All About the Redwood Rideway: How and Why to Build Bike Lanes to Schools in North Park

The other day, I wrote a post with a quick thought I had about expanding bike infrastructure in North Park to help kids get to school where it is pretty much currently impossible.  My normal audience is pretty wonky, but that post struck a chord with a lot of parents and North Park locals that may not normally think about this kind of stuff.  Hundreds of people viewed the post and I got a lot of questions about whether it was really happening, and whether it was even possible, and how to make it happen.  So I thought it would be worthwhile to expand on the idea a little bit.  This is just one person's thoughts; to make this really happen will require broad community involvement.  I hope this post helps spark something more.

What Is the Proposal?

As I detailed in the other post, kids riding bikes to and from school is a classic American tradition.  If you look in many suburban towns, the calm streets allow kids to ride to school on their own.  Unfortunately, kids living in the more urban areas of San Diego, like North Park, often miss this opportunity.  In large part, this is because our city is not designed to take care of kids on bikes.

The general idea is to build a protected bike lane on Redwood Street in North Park with the goal of then expanding the network.  To do this, all we need to do is narrow the car lanes and remove one side of the free parking.  The main goal is to make it safe for kids to ride their bikes to school at McKinley Elementary.  The protected bike lane would run next to the curb, and would be protected from moving cars by a painted buffer with some posts and then the parked cars.  This would also create a more pleasant walking environment.  It would look something like this:

As you can see, it's not really expensive construction, just some paint.  To make crossing at intersections a little easier for people walking, we would also add curb extensions.  These narrow the crossing distance, making it easier to get across, and also make it harder for cars to whip around corners like the street is a race track.  They would look like this:

The proposal would be to do this all quickly with temporary materials to try it out for one school year.  If it's a success, the community could then work on securing funding to make it permanent.  The network could also be expanded to include a north-south segment along Utah Street to connect to Jefferson Elementary and up Herman Avenue to connect to the North Park Library.  The end result would be a safe network of bike lanes for kids to travel on to lead to all the good places: schools, Balboa Park, the library, and some of the neighborhood shops to get a popsicle or something.  The "popsicle test" is a good way to measure a city's friendliness to children.  Creating a safe network, combined with signs and other minor modifications, would in effect funnel all the kids heading to and from school to these main streets, creating a fun, safe environment for the school commute where everyone joins in together, creating community and safety in numbers.  The network may look something like this:

What's Wrong with the Current Design of Redwood Street?

This is what Redwood Street looks like now:

Other than not being very attractive, the main problem is that it is too wide and focused solely on serving cars.  Think of it this way: Redwood Street is public space owned by all of us equally.  Half is devoted to moving cars.  The other half is devoted to storing private property for free (i.e., parking cars).  Does this seem like the best use of the space?  Probably not.  Let's keep the cars, but add a little something extra for the kids.

Not only is the sole focus on cars a problem, wide roads are not safe and often unpleasant to walk along.  Redwood Street is about 39 feet wide, consisting of one travel lane in each direction plus parking on each side.  Even with parked cars, that leaves about 12 feet for each travel lane. Wide car lanes lead to speeding cars.  The current speed limit on Redwood is 30 miles per hour.  If a person is hit by a car traveling at 30mph, the odds of the collision being fatal is 45 percent.  If a car is speeding at 40mph, the collision is 85 percent fatal.

But drop speeds to 20 miles per hour, and now a collision is only fatal five percent of the time. That means that if we lower the speed from 30mph to 20mph, a person is nine times less likely to be killed.  One way to do this is to just lower the speed limit.  But everyone knows that many drivers ignore posted speed limits.  It can be much more effective to design a street for slower traffic.  A good way to do this is to narrow the lanes and create more activity.  Also, the curb extensions mentioned above help to slow down cars. 

As currently designed, very few parents are going to send their kid to school on a bike when the trip involves traveling on Redwood.  Exercise and some autonomy is good for kids, and riding a bike to a school is a great way to encourage both.

Won't Narrowing the Street Make it Impossible for Drivers to Use?

No!  It's actually the opposite.  Wide lanes are associated with more accidents, even between cars.  Narrowing lanes is not only safer, it also has no real effect on traffic congestion or the number of cars that can pass through an area.  And yes, busses and firetrucks and delivery trucks will still fit!  Here is a good explainer.

It is true that narrow lanes may slow cars down, but not by much.  Redwood Street is about two-thirds of a mile long from Balboa Park to McKinley Elementary.  Even dropping a car's speed from 30mph to 20mph doesn't have much of an effect.  Assuming you could travel the whole length at the max speed limit without stopping, traveling at the slower speed only adds about 40 seconds to the commute.  Isn't an extra 40 seconds worth it knowing that you are helping kids get to school and lessening the chance you get hit?  In reality, given the stop signs slowing cars down anyways, the net effect would be much less than an extra 40 seconds.

I Live on Redwood Street, Why Should I Support This?

If you have kids, or enjoy walking or riding your bike along your street, this is a no brainer.  Even assuming you don't have kids, and hate walking and biking, this would still be a great thing for people living on Redwood Street.

