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Voice of San Diego’s “intrepid yet humble” Randy Dotinga recently raised our ire when he decided to pick on San Diego cyclists, including the 0.9 percent who regularly commute by bicycle. Instead of lauding these cyclists (who ride despite the hostile conditions and lack of investment made on their behalf — 0.11 percent of the Fiscal Year ’13 General Fund is devoted to bicycle projects), Dotinga instead fixated on the now-infamous San Francisco incident in which a cyclist is being prosecuted for killing a pedestrian. Dotinga opined that he had never seen a cyclist follow the rules. Dotinga followed up his original snark with a threat couched under the guise of a joke — promising to “support cyclists today by waving [his] arms and honking loudly whenever [he saw] one.” The commentary set off the usual carping from those that dislike cyclists and who need only the smallest pretext to vent against those who ride on two-wheels.
Chris Taylor, a member of BikeSD.org and a long-time resident, attorney, and everyday cyclist, invited Dotinga to go for a ride with him, hoping Dotinga might actually learn what it is like to ride on our streets. Dotinga refused the offer, stating, “San Diego streets don’t seem safe for cyclists.” This dialogue engaged Scott Lewis, VOSD’s editor, who made a point that echoed Dotinga’s fears: “For years, I’ve noticed a tension within the cycling community: Simultaneously wanting to encourage cycling while highlighting the danger.” He’s right.
So, is cycling on San Diego’s streets safe? Yes, it is. Without a doubt. Statistically, riding a bicycle is much, much safer than driving a car. The only thing safer than riding a bicycle is riding public transportation or flying. Cyclists are injured and killed but, comparatively, it is safer to ride your bike than to drive in a car.
But the real issue is not whether cycling is safe (it is) but whether riders feel safe riding on our streets. They don’t. While we live in an almost-ideal cycling climate, I am convinced that most San Diegians do not ride for transportation purposes primarily because they don’t feel safe. I’m a woman and often ride alone. I have been heckled by drivers for doing that which I am undoubtedly entitled to do: use my bicycle on our streets. I have been sworn at and had things thrown at me by drivers. I have had drivers buzz me when they want to teach me a lesson. A common taunt is to “get on the sidewalk.” The city has provided little to no leadership: instead of fostering and encouraging a sustainable, healthy mode of transportation, our leaders are virtually silent. Our criminal justice system does not protect most riders who are injured or killed — a shocking level of indifference or antipathy. On top of all that, cyclists have to deal with negative press, like Dotinga’s unprovoked screed against cyclists.
Our transportation network has been designed to accommodate those who commute by vehicle, to the detriment of all other road users. The roads have been designed for driver safety, comfort, and convenience to the detriment of virtually everyone else. BikeSD firmly believes that most San Diegans desire a safer city, a quieter city, a more sustainable city, and a more vibrant city — something cyclists promote. But our leaders have failed in their duty to make San Diego a better city. And that is the real tragedy.
In a report from the Portland Bureau of Transportation, less than 1 percent of the population are “strong and fearless” — riders who will ride no matter the road conditions. Conversely, it is abundantly clear that riders will use the streets if they feel safe and comfortable doing so. One need look no further than Long Beach or Portland to understand this to be true. Until people feel safe, they won’t ride and, if there are only a handful of riders, the city can justify its failure to build the infrastructure San Diego desperately needs. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So, cycling in San Diego is safe. But people don’t feel safe. And until they do, they likely won’t ride. My call to you is: just ride anyway.
Sam Ollinger lives in City Heights.
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