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Samantha Ollinger has become a voice for cyclists in San Diego.
She just quit her job to devote all her time to making the city a
friendlier place for bikes.
In 2008, Samantha Ollinger and her husband mounted their bicycles in Philadelphia and pushed off toward a new home in San Diego.
They pedaled about 2,000 miles before renting a U-Haul in Texas to take them the rest of the way. Though they cut their cycling short, it was during that trip, Ollinger said, “that I really fell in love with riding.”
Here, she and two friends launched a website called BikeSD.org. In the two years since, it’s become a favorite for the city’s cycling community.
Ollinger publicizes community rides and posts updates on the city’s newest bike lanes. She interviews local officials responsible for improving bike safety and infrastructure. She even posts dispatches and photos from the scene of bicycle accidents.
The website has made Ollinger — a bookish, soft-spoken accountant — a minor public figure among San Diego’s growing community of cyclists. Her advocacy through the site has led the 30-year-old to take a seat on the board of the San Diego Bicycle Coalition and to become a member of City Heights’ planning group.
Two months ago, she quit her job as an accountant for Balboa Park’s Mingei Museum. She’s decided to live off savings for the next year or two and devote herself full-time to making San Diego a friendlier place to ride a bike. “It’s a passion,” she said.
What’s your favorite bike ride in San Diego?
The international ride — Paseo de Todos. A group of us ride down to Tijuana, ride around, and then come back. It’s the first Friday of every month. There’s also a Tuesday Taco ride. We meet at Balboa Park at 5:45, ride at a brisk pace, find a place to get tacos, drink some beer.
Would you call San Diego a bike-friendly city?
It’s just OK. It could do much, much, much better. One of the reasons I’m a bike advocate is because I think it has tremendous potential and could exceed bike friendly cities like Portland, Davis, New York City.
Why do you file dispatches from bike accident scenes across the city?
I try not to cover accidents or deaths because there’s already a perception in the general public that biking is dangerous. But the one I did yesterday, I thought, was rather cruel. (A young girl in Point Loma was reportedly hit by a van while riding her bike with her father.) How could you not see a 10-year-old girl and her dad? It looked like he drove head-on into her. I think it was an indicator that our streets are not OK. If they were, that accident would not have happened.
Some of your posts highlight the ways bicyclists still aren’t treated as equal to drivers here. In one, city workers had set up an electronic message board right in the middle of the bike lane on Fairmount Avenue.
It was my husband’s route. I tend not to take him very seriously because he complains about things that really aren’t that important. But when other people started emailing me, I rode down to check it out. It was ridiculous. People were driving at 55 to 60 miles per hour. A cyclist couldn’t go around it. I emailed the city’s bike coordinator. The next day it was gone.
Do you see this sort of thing happening a lot? Small reminders that cyclists are an afterthought?
When the city needs to block access to fix a road, a lot of thought goes into telling drivers how to get around. There are all these signs and banners and flashy things. You don’t really have that for cyclists.
Are there good things happening?
There has been a lot more investment made for cyclists in the last year-and-a-half than there was when I got here.
The city’s new bicycle coordinator, Thomas Landre, now is spending 100 percent of his time on bicycle issues. Our previous one could only devote a small percentage. And the guy before him, three years ago, no one even knew who he was.
And I’ve seen way more cyclists than I used to three years ago.
One of the reasons I think is that they see the city is doing more for cyclists.
One reader asked you what you’re supposed to do if you’re sitting at a red light in a left turn lane and a traffic light doesn’t detect you.
That was one of my initial advocacy efforts here, because lights wouldn’t detect me. On the East Coast, lights are timed, so they’re going to change. Here you have to run a red light and risk being T-boned or getting a ticket. I wrote to the city. They actually lowered the detector sensitivity. That’s when I learned, oh, I can write to the street department, they’ll go adjust the sensors, and the lights will change for me.
Did the transportation plan that Sandag just passed do enough to promote cycling?
In a general sense, it was good, because they allocated more money for cyclists than they did before. But I look at cycling as transportation. And from a transportation perspective, it’s terrible if they want to take bicycling seriously as a mode of transportation we want to promote. Out of $200 billion over 40 years they have a lot for the driving population and only $3.4 billion for bicyclists.
What would you want to see?
One-third of the budget devoted to bicycle investments. That would be a one-time cost. If you could spend one-third on bicycles for the next 40 years, the payoff would be so huge you’d never need to spend money at such a level ever again for the rest of San Diego’s history time immemorial.
Everyone would be riding bicycles?
Everyone who’d want to ride a bicycle would be able to. Right now there’s a lot of people who want to but don’t feel comfortable. There isn’t a space for them.
You’ve researched San Diego’s bike history and found one of the earliest accounts of people talking about bikes in San Diego, from 1869. They were called velocipedes then. And the San Diego Union quoted someone who’d heard about them saying, “San Diego is a fast place and why can’t we have a velocipede?” I found it amusing the paper also quoted skeptics who asked why you would want to ride a velocipede when you could buy a horse for $20.
It’s uncanny how similar things are to today.
Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?
Contact him directly at email@example.com or at 619.325.0528.
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