Residents sometimes call the intersection of 54th Street and University Avenue the eastern gateway to City Heights.
But for vulnerable road users – pedestrians, those with vision impairments, those in wheelchairs and bicyclists – that gateway is dangerous.
That’s because the city designed the intersection of 54th Street and University Avenue for motorists. It features freeway-style turns, where drivers only have to slow slightly, not stop. That style of turn can put motorists in conflict with pedestrians and bicyclists, who may not be visible around the corner until it is too late.
“The problem is bicyclists kind of operate in this gray area,” said Randy Van Vleck, Active Transportation Manager at the City Heights Community Development Corporation.
Because street designers in Southern California traditionally put motorists first, oftentimes bicyclists have to shift between acting like pedestrians and cars to navigate car- and truck-filled streets. But for bicyclists at 54th and University, “looking for space for existence” at the intersection is a lot easier, thanks to green bike lanes that the city added in mid-May. Van Vleck and resident and organizational leaders, called the Built Environment Team, have been working for more than two years to draw attention to the intersection’s dangers. The group identified it as a safety priority, especially after the Northgate Gonzalez Supermarket opened and attracted more pedestrians to cross the street. Van Vleck said the team raised awareness about the issue, and was able to convince San Diego’s Bike Program Initiatives Manager Ed Clancy to install the safety feature.
The Built Environment Team is a collaborative project of the Environmental Health Coalition, Asociacion de Liderazgo Comunitario, the City Heights Community Development Corporation, the International Rescue Committee, and their resident partners, funded by The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities Initiative.
“What we are trying to do, as part of the Building Healthy Communities Initiative [is] invite folks to live active lives,” Van Vleck said. “I think projects like this help encourage them to ride, but also make it safer for them to ride.”
Building Healthy Communities is a 10-year, $1 billion drive to change the way that health happens in 14 California communities, including City Heights.
While the city may have made the intersection at 54th and University safer for cyclists, it still needs improvement, Van Vleck said.
It is “a really popular intersection historically – underserved and underinvested in terms of infrastructure needs,” he said. “Basically, it is like a mini-freeway interchange facility on a neighborhood street.”
A shift in street design is happening on a statewide level. California has adopted a new model called the California Complete Streets Act of 2008. Among its recommendations are shifts in emphasis “from single passenger cars to public transit, bicycling, and walking.”
The intersection is an example of what happens when cities don’t update street designs to comply with new recommendations. Vehicles hit 36 people who were walking or biking at the intersection from 1998 to 2012, according to Van Vleck
“And that’s just reported crashes,” he said. “Less than half of bike and pedestrian crashes are reported.”
The Built Environment Team created a plan to redesign the entire intersection, doing away with the freeway-style turns, he said. The plan calls for moving the bus stop to the northwest corner and creating a small public plaza. Van Vleck said the plan would cost about $1.5 million.
The group believes the plan is now closer to reality.
“We see the green bike lane as a symbol of a commitment to not only improve safety for active transportation at this intersection, but to encourage it,” Van Vleck wrote in a May email about the improvements.