Nearly a year ago, San Diego did something drastic: It adopted a plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2035. National praise poured in.

But when the plan was being written in 2014, city staffers said one of the plan’s main goals wasn’t based on anything and that they didn’t think the city had any real chance of reaching it, according to emails released by the city as part of a public records request.

Three high-ranking staffers dismissed the idea that by 2020, 6 percent of people living in certain areas would commute by bike, and that 18 percent would by 2035.

Linda Marabian, deputy director of traffic engineering for the city, told a group of city planners that the targets were arbitrary – they “did not come from anything measurable or related to actual increased ridership,” she wrote in an email.

“I do not want to have to defend or explain why we did not get even close to a measure that is not based on anything,” Marabian wrote.

At the time, about 1 percent of the city biked to work. Marabian suggested dropping the targets to 3 percent by 2020 and 9 percent by 2035. That way, the city could just say it would triple bike commuters by 2020, and triple them again 15 years later.

“My triple assumption is based on what other City’s (sic) have been able to accomplish and something somewhat realistic and aggressive,” she wrote.

As it turned out, the city didn’t need to change anything to follow her advice. The plan’s goal applies only to people who live within a half mile of a major transit stop. In those areas, the percentage of existing bike commuters is closer to 2 percent.

Starting at 2 percent instead, Marabian’s call to triple the number by 2020 and again by 2035 happens to work out with the targets the city was already using.

Senior engineer Brian Genovese wrote in another email that without any policy changes, the city expected there to be no significant increase in bike commuting by either 2020 or 2035.

Nancy Bragado, the city’s former deputy director of planning, chimed in a few days later to say the City Council and mayor wanted aggressive targets, even if staff couldn’t provide data supporting that they were realistic.

“We should also add more explanation that these are ambitious targets that will require significant city council actions as well as widespread public participation,” Bragado wrote.

For San Diego bike commuting to boom as envisioned, the city would need to do things like change community plans to allow more dense housing near job centers, build more bike lanes with physical separation from cars to make would-be cyclists feel safer or decrease parking requirements on buildings to discourage driving.

One year in, the city is ahead of schedule on the Climate Action Plan’s overall emissions reduction goals. But the city has a mixed record following through with decisions that would substantially increase bike commuting.

Last year, the city adopted new community plans in four urban neighborhoods, Golden Hill, North Park, Uptown and San Ysidro. The city acknowledges none of those plans make good on its goal for bike commuters.

The City Council has approved a plan to build nine miles of bike lanes throughout downtown, although it’s only partially funded so far. Cycling activists told KPBS last week they were growing impatient with the city’s progress building bike infrastructure, especially after engineers folded on a plan to build protected bike lanes on El Cajon Boulevard in the face of neighborhood opposition.

A spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer declined to comment for this story. Marabian told KPBS the city was ahead of schedule on its 6 percent goal for 2020, and is looking for ways to speed up building everything included in its bike master plan, an outline of various types of bike projects citywide.

But in another 2014 email, Genovese said building everything in the city’s existing bike master plan still wouldn’t be enough to meet the city’s goals.

“It is my opinion that these goals can only be achieved by a connected system of protected bikeways, which is not part of the current bike master plan,” he wrote.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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