First, we are only talking about taking out one side of the parking.  So you could still have free parking for you and your guests across the street (not to mention in your garage and/or driveway)  Nothing would change on the side streets either, where you can find more free parking. But sure, giving up free parking is somewhat of an inconvienance.  Why is it worth it?  

If the reasons above don't convince you, how about some free money?  The city of Indianapolis recently built similar bike lanes and properties within one block soared over a billion dollars. Other studies have shown that having a house next to a bike path leads to an increase of property value of about six to eight thousand dollars.  This is your chance to get the equivalent of a check for thousands of dollars that only requires you to live on a more pleasant street.  You sure you want to pass that by?

Also, the street will be much more pleasant once the cars are slowed down and people starting strolling down the street.  Trust us, you won't want to miss it!  If it ends up being horrible or is never used, everyone will want to abandon it after the trial run.  

I Live on Redwood Street and You Haven't Convinced Me.  Can I Veto this Idea?

Sorry, but probably not.  Almost 600 kids go to McKinley Elementary.  Those kids all have parents who probably want them to be safer, get more exercise, and also be able to enjoy the nicer environment.

There are about 40 houses on each side of Redwood Street between Balboa Park and McKinley Elementary, and only about half of those actually face Redwood Street.  It may be difficult for those twenty people to stand in the way of 600 simply because they demand a surplus of free parking.  And that's assuming everyone that lives on Redwood opposes the lanes.  I've heard from several residents on Redwood who want this to happen!  We can't hope to please everyone, but a few disgruntled people can't stand in the way of hundreds seeking progress.

But really, we don't want to anger you or have you oppose this.  At least let the temporary plan run its course and see if it really causes an impact from a loss of parking.  We think you'll really like how much more pleasant your street becomes!  Kids on bikes are a lot nicer than speeding cars.

If Redwood Street Is Too Wide, Aren't a Lot of Other Streets in the Neighborhood Also Too Wide?  Should They All Have Bike Lanes?

Why yes, yes they are. I'm glad you asked!  North Park has a lot of wide streets, which make them unsafe to ride bikes on or play in for all the reasons discussed above.  But they don't all need bike lanes.  If you can get the speed of cars down by using various methods of traffic calming, they could be a lot safer and more pleasant.  Once the speed is down and their is a light traffic volume, cars and bikes can share the road with ease.  One super easy way to make wide streets more comfortable would be with just two lines of paint.  Start in the center, and then move out 9 feet in each direction for a travel lane, then add another 8 feet for parking cars, and draw a line.  The space between the curb and this line in many cases will be several feet and can be used for anything.  Hopscotch.  A bench.  Some potted plants.  Anything you want!  Seems a lot better to give this space to people than to use it to allow cars to drive at unsafe speeds!

Will the City Support This?

They should, for many reasons!  Mayor Faulconer recently implemented Vision Zero, which calls for projects like this.

The city is also, at least in theory, supportive of bike lanes.  It has a Bike Master Plan, although that plan calls for a bike route (meaning no actual striped bike lanes) for this area already.  Other than being just a bike route, it also has a big flaw: it runs the route down Palm Street, which is split in half by Switzer Canyon.  Unless everyone becomes an expert mountain biker, this is an impossible route that's not going to work.  Let's ask the city to fix this big mistake.  That's what happens when you don't involve locals in the planning process.

The draft of the North Park Community Plan just came out and now is the time to ask for changes.  Unfortunately, that plan repeats the same mistake and proposes the (impossible) bike route on Palm Street.   Let's make sure this gets fixed (and upgraded) before the plan is finalized. Check this site to see how to give your input.

What Should I Do if I Want this to Actually Happen?

Ah ha, the big question.  A lot of people, especially politicians, are allergic to change and new ideas. A lot of people also instinctively flinch when they hear about losing free parking.  To really make this happen, we need to show that it is something the community wants and needs.  And this is where I bow out:  I don't live in the community and this should come from the locals.

First, don't despair that this is entirely impossible or can only happen in 2030, long after your kids have moved out (and then moved back in).  A temporary design could be built in days and for not much money.  Other communities are doing this.  Like here.  Or here.  

The primary goal is to build a critical mass to express the desire for a project like this by raising awareness.  The first step may be to try for a two-block, one week test run using tape on the street and some cones.  Let people see how it looks and feels to get more buy-in.

You also need to help pull in the local stakeholders, like the McKinley PTC, the North Park Planning Committee, and the North Park Community Association.  Get the heavy hitters in to help push this through.  Get your kids involved.  Maybe start a petition and circulate this blog post and the petition everywhere you can!  Never underestimate the power of moms.  We know how to get things done and won't take no for an answer.

Once there is enough buy-in, the actual planning can start.  Organizations like BikeSD and Circulate San Diego can help come up with a more detailed design.  These types of grassroots, community driven temporary projects are called tactical urbanism; consult the google and check it out.  Either via fundraising or convincing the City to help paint some lines, a temporary project can be put in place pretty quickly.  Some new painted lines, some simple, inexpensive posts, and you are good to go!

Will it be easy?  No.  But it's possible.  It just takes a community's determination that it can change things if it decides to.  It's amazing what can be done when we work together.