How to Build Bike Lanes in North Park

Late last year, I started to advocate for bike lanes on 30th Street between Juniper and Redwood so I could ride safely with my family. I assumed it was a bit of a lost cause and I wouldn’t get anywhere. But I was surprised when almost 300 people signed a petition in support, we got support from the City’s Bicycle Advisory Board, later the North Park Maintenance District, and now Councilmember Ward’s office has been working with the City to study options to expand the project all the way up to El Cajon Boulevard. To be clear, I am not claiming credit for this: interest in adding bike lanes to 30th Street dates back almost a decade, if not more. The issue came back to the forefront given the upcoming repaving following the pipeline replacement project. I’m just happy to be a part of it.

The options for adding bike lanes on 30th Street will be coming to the North Park Planning Committee in the coming months. But what should these lanes look like? We can’t ignore that the physical space is limited and adding bike lanes will require the removal of an existing feature. As talks progressed, I noticed that the conversation is often unmoored from principles and no one really knows where to start the conversation. Once I started looking into the issue, I was surprised that the plans governing our city already address the issues we are grappling with on 30th Street and direct how the planning process should occur. I decided to write up what I found to help concentrate the discussion on what matters. Here’s what I found.

Step One: Realize the City Already Committed to Adding Bike Lanes, We Are Only Debating Which Design to Implement.

The design of our City is governed by the General Plan and all the plans under it. Let’s start with the specific and then broaden out. The Bicycle Master Plan and the North Park Community Plan designate 30th Street as the site for bike lanes of some design. The plans designate 30th Street as what’s known as a “Class III Bike Route,” which is what is currently in place and means no actual bike lanes, just the sharrows in the lanes shared with cars. In places, the plans suggest “Class II” lanes, which are the painted stripes on the side of the road. But when these plans are placed in context, it’s obvious they establish only the bare minimum and the city already committed to doing much more in our neighborhood. This recognition is baked into these plans, which expressly state that the City should consider the designations to be only rough recommendations and the City should “strive” to upgrade to something better when possible.

So what else guides our discussion? As many will remember, the Climate Action Plan was passed just shortly before the North Park Community Plan and set the goal of increasing the percentage of people commuting by bike to six percent in “transit priority areas,” like most of 30th Street, by 2020 and eighteen percent by 2035. Although there are no clear numbers at this point, we are closer to about a two percent share of commuters going by bike, probably a little less.

The Climate Action Plan (CAP) goals shaped the debate about the North Park Community Plan, one of the first passed after the CAP. When the community plan was being crafted, an analysis by the city showed that the proposed street design in the adopted plan was not enough, standing alone, to get the City to meet its CAP goals. This threatened to scuttle the whole plan if the City couldn’t get the support of advocates and even then-Councilmember Todd Gloria, responsible in many ways for the CAP. When the proposed community plan was before a council subcommittee, Gloria moved to advance the plan to the City Council, but without a recommendation. Throughout the process, Gloria sent the signal that more work was needed.

As a first step, the City made some changes to the community plan after acknowledging the proposal was not enough to hit the CAP targets. Rather than a complete redesign, the City argued that the street design in the community plan wasn’t the exclusive plan, but rather only the beginning of a redesign of the community. In an analysis, the City explained that the community plan “does not account for other programs and policies that would be implemented throughout the life of the community plans, such as additional bicycle and pedestrian improvements whenever street resurfacing occurs, as feasible.” To make sure these “additional” policies weren’t empty promises, the city amended the proposed plan to make sure they happen. As amended, the section on Sustainability and Conservation includes a commitment to planning additional bike lanes in coordination with street resurfacing:

This amendment was still not enough to fully appease the skeptics. Between the subcommittee hearing and the final City Council hearing, the City conducted a new analysis to try to quantify these additional measures. One of the measures considered was to upgrade bicycle routes beyond the express design in the community plan.  The city planners “recommended space previously dedicated to on-street parking be converted to new high class bicycle facilities.” In addition to the measures related to upgraded bicycle facilities, many of the other measures centered on addressing car parking. Considered altogether, the city was sending the signal that it intended to upgrade bike facilities and make automobile parking less attractive to help shift people from cars to bikes.

