Can we address the topic without discussing the non-quantifiable? Aesthetic and “moral” considerations (such as exercise, lack of noise) are continually proffered in favor of bikes, but what about quantifiable analyses of financial impacts? “It’s difficult because it’s such a knee-jerk reaction,” replies O’Toole. “On one hand, the policies that planners promote make streets more automobile-hostile than bicycle-friendly. For example, one policy you see frequently is taking a street that has four automobile lanes and turning it into a street with two or three automobile lanes and two very wide bike lanes. That makes it more apparently bicycle-friendly, and it’s definitely more automobile-hostile, since you can’t put as many cars there, but look at the data — where are auto/bike accidents actually taking place? They’re not taking place where a car overtakes a bike and hits it from behind; the vast majority happen at intersections. So, when you give bicycles a new lane, you might be putting more cyclists out there because you’re giving people a feeling that they’re safer, but they’re not safer. You end up with more accidents and fatalities because you haven’t solved the real problem; you’ve only solved an imaginary problem. Government is adopting policies like this without looking at the numbers and asking, ‘What really works?’ They’re just doing it because some urban planner told them to do it.”
Although local opposition to the mobility plan has been given short shrift, it exists. In an online response to a pro-bike Union-Tribune article, “Keith P.” wrote, “Even though San Diego’s climate is more amenable to cycling than that found in most places that are jumping on the bike lane bandwagon, this is still a ridiculous overreach. Cycling is something that 98 percent of the citizenry avoids and is mostly a trendy thing for under-30s at the moment. The cost estimates are equally ridiculous — maybe add a zero to the figure of $62 million and you will get close. Painting lines on pavement is not enough for the cycling lobby and once the inevitable crashes start to ramp up they will be screaming for protected lanes and side guards on trucks, making costs skyrocket. Be prepared for huge pushback from people when their parking spaces get taken away, when car traffic worsens because lanes are removed, especially when they see few if any cyclists actually use the bike lanes. Happy co-existence between cars and cyclists is a pipe dream. The one thing that should absolutely be mandatory is some sort of registration placard on bikes to help ID them when the inevitable reckless cycling resulting in property damage to cars and personal injuries to pedestrians starts to occur more frequently.”
Once upon a time, development patterns were aligned with automobile usage, but as O’Toole notes, “We stopped building for the automobile beginning in the 1970s; we haven’t been building new highways. Urban planners have a mantra, ‘You can’t build your way out of congestion,’ so they don’t even try. Instead, they come up with alternatives. ‘Let’s have light rail, buses, and bike lanes.’ But there’s very little evidence that these alternatives change anybody’s habits. As cities have grown, there are just as many, or more, single-occupancy vehicles as before on a percentage basis. Sacramento even wrote in one of their regional plans, ‘We’ve had these policies for 25 years now but they haven’t had any effect on people’s travel habits; we’re still seeing urban sprawl, nobody’s riding our light rail. So what are we gonna do now? We’re just gonna do more of the same.’”
When it comes to American transportation history, O’Toole speaks of epochs. “There have been four different time periods. Before 1890, most urban development was oriented around foot travel. Between 1890 and 1920, streetcars; from 1920 to 1980, automobiles. Since 1980, it’s still been oriented around cars in much of the country, but in places where urban planners have a lot of power — which are basically the coastal states — it’s been increasingly oriented toward alternatives to the automobile…unsuccessfully.” And that includes not only the hipster bike, but the déclassé bus.
Ever notice the forlorn buses of San Diego? Largely empty, they cruise our streets with — at most — a handful of riders, who appear to be old, crippled, and poor, people for whom an hour trip to travel 15 miles is not the last resort, but the only resort. According to O’Toole, San Diego’s transit ridership figure is 12 riders per 40-seat bus, a level that’s boosted by the 18-rider average in longer-distance commuter buses. (The national average stands at 11.)
Should the private sector proceed from the standpoint that the car is here to stay? “In a city like San Diego,” opines O’Toole, “if the planners gave you a choice, you’d probably build a traditional suburban development, a master-planned community where developers put in the infrastructure (including all the streets and roads) building what they think people want. It’s very difficult to build that in San Diego County anymore because the land-use planners won’t let you. The political climate makes it impossible to build car-centric in urban San Diego, difficult but not impossible in other parts of the county. It’s hard and time-consuming to get the permits and expensive to buy the land, which in turn makes it expensive for home-buyers.”
Old habits die hard, says O’Toole. “It’s wishful thinking. You hear about the Millennials having a huge change in behavior — they don’t want to drive, they want to live in apartments — but when you account for the crappy economy of the last eight years, they’re really no different. And most of them do live in suburbs. Polls continually show that 80 percent of Americans aspire to live in a single-family home with a yard; I don’t see any changes in that. Let the market rule and let people decide for themselves. Let the private developers build what they think the market will bear. You’ll see some density, some new urbanism — but about 80 percent of it will be what we call a traditional suburb. Make sure that they pay all the costs for their choices and aren’t being subsidized.”