Border bike lane: wheeling through post-9/11 delays

José Hernandez has forsaken the gas pedal for cycle pedals to get to his US job.

It's a cool, drizzly morning rush hour at the San Ysidro border crossing, the place where San Diego County ends and Tijuana begins. A line of pedestrians waiting to enter the US snakes three blocks back into Mexico from the port of entry building, where US Customs and Immigration officials conduct inspections and security checks.

But José Hernandez cruises right past the stalled pedestrians on his faded blue Roadmaster bike. Pedaling is his way of cutting through the border tangle on his way to work in the US.

And it just got easier this month. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, under pressure from California-side businesses to allow cyclists in faster, has created a bike lane at the crossing.

Mr. Hernandez has been using his bike to commute to work at a San Ysidro parking garage since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when national security concerns made crossing by car a two-hour ordeal.

"For a long time we had maybe 50 to 75 bikes crossing with early morning commuter traffic. After Sept. 11th, it was probably 2,000 a day," says Lauren Mack, INS spokesperson in San Diego. Since the bike lane was started April 8, about 550 bikers use it daily.

On the damp weekday morning Hernandez crossed, the parade of humanity emerging from Mexico on newish, brightly colored Schwinns and beat-up, decades-old brands was clearly different from the color-coordinated and helmeted American biking set. These were people pedaling and smoking, precariously balancing travel mugs, and – like the father and daughter on a tandem bike, she in a Catholic-school uniform, he in a suit – clearly on a non-recreational mission to beat the wait.

"I've been commuting for 20 years, but after September it was impossible. It's much faster going by bike now," says Hernandez, pausing on his way to the US.

Two weeks ago, bikers simply cut haphazardly through the maze of Mexican traffic to the front of the bus lane and crossed to the US in vehicle inspection lines. The INS, worried about cyclists' safety, put an end to that and announced that bicyclists would have to cross with pedestrians, negating the big benefit of biking – no wait.

That decision was criticized by business and political leaders in San Diego, who complained the San Ysidro economy was already suffering because of a post-9/11 drop in border traffic. So the INS agreed to give bikers their own lane. But "bike lane" is a deceiving term, because it isn't actually a lane on the roadway for the exclusive use of cyclists. Instead, the INS' bike lane begins after bikers leave the road. It's an indoor walkway roped off with yellow police tape that's been fastened to a bunch of thin, orange cones.

Inspections inside may proceed more smoothly, but outside bicyclists are still at risk. They ride in the bus lane, dodging lane-weaving sportscars, SUVs, lumbering buses, and diesel exhaust – only now they get off a little sooner in order to walk their bikes the rest of the way into the US.

"This is a bureaucratic issue, it has nothing to do with our safety," complains John, an American computer programmer living in Tijuana who commutes to work in the US by bike every day. He's paused to talk on the Tijuana side, where the bike lane starts just in front of a building billed as a cafe-pharmacy-liquor store, where a nun pleads for donations to the poor.

"It's no more or less safe than it was last week," says John. "I still worry about the cars and buses."

Ms. Mack, of the INS, insists the bike lane has made the situation safer.

John says it's only made the wait at the border more variable, sometimes 15 seconds, sometimes 20 minutes. In the bus lane, he says, it took seconds to get through. That's because in the bike lane, riders receive far more scrutiny than they did in the vehicle lanes. Bike riders and their belongings are screened by a metal detector and their names can be run through the INS database.

Sometimes, of course, the wait exists simply because San Ysidro is the world's busiest border crossing. Yet for many years, few used bikes to commute to the US. Indeed, in southern California, biking as a necessity is an uncommon sight. One listen to the morning freeway report tells the whole story – Freeways 5, 8, 805, 163, 15, 94 jammed to capacity.

But John is not a San Diegan, so he has no trouble embracing two wheels. He takes hold of his bike, wipes the rain from his face, and surveys the scene. He turns to watch fellow cyclists disappearing into the port of entry, assessing the wait that lies ahead.

"Well," he sighs, entering the bike lane, "today looks promising."

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