to do just that. It’s called the San Diego Bike Union, and its mission, according to spokesman Thom Bahde, is to promote bicycling as a viable way for the average citizen to get around town. The group is accomplishing this through community events and casual group rides, like the Tweed Ride, which invited participants to show up dressed like 19th-century aristocrats.

“It’s about going so excessively classy that it makes normal look okay,” says the Bike Union’s Sky Boyer, whose bike shop, Velo Cult, is at the center of the citizen cyclist scene. It’s also the departure point for many Bike Union rides and events, including the quarterly “haul-in” picnics, which aim to show the extreme of what can be carried on a bike. The group rides through South and North Park on cargo bikes loaded up with “tables, chairs, tents — anything we can think of — to make carrying your groceries look normal,” Boyer says.

A Voice for the Urban Rider

Traditionally, bicycle issues have been brought to the attention of local planners and politicians by the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, whose membership is composed mainly of bicycling clubs. By contrast, the Bike Union hopes to reach out to riders who wouldn’t join a club — what Bahde calls the “hidden cyclists,” including those in low-income and immigrant communities, students and others who don’t stand out with expensive bikes or flashy clothing. “You see all of these people wearing backpacks, with plastic bags tied to their handlebars, making what they have work for transportation,” Bahde says.

Sky Boyer - Owner of Velo Cult in South Park
Photo by Rob Hammer

Promoting the bike as viable transportation rather than sporting equipment is also the goal of bicycle planners at SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments), the local planning agency developing the state’s first Regional Transportation Plan in compliance with a bill that requires California cities to curb greenhouse gas emissions. According to guidelines established by the state’s Air Resources Board, San Diego must achieve a 7 percent emissions reduction by 2020. One way to get there is for citizens to bike or walk 10 miles a week instead of driving.

Long commutes to work, however, are not the primary goal. The problem with initiatives like Bike to Work Day (May 20), says Boyer, is that too many newbie cyclists ride on the same streets they drive on and then get scared witless by close calls with traffic. Instead, most planners and advocates are focusing on promoting bike use for short trips — to the grocery store or the coffee shop  —  of 5 miles or less. According to data from the 2009 National Household Transportation Survey, nearly a third of all trips taken nationwide are 1 mile or less — and 60 percent of them are done by car.

Many neighborhoods in the city center — including those with the most cyclists — sorely lack good bicycle infrastructure: physically separated bike paths, on-street bike lanes, “share the road” markings or a network of direct and easy routes through residential streets. We may have beautiful bike paths around Mission Bay or the Silver Strand, but neither will help a family in City Heights or Mission Valley do its grocery shopping. This lack of an obvious bike network spurred Boyer to create SDBikeCommuter.com, where riders share notes on the best routes from point A to point B.

“Infrastructure, in the end, is what gets people riding,” says Boyer, who sometimes rides from his home in Clairemont to his workshop in North Park. “You’re never going to get the average rider to ride down in Mission Valley; it’s just not going to happen. But with the right infrastructure it would.”

If You Build It, They Will Ride

Politically, building bicycle infrastructure is no small feat, despite wide-ranging arguments in its favor. In addition to environmental, health and financial benefits, new evidence shows that bike projects create jobs, calm traffic and even increase property values, while being relatively inexpensive to implement.

“We’ve done the easy stuff,” says Kathy Keehan, the departing executive director of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition. “If there was room to put a bike lane in on a street without removing parking or a travel lane, we’ve already done that.”

Still, key routes in the city’s bike network remain incomplete and dangerously bottlenecked. India Street between Little Italy and Old Town is one such example, being the only northbound bike route connecting downtown with the beach areas, Mission Valley and points north that doesn’t involve scaling steep hills or dodging high-speed traffic. At a December meeting to review plans for a bike lane on India, nearly 100 people turned out to comment, many of them area business owners who opposed the plan because it meant a loss of 37 parking spaces.
Failing to invest in bicycle improvements and infrastructure now, however, could have costly consequences in the future, says Keehan. She worries that not until a rider gets hit will people bother to fix the problem. “But then it’s also going to cost the city a couple of million dollars in a lawsuit, because they knew these were dangerous spots and they didn’t fix them.”

