Photograph by Thomas K. ARnold
Bicyclists riding outside the bike lane, in the sharrows, on Coast Highway, Encinitas
Back in 1897, Mayor Samuel Black of Columbus, Ohio, vowed to crack down on a new menace that appeared to be taking over his city’s streets: bicycles. He called reckless bicyclists “evil” and blasted “scorchers,” his term for speeding cyclists, for making people afraid to drive their cars and horse-driven carriages on the asphalt streets.
Photograph by Jim Wang
Later that year, city leaders went on a regulatory binge, imposing an 8 mph speed limit, mandating lights after dark, and banning riders from hunching over so that their view of the road was impaired. The Columbia Dispatch newspaper, meanwhile, railed against riders who rode with no hands on the handlebars: “This latter class of riding is only done by those smart alecks who want to create a favorable impression upon the ladies. This practice is a very dangerous one, and every decent rider ought to hiss off the street the man who disregards the rights of others.”
Similar scenarios were played out in cities across the country as the first big bicycling craze took off, triggered by the arrival of the so-called “safety bicycle,” with pneumatic (air-filled) tires and chain drives. Church leaders blasted cycling as a threat to morality because of the “indecent” bloomers worn by cycling women, while doctors warned that “over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance tended to produce a wearied and exhausted ‘bicycle face,’” according to an 1895 Literary Digest article.
More than 120 years later, bicycles are once again a flashpoint of controversy.
- Bicycle, bicycle , bicycle
- I want to ride my bicycle, bicycle, bicycle
- I want to ride my bicycle
- I want to ride my bike
- I want to ride my bicycle
- I want to ride it where I like
- — “Bicycle Race,” Queen
Coast Highway bike lane, Encinitas
Photograph by Thomas K. ARnold
What could be considered the very first bicycle was introduced to the public in Paris by a chap named Baron von Drais in 1818, according to the Canada Science and Technology Museum. The machine had two in-line wheels connected by a wooden frame, but no pedals. The rider straddled the contraption and pushed it with his feet, while steering the front wheel. “It was not very efficient but it was faster than walking, and many upper-class young men found it an amusing pastime,” according to the museum’s website. In the early 1860s, two other Frenchmen, Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement, came up with the idea of adding a mechanical crank drive with pedals on a huge front wheel. They called their device the velocipede. By the end of the decade, the front wheel had shrunk down to the same size as the rear wheel, and tubular steel frames and wheels with wire spokes were introduced. Next came pneumatic tires and chain drives.
An Englishman, J.K. Starley, is credited with developing the first modern bicycle, the Rover, in 1885, according to The Independent. The century ended with what’s known as the Golden Age of Bicycles, when the pedal-powered two-wheelers became a primary mode of transportation, alongside the venerable horse and buggy and the rapidly encroaching motor vehicle.
The bicycle has been an integral part of most of our childhoods, and most every adult I know has at least one bike in the garage. Today, concerns about climate change, an increasingly health-conscious population, and growing congestion on our roads has led to what might be considered a second Golden Age of Bicycles. The Bicycle Guider website claims there are more than 1 billion bikes in the world — nearly half of them in China. The United States a distant No. 2 with an estimated bicycle population of 100 million. But between 1990 and 2009, the website claims, the number of U.S. bike trips more than doubled, from 1.8 billion to 4 billion — and that was before e-bikes became a thing.
In September 2013, the SANDAG board of directors approved the Regional Bike Plan Early Action Program, a $200 million initiative to expand the San Diego County bike network with an additional 77 miles of bikeways, and to finish high-priority projects within a decade.
Catherine Blakespear agrees that bicycles will never be the dominant mode of transportation, but argues that a minute switch would be beneficial.
Photograph courtesy Catherine Blakespear
This ambitious goal has not been met, due to a variety of factors, including financing and governmental in-fighting. In an opinion piece published last August in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Jacob Mandel — until recently, the advocacy manager at the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition — wrote, “Eight years into the program, only 12 miles of bikeways are complete. There are an additional 13 miles under construction now, and an additional 31.5 miles of bikeway projects are nearing construction. While we are making progress, we need more of it.”