Despite these changes, Councilmember Gloria was still concerned the plan wasn’t sufficient to shift people away from cars. During the hearing, planning staff (at around 4:57 in this video) promised: “If we see that we’re not making the progress in the right direction, we can come up with options, and that may be including options that we reopen some of these community plans.” Gloria clarified that they would make that commitment within the next “four years or so” and staff confirmed that was correct. Ultimately, Gloria agreed to approve the community plan only with the amendment that “STAFF DEVELOP A PROCESS FOR TRIGGERING THE REOPENING OF THE COMMUNITY PLAN, AS DESCRIBED BY STAFF, IF MODE SHARE GOALS ARE NOT ON TARGET IN THE NEXT 5 YEARS.”

The plan was passed over three years ago and I don’t think anyone would claim we’ve made any significant progress on improving the share of cyclists on our roads. If we don’t start work now, the city will be obligated to restart the community planning process in a year and a half. To fulfill its existing obligations, the city needs to get to work now to do the maximum possible bike improvements.

This lack of progress hasn’t gone unnoticed.  Despite being over five years old now, much of the Bicycle Master Plan hasn’t been updated. To try to move things along, the city passed an implementation plan for the Bike Master Plan, promising to, among other things, “leverage coordination of street resurfacing to take advantage of opportunities for progressive design standards to facilitate safer mobility, including . . protected bikeways . . . where feasible.”

Considered together, these commitments by the city demonstrate that the bike facilities written into the plans are the minimum standard. As these documents demonstrate, the city committed to adding additional bike lanes, even if converting space dedicated to parking is necessary, in conjunction with street resurfacing whenever it is “feasible” or “possible.” So what’s possible? And how does the City think we should design bike lanes?

Step Two: Select a Design Consistent With City Policy

Before we get down to the nitty gritty, we need to start at some high level policies. As mentioned above, the General Plan is the “constitution for development” of our City and includes the strategies and policies that are supposed to guide city staff when making decisions.

The General Plan includes a Mobility Element, which states that the overall goal “is to further the attainment of a balanced, multi- modal transportation network that gets us where we want to go and minimizes environmental and neighborhood impacts. A balanced network is one in which each mode, or type of transportation, is able to contribute to an efficient network of services meeting varied user needs.”

When it comes to bikes, the General Plan Mobility Element adopts the Bike Master Plan, but includes a few nuggets germane to our design issues on 30th Street. Broadly, the City commits to “Upgrade existing roadways to enhance bicycle travel, where feasible.” More specifically, the Mobility Element addresses a conflict we will be dealing with on 30th Street between street parking and bike lanes. Although not declaring a clear winner in that battle, the General Plan includes a policy to “Judiciously limit or prohibit on street parking where needed to improve safety, or to implement multi-modal facilities such as bikeways, transit ways, and parkways.

We shouldn’t be unreasonable about it, but the presumption is in favor of limiting or prohibiting on-street parking where needed for the safety of bikeways.

So what policies should govern our design? Back down at the Community Plan, the Mobility Element includes an important concept known as “complete streets.” One of the top goals of the community plan is to implement “[a] safe and efficient roadway designed with Complete Streets concepts that balance all modes of transportation.” The plan explains the “community’s Complete Streets strategy would focus improvements within the existing rights-of-way, with an emphasis on walking, bicycling, and transit.” The plan defines the term, focusing on designing infrastructure for “all ages and abilities”:

Considered together, these broad policies, combined with the defined commitments described above, direct staff to:

  1. Add additional bikeways in conjunction with resurfacing when feasible;
  2. Use progressive design standards to facilitate safer mobility, including protected bikeways;
  3. Judiciously convert space previously dedicated to on-street parking to new high class bicycle facilities where needed to improve safety; and
  4. Design the street with everyone in mind, for people of all ages and abilities using multiple modes of transit in lieu of auto-oriented streets that are designed to primarily accommodate the automobile.