That’s to say nothing of other types of expenditures: A recent study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health indicated that investments in bike infrastructure in Portland will save that city around $800 million in healthcare and fuel costs over 40 years.

Bicycles Mean Business

Unlike the India Street reaction, business owners in other areas are clamoring for bike facilitites. A group of uptown businesses, including The Linkery in North Park and Blind Lady Ale House in Normal Heights, has been petitioning the city for more than a year for permission to replace a parking space on their respective blocks with a bike corral, which provides parking for 10 to 20 bicycles. The request has been neither granted nor denied.

“We continue to approach the city, time and time again,” writes owner Jay Porter on The Linkery blog. “We haven’t been told no. We’ve been told that no mechanism exists for the city government to say yes.”

“They’re smart,” says Boyer, who recently launched a promotion that gives customers who arrive by bike a discount at participating businesses, many of them along the 30th Street corridor. “If there’s a bike corral in front of your business, now you have 12, 15, 20 people who go to your business, instead of that one car that can fit there. That corral’s opening you up to the street so there’s not an SUV blocking your business.”

Says Boyer: “Put in a bike lane and you’ll see riders on your street; you’ll see walkers on your street. You’ll see your whole street change.”

“Nothing Moves Forward Unless It’s on Fire”

The lag time on projects like the bike corrals frustrates those in the advocacy and planning communities, especially given the fact that transportation is one of the few areas where money actually does exist: The voter-approved TransNet tax provides revenue for transportation projects, distributed to cities by SANDAG via grants. SANDAG recently committed a record $2.58 billion to bicycle and pedestrian issues over the next 40 years.

“The city’s handing money back on projects they can’t accomplish,” says Keehan, including long-asked-for improvements to Fairmount and Camino del Rio South in Mission Valley, a connector from Pacific Highway to Friars Road and a grade separation for the SR56 bike path at Black Mountain Road. “My sense is that nothing moves forward in the city right now unless it’s on fire, which the bike projects aren’t — but there are huge opportunities being missed that we’re going to pay for later.”

In addition to bureaucratic hurdles, under­staffing may also be to blame. The city employs bicycle coordinator Jim Lund­quist, who calls himself a bureaucratic “ramrodder,” according to the blog BikeSD.org. But his position allows him to spend only about 30 percent of his time on biking issues. Counting the fractional time of Lundquist’s boss and assistant, the entire bicycle staff of the ninth largest city in the nation is equivalent
to about 1.2 full-time employees. Compare that to a staff of 14 to 18 FTE (full-time equivalent) in Portland, Oregon, population 537,081.

In places like Portland and New York City, support for biking comes from the very top. Consequently, those cities have seen bicycling rates more than double in the last five years. California cities such as San Francisco and Davis also saw bike share numbers rise after investments in infrastructure. 

Right now, Minneapolis, Boston, Seattle and San Francisco are but a few of the many cities with higher rates of bike commuting than San Diego, and they’re doing it without the benefit of our climate. But local bicycling culture is flowering right alongside that of those other places, and the infrastructure called for in city and regional plans includes many sophisticated, up-to-date ideas.

“We have beautiful plans on the books,” says Keehan. “We don’t have the political will to get them done.”

Bike Events

Bike Resources

  • Get advice on bike routes from the members of the SDBikeCommuter.com message boards, or use Google Maps or Ride the City (ridethecity.com/sandiego) to get point-to-point directions online.
  • Download maps, locate bike lockers, and get paired up with a bike buddy using SANDAG’s ­iCommuteSD.com.
  • Read the San Diego County Bike Coalition’s Chainguard newsletter or subscribe to its Google group to stay on top of advocacy issues (sdcbc.org).
  • Local bike blogs: BikeSD.org and BicControl.com.
  • For information and events sponsored by the San Diego Bike Union, see SDBikeUnion.org.

Behind the Scenes

Here are some great shots by photographer Rob Hammer that didn't make it into the issue. Enjoy!

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