One project “nearing construction” is the 2.3-mile Pershing Bikeway, which features buffered bike lanes and separate paths for bicyclists and pedestrians. The project was supposed to be completed in 2018, but design disagreements between the city, county, and SDG&E led to a delay. “Despite being a priority for the region’s bicycle network due to high speeds and lack of adequate bicycle or pedestrian infrastructure, the delay allowed the street’s dangerous design to stay in place,” Mandel wrote. “Tragically, architect Laura Shinn was killed while cycling along Pershing Drive on July 20 in the northbound bicycle lane by a driver who struck her from behind. If our government agencies had worked together to resolve design issues and delivered the project when promised initially, the location where Laura Shinn was riding would have been a bikeway completely separated from vehicle traffic. The driver would have hit the curb separating the roadway rather than cross into the bike lane, possibly preventing the crash that killed Shinn.”
Another impediment to bike lane construction is opposition from critics as well as elected officials who believe government should focus more on widening and otherwise improving roadways than on catering to what they consider the very small percentage of people who regularly ride their bikes. In a hilly, sprawling area like San Diego County, the vast majority of people will never abandon their cars for bicycles, they say.
These critics are missing the point, argues Catherine Blakespear, mayor of Encinitas and chair of the San Diego Association of Regional Governments (SANDAG). She agrees that bicycles will never be anywhere near the dominant mode of transportation, but argues that even a minute switch would be beneficial. “Congestion [on our freeways and roads] is created in the last 5 percent to 10 percent, and if we can even get just 5 percent of commuters to ride their bikes instead of drive, we would reduce congestion, and people would enjoy themselves and their lives much more than sitting in traffic for hours,” she says. “Having a car as the only option is just really not what we want as humans.”
Peder Norby envisions a future in which the car will share the road with a range of “micromobility” options.
Photograph by Thomas K. ARnold
Blakespear maintains most destinations to which people drive — work, school, the store — are less than five miles from where they live. “And then there are all these kids between the ages of 10 and 16 who cannot drive and could be riding their bike,” she says. “But because we haven’t truly accomplished a bike network that is safe for kids to ride, we have all these parents circling around schools and soccer practice and the beach. It’s worth investing in building the bike infrastructure so more people can ride more places and we can improve people’s lives.”
Carlsbad City Councilman Peder Norby — a former San Diego County planning commissioner and consultant for the cities of Carlsbad and Encinitas (among other clients) on land use, transportation, energy and agriculture — agrees. “I want to draw an analogy,” he says. “Years ago, the blufftop along the Coast Highway in Carlsbad, from Pine to Tamarack, was just asphalt ending in dirt. It was a place you just wouldn’t walk; fewer than 100 people a day would walk there, even though the bluff was directly overlooking the beach and ocean. Then, in 1985, the city built a facility that made it very safe for pedestrians — a blufftop walkway and a lower seawall. And, almost overnight, you went from a few dozen pedestrians to a few thousand people a day. Why? It’s because they felt safe and comfortable and protected. We can do the same with bikes. As long as it’s not safe, we’re not going to get there. But if you can find a way to make it safe, I believe the same thing will happen. That’s why I’m really excited about the future.”
And how, exactly, can we make bike riding safer? Experts say the safest option is what’s called a Class I Bike Path, completely separate from vehicular traffic and reserved exclusively for bicyclists and pedestrians. Examples include the San Luis Rey River Bike Trail in Oceanside, which runs alongside the San Luis Rey River; the Mission Beach Boardwalk along the ocean, from the tip of the Mission Beach isthmus north to Palisades Park in Pacific Beach; Bayside Walk, which winds around west Mission Bay; and 13 miles of San Diego’s famed 24-mile Bayshore Bikeway, which follows the San Diego Bay shoreline from Imperial Beach through Coronado. “They are absolutely the safest,” Norby says. “But in many cases, there’s simply no room to build them.”
