Clairemont resident Michael Sullivan can manage getting past dangerous freeway ramps on his bicycle, but he fears for his wife's safety when she makes similar treks. Sullivan bikes 10 miles to work, and his wife rides five miles for her job. Along their routes, on- and off-ramps intersect with major thoroughfares, particularly in Clairemont, forcing them to avoid merging motor vehicles.
From February 2012 to January 2013, eight cyclists died while biking in San Diego. Although police determined that at least half of the accidents were the cyclist's fault, deaths routinely become rallying points for the bike community. Jim Baross, for example, who's served for roughly 20 years on a pedestrian-and-bicycle work group with the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), a regional transportation-planning organization, wears a red bracelet on his left wrist in memory of Nick Venuto, who died in 2011 when a vehicle barreled through a fence from state Route 56 and onto a bike path.
Bike advocates have pushed for improvements to road markings and infrastructure, temporary preventative measures on roadways and better information from police. Police have discussed some new ideas with bike advocates, and the city is undertaking various safety-improvement projects, but, generally, city officials have yet to implement several proposals put forth by bike leaders, and state transportation officials haven't kept people updated about decisions they've made or what they're pursuing, bike advocates say.
"It seems like there's a growing momentum of support, and we're just pushing for the first thing to happen on the ground," says Sullivan, who's proposed several bike-safety projects for the city. "So far, it's just been verbal."
Two recent incidents have drawn particular attention. In March 2012, 29-year-old Pacific Beach resident David Ortiz died while riding along Balboa Avenue on the Interstate 805 overpass. He collided with an SUV and then was hit by two other vehicles. On Jan. 3, 2013, 54-year-old North Clairemont resident Youyan He was killed just west of the I-805 overpass on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard.
A week after He's death, Sam Ollinger, executive director and board president of BikeSD, an advocacy organization, voiced her concerns during a San Diego City Council meeting, citing the He and Ortiz deaths and asking for changes in the way freeway ramps are designed. She recommended that temporary measures, such as orange construction barrels and caution signs, be put in place to reduce vehicle speed in freeway-ramp areas.
About two months ago, Sullivan conducted a traffic experiment to show his concern about an area in La Jolla where an Interstate 5 north off-ramp intersects with Gilman Drive, La Jolla Colony Drive and the Rose Canyon bike path. Although the off-ramp has a traffic light, Sullivan shot footage of vehicles exiting the off-ramp without making a full stop on red while turning east onto La Jolla Colony Drive. Instead, vehicles briefly paused on a crosswalk and rolled through the right turn. He then placed three orange cones to create a perpendicular angle at the intersection so vehicles would slow down. He said he asked city staff twice to place cones at the intersection, but, so far, nothing's been done.
Bike advocates could be waiting awhile. Changes to ramps generally lie with the state. Caltrans, the state's transportation agency, wrote in a statement to CityBeat that it has no plans to make infrastructure or signage improvements at the locations where Ortiz and He died. Spokesperson Cathryne Bruce-Johnson said the department investigated each area in response to the deaths, but highway teams found signage, pavement markings and infrastructure sufficiently met state and federal standards. She also noted that in both cases, motorists weren't cited, but that wasn't the primary factor in the review.
City officials, including Mayor Bob Filner and City Council members, have continued to meet about bicycle safety issues, and the city has done some significant projects.
One such improvement is a half-mile from where 63-year-old cyclist Charles Gilbreth was killed on Montezuma Road. At first, the city added green road markings near Collwood Boulevard, creating a sort of crosswalk for cyclists. But many bicyclists sped across the new markings, so city workers scrubbed them out, KPBS reported in January. The city's redoing the project—changes include brighter markings and white lane-barrier poles—with improvements expected to be completed this month.
The City Council adopted a resolution in March, spearheaded by Councilmember Lorie Zapf—whose district includes Clairemont Mesa Boulevard and Balboa Avenue— that encourages bicycle-friendly projects and projects that address cyclist and motorist safety.
Alex Bell, Zapf's spokesperson, said green bike lanes along Balboa Avenue should be completed this summer or fall, along with the installation of road sensors that detect if a cyclist is waiting to make a left turn. Bell said the improvements are being paid for by funding the city obtained when the state handed the roadway over to the city as part of the Balboa Avenue Revitalization Action Program.
Improvements along Clairement Mesa Boulevard, Bell said, are limited by lack of funding.
Bike advocacy groups want more to be done. High on BikeSD's wish list is a bike ordinance that would penalize motorists for harassing cyclists. Los Angeles passed such an ordinance in 2011, allowing cyclists to bring civil lawsuits against motorists who physically or verbally harass them.
San Diego County Bicycle Coalition (SDCBC) members shared safety concerns last month at one of the nonprofit's board meetings. Baross, an SDCBC board member, says that bike-safety instructors complain that a lack of details surrounding fatalities makes it harder to provide better advice to students. Bike advocates say more information would help them understand if infrastructure improvements are needed at places where accidents have occurred. Baross says the SDCBC's staff of two doesn't have the resources to pursue that kind of follow-up, so there's only so much they can do. Ollinger says it's frustrating that more details aren't typically reported in the press.
At the SDCBC meeting, the board met with Councilmember Kevin Faulconer and Shelley Zimmerman, assistant police chief for neighborhood policing. Zimmerman discussed ideas, provided stats and reviewed causes of recent fatalities, including a rider who ran a red light on a bicycle without brakes and was struck by a vehicle, a cyclist running a stop sign and another going the wrong way on a street. Youyan He's death in January was caused by the cyclist making an unsafe lane change, Zimmerman told CityBeat.
She also told the board that there are no trends based on recent accidents; they generally point to the need for more education and awareness, stressing that even those who obey traffic-safety laws can still lose their lives.
Meanwhile, Sullivan and his wife continue to commute to work by bike. They also take their children, a 4-year-old and 1-year-old, on weekend bike trips to the beach. At certain freeway-ramp intersections, the family shifts from the bike lane to the sidewalk and waits for the signal to cross— but not before Sullivan makes eye contact with drivers to make sure they see him.
In March, Sullivan ran unopposed for his local planning board, the Clairemont Community Planning Group, securing his first position as an elected officeholder. He attended his first meeting as a board member last month, and he says he hopes to use the position to bring about change.