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Last June, I was in Cambridge, Mass. for a conference and I noticed something that made me think for a long time about San Diego.

There were bicycles everywhere. Here was a city that was kind of cold, even in June (I know, that’s a really San Diego thing to say about 55-degree weather but it was chilly). And bicycles dominated the landscape. They had nice lanes. They seemed to be fluid with the traffic, not something that seemed out of place — something you have to avoid.

It just seemed healthier and I couldn’t understand why, in sunny San Diego, we have no similar scenes. It’s almost like the only place you see a lot of bicycles concentrated is on the grounds of NASSCO, where employees zip around on really beat up bikes. I know there’s a lot of recreational bicycling and I know several people who do more than that. But nothing close to what I saw in Cambridge.

What’s more, it seems like I’ve heard a lot about bicyclists hurt in collisions with cars. There was obviously the accident that put KPBS’ Tom Fudge on the sidelines for a while and made him a passionate advocate for change.

Is San Diego not only behind other cities in bicycle culture or is it worse? I really enjoy reading Kathy Keehan’s perspective on some things. She’s the executive director of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition. She’s the one you are on a board and you need a two-wheel perspective.

What is she paying attention to in 2010? I asked her to respond to the series of questions I’ve been asking.

(Remember, to catch up on what I’m doing, you can read the intro here along with the interviews with: Marco Li Mandri, Marco Gonzalez, Lorena Gonzalez, Dianne Jacob, Gil Cabrera, Tom Shepard, Carl DeMaio and Walt Ekard.)

Is it just me, or are more people being hurt in automobile to bicycle accidents these days?

I think it might just be you. And the rest of the media. From 2004 to 2007 (the most recent data I have available) we run between seven and 11 bicyclist fatalities a year. From the media reports I’ve seen, I think we’re around 9 or 10 for 2009. A couple of those are single-vehicle crashes, a couple more are trolley related, one was an assault, and the rest were people hit by cars or trucks.

Though I see the benefits to our health and the environment, not to mention our spirits, I would be reluctant to tell a loved one to start to ride their bike to work regularly. Can you persuade me that’s an incorrect view?

Do you let your loved ones drive? Ride in cars? Walk? Seriously, we kill about a person a day (295 in 2007) on the roads in San Diego County. That year, 11 of them were bicyclists. That’s about 4 percent, which is close to what we estimate as the total percentage of trips taken by bike.

It’s clearly still too many, but I think the media does us a disservice by reporting pretty much every bike crash on Page 1, and ignoring or putting on the back of Page 6 the carnage of people dying every day in their cars. It gives people a skewed view of their risk. If you learn safe behaviors on the bike, you minimize your risk. I think we can safely say that the risk for riding a bike (assuming you aren’t doing foolish things like riding at night with no lights, riding on the wrong side of the street, etc) is about the same or better than it is for driving a car. Plus you get all the health benefits of bike riding, which is going to help protect you from the other dangers out there, including fatty snacks. 😉

One last thought on this. There’s some pretty decent data out there that shows that simply getting more people out riding seems to make it safer for everyone. We’re not sure why this is. It could be that it sensitizes motorists to be paying attention and watching out for bicyclists. It could be that more bicyclists create social pressure for everyone to ride more safely. We don’t know. But to surrender the streets to cars is to make it less safe for everyone left who chooses to ride. So my advice to people is to get the information they need to be safer, and then go out and ride. It’s better for you, it’s better for the planet, it’s better for the community.

If there was one thing we could do now, simple, in the next year to make San Diego more friendly to a healthy bicycle culture, what would it be?

Go for a bike ride, and invite a friend along. It doesn’t have to be far, you don’t have to wear lycra, you don’t have to go fast. Just get out and enjoy a bike ride with a friend. It will remind you how fun it is to ride a bike, will motivate you to help us fix the things that make it difficult to ride a bike in San Diego, and it will remind you to look for bicyclists the next time you’re behind the wheel. If everyone did that, we’d be a long way toward making San Diego a bicycle-friendly place.

What decision will you be paying attention to the most in the coming year and who will be making it?

I’ll be paying attention to the Regional Transportation Plan process at SANDAG. San Diego is the first county to do a transportation plan under the new greenhouse gas reduction requirements from the state (AB32 and SB375) and it’s going to take some courage for our elected officials to approve a plan that meets the greenhouse gas reduction targets. More than 40 percent of the greenhouse gas production in the county is from cars and light trucks, and there’s no way of us meeting the reduction targets set by the state unless we change drastically how we get around. So I’ll be anxious to see how this plan changes direction from the plans of the past.

Who is the most promising leader in San Diego these days and what do you think he or she might do in 2010?

Oh, this is a hard one! My choice for community leader is Elyse Lowe from Move San Diego. She’s been on the job for a little while now, and really is making some waves in support of transit and non-motorized transportation options. She’s smart, passionate, and there’s no way of ignoring her. I’m looking forward to seeing her in action on the regional stage as we start to make tough decisions about how much transit is going to be a part of the future San Diego.

What else are you looking forward to in 2010?

I’m looking forward to a bunch of things in 2010. There’s going to be an energy around bicycling in the county that we haven’t seen before — I’m looking forward to seeing a new crop of cycling advocates making some noise. Even though the Tour of California isn’t coming back this year, there’s going to be some terrific events, like Bike the Bay and Tour de Fat that are going to draw big numbers. I’m looking forward to SANDAG and the city finishing their bicycle plans so we can start building some bike projects and instituting some good cycling education and encouragement programs.

Keehan’s rankings for major projects in order of priority:

An Expanded Mass Transit System — this is far and away my highest priority on the list. Without it we’ll never be a real metropolitan area, we’ll never meet our greenhouse gas targets, we’ll never manage to focus growth in the already urbanized county, and we’ll never serve those too poor, too young, too old, or too green to drive.

A New Wastewater Recycling System

An Expanded Convention Center

A New Central Library

A New City Hall

A Performing Arts Center

A Different Airport Infrastructure

A New Stadium

Keehan’s ranking of local civic problems by how much they worry her:

Infrastructure Decay

Community Health — there’s an epidemic of obesity and diabetes that’s not going away. We have to work on that.

Mass Transit Shortcomings

Municipal Budget Shortfalls

Parks and Recreation Cutbacks

Library Cutbacks or Eliminations

Water Reliability Concerns

Homelessness

School Budget Shortfalls

Water Pollution

Local Ecological Damage

Fire Protection Shortfalls

Crime

Drug Use

— SCOTT LEWIS

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