Bicyclist using sharrows where bike lane and pedestrian walkway converge on Encinitas Coast Highway.
Photograph by Thomas K. ARnold
But Nevo Magnezi, secretary and board director of local advocacy group BikeSD, counters, “There is room to build them, but not everyone prioritizes them over parking or building other infrastructure like freeways.” In its “Riding to 2050: San Diego Regional Bicycle Plan,” adopted in 2010, SANDAG called for a total of 227.8 miles of Class I Bike Paths by 2050, with 159.3 miles already in existence. Since then, only about 20 miles of additional Class I Bike Paths have been built —with the most recent one being the 2.1-mile Rose Creek Bike Path, which opened in May 2021.
The next level of protection are Class II Bike Lanes, which originally consisted only of white stripes painted on asphalt, with the words “bike lane” and silhouettes of bicycles in the center. Some are buffered, with an extra stripe of paint to create a narrow strip of no-man’s-land between cars and bikes. In recent years, various local governments have stepped up efforts to paint more and more bike lanes, including those in Carlsbad and Coronado, while others — including the city of San Diego — have experimented with giving some of those lanes bold paint jobs to better stand out.
These efforts have not always worked out well. In January 2013, KPBS reported that city of San Diego road crews had scrubbed out a brightly painted bike lane on busy Montezuma Road leading into San Diego State University “after realizing the lane made the area no safer, and possibly more dangerous.” The diagonal, neon-green bike lane, which showed where bicyclists should cross through the right-turning traffic at Collwood Boulevard, gave bicyclists a false sense of security, prompting the city to backtrack just four months after the painting was done. City traffic department spokesman Bill Harris told KPBS, “We were a little concerned that drivers were not going to slow, not going to notice the bicyclists as much as they should, given the fact that we seemed to be encouraging the bicyclists to cross through that lane non-stop.”
More than two years later, in September 2015, angry residents converged on Coronado City Hall to protest the new bike lanes city crews had been painting on the island city’s streets over the summer. One speaker chastised councilmembers for “covering Coronado with paint stripe pollution,” according to a San Diego Union-Tribune report. Another said, “The graffiti on the streets does not help our property values,” while a third maintained, “It’s very similar to personally taking all three of my daughters to a tattoo parlor and having them completely body tattooed.”
Lately, there’s been a move to install protective barriers between bike and car lanes — either asphalt or concrete curbs, or plastic “candlesticks,” or sometimes both — to create what are called “cycle tracks,” or Class IV bikeways. Encinitas recently did this along the Coast Highway, from Chesterfield Drive in Cardiff south to Solana Beach, and also along portions of Leucadia Boulevard. Says Blakespear, “I think one of the most exciting things we’ve done in my years as mayor has been building these protective barriers along a mile and half-long stretch of Coast Highway so people can ride to the beach safely without having to be right next to cars going 50 mph. The fear of getting hit by a car or truck is what keeps people from riding their bikes in unprotected bike lanes. If you want people to ride bikes, you need to protect them, and it makes sense that when you have a physical curb or candlestick, cars are not going to drift over into the bike lane. I’ve felt great fear in bike lanes myself, and I think protected bike lanes are something we should invest in.”
But some of the most vehement opposition to protected bike lanes has come from bicyclists themselves. They say the protected lanes make bicyclists feel they don’t have to be as careful as they would be in traffic lanes, and limit their ability to swerve around pedestrians or other cyclists. Serge Issakov, a 20-year member of the San Diego Bicycle Club who serves on the city of San Diego’s Mobility Board, maintains that “when you put up a barrier, you also put up a mental barrier. Bicyclists feel safe — that’s the whole selling point. But the flip of feeling safe is they are less careful because they feel nothing can happen to them, so they’re not paying as much attention. The push for physically separated cycling infrastructure implies that it’s necessary for cycling safety,” he adds. “The underlying message is that cycling on roads is inherently unsafe ,and that message, in and of itself, is very discouraging to cycling. I go so far as to call it anti-cycling advocacy, because it’s so discouraging.”
