Why bike lanes matter
I spent last week in Carlsbad and the surrounding North San Diego County area with my family for a summer beach break. We come down here every year, and it is always interesting to watch the area slowly become more bike-friendly.
Perhaps the biggest change I noticed this year was the addition of more bike lanes and lots of additional bike parking in Carlsbad’s downtown business district. The city got an active transportation grant from the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) and installed over 180 bike racks throughout town. There are literally scores of new bike racks up and down Carlsbad Village Drive, the town’s main north-south artery, and even a new “bike corral” near the intersection of Carlsbad Village and State Street (see photo). There are ample bike racks throughout town, especially at restaurants, beach access points, and other popular destinations in town. It may seem like a small thing, but knowing there will be bike racks when you get to your destination is a major improvement, and the city has installed good “inverted U” racks (not the crappy “wheel bender” racks that some cities install as an afterthought).
Carlsbad Village Drive, the main artery through the village business district, now has new bike lanes along the shoulder of the road. In years past, my family and I had not felt safe bicycling Carlsbad Village Drive and always avoided it, taking the long way around if we rode our bikes to the stores and restaurants on that road, but this year we were able to ride to shops and restaurants in the safety of a bike lane. The ease with which one can now access the Village’s shops and restaurants by bike is remarkably improved. These small changes made a huge difference for us, and I noticed more people bicycling around town than ever before.
The most impressive infrastructure improvement is the road diet on Carlsbad Blvd., the portion of the coast highway that runs through town (top photo). Carlsbad Blvd already had bike lanes, but 40-45 mph traffic on the road made it an intimidating experience for all but the most fearless cyclists. The city’s transportation department has now reduced the two auto traffic lane widths in each direction from 12 feet to 10 feet, creating 4 feet of space with which to provide wider bike lanes and buffer zones between automobiles and the bike lanes. Meanwhile traffic speed limits have been lowered on the highway to 35 mph, and 30 mph in the central town area and pedestrian crossings have been improved. The effect is to make the road much safer for everyone and make the town more accessible on foot and by bike.
By comparison, travel further south on the Coast Highway (Hwy 101) through Leucadia and Encinitas, and the value of separate bicycle infrastructure becomes abundantly clear. There, with traffic speed limits averaging 40 mph, the bike lanes end and are replaced by sharrows in the right-hand lane and signs indicating bikes may use full lane. I traveled that stretch daily for much of the week I was in Carlsbad, and noted the behavior of cyclists along the stretch of road that had sharrows. Invariably, cyclists of all ability levels stayed as far to the right as possible, often riding on the shoulder instead of the middle of the sharrow lane. Meanwhile, cars continued to zoom by heedless of the sharrow lanes. In several instances, I saw slower cyclists leave the street entirely when the bike lane ended and continue on the sidewalk instead of the sharrow lane. I can’t say I blame them, as automobile traffic on Hwy 101 can approach 45-50 mph on that stretch.
The situation may be different on the weekends, when packs of experienced cyclists could take and hold the sharrow lane on their fast-paced rides up and down the coast. However, for a lone cyclist, whether an experienced commuter or an inexperienced kid on a beach cruiser, the sharrows on 101 seem so much wasted paint. Some combination of lane removal, road diet, and/or removal of curbside parking on Hwy 101 should be undertaken to create space for bike lanes. After viewing this dramatic demonstration of the difference between bike lanes and sharrows, Vehicular Cycling advocates who promote sharrows instead of cycle tracks or bike lanes cannot convince me that sharrows are superior.
Carlsbad, like many beach towns in Southern California, struggles with traffic and parking congestion in the peak summer months (and, yes, tourists like me add to the problem). As such, encouraging people to ride bikes for short trips around town makes good sense from a variety of perspectives. It decreases traffic and parking congestion; decreases pollution, noise, and carbon emissions; increases the accessibility and vibrancy of the downtown business district; and improves public health. Best yet, with its accessibility from the Coaster commuter rail, it’s now feasible to visit Carlsbad car-free and it should become a premier destination for bicycle tourism. We’ve always loved Carlsbad for its beautiful beaches and lagoons. Now it’s also becoming a great place to walk and bicycle and we have more reasons to love it. It’s time for the neighboring towns of Oceanside, Leucadia, and Encinitas to catch up to Carlsbad.