North Park motorists who rely on Pershing Drive for access to Interstate 5 and downtown may have to find alternate routes when a new bikeway takes up half of the major artery, reducing the current four lanes of traffic to two.

The 2.6-mile Pershing Bikeway, a San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) project, was endorsed 10-1 by the North Park Planning Committee at its June 21 meeting. The vote helps clear the way for the project to begin construction as scheduled in Fall 2018.

Part of SANDAG’s $200 million “San Diego Regional Bike Plan” initiative, the Pershing Bikeway will begin at Utah and Landis Streets, run down Utah to Upas Street, and travel east on Upas to Pershing Drive. The bikeway will continue down the length of Pershing through the Florida/26th intersection to connect with B and C streets just past the Interstate 5 entrance ramps.

In his presentation at the meeting, Chris Carterette, SANDAG’s Active Transportation Planner, said that Pershing Drive “has a lot of excess capacity to utilize” and added, “The combination of lane reductions and lower speed limits will improve safety for all roadway users without significant changes in roadway operations.”

SANDAG intends to replace the current two lanes of Pershing’s northbound traffic with two buffered bike lanes going in either direction and a designated pedestrian walkway. The current two lanes of southbound traffic will be divided into two one-way car lanes separated by a yellow line and a protected southbound bike lane.

The extra lane for bicyclists, said Carterette, will allow them “to go all the way from C Street to Upas with hardly any conflicts or crossings. … We’re proposing the buffered bike lane because there will continue to be people riding that will want to go down the hill very fast.”

At the critical intersection of Pershing and Redwood, SANDAG is planning to construct a new traffic roundabout just south of a new pedestrian crosswalk spanning the artery. Such features “will provide clues to people driving to help them drive more calmly,” he said.

Addressing concerns that a stalled car could block an entire lane of traffic, Carterette said, “There is plenty of room for a vehicle to break down and still have traffic move around it. The bike lane also could be used as an emergency stopping lane.” Putting a barrier between the two lanes of opposing traffic to prevent head-on collisions is inadvisable, he said, because “with a 35 mile-per-hour speed limit, that shouldn’t be necessary, and having a barrier would encourage people to drive more quickly.”

As for the logjam of southbound cars headed for the freeway and downtown each weekday morning, SANDAG spokesperson David Hicks explained in a subsequent email that “traffic studies for Pershing Drive determined that there is excess roadway capacity to accommodate a lane reduction in some areas. The key design feature that maintains the existing functionality of Pershing Drive is the retention of four travel lanes at the intersection with Florida Drive and 26th Street. This will allow morning traffic to queue up the same way it currently does.”

The SANDAG presentation did not address how the new Pershing Bikeway will affect traffic entering and exiting the Naval Medical Center through the Florida-Pershing intersection, and it was not clear if the agency has been discussing its plans with the U.S. Navy.

The majority of the 30-plus attendees at the NPPC meeting were bicycle enthusiasts who spoke glowingly of the project, as did NPPC Chair Vicki Granowitz, who praised SANDAG’s civic leadership, saying “This is something we asked the city to do, and the city refused to do it.”

Public commenters who supported the project cited its positive impact on bicycling safety and air quality. Addressing the physical challenge of climbing Pershing’s notoriously steep grade, one supporter envisioned that more commuters will opt for bicycles with electric motors.

The only commenter who spoke in opposition warned that population spikes resulting from planned densification will swell vehicular traffic on Pershing and lengthen the commutes of North Park residents who are forced to drive.

Granowitz noted that “overwhelmingly, the public input has been to support this project,” citing data that included “17 emails in support … and a Facebook post in support that got 16 likes.” She concluded by framing the debate as a lifestyle difference between age cohorts. “I know that people are afraid of change … [but] this generation of millennials don’t use cars the way people of my generation did,” she said. “So I would ask people to try to support innovation and vision.”