So how do we do this specifically? San Diego has been working on a bikeway design guide for years but still hasn’t finished it. In the meantime, the City’s Street Design Manual directs staff to follow other guides like the Caltrans Design Manual, the FHWA Separated Bike Lane Planning and Design Guide, and the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide.

Most of these guides aren’t very helpful in selecting a specific design; they simply help with specifics after a design is selected. But one guide addresses the exact question framed by city policies: which bike lane design should we select to create a street that can be used by all ages and abilities?

The NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide is often considered to set the most progressive design standards in the country. Helpfully, the guide recently added a section on “Designing for All Ages & Abilities.” This is the same precise phrase used in the North Park Community Plan.

NACTO provides a simple framework for designing bikeways that are (1) Safe, (2) Comfortable, and (3) Equitable. In an easy-to-use chart, NACTO focuses on three main criteria: traffic speed, traffic volume, and number of automobile lanes.

So what do we have on 30th Street? The speed limit varies from 25-35 miles per hour (although NACTO recommends looking at the 95th percentile speed rather than the speed limit, but I don’t have that data). About 13,000 cars use the street on average every day. And there is one lane in each direction. Plugging these criteria into NACTO’s chart, the choice is clear: a protected bicycle lane. The chart reinforces this design choice when the street includes frequent bus service, just like 30th Street.

But is a protected bikeway even possible on 30th Street? Remember, the city policies all focus on what is “feasible” or “possible” when adding bike lanes with resurfacing, not pie-in-the-sky dreams. Luckily, a city engineer already considered this question and concluded in a memo (unfortunately not online) that a protected bikeway (known as a Class IV facility) is possible:

The City notes that the street will have to be modified to remove parking, but such removal would be entirely in compliance with both the General Plan and the North Park Community Plan.

Considering all of these policies and guides, the only design that satisfies the City’s existing commitments under the General Plan, Bicycle Master Plan, Climate Action Plan, and North Park Community Plan is a separated, protected bikeway.

So what would protected bike lanes on 30th Street look like? The General Plan directs the city to be judicious about removing parking, so we should try to keep as much as we can. I already discussed the section south of Upas down to Juniper. North of Upas up to El Cajon Boulevard, given the road width, we could leave half the parking and have a design that looks like this:

Step Three: Find Funding

This, hopefully, may be an easy step. Most of the restriping can be done in conjunction with the street resurfacing already planned following the pipeline replacement. Any additional cost, including some barriers, can come from other sources. The planning group already designated projects to “repurpose” the streets to add bikeways as a high priority for projects financed by impact fees. At the end of 2018, the City had over $200,000 in non-budgeted funds sitting in North Park’s account. Although the use of Maintenance Assessment District funds are somewhat restricted, the MAD also has hundreds of thousands of unallocated dollars, some earmarked for beautification projects on 30th Street over Switzer Canyon. If the MAD can landscape on the sidewalk, I don’t see why it can’t landscape in some containers to provide bikeway barriers. These funds, combined, should be sufficient to handle any costs beyond those provided for already in the resurfacing project.

Step Four: Gather Community Support

The common reaction to a proposal to remove on-street parking, especially in retail areas, is the belief that any local businesses will oppose it for fear of losing business. It’s a natural reaction. But it’s a reaction unsupported by the evidence.

It turns out the bike lanes help business. Study after study after study after study after study shows that cyclists spend more in shops than drivers and that removing street parking to add bike lanes usually results in substantial increases in sales in nearby shops or, at worst, no significant negative effects.

Sure, obviously some people and shops will not support losing free, convenient parking. But far more people will be able to ride safely and start coming out to visit the street. Protected bikeways lead to cyclists feeling safer, less collisions, and a huge increase in ridership. These outcomes align with all the goals previously set by the City.

It will obviously be difficult politically to commit to removing street parking. But to not do so will conflict with existing policies found in the General Plan, the Bicycle Master Plan, the Climate Action Plan, the Vision Zero Policy, and the North Park Community Plan. Absent a compelling reason to depart from these plans, the outcome is clear: the City needs to honor its commitments and install a protected bikeway on 30th Street.

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