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Tensions arise at Uptown Planners as bike-share plans gear up

(This story originally appeared HERE on Voice of San Diego).)

The city’s efforts to build dedicated bike lanes through Bankers Hill didn’t please everyone at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Uptown Planners.

The meeting made two competing truths quite clear: The city is on track to boost its bike infrastructure; and plenty of people aren’t happy about it.

The Uptown Planners considered two bike related items, and though neither received a vote that changed much of anything, the meeting became an occasionally heated stand-off between the packed room of cycling advocates and those who see bike investment as an encroachment on their lifestyle.

The anti-cycling voices in the crowd and on the board and the general resistance to the proposed projects was a reminder of the extent to which many residents aren’t on board with elected leaders and city officials increasingly looking to embrace San Diego’s bike culture as part of its identity.

The City Council earlier this summer unanimously approved a 10-year agreement with a private company to provide beginning in January self-service access to 1,800 bikes spread across 220 stations citywide—though the program will begin in the tourist-heavy beaches, downtown, uptown and mid-city areas.

To ensure a successful program, the company put up the $7.2 million capital expenditure, and the city is expecting up to a $2.6 million slice of the revenue it generates — the city’s transportation and engineering division is trying to make the city a more bike-friendly place.

Before the end of the year, city engineers would like to remove a lane of traffic on both Fourth and Fifth avenues between downtown and Balboa Park, through Bankers Hill, to install dedicated bike lanes heading in each direction.

The hope is the clearly delineated bike lane will make novice cyclists or tourists more comfortable on a high-traffic road.

The city brought the plan to the Uptown Planners, the city’s planning group for the Uptown neighborhoods, Tuesday night, though the group opted not to vote on the project when it was told the city could move forward regardless of the group’s reaction.

Linda Marabian, the city’s deputy director for transportation engineering, said the city intends to repaint the street with the bike lanes by December, so it’s in place before the bike-share program launches in January.

“We’re going to have a lot of bikes on these roads, and it’s going to be concentrated in this area. And we need to be fast, because the bike sharing is coming fast,” Marabian said.

She said the project wouldn’t meaningfully affect traffic on the stretch of Fourth and Fifth avenues from I-5 to Laurel Street because recent traffic counts showed the three-lane avenues are already built over capacity. They can lose a lane without creating traffic jams.

The item was the second of two bike-related issues before the planning group Tuesday night, and the first revealed the extent to which biking advocates still face substantial opposition in making the traditionally car-centric city and region more bike-friendly.

The other was a presentation by the regional planning agency SANDAG on its plan to make changes to traffic flows and parking allotments in the area for its Uptown Regional Bike Corridor project.

That project, paid for by TransNet, the county’s voter-approved half-cent-sales tax for transportation projects, will improve bike infrastructure with protected lanes and bikeways that connect to a similar network in North Park-Mid-City and the rest of the region.

The Uptown Planners, after more than an hour of public comment, opted not to give its stamp of approval to the project yet. Instead, they voted to further consider how the plan would affect the community, and to fold its eventual approval into the ongoing process of updating its community plan, its blueprint for future growth and development in the area.

Board members reiterated that they support the project in concept, but want it to fit within the existing plan update process.

“This is nothing new; lots of cities have implemented bicycle plans,” said board member Tony Winney. “Anything we can do to make roads more safe, we should do.”

But over the course of both public comment and responses by board members from the Uptown Planners, cyclists and those in favor of bike-related investments took a healthy share of pushback.

It was claimed, at various points, that the loss of parking would hurt local business, that residents who wanted to use bikes as a means of transportation should move to New York, that the benefits of the project were limited to social engineering and that the beneficiaries of similar projects are disproportionately white.

But all the tension didn’t amount to much: The city is installing bike lanes on Fourth and Fifth Avenues, and SANDAG is still planning for its Uptown project.

I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org or 619-325-0529.