5th Avenue bikeway
The nearly completed 5th Avenue bikeway in downtown San Diego. Courtesy SANDAG

Recent stories have appeared in San Diego press about the supposed danger of bikeways that are adjacent to, but physically separated from, motor vehicle traffic. These opinions are espoused by local bike enthusiasts who have a great deal of experience riding bikes and whose commendable bike riding skills allow them to ride under what most people would consider the worst conditions: roadways shared with high volumes of fast motor vehicles.

However, we know from years of teaching bike skills that most people need more than just training to feel comfortable using a bike to get around. Studies indicate that as much as 60 percent of the public has interest in riding a bike more, but won’t out of concerns about traffic and personal safety.

Opinion logo

We know how to build great places to bike, but separated bikeways are relatively new to San Diego, and some bike enthusiasts are not convinced they can operate safely. That is why we need to set the record straight for those who may be confused by cyclists arguing against bikeways built specifically for people riding bikes.

Not all people riding bikes feel that way. Arturo Garcia began biking to work in 2018 from National City to his job eight miles away in Golden Hill. He rode along the Sweetwater River Bikeway from Plaza Bonita toward San Diego Bay, then north along Harbor Drive where he could ride along the Bayshore Bikeway.

“Riding these bike paths motivated me to keep my bike commutes going, especially in the early days,” Arturo said. “Biking to work held many benefits for me: I avoided morning traffic while getting exercise. Using protected lanes helps build confidence in new bike commuters. I saw that in myself, and I continue seeing it in friends and family that are now starting out, too.

“People who had not pedaled in decades are now joining me on weekend rides. When we get to leave the home office, I’m confident they’ll join my two-wheel work commutes, and feel just as great about starting off the day on a bike as I do.”

Arturo’s optimism about more people biking is not unreasonable. There is now a broad consensus among transportation professionals, and the decision makers who direct their work, that creating a low-stress environment for people to ride results in increased numbers of people bicycling while also improving the safety and comfort of all road users. Often this means constructing physically separated bikeways, especially on busy streets with fast traffic.

There is a substantial and growing body of research accumulated over the past decade that confirms this view. For example, a recent study of 12 cities over 13 years that analyzed 17,000 fatalities and 77,000 severe injuries confirmed that cities with more bike facilities—particularly protected and separated bikeways—were safer for all road users.

People for Bikes, a national bike advocacy organization, has documented over 470 miles of separated bikeways in about 130 cities in North America, and more are being built every day, including here in San Diego. The bike network in San Diego’s Downtown Mobility Plan and the Uptown bikeways under construction by SANDAG are two notable examples. With this extensive experience, if separated bikeways were inherently unsafe, we surely would know about it, and city attorneys would be advising their city engineers to stop building them.

Yet, bikeways are still being built.

The fact is that transportation policies are advancing to support increased bicycle transportation; and the separated bikeway is a significant contributor to realizing that objective. With these alternatives now available, and successfully implemented in cities across the country, it would be a mistake to accept the views of a few critics and not build the kind of bikeways that will attract more people to bicycling.

Yes, this requires expertise to mitigate potential conflicts between vehicles and bikes, especially at intersections. But the design tools to do this, while relatively new, are available.

We believe an opportunity exists, as more people are turning to bicycling as a way to get exercise and get around during the pandemic, to move boldly ahead with creating a cycling environment that will take advantage of this current enthusiasm. Doing so will better serve new riders as well those who ride a bike because it is a form of transportation they can afford.

It will make riding a bike a more significant contributor to meeting the region’s transportation needs and climate goals. Let’s not hesitate to do that.

Stephan Vance chairs the board of the San Diego Bike Coalition, and Kyle Heiskala is executive director of Bike SD