Blakespear says the bicyclists who oppose protected bike lanes constitute a small minority of “vehicular bicyclists” who want bikes to have parity with cars. “They are very experienced cyclists who feel comfortable acting like a car, and when people in spandex and in large groups feel comfortable acting like a car, they don’t understand why other people don’t,” she says. “We’ve been putting paint on the ground for 30 years, hoping more people will ride their bikes, and it hasn’t happened.”
BikeSD’s Magnezi says the concept of “vehicular bicycling” dates back to a 1976 book by John Forester called Effective Cycling, which argued that cars and bikes should share the road. According to a 2016 Los Angeles Times editorial, Forester argued that “cyclists shouldn’t cower in the gutters, but should assert their place in the middle of a lane, where they should be afforded equal treatment by operators of motor vehicles — and the law.” But that philosophy is dying out in favor of building separate lanes for bikes, “blissfully segregated from bus and auto traffic by a physical partition,” according to the Times.
Magnezi says he’s had discussions with other bicycle advocacy groups throughout the state, “and most of them haven’t had that sort of discourse in more than a decade. You only have that assortment of vehicular bicyclists here, in San Diego County. And they’re essentially saying, ‘You don’t need to accommodate us — the safest thing is for us to act like vehicles.’ But I think that kind of perspective only applies to a very small percentage of bicyclists. We have BikeSD members who go biking with their kids, and they’re not going to take any lane on any street where the speed limit is 25 mph or greater. They’re just not comfortable. We have meetups at a coffee shop on Park Boulevard, and one of our volunteers lives just off that street, but says she would never bike even a short distance on Park.”
If anything, vehicular cyclists have pushed for more “sharrows” — marked traffic lanes where drivers are reminded that they are legally required to share the road with bicyclists, even if the bikes are traveling at a reduced speed. Sharrows are an increasingly common component of what’s known as Class III Bike Routes, which generally are designated only by signs. “I like sharrows a lot, for a couple of reasons,” Issakov says. “One is it tells the motorist that bicyclists are allowed to be there. But more importantly, it tells bicyclists that they are allowed to ride in the middle of the lane. It makes them so much more visible and makes motorists see you so much sooner.”
Critics, however, say sharrows are a nightmare, with bicyclists who exercise their legal right to use the full lane potentially triggering dangerous road rage from the motorists stuck behind them. South Pacific Street in Oceanside is a prime example, they say, with angry motorists patiently driving behind bikes until there’s no traffic in the opposite direction and then swerving around the bicyclists at high speed —which endangers pedestrians crossing the street to get to the beach.
“I don’t think sharrows are great,” Blakespear says. “They put cars in the middle of bicycles, and for most people, that does not work.”
“Sharrows are sometimes the worst of all options,” adds Norby. “They work better on low-speed roads where there are two or more lanes. Of all the iterations you can go through to promote bike riding, you start at sharrows only if there really is no other option.”
Another controversial way to make biking safer is through something called “road diets,” in which a two-lane road is reduced to one lane and the extra space is used for a bike lane or sharrows. In 2015, a half-mile stretch of the Coast Highway south of Oceanside Boulevard known as “The Dip” was put on a road diet after a bicyclist was killed. Four lanes of traffic were reduced to two, and buffered bike lanes were installed. The section of road that is now just one lane remains a source of frustration to motorists, as it has become a bottleneck that is more often than not congested. But observers predict more road diets along the Coast Highway all through coastal North County as it is recast from a primary artery to more of a scenic byway.
