A protected bike lane on Beech Street
A new protected bike lane in downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Jennewein

Count me among that small but dedicated group of San Diegans who embrace bicycling for its health and environmental benefits.

When I worked downtown, I often commuted 14 miles roundtrip from my Talmadge home. Now retired, I bike to doctor’s appointments in La Mesa and Mission Valley, and stores in North Park and Hillcrest.

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It’s a rewarding challenge to climb those hills, and fun to see city life up close. But it’s also a bit demoralizing. 

That’s because I have so little company on my two-wheeled travels around our county. 

San Diego has spent millions of dollars for dedicated bike lanes, but from where I sit, the “if you build them, they will come” strategy has been an abject failure. Riding up and down the mile-long, multi-million dollar I-15 bike lane, I rarely pass even one other cyclist. Pedaling to and from Ocean Beach or downtown, I can often count the number of other cyclists on one hand. 

My observations aren’t unique: while San Diego’s Climate Action Plan calls for increasing bike commuting to 18% of total commutes by 2035, the plan update confirms that bike commuting has been stuck at 2% since 2015. 

Expensive new bike lanes connecting Hillcrest and Downtown via Fourth and Fifth Avenues and other busy corridors are barely used.

It’s not just wasteful spending, it’s counterproductive: forcing cars and buses into fewer lanes slows traffic and increases congestion. Vehicles idle longer, and spew more pollution and greenhouse gases. Motorists are understandably frustrated, even angry, when they stare at empty bike lanes while they’re stuck in traffic. Cycling advocates are alienating those whose support we need to encourage pollution-free commuting. 

That’s why we desperately need new, creative strategies to get more commuters out of their cars and on their bikes. 

I hope these ideas will start the conversation: 

  • Let’s focus on densely-populated neighborhoods, where people both live and work. Right now, we’re building bike lanes that connect neighborhoods with employment centers. But those long routes include hills that many potential bike commuters can’t or won’t climb on their way to a busy work day. 
  • Let’s spend some of that money on safe bike routes for commuters who live close to where they work. Mission Valley, Hillcrest, Mira Mesa, the Golden Triangle, and other high-density neighborhoods are good candidates for “short-haul” bike networks. In Mission Valley, we can build bridges and underpasses to help cyclists avoid gridlock and safely cross busy intersections and Interstate 8. 
  • We should subsidize electric bikes for commuters. Most workers can’t arrive at work sweaty and tried. E-bikes make the ride easier, and have carry-alls for briefcases and a change of clothes. Recipients of those subsidizes can sign a pledge to commute, and we could use tracking technology to make sure they do. The county’s e-bike giveaway program could be a good framework. Business owners could also subsidize e-bike purchases, in exchange for tax deductions. We can also help the California Bicycle Coalition’s laudable effort to provide e-bikes for students, which will reduce their parents’ morning car trips. 
  • Let’s encourage more employers to get bike-friendly. Give them rebates when they install bike lockers, sheltered and secure bike parking, and e-bike charging stations. Reward them for offering monthly bonuses for bike commuters who don’t use parking spots. 
  • *We can subsidize a network of “sag-wagons” to give bikers, and their bikes, a ride home when it’s dark or rainy. Pay for their ride-share to work, or home, when they have to leave their bike at work for whatever reason. Buy them a portable bike rack. Offer free helmets and other “swag” to encourage biking. Do more community outreach, with speakers from different ethnic backgrounds, to publicize the environmental, health, financial and “fun” benefits of biking to work and school.
  • Put more bike racks on buses, or outfit them to carry bikes inside. MTS buses have just two bike racks. I can tell you from experience, there’s nothing more frustrating that waiting for a bus after dark — or when you’re tired or in a hurry to get home — only to have the bus pass you by because both racks are filled.
  • Lastly, don’t skimp on maintaining our existing bike lanes. Potholes and cracked asphalt have flattened more than one of my tires. Cyclists can’t call road service for a spare, and it’s a major hassle to get sidelined by a flat while pedaling to work or an appointment.

All of these incentives cost money. Some of them might be impractical. But if we need a big increase in bike commuting to help meet climate action goals, we must be open to alternatives that work, in the real world. 

Paul Krueger is a former senior producer at NBC7 San Diego and a resident of the Talmadge neighborhood.