By KENDRA SITTON | Downtown News
San Diegans may be noticing the changing landscape of the streets around them as the city, which for so long prioritized cars and fast commute times, is now transitioning to “complete streets” — meaning buses, bikes, pedestrians, and yes, cars, share the road. Already, J and Beech Streets have debuted protected bike lanes. El Cajon Boulevard will soon get a bus-only lane. More projects to improve transportation options are on the way, with bikeways planned throughout the county so that there will someday be a network of safe and convenient bike routes that connect different areas, much like freeways function for cars.
San Diego legislatures have gotten behind these efforts to meet two promises: the Climate Action Plan and Vision Zero. The Climate Action Plan, or CAP, calls for the number of bike rides in SD to double by 2020 to 6% and rise to 18% of all commutes by 2035 in order to cut down on vehicle miles traveled. Meanwhile, Vision Zero is a plan to end all traffic deaths by 2025. This, as the U.S. is suffering from more pedestrians being killed even while cars get safer for drivers (but not the people they run into).
Holding city officials accountable to their promises to build safe streets for all and combat climate change are several activist organizations, including Climate Action Campaign, Bike SD, Circulate San Diego, and San Diego County Bicycle Coalition.
One of the people ensuring the voice of cyclists is heard at City Council meetings and community planning groups as they consider any street or bike-related project is Jennifer Hunt, the advocacy coordinator for San Diego County Bicycle Coalition.
“If we can‘t go to a certain meeting, we will make sure that somebody who‘s representing cyclists will be at that meeting, so we do work together,” Hunt said during an interview at the coalition’s airy Downtown office. “It really takes a lot of the advocacy groups to come together and really fight for a better San Diego because we all have our different focuses.”
She began interning with the nonprofit a year and a half ago while studying city planning at San Diego State University. She enjoyed the work and eventually joined the five-person team that makes up the organization’s full-time staff.
“I interned here and I loved it so much. I‘ve always been a big proponent for active transportation and having a healthy lifestyle, so using bikes is a part of that and just really being able to get around quickly. It‘s quicker than walking and sometimes it‘s quicker than taking transit. So it just makes sense to have San Diego become more of a bike-friendly city,” Hunt explained. She herself uses a variety of transportation options to get from her Downtown apartment to the office on 15th Street. On most days, she chooses between biking and walking, while on the day we met she took a car because she had a meeting in Chula Vista to attend afterward.
Becoming an advocacy coordinator was a major career change for her, as she originally worked in real estate selling housing. After three years, she decided she wanted to give back to her community in a bigger way. She described city planning as looking at the whole forest instead of a single tree.
Hunt grew up in San Diego always riding her bike. Later, she often rode at Mission Bay or on the boardwalk. More recently, she began riding in urban settings, but usually chooses to ride on side streets with less air pollution and noise. Now she relies on J and Beech streets, which were her first experiences riding in fully protected bike lanes.
“It‘s awesome to be able to get to the other side of Downtown so quickly,” Hunt said. “It‘s great to have that protection and that designated area where you know to ride and you don‘t have to worry about cars behind me, honking at me because I‘m in my own right of way. I love it and it‘s easy to use.”
According to Hunt, drivers who do not understand that bikes have a right to use the road even when bike facilities are not there is a common experience. She said she has also received more comments (read: harassment) from passing cars than she guesses male bicyclists do.
Her experiences also demonstrate why so many women may stay away from biking.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2010, 24% of bicycle trips were taken by women while 76% were taken by men. The gender gap in bicycling does not exist in the Netherlands and Germany, where half of riders are women.
“For people who don‘t really want to put themselves in that vulnerable position, I mean, you really can get very injured,” Hunt said.
Research has shown that women’s fears about safety while bicycling are not unfounded. A 2017 study from the University of Minnesota found that while only 1% of drivers encroached on cyclists, meaning they passed at a distance of fewer than three feet mandated by Minnesota law, 3 out of 4 dangerous passing maneuvers involved female cyclists. Their right of way and safety was infringed on even as there is only one female cyclist for every three male cyclists.
Of course, advocates believe this gap could be improved with protected bike lanes.
“There‘s a lot that can deter you, I think for women in particular,” Hunt said. “Having a protected facility can really help alleviate that because you‘re separated from being right next to the car or having them being able to pull up right next to you or honk at you or comment or whatever.”
Still, some women may opt for cars to ensure their safety. However, Hunt reiterated that cars cannot be women’s only source of protection and safety. She even believes that bikes can sometimes even be safer than driving and parking in front of a residence because cyclists can basically ride up to their front doors.
“When I‘m on a bike I feel secure, knowing I can pedal faster and get away from any kind of danger as quick as possible,” she said.
In addition to making streets safer for female cyclists and pedestrians alike, Hunt sees people being able to bike safely without fear of being hit by a car as an equity issue. Many people who already depend on their bikes to commute cannot afford a car. For others, saving money could help them save for college or start a retirement fund.
“If they were to make the transition from using their car to using their bike, they can save maybe $800 a month, which would give you $800 more that you didn‘t have if you were driving,” she explained. “Owning a car is very expensive. If you were to have the option to save that money and use your bike without having the dangers of being hit by a car, I think it would definitely increase equity in general.”
Hunt acknowledges that many people do not agree with her stance, and emphasizes the importance of reaching out to them. She believes sharing data with them and having that conversation repeatedly will eventually change city policies, and individual behavior, that have enshrined single-occupancy vehicles as San Diego’s main form of transportation for so long.
“It‘s important to speak your mind and to voice your opinions and to have conversations with people even if you don‘t agree with them… It‘s not a one-time conversation. It‘s over and over,” Hunt said. “Changing behavior and changing the way people operate is not gonna happen overnight.”
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.