By John P. Anderson
Pershing Drive is one of the best examples in urban San Diego of what well planned and executed bicycle infrastructure can be. The road has few stops (basically just one, at Florida Drive), goes through an enjoyable area of Balboa Park with many nice views, and has full-width bicycle lanes on both sides of the road.
Additionally, Pershing connects North Park and other neighborhoods like City Heights and Normal Heights with Downtown – an ideal route for those commuting to work Downtown or headed there for entertainment or other purposes. It is also a great example of how an ideal situation can be squandered.
For the first 1.5 miles of Pershing from North Park headed to Downtown (from the intersection of Upas Street and 28th Street to the intersection of Florida and Pershing) the route is wonderful as long as you don’t mind 40+ mph traffic next to you. Smooth pavement, recently pruned shrubs and trees, and a gentle breeze great travelers.
Upon reaching the intersection with Florida, however, Pershing changes and becomes an area many bicyclists go out of their way to avoid. For good reason – Pershing becomes primarily a freeway on-ramp at this point for the remaining .5 miles.
In addition to vehicles driving at Interstate speeds, the bike lane also ends and cyclists are instructed, and legally required, to dismount and cross on foot to access Downtown – first for the north-bound 5, and again for the south-bound 5. Both of these crossings take place after turns in the road that greatly reduce the distance from which cyclists are visible. Particularly for the south-bound 5 on-ramp this is an issue since the road turn preceding the ramp is tight.
At night these crossings are even more dangerous, since a perpendicular crossing renders most bicycle safety light devices much less visible. As much as I enjoy the video game Frogger the real-life equivalent is far more frightening than fun.
The current designated crossings are an accident waiting to happen. If cyclists didn’t already avoid this section of road there likely would already have been at least one. I often (at least twice a week) take this route from North Park into Downtown. I never, ever dismount and cross at the designated crossings – it is very intimidating and clearly unsafe to anyone that has stood at either crosswalk.
Since I usually also have a trailer behind my bike with a toddler I’m also slower than a single cyclist, which makes crossing high-speed traffic even more challenging. Typically after crossing Florida, I ride slowly in the bike lane and then cross the lane when traffic is stopped at the light and there’s an opening. At least when crossing in this fashion cars can see me while they are approaching, and I’m going around 10 mph in the same direction as the traffic, rather than being at a stand-still and hidden from view. I complete this maneuver twice, once for each on-ramp.
This dangerous portion of Pershing is squandering the opportunity to capitalize on what, for the most part, is one of the best bike routes in urban San Diego. In addition to Pershing connecting North Park to Downtown (and vice versa) the intersection of Florida and Pershing also connects the neighborhoods of Hillcrest and University Heights to Downtown via Florida – a similarly pleasant, quick, and smooth ride with good pavement and dedicated bike lanes.
Also at this intersection 26th Street comes down from Golden Hill and South Park to connect even more neighborhoods to Downtown although this road doesn’t have any bicycle lanes.
With so many neighborhoods being connected at this point, finishing the job and making a safe, quick, and convenient connection to Downtown would seem a good use of resources. There are many options available that would do so and could be implemented quickly and without major cost. Among the options are:
- Move bicycle lane to interior of Pershing - East of the Florida intersection, move the bicycle lane from the north side of Pershing to the south side eliminating the need to cross traffic after the traffic light. There are no cross streets or exits from Pershing (other than Interstate 5) until B Street, which is where Pershing ends. Pershing already has 2 lanes accessing B Street which is double the size of either Interstate on-ramp. Dedicating one lane (the east lane) would not seem to be an issue for vehicle traffic.
- Bike boxes and/or merge transitions to merge bicycles to center of Pershing - Bike boxes utilize a set of double stop bars at an intersection with the section between painted green and reserved for cyclists. A bike box allows cyclists to merge or change lanes in a safe space. Installation of bike boxes at this intersection, from all approaches, would allow cyclists to change lanes if needed during red lights. Alternatively, or in conjunction with bike boxes, merge markings and bike lane striping for a middle lane would preceding the intersection would allow cyclists to change lanes with increased awareness from drivers.
- Signage - Two types of signage would greatly improve safety and utility at this intersection. First, a reduced speed – perhaps of 25 mph – at the intersection within a minimum of 1,000 feet in each direction would make for a safer setting for all parties (vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians, etc.). Second, signage reminding drivers and cyclists of the right of bicyclists to take a full lane would increase awareness of, and safety for, cyclists.
- Separate bicycle signal - If a bike box is not desired, a separate signal light for bicycles would allow cyclists to access the intersection before vehicles for a set period, perhaps 10 or 20 seconds, to allow for merging lanes before vehicles are in the intersection.
The above treatments do not require major construction or cost; most of them are simply paint applications and/or signage that could be installed over a weekend or even overnight. For a very low cost improving this intersection would make a huge difference for the safety of the intersection and the use of it by cyclists from many neighborhoods of San Diego.
Cyclists like myself will continue to use Pershing to access Downtown because of the quick transit and smooth ride it provides.
I hope that it doesn’t take a tragic accident that could have easily been avoided to make changes.
Even at that I’m probably aiming too high – fatalities like the recent pedestrian death on El Cajon Boulevard don’t seem to create an impetus for safer pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure.
The eternal optimist in me hopes that changes to Pershing and El Cajon are coming.
If you have thoughts on Pershing, Florida, 26th, or other bicycling issues in San Diego please let me know in the comments or via email.
[Post script: For some interesting reading on bike boxes in California (both San Luis Obispo and San Diego check out this Caltrans meeting transcript from January 2010. (The relevant pages are 158 - 194)]
John P. Anderson
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