San Diego Bike Lanes in Car-centric America
BY NICOLE PHELPS
In 2018, I saved up and paid for my first car for $1900 off Facebook Marketplace. As a full-time student and part-time worker, I relied on a car to commute, but financial issues left me unable to keep up with maintenance costs, and my car broke down in 2021. For a period, I was forced to rely on San Diego’s mediocre public transportation until 2022, when I crunched the numbers and got an ebike for $1600, which I now use for my daily commute. These experiences have opened my eyes to the issues of accessibility within my community.
Worldwide, the United States accounts for about 14% of carbon dioxide emissions, second only to China, with transportation making up the largest portion of this share at an estimated 27%. The United States has the largest road transport emissions per capita worldwide.
In terms of car-dependency, the United States ranks near the top among developed nations. It was in the 1950s that the car became a cornerstone of American culture. The way the story is usually told is that the United States developed its communities around the car, which is why so many American communities suffer from poor walkability, poor public transportation, and high car-dependence.
However, what is often left out of this narrative is the fact that the United States was home to fully walkable communities prior to the invention of the car, most of which were bulldozed to make way for easier automobile transportation, which wiped out entire communities and displaced a million people who were disproportionately non-white. In accordance with this change was the legal invention of jaywalking. This represented an ideological shift wherein roads no longer belonged to the public, but to the automobile exclusively. It was the purposeful efforts of the auto industry which thrust pedestrians to the sidelines to make way for their shiny, new machines, previously thought to be unruly and dangerous, now thought to be the true rulers of the road.
The culmination of such car-centered efforts, and the lack of substantial pushback, led us to where we are now. There is nearly one car for every individual in the US. And an egregious amount of space is wasted on parking - over 17 million meters squared in Los Angeles alone. This is only to set a foundation for the facts pertaining to the climate and America’s car problem. But American car-dependency is detrimental for reasons far beyond the reaches of climate change. As a result, our communities struggle with mediocre walkability (which is especially apparent when compared to European cities). For most - especially the working class, students, disabled, elderly, and those in rural areas and food deserts - having a car is simply a necessity in the United States. This is an unfortunate truth to those who are just too poor to purchase one, as car ownership can cost around $5k annually.
This was a lesson that I learned firsthand when my 2002 Camry, which I could not afford to maintain, failed without warning in the middle of the freeway. This was a moment of insult to injury for me, as I was staying at a homeless shelter at the time and had a hellish ordeal of moving my things between shelters and dealing with my new exponentially more difficult daily commute.
When I began biking as my main form of transportation, several barriers to bikeability made themselves known, a main one being the cultural stigma of biking on the road. As discussed before, cars have claimed complete ownership of the road over pedestrians. Despite the fact that cyclists have the legal right to ride in the road, many motorists consider cyclists a nuisance and a bike on the road as an encroachment. This leads to the issue of safety, as cyclists are often hit and killed by cars who do not know or do not care to share the road. Due to layout and poor maintenance of roads, it is simply not realistic or safe for many cyclists to travel efficiently. There are also the issues of not being detected by traffic signals, lack of suitable bike parking, and rampant bike theft.
Due to the climate impact of car emissions and the lack of accessibility for many residents, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria has taken strides in increasing our city’s bikeability, and these efforts show no signs of ceasing. Climate benefits aside, designs for increased car-free accessibility are shown to have numerous benefits for a community such as increased economic engagement and higher quality of life. These are also outlined in the San Diego Regional Bike Plan.
Despite this, the increase in bike lanes has proven to be unpopular among many San Diego residents. KUSI News employed a logical fallacy known as “whataboutism” when they criticized Gloria’s business trip to the Netherlands on the grounds that he should be focusing on homelessness instead. Whether or not Gloria has adequately addressed homelessness is not the focus of this article and is irrelevant to his actions in regards to San Diego’s infrastructure. However, contrary to the claim that he was “studying bike lanes” in the Netherlands, the trip was actually to strengthen economic relations and was misrepresented to make Gloria’s trip seem frivolous.
One opinion claims that so-called “bike extremists” do not take disabled drivers into account when planning for the implementation of bike lanes. I strongly agree that car-dependent disabled folk should be taken into consideration and accommodated in regards to urban planning, which is why I advocate for a complete reinvention of communities that suffer from poor accessibility and urban layouts.
Disabled people are actually less likely to drive than able-bodied people due to physical and economic limitations. Because of this, factors that culminate to create a community with poor walkability (uneven sidewalks, safety, distance to necessary destinations, etc.) disproportionately affect the disabled, and lead financially capable, able-bodied people to drive. Perhaps it is the inherent non-accessibility of our city which leaves so many of the disabled and elderly stranded if they do not or cannot commute by car. And when a city can be safely navigated by public transit, walking, and biking, the roads remain available and become even less congested for those who really need them.
Believe it or not, biking capitals of the world such as Amsterdam have roads and cars that many people use daily. The city is simply more accessible and safe for everyone, and people have many different modes of transportation at their disposal.
I do not for a second believe that people who peddle such arguments in opposition to bike lanes are passionate or anxious about the demographics they throw under the bus to make their arguments. They are stubborn and stuck in their worldview, completely steeped in the car-centric culture of modern America. The prospect of change makes them uncomfortable and they are afraid to be inconvenienced - a “not in my backyard” approach in the face of pressing sociological issues.
If we are to meaningfully adapt to the climate crisis and develop as a nation, American road transport must be curtailed. This is not to say that if every American stopped driving tomorrow, climate change would become a thing of the past (though we would see a dramatic decline in carbon emissions.) What this is to say is that America is a wealthy, developed nation with a great deal of global influence and political power. Our government has the potential and the responsibility to meaningfully contribute to the global fight against climate change, and San Diego can set a precedent for cities to follow.
I also reject the touted notion that the onus is on the individual to curb their own emissions in the fight against climate change. There is certainly nothing wrong for someone to be cognizant of their own impact, but this is a strategy levied by corporations to escape accountability for their own climate impacts. Sociological problems require sociological solutions, and we must hold policy makers accountable to deliver for their communities.
For more information on the failures of car-dependent infrastructure, I recommend the YouTube channel Not Just Bikes. They make well-researched, informative videos on urban planning.