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Saturday, Dec. 30, 2006 | Kathy Keehan owns three bikes.
She rides the road bike, with its sleek, lightweight design on longer journeys. A tandem bicycle allows her to share a scenic ride with her children. The third is Keehan’s work bike, equipped with a rack to harness the loads of government paperwork she navigates for the county’s 1.8 million bicycle owners.
As executive director of San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, Keehan travels – frequently on her bike – to public meetings around the county to serve as the voice for bicyclists when agencies draw up plans for new roads, developments and public works projects.
We met up with Keehan recently on San Diego’s waterfront to discuss the challenges of maneuvering San Diego – be it a bike on the region’s hilly terrain, or public policy in the corridors of power.
So, you lobby for bicyclists?
We’re a nonprofit advocacy group, and we have about 1,000 members. Basically our job is to be a voice for cyclists in San Diego County. I end up usually going to a lot of public meetings, saying, “Hey, don’t forget about bike lanes on those roads,” and, “Hey, what about education programs for cyclists and drivers?” and “Hey, what about a great bike path along the San Diego River?”
We also work with enforcement folks to make sure that, if there’s crashes, are we making sure that everyone is following the laws that they’re supposed to be following …
I think [our activism] is growing. We’ve gone from being a fringe organization, you know, “those crazy bicyclists.” Now people are starting to realize that, when you walk down the street and meet your neighbor, they’re bicyclists too. Here are some stats: 58 percent of the people in the county own bikes … and 29 percent have ridden in the past 12 months. That’s a huge number of people in San Diego who are out there riding right now. Because we’re so small and inconspicuous, people don’t realize how many bicyclists are out there. But they’re starting to realize.
Why is it important for bicyclists to have that voice? Are they left out of the process without advocates such as yourself?
If you’re not heard, things get worse rather than better, and we don’t want that to happen in San Diego.
San Diego is a beautiful place to ride. You can’t beat the weather, you can’t beat the scenery. There’s a million great places to ride in San Diego, but if we let it become a bad place to ride, then we’ve missed a huge opportunity.
And San Diego is known for being a great place to bicycle?
Bicycling Magazine said we are the top metropolitan area over 1 million people. We’re pretty proud of that. You know, it’s exciting on one hand, but it also raises the expectations of people who come here.
Some of them are used to going to Davis or to Portland or even to Chicago, where they’re doing some really amazing things with their bicycling and bicycle infrastructure. That’s a pretty high standard to live up to.
What are those places doing that is so unique?
They’re emphasizing the bicycle as a mode of transportation. In every transportation decision, they’re making sure that they consider the needs of bicyclists. We’re getting there in San Diego. We’re a lot bigger than Portland or Davis.
We tend to find that communities that are denser are much better for bicycling. For example, I live in Rancho Bernardo: For me to come downtown, that’s 25 miles here, 25 miles back. That’s too far me to do on the bike by itself. I have to combine it with transit. We’re pretty sprawled out.
If you live in Escondido, you run errands in Escondido, you shop in Escondido, you work in Escondido, how do you make that bicycling infrastructure work for people?
What community in the county is the most bicycle-friendly?
You’re going to make me play favorites? Hmm, it’s got to be Coronado. About 9 percent of the trips in Coronado are by bike. That’s a huge number. I think it’s because it’s relatively denser with short distances. It’s hard to get on and off Coronado, so they’re less likely to do those long trips if they have the choice. They’ll say, “I’ll go to the drug store here rather than to the Target in National City.”
And, they’ve got some good infrastructure in Coronado. They’ve got a good grid network to get you where you need to go, the traffic speeds are slow. There are enough bicyclists there that people expect to see bicyclists, and that makes it easier.
Also, all along the North Coast. If you’re out there on a Saturday, they are riding down Pacific Coast Highway. There are thousands of cyclists down there every weekend. Especially with the triathlon movement that is happening in North County, there has been just an explosion of folks whose training takes them out to the coast.
What are some of the big accomplishments that have been made recently in the local communities?
The biggest one is the TransNet ordinance, where we passed that half-cent sales tax for transportation infrastructure. As part of that ordinance, we’ve earmarked 2 percent of that money for bike and pedestrian infrastructure. It’s a small percentage, but it’s probably going to work itself out to $280 million over that 40 years. That’s a lot of infrastructure we’ll get to build.
Do you have political counterpart in the pedestrian community to wrestle with over that money?
(Laughs.) Walk San Diego is the pedestrian group in town. We work together very well, so I don’t anticipate there will be too much arm wrestling.
San Diego’s topography, with the mesas and canyons, must make it difficult to be a casual bicyclist.
It’s a challenge for some people. It depends on why you’re bicycling. If you’re looking for a workout, then yeah, you want to go in and out of Mission Valley a couple of times.
But for most people, who are doing the commuting, so long as you are staying on top of the mesas, you’re pretty good. It becomes a challenge when, you know, you live in Normal Heights and you want to go to Fashion Valley to shop and come back.
For commuting, it definitely is a challenge. … We have data from the census that asks, “How did you get to work yesterday?” About half a percent of people are bike-commuting every day. We think that number is a lot higher, because it doesn’t catch the combination trips. There are a lot of people – like say they live in Carlsbad – they bike down to the station, they get on the Coaster and come downtown. That counts as a transit trip, not a bike trip.
There are definitely some challenges in San Diego. We’ve done planning here over the past 25 or 30 years that hasn’t given much thought to, “How does a bicycle get through this intersection?” or, “How does a bicyclist navigate Pacific Highway and Barnett?”
Does your group have specific goals?
Our goal is to see more people learn about bicycling and, if they can, try it. The big hurdle we have is that people think about it as, “I’m going to bike instead of driving. I’m going to give up my car and just bike.” That is a big leap for a lot of people. What we try do is get them to think about easing into it. If everyone rode their bike one day a week, we could cut our traffic down by 20 percent.
What type of people are involved in the bicycle coalition?
Mostly avid bicyclists. The coalition is set up so we have a lot of bike club members: the type of folks you see riding out there on Saturday mornings … and then there is a big chunk of folks who just embrace bicycling as part of their lives. They want to be able to do it for everything, not just to go to the grocery store, not just for recreation. And, a lot of people have a very strong environmental bent to that. We attract a lot of environmentalists.
San Francisco’s coalition is very aggressive in its activism, known for staging “critical mass” demonstrations that can paralyze the city’s streets once a month on Friday afternoons. Is there a similar movement afoot in San Diego?
There is a critical mass movement in San Diego. They ride through Balboa Park on the last Friday of every month. We’re starting to talk to those folks about what their advocacy needs are, and what is it that they really want to get out of that critical mass movement. We work a lot more within the system, we think that’s more effective, but there’s certainly a place for people to be loud about the things that they need.
Are there projects or planning decisions coming up soon that you have your eyes set on making your pitch to the powers that be?
I have a list of about 99 projects that are actively going on in San Diego County right now. We’ve done the easy stuff, but now it’s time to do the harder, more expensive infrastructure.
Do you have a favorite bicycle route?
Depends on what I’m doing. If I’m taking my kids, I like to do the Bayshore Bikeway, which starts right here (near the Port District’s cruise ship terminal) and goes along the San Diego Bay. You end up in Coronado and you can take the ferry back. It’s a beautiful ride, very nice.
I’m looking forward to San Diego River, and we’re going to do a chunk of that next year. It’s going to be a very gorgeous place to ride.
Do you have a name for your bikes?
(Laughs.) No, but I probably should.