“From my perspective as a bike rider, the most dangerous thing is relative speed,” Norby says. “If you’re on a bike and you get hit by a 4000-pound car, the rate of speed of that car is going to determine whether you live or you die. And if you look at the Coast Highway in general, the posted speed limits have been steadily decreasing. Most of it is now 35 mph; in the 1950s and early 1960s, it was Highway 5 before there was a Highway 5 and the speed limit was 65 or 70. Overall, we are in the process of rebalancing our roads. Our roads are for everyone, and we have classifications for roads. The interstate transportation system is one type of road, and that’s for cars only. Then there are prime arterials, which are mostly for cars, but we’re making room for other modes of transportation as well, because we want to give people choices. And then there are residential streets that I call jambalaya — they’re for everyone, and you’re already seeing cars, bikes, pedestrians, people walking their dogs.”
Norby envisions a near future in which the car may still be the dominant form of transportation, but it will be greener and cleaner and share the road with a range of “micromobility” options: small, lightweight vehicles that zoom along at modest speeds, generally less than 20 mph, and are driven by users personally. Micromobility devices include bicycles, e-bikes, electric scooters, electric skateboards, and, in the future, enclosed, single- or two-seat electric vehicles. “We can look back and say the way to get across America was covered wagons, and that worked until about 1865, when all of a sudden you could take a train across the country, and now railroads were the primary means of transportation and, poof, covered wagons were gone. Then came cars and freeways and airplanes. Our transportation choices have changed dramatically three or four times over the last 150 years, so you would be unwise to think that they will never change again. That flies in the face of history and in the face of progress. But we’re still in the preseason. The game hasn’t begun.”
Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean the fight isn’t on. Right now, there’s a growing backlash against a recent innovation, one that clean transportation advocates believe will finally make biking a viable alternative to the car, particularly for short trips around town: the electric bike. According to Cycle Industry News, sales of e-bikes surged 145% from 2019 to 2020. And as of July, according to StreetsBlogUSA, Americans are buying e-bikes — which generally retail in the $1500 to $2000 range — at a clip of one every 52 seconds. A surge of this magnitude is bound to create problems, particularly in beach communities like those in coastal North County — where Nextdoor, the social networking site for neighborhoods, has become a popular sounding board for complaints about e-bikes. “Every kid I see around here has an electric bike. What happened to good old-fashioned exercise on a regular bike and not spending that kind of money for kids that shouldn’t be on them anyway?” wrote one “neighbor” on the Olde Carlsbad microsite. “My worry is I see kids ALL the time without helmets, swerving on the street because they’re busy talking to each other, and two and three people on one bike literally with one hanging off the back end. What are these parents thinking???” Wrote another: “I almost ran over some kids riding those e-bikes today. No helmet. Not about to tell someone else’s kid what to do, but helmets are always a great idea….” A third added, “It’s going to take a lot of kids getting killed or mangled on these bikes before the lawmakers finally step in and make it so people have to have a driver’s license and wear a helmet before they get on these bikes.” Finally, a fourth: “Two days ago, I was on Donna Drive in Carlsbad and three young girls on ONE E bike zipped through the Basswood Stop sign. The driver couldn’t have been more than 12 years old and the two others looked a little younger, no helmets.” Similar chatter can be found on Nextdoor sites for Encinitas, where in June, critics began circulating a petition to ban e-bikes from the Moonlight Beach area.
But advocates say there’s a learning curve for everything, and e-bikes are no exception. “I think it’s natural growing pains,” says Norby. “When you’re a teenager, you are somewhat immune to the ills of the world, and you think you’re bulletproof. But if you’re on a bike and you collide with a 4000-pound car, you’re going to lose. I look at today’s behavior and the outreach communities are doing and it’s a lot better than it was last year. Kids are wearing helmets, slowing down and stopping at stop signs. It really is an education and enforcement issue — and I’m happy they’re not in a car.”
