The San Luis Obispo City Council narrowly voted to approve protected bike lanes between downtown and Foothill Boulevard after more than two hours of arguments from both sides of the controversial plan.
Multiple council members called the issue the most intense and divisive they’ve faced. It was approved on a 3-2 vote.
The paths are planned for a section of Chorro and Broad streets, as part of an Anholm Bikeway Plan route the council majority feels will encourage bike riding.
A protected bikeway, or cycle track, is a path that runs adjacent to vehicle traffic separated by dividers such as curbs, posts or planters.
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“There’s really something to be said to value of slowing down to ride bikes or walking in a neighborhood (rather than using a car),” said Mayor Heidi Harmon, who cast the deciding vote. “I hope that this will be value added to the neighborhood and to the experience of being in this neighborhood. I really look forward to this project.”
Members of the public argued passionately for and against the controversial middle section of the $3 million city plan (about $1 million of which is currently funded, mostly through grants and SB1 gas tax money).
The initiative, which concluded more than two years of public discussion, also incorporates traffic safety improvements such as speed humps and medians to slow down cars, helping to serve bike enthusiasts such as kids riding to school and commuters to Cal Poly.
A fierce debate
Those in favor said cyclists need to be protected from cars whizzing by, and they wouldn’t feel safe without barriers that physically block cars from drifting into their pathways.
SLO resident Scott Mann during public comment held up a bent frame of a wheel to demonstrate a car that collided with his bike.
But those against decried the loss of more than 50 on-street parking spaces in their neighborhood, along with congestion in and out of their driveways.
Some said they believe the protected bikeways will make riding more dangerous because cars will drive faster with a buffer zone or fail to see riders in the crossings in and out of driveways.
“The council’s decision is really sad because they didn’t listen to the neighborhood,” mayoral candidate Keith Gurnee said. “It will add danger to the corridor. And they could do the same thing not just to our neighborhood, but any neighborhood in the city.”
Gurnee has a variance for his Broad Street home allowing on-street parking (he said the city denied him an exception to build higher to allow for a driveway parking garage and cited limited space because of a backyard creek).
Gurnee said he believed the separated bikeway plan would impact parking and traffic flow in his neighborhood, especially affecting elderly and disabled people such as his wife.
The council had the option of implementing a plan that would use traffic-calming measures only, without separated bike lanes or a third alternative of a traffic diversion near Broad Street and Meinecke Avenue and Ramona Drive.
But they instead decided on the essence of a plan recommended by the city’s Active Transportation Committee.
The plan calls for the removal of on-street parking on one side of Chorro (from Lincoln to Mission streets) to accommodate a two-way cycle track. It establishes shared lanes on Mission (Chorro to Broad) and removal of on-street parking on one side of Broad (Mission to Ramona) to accommodate a protected bike lane in the southbound direction and a shared lane in the northbound direction.
Tension between mayoral candidates
The vote also highlighted the increased tension between Harmon and Gurnee.
Harmon spoke out against a Cal Coast Times article that called her a hypocrite for receiving a car ride home with city manager Derek Johnson after a late-night council meeting.
The article depicts a photo of her bike attached to a SUV. Harmon, an environmentalist who has called for more bike ridership, said she was followed by the news organization, which she accused of stalking. She said she filed a police complaint.
“Let my opponent and his associates play in the gutter,” Harmon wrote in a newsletter to constituents. “I will not. When they go low, we go high.”
But Gurnee, who has written columns for Cal Coast, said in public comment that he had nothing to do with the article about Harmon.
“I was preparing for the meeting on the bike plan, and I learned about it Tuesday when a (Tribune) reporter called me about it,” Gurnee said. “I had to go read the article and call her back. I had nothing to do with it. ... I am not going to go after Heidi in this campaign. I am going to stay above the fray.”
Council members react
The city will still have to secure about $2 million funding for the project, which it plans to fund using a variety of sources, including state, federal and city money.
“It’s a step toward meaningful change for the safety of vulnerable road users,” said Councilman Dan Rivoire, in one of his last meetings before the end of his term.
Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson — before voting “no” on the protected cycle tracks along with Andy Pease — said she spent five or six hours per day for about a week leading up to the meeting responding to members of the public, which helped clarify her thoughts.
“What ended up striking me the most is not the technical end or ethical reasoning,” Christianson said. “It really came down to the neighborhood. This neighborhood needs a little more time to adjust to the changes that are coming.”
Councilman Aaron Gomez said he supported the plan because it helps shift people from cars to bikes, and it’s a needed cultural transition to reduce car travel and lower emissions.
Pease, who wanted to try traffic calming before adding the protected cycle tracks, said the issue was the “the most intense item that has come before us.”
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