Elizabeth Chaney uses her bike to cross the border from Tijuana to San Ysidro. Using her SENTRI pass, which gives pre-screened travelers expedited clearance coming into the country, she can go in the SENTRI vehicle lane, so the trip isn’t too bad. But before SENTRI, she said, crossing through the pedestrian facility was a mission.
“There’s a lot of congestion – of bodies,” Chaney said in Spanish. “And you have to be so careful to make sure you don’t touch anyone with your bike.”
And once you get to San Ysidro, the bike lanes are lacking.
“The bike infrastructure in San Ysidro isn’t very safe,” said David Flores, the community development director at Casa Familiar Inc. “There are streets that were reconstructed 10 to 15 years ago that have bike lanes, but since there was no master plan or focus, there’s only a couple.”
There’s no shortage of groups trying to make a binational bike lane happen.
It’s a difficult task, and not just because building anything across an international border is tough. Bike unfriendliness in San Ysidro and Tijuana is a big hurdle, too.
Several groups have been trying to jump all these hurdles for years.
Another big issue they’re running into: No one really knows how many people would use a binational bike lane – and that is a big problem when it comes to convincing border agencies that there should be one.
Flores’ organization has been working on binational bike infrastructure for years. And while it hasn’t made much headway with the federal government, it’s been working with the city of San Diego for the past 18 months to improve the bike infrastructure in San Ysidro and the South Bay – so that if a binational bike lane does happen, cyclists can seamlessly travel through San Diego.
He said that the San Ysidro community plan update, which is expected to be voted on by the City Council next year, identifies bike routes that would connect from the new pedestrian border-crossing facility being built, through San Ysidro, and connecting through Imperial Beach to the Bayshore Bikeway.
“With the community plan update, we’ve identified routes that make more sense and are safe for people to use,” Flores said. “It’s great because we finally see it as a circuit.”
John Holder, the border coordinator for WiLDCOAST, a marine and coastal conservation group, said his organization has recently gotten involved in the bike efforts due to their work in the Tijuana River channel.
“What we want to see is the expansion of bike infrastructure to create a South Bay open space bike network,” said Holder. “Our whole stake is getting people out into open space and experiencing the Tijuana River Valley.”
Holder said right now the biggest obstacle is funding for jurisdictions and local agencies to provide the bike infrastructure.
Chaney is working on promoting bike use on the other side of the border. But in Tijuana, the issue isn’t just bike lanes. She thinks traffic rules that make conditions dangerous for bicyclists need to be changed first.
“We need physical and legal infrastructure to protect bicyclists here,” Chaney said. “The perception that using a bike is unsafe makes many people turn to cars.”
In Tijuana, Chaney said, there aren’t traffic regulations specifically for bicycles. They are lumped in with motorcycles.
“Motorcycles and bicycles are very different,” she said. “They both have two wheels, but after that there are many characteristics that you can’t compare.”
In addition, the public transit network isn’t accommodating to bikes right now. Only certain bus lines allow bikes on board, and even then it’s at the discretion of the bus driver, Chaney said.
And while IMPLAN, the Tijuana planning agency, and the state of Baja California have both laid out plans for bike lanes, they lack funding to construct them. The only proper bike lanes in the city are on Blvd. Benitez, and they were funded through a program meant to lessen crime, said Chaney.
As these groups and individuals are trying to strengthen bike infrastructure on either side of the border, they’re all constantly in discussions with federal agencies to accommodate bikes better at the border itself. They’ve targeted the new pedestrian facility being built by the General Services Administration as a way to facilitate bike crossings, but are having trouble getting a straight answer.
“They have not wanted to say or state that they are providing a facility for bikes, but rather that they’re just trying to make it adaptable,” Flores said.
Customs and Border Patrol was similarly non-committal:
“Although no decisions have been made at this time; ongoing discussions continue on the applicability/feasibility of a bike lane,” said Sydney Aki, the San Ysidro Port of Entry director, in a statement. “Concurrently, at this time we continue to welcome bike travelers alongside our pedestrian travelers as our CBP inspection booths allow for appropriate clearance for bikers to walk their bike’s through our processing area.”
Both Chaney and Flores said that right now a big problem is that no one really knows how much a binational bike lane would be used to cross the border. And it’s hard to convince the federal agencies to create new infrastructure without an estimate.
CBP even said they didn’t have any numbers of how many people crossed using the bike lane in the early 2000s, before it was closed in 2006. And according to a study published in February by SANDAG, Caltrans and the Imperial County Transportation Commission, only about 1 percent of people crossing the border use bikes.
“We have to convince the local and federal government that bicycle crossing is a viable option and there is a demand for it,” Flores said. “That’s the most important piece of information. If there is a way to cross using your bike, how many would use it?”