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Tijuana entrepreneur Miguel Marshall and his business partners have made it their mission to spur innovation in Tijuana.
And they’ve got their next project: a binational bike lane.
Marshall and his partners previously turned an abandoned bus terminal into a tech hub, where they housed local startups and Tijuana’s Groupon offices. His urban development firm, Centro Ventures, recognizes that fostering Tijuana’s entrepreneurial spirit means nurturing a specific urban lifestyle.
Innovation comes from youthful entrepreneurs, Marshall says, and that cohort sees things like local food, craft beer and biking to work as basic quality-of-life matters.
His long-term goal is to create a binational bike lane that crosses the border and links up with San Diego’s regional bike-lane project in San Ysidro.
“We’re thinking the first urban infrastructure should be a bike lane,” said Marshall.
Marshall said his team is taking a cue from regional planning agency SANDAG, Caltrans and the Imperial County Transportation Commission, which together published a study on cross-border bike and pedestrian options in February.
The plans looked at installing a designated bike lane at the actual border crossing, and encouraged the construction of bicycle routes and bicycle parking in both Tijuana and San Ysidro. It estimates on the U.S. side, the added infrastructure would cost about $219,000 and in Mexico, about $591,000. The bicycle-only border inspection lane would cost the governments about $300,000.
It also said improving pedestrian and bike infrastructure can improve border-crossing times and benefit the environment.
According to the study, 41 percent of people crossing into the U.S. at San Ysidro arrive on foot. Once in San Ysidro, more than half, 54 percent, use public transit to get to their final destination.
Currently only about 1 percent use bikes. Cyclists must currently dismount and walk their bikes in the general pedestrian line.
According to the study, bicycle plans already exist in San Diego and Tijuana. San Diego has them in its citywide bike plan and in a plan for future growth throughout San Ysidro; Tijuana’s planning agency, IMPLAN, has some too, and the state of Baja California has a plan through 2019 to improve bike lanes and sidewalks statewide.
But while the bike plans are well established, not everyone is convinced it’s time to focus on them.
Lawrence Herzog, a professor at San Diego State University who focuses on city and regional planning around the U.S.-Mexico border, said planning agencies shouldn’t think of bike paths until border crossing is safer for pedestrians.
“It’s really not safe for pedestrians right now, coming out of the border crossing into San Ysidro,” said Herzog. “If you introduce bicycles, it could be very chaotic and dangerous right now.”
But a plan for the border that includes fewer cars would be ideal, he said.
“If you had fewer cars, people could walk and use bicycles and it would be easier for everyone,” Herzog said. “But the agencies down there need to work together and get their act together to not only make the border secure, but safe for pedestrians and cyclists.”
The idea of crossing the border on a bike isn’t entirely new. In 2006, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol shut down an informal bike lane.
The bike lane had been put in place after increased security following the Sept. 11 attacks caused increasingly long lines and congestion. It turned into something of a scam.
Mexican vendors rented bikes to pedestrians waiting in the long lines to help get them bypass the crowded pedestrian and vehicle lines. But people would rent the bikes – often children’s bikes with deflated tires or missing chains – walk them across the border, then return them to people who would drive them back across the border in trucks or vans.
Border Patrol shut the bicycle policy down, citing abuse.
For now, another bike border crossing still appears a ways off. A SANDAG spokesman said there are no current plans to implement the proposals in February’s study, and the San Ysidro port director said cyclists are welcome to enter as pedestrians until a decision is made.
In the meantime, Marshall’s team is working to strengthen bike infrastructure south of the border.
The first step is building a parklet just as pedestrians exit the border crossing in Tijuana. Marshall’s group is trying to transform a small area of grass and a few palm trees surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Centro Ventures is currently trying to get permits to convert it into a small park with a bicycle rack.
“It’s a slow, hectic process,” Marshall said.
Centro Ventures is willing to finance the project, but is trying to build support in the border area for his vision of expanded bike infrastructure near the crossing.
Once the parklet is complete, Marshall says the next step is building bike paths from the border through downtown Tijuana.
“If that works, then we can have a conversation of making the infrastructure across the border,” Marshall said. “The binational bike lane is the Holy Grail. We’re taking it step by step.”