Community and officials discuss bike plan to help ease Calexico traffic

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Gathered around a map of Calexico, Brian Gaze, AICP, (LEFT) and Brian McNeece (RIGHT) trace out a potential bike route near the Mexican border, Wednesday morning at the Carmen Durazo Cultural Arts Center in Calexico. Photo by Brett Miller.

CALEXICO — Government workers, non-profit leaders, and invested citizens began a conversation in a workshop May 24 about Calexico’s bicycling future that, despite prompting more questions than answers, allowed city planners to get serious input from the community.

Calexico, in alignment with California law, established a bicycle master plan in 2003. But as the industry matured and innovations brought substantial changes to how cities adapted to a more bike-friendly demographic, the border city sought to review and update its master plan with assistance from Chen Ryan Mobility, a transportation firm with experience in bicycle and pedestrian planning in locales such as Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

“As we update the bicycle master plan, what does success look like?” prompted Brian Gaze of Chen Ryan Mobility who facilitated the workshop.

As the company begins to formulate a strategy (over a dozen traffic surveys have already been conducted at various points throughout Calexico), it held a series of public workshops last week to provide an overview of the scope of the plan, as well as solicit feedback from the community. The goal is to have a rough draft of the plan made public by the fall.

Although the city is required to have a vision for how it will accommodate bicyclists in its jurisdiction, there is also financial motivation for creating clear and effective plans — state grants.

“There’s money out there, and the plans are the first step,” explained Gaze. “What it really takes is local advocates leaning on city council to go after grants, to look at funding sources, and stay on it.”

Though cities throughout California can apply for any number of grants, Calexico may have an edge on the competition thanks to its poor air quality, Gaze explained.

“Frankly, Imperial County does pretty well on grants, because there’s a component that looks at air quality, areas where there’s great opportunities to shifting trips to bicycles,” said Gaze.

If the city can encourage more biking, especially during the late afternoons, traffic and the resulting smog would be reduced.

Of course, officials realize the air pollution experienced in Calexico does not entirely originate in Calexico; much of the smog comes from Mexicali, and especially the traffic attempting to cross into the United States. The question was raised: could bicycling be further encouraged at the two ports of entries?

In fact, some of the attendees at the workshop were residents of Mexicali, who arrived at the event on their bicycles.

But being a border city was not the only particular obstacle facing Calexico’s facilitation of a bicycle master plan. The desert climate also brings additional concerns, Gaze said.

For one, maintenance of bike lanes is substantially higher in warmer climates. Paint on asphalt roads, for example, becomes quickly weathered in the sun and needs to be reapplied much more often. But such reoccurring costs are not often factored when applying for grants, he explained.

Even when the bike lanes are properly maintained, encouraging bicyclists to use them in the hot weather is another issue. Calexico isn’t the first city to face that problem.

One option is to create a physical divider —a curb, for example— between the car lanes and the bike lane. Such a divider could then feature landscaping, including desert-hardy flora such as mesquite, which would provide shade and a measure of safety to the riders, Gaze said.

Such innovations would be possible on certain roads, but with the higher density found in urban centers, creating physical additions to the road would be impossible. Instead, establishing bike lanes with a painted barrier would be a more realistic option, he explained.

California law currently prohibits cars from driving within three feet of bicyclists when passing. But bicyclists must stay as far right of the road as safely possible. Most times, this isn’t a problem when a bike lane is missing, especially on more rural roads. But when cyclists approach higher speeds, the far right of the road near the shoulder is often littered with debris and other hazards posing a danger, and they are forced to move closer to the center of the car lane, said Gaze. As a result, cars honoring the three-foot rule run out of space in their lane and must swerve into the next lane.

“People don’t realize what a radical change that was, because that made many roads where cyclists have a right to the travel lane, due to width restrictions,” explained Brian McNeece of the Imperial Valley Velo Club.

There are grants for cycling infrastructure, however, which provide funds for widening roads. Being awarded such grants, however, is difficult, according to Gaze. In the meantime, cyclists have reported experiencing the ire of the drivers they share the road with.

Educating a community, both cyclists and non-cyclists, is seen as one of the key aspects to establishing a bicycle-friendly culture. The workshop spent a portion of time brainstorming how to best reach the Calexico area with public service announcements that would help people acclimate to a greater cyclist population within the city. Building any new infrastructure without a plan to inform residents on safe and proper practices would show limited results, said Gaze.

“You can put all the paint down in the world, but if people aren’t educated in how to use it and interact with it as motorists….” suggested Gaze. “A good grant covers both.”

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