Bird Scooters
A man on an electric scooter and a pedestrian cross a San Diego street in front of heavy traffic. REUTERS/Mike Blake

It’s 8 p.m. on a Friday in the surgical, trauma ICU. Myself and my fellow nurses are preparing for the night when all of a sudden the trauma phone rings. There is a middle-aged man being brought to the hospital who had been out walking his dog when he was run over by a car exiting the driveway of a fast food place.

The man is complaining of severe back pain but he is not bleeding and he is able to move his arms and legs, a very good sign. When he comes to the unit he requires urgent radiology and it’s discovered that he has a broken back and will need an operation. He must now lay flat without moving until he’s able to be taken to the operating room, which could require up to 24 hours.

He will eventually be fine, but not before a lengthy recovery from the physical and psychological trauma he is going through, as well as from the surgery itself. His injuries are not devastating, but they easily could have been, and for many others like him they are.

When my partner and I moved to San Diego less than a year ago, we were excited by the prospect of the year-round sunshine. Back home we were true urbanists. We walked, biked, and took transit nearly everywhere and only rarely had to use the car. When we came to San Diego we expected to do the same, only with better weather.

We had a starry eyed vision of walking and biking around the city all year long, but we were in for a shock when we saw how dangerous this city is for pedestrians and cyclists. In fact we’ve actually been hit while walking our dog under very similar circumstances to the man I received at the hospital that night. By all accounts America’s Finest City should be one of the most pedestrian, cyclist, and transit friendly cities in the world, but unfortunately the numbers tell a very different story.

Like many other cities, San Diego has adopted some very ambitious traffic safety targets, with an aim of zero traffic-related severe injuries or deaths by 2025, the trends though are moving in the opposite direction. A 2021 report by Circulate San Diego indicates that traffic-related pedestrian and cyclist collisions were in fact increasing up until 2019.

In addition to the idea of traffic safety, San Diego has outlined some serious climate-action goals aimed at reducing carbon emissions and improving air quality. Together, the climate and traffic safety initiatives serve a common purpose for every citizen: to make life safer, healthier, and more enjoyable. 

The bulk of the responsibility for these initiatives lies with the city: creating bike lanes, putting in street lights and crosswalks, improving public transit, etc. But the other piece belongs to everyday San Diegans, both in awareness and in recognizing that no one is trying to make things more difficult for motorists or businesses.

These initiatives are designed to cultivate a more safe and equitable experience for everyone who needs to get around, which is not just motorists. And while urbanists are often maligned for appearing unconcerned with the problems faced by motorists, what they are usually trying to do is to eke out a culture which works for everyone, because the roads belong to everyone. 

Making roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists and increasing transit access means less people are required to use their cars. And in case you haven’t been following along that means fewer people parking, less traffic congestion, and according to several recent studies, it’s actually better for business.

The Hill recently reported that for every $1 invested in public transit there is $5 worth of economic returns. Additionally a study from Portland State University found that smart street design improvements either had no impact, or had a significant positive effect on local business performance. This is contrary to the popular belief that no parking equals no business.

These initiatives are not just safer and better for business either! With gas prices pushing $6 per gallon we should all be thinking about ways of ditching the car, and there is strong evidence to support the myriad health benefits of getting around without one.

Imagine then what San Diego could be like if everyone who wanted to could ride, walk, or bike safely. It would be good for the climate, for business, for our wallets, and our waistlines. There’s never been a more “win-win” scenario.

Alan Pentecost is a surgical ICU nurse in San Diego and a graduate student in public health.