San Diego Chooses Between Two Bicycle Boosters For Mayor

The election is less than a week away. Americans have a choice between a) a president who has overseen notable transportation and land use innovations but failed to provide leadership when the national transportation bill could have been reformed, and b) a former governor who enacted a progressive, pro-smart-growth agenda but who has renounced those positions as a candidate.

City Council Member Carl DeMaio has a plan to make San Diego a more walkable, bikeable city.

So the San Diego mayoralty probably isn’t what’s keeping you up at night, glued to Nate Silver’s election forecasting. But it’s been a nasty and surprisingly close race between U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, a Democrat, and Republican City Council Member Carl DeMaio. According to some (admittedly confusing and poorly conducted) polls, it could go either way. So it may be reassuring to know that no matter who is elected mayor of San Diego, the victor says he will wholeheartedly support biking, walking, and sustainability.

Three San Diego active transportation organizations – Move San DiegoWalkSanDiego, and the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition – did an impressive job not only getting these candidates on the record, but getting them to spend an hour battling over who could be the walkingest, bikingest, livabilityest mayor San Diego had ever seen. (The debate they sponsored is available for your viewing pleasure here.)

U.S. Rep. Bob Filner wants to know where that plan was three years ago.

Remember that according to one of San Diego’s members of Congress, non-automobile modes of transportation are “not feasible” here. (Side note: Rep. Duncan Hunter, who told me nearly two years ago that bicycling isn’t real transportation and highway building is enshrined in the constitution, just switched districts as a result of redistricting, and he now represents a far more urban portion of San Diego County. Perhaps he’ll be educated on active transportation by the great folks who hosted the mayor’s debate.)

But in this city where, according to Rep. Hunter, no one could ever possibly get around without a car, both major candidates fell all over themselves to prove that they would build the most bike lanes and bulb-outs.

Before a mayoral debate sponsored by the walking and biking groups last month, DeMaio released his bike plan for the city [PDF]. Filner said he was willing to “stipulate” that it’s a great plan – but he countered that DeMaio is a new kid on the sustainability block, whereas he’s been doing the work for years. DeMaio’s plan includes everything from pedestrian master planning to making San Diego “the most bike-friendly city in the world.” (During the debate, the candidates only agreed that it should be among the top 50 in the country.)

DeMaio was on the City Council when the mayor abolished the Planning Department last year, which Filner tried to pin on his opponent, while DeMaio insisted he had opposed the move. Filner wants to replace the department with something called A-PLUS: Agency for Prosperity, Livability and Urban Sustainability. The man’s got a knack for acronyms and wordplay – he also wants to brand a ciclovía for San Diego as “CicloSDia” (with the SD prominent in the middle, like Los Angeles’s CicLAvia).

Filner touted his own service on the House Transportation Committee in Congress, “where we have put billions of dollars into bike lanes and environmental enhancements and livable communities and public transit.” (Are we talking about the same House Transportation Committee?)

He also said he led on these issues when he served on the San Diego City Council and slammed DeMaio for “allowing” the council’s failure to update the community plan with more features for walkability and bikeability. Filner repeatedly said that the most important thing the next mayor will do is to get people “excited” about these things – while his opponent “only understands potholes.” Meanwhile, DeMaio maintains that by keeping roads in good repair, cyclists will be reap the benefits of improved safety.

The pro-bike rhetoric was something to behold. “We need to put bikes at the top, instead of after cars,” Filner said. He wants to get away from an exclusive focus on vehicle level of service and parking. He’s reading Mia Birk’s book, for Pete’s sake. DeMaio, for his part, wants to look toward Portland for models of complete streets. They joked that they’d save the voters the trouble and just hold a bicycle race for the mayoralty.

In a blog post after the debate, Ryan Wiggins of Transportation for America noted that SANDAG, the regional transportation planning organization for the San Diego area, is planning to invest more than $3.5 billion in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure by 2050. “Biking and walking are gaining significant traction as transportation options in San Diego,” he wrote.

Still, at the moment San Diego doesn’t even rank in the top 50 cities for bicycling (though it is number 18 on a list of walkable cities, according to WalkScore – below Cleveland, above Atlanta.) With biking in ascendance, the health benefits of active transportation becoming better understood, and local governments getting smarter about how to use scarce transportation dollars, the time is right for San Diego to elect someone who believes in better biking and walking. The lucky thing is, they’ll get one, no matter whom they elect.

Recent polls show DeMaio 10 points ahead, but the methodology of those polls has been criticized. Throughout most of the campaign season, Filner has maintained a comfortable, though narrowing, lead.