Norby calls e-bikes “a game changer” and believes their growing popularity will lead to a surge in biking, which is a good thing, in his eyes. “A traditional bike is good for some, particularly a young athletic person, but for most of us, with the first big hill, we’re done. I’m 60 years old and I can get to the downtown village, two miles away from my house, in a few minutes.” He maintains that virtually everyone who lives in a small town or city is no more than five miles away from that town or city’s downtown, “and that is eminently bikeable.”
“Five years ago, we had a French exchange student who would ride her electric bicycle to school and she was thought to be odd,” Norby concludes. “You hardly ever saw electric bikes, and when you did, it was for someone old or with bad knees. Now, just about every high schooler is on an e-bike, and we have all age groups, from junior high to 70-year-olds, back on bikes. That’s a massive change in consumer adoption. And every single one of these people is not in a car, which cuts down on both pollution and congestion. Each of these kids is not being driven by mom or dad to the beach, or to school. The emissions aspect is real. I don’t care what you think about climate change, but I do know what Southern California was like in the 1970s and ‘80s – our air quality was just awful. Today our air is a lot better, and I know that’s because of the transportation choices we’ve made — beginning in the early ‘70s with catalytic converters and then the push for better gas mileage and, more recently, with electric cars and hybrids. So every time I see someone on an electric bike, that’s one less car that’s on the road. And that is something to be celebrated and encouraged.”
Blakespear agrees. “Electric bikes are transforming the way people get around,” she says. “Kids and adults have independence and the freedom to go much longer distances [than on regular bikes]. The important thing — and we’re doing this in Encinitas now — is to support efforts to better educate kids about safety, speed, riding in the right direction, and following traffic laws, which a lot of kids just aren’t doing. Electric bikes are one more form of transportation, and I think they’re here to stay. My entire family has electric bikes; my kids are 12 and 14 and ride them to the beach and around the city, and my husband rides his to work in Oceanside, and it’s great.”
But David Drake, a San Diego sheriff’s deputy, says that with the increase in e-bikes on the road, his department has seen an increase in complaints. Among the biggest safety issues are riders doubling up on a single-seat e-bike, not wearing helmets. and disregarding traffic laws. Riders younger than 17 are required to wear helmets while on Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes, which can reach speeds of up to 20 mph. And all riders on Class 3 e-bikes, which can reach 28 mph, are required to wear helmets, Drake says. “It is very important to understand that the e-bike must be designed to carry passengers, and the same helmet laws apply to the rider as they do the passenger,” he says. “Most of the e-bikes I see transporting passengers are not designed for them, or the rider is not experienced or mature enough to safely transport a passenger.” Drake disagrees with Norby’s contention that things are improving. “There are more e-bikes than last year,” he says, “so that is a bit like comparing apples to oranges.”
On August 31, the cities of Encinitas and Solana Beach hosted an online e-bike safety forum to share safety tips, laws, and other information for riders to know. More educational outreach efforts are underway. “The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has partnered with the cities of Encinitas, Solana Beach and Del Mar to conduct online forums to discuss e-bike safety and help raise awareness to specific e-bike classifications and regulations,” Drake says. “The San Diego Bike Coalition also reached out to the North Coastal station and we are beginning to participate in some school-based presentations with live riding skills after a short classroom discussion.”
Magnezi notes that state and local governments are working on ways to put even more people onto e-bikes. California’s E-Bike Affordability Program, which is scheduled to begin in July 2022, will provide $10 million in subsidies to help people buy e-bikes. SANDAG is also eyeing incentives. “My partner and I moved to San Diego three years ago and didn’t bring a car,” he says. “My partner bought an e-bike, opened a small business in Liberty Station, and every day, she takes her e-bike from our home in Hillcrest to her business. It really makes a difference. I think a lot of people would be interested in biking a few miles regularly, but riding a [non-electric] bike any further than that is more challenging for a lot of people.” And from an environmental angle, he says, both the battery and the bike are much smaller and lighter than a car, Magnezi says, “so you’re using a fraction of the resources to get the same results, which is to get to work or the grocery store.”