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Bicyclists Escape Long Lines but Discover Other Headaches

Commute: The number has grown since increased security slowed down cars. But problems such as theft are up too.

November 26, 2001|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The border crossing looks like the finish line of a curious bike race in which riders compete in street clothes.

Seeking to avoid the long waits that have bedeviled U.S.-bound vehicular traffic since Sept. 11, Tijuana residents who work on the American side have taken to two wheels in unprecedented numbers. Bicyclists are allowed to move to the front of the line, sparing them waits that can reach two to four hours for those entering by car or on foot.

U.S. border officials said 2,000 commuters a day cycle across the international boundary at San Ysidro, the nation's busiest entrance. Before U.S. officials tightened border security through more rigorous--and time-consuming--searches, only about 50 people a day rode bicycles across.

The phenomenon has resulted in a striking spectacle on the U.S. side of the port of entry: Hundreds of bicycles, stacked two and three deep in places, are chained to virtually anything with a firm grip on the ground. There are even bikes parked under signs that say, in English and Spanish, "No Bicycle Parking."

The scene is particularly dramatic at the border trolley station, the last stop on a line that carries waiters, maids and factory workers north to jobs elsewhere in the San Diego area. A fence lining the trolley tracks bristles with every variety of bike. There are high-tech mountain bikes, rusty old Schwinns, beach cruisers, racers, kiddie bikes--everything, it seems, with working sprockets and air in the tires.

The trend eases one problem, but it has spawned other headaches. Thefts are up, sanctioned parking is nonexistent, and police officers who patrol the busy border zone worry that so many bicyclists weaving in and out of traffic are a recipe for disaster.

The riders must travel alongside motor vehicles as they enter the area around the trolley station, which was a chaotic tangle of taxis, buses, jitneys and passenger cars even before the flood of bicycles. Cyclists ride anywhere they can find room--on sidewalks, in the street against oncoming traffic, and, on the return to Mexico, along a short portion of Interstate 5 as it approaches the border. There has been talk of erecting a concrete barrier to protect riders.

"All these bikes [that] go north have to go south. It's murder," said San Diego Police Officer Robert C. Smith, who patrols the area. "It's bad with cars. It's even worse with bikes. They don't follow the rules."

Smith has seen whole families commuting on bicycles, mothers and fathers pedaling alongside children on pint-sized bikes. One man, a law clerk in San Diego, pedals up every day in suit and tie.

Smith said bicycle thefts have occurred, but few are reported because many residents of Mexico are wary of police. "We know it's happening," Smith said.

It happened to Carlos Nava, a 48-year-old pipe fitter, who on a recent afternoon wandered glumly through the sea of bicycles in search of his $800 mountain bike, stolen several days earlier, even though he had locked it with a cable.

"I'm still depressed," said Nava.

Others, though, seem pleased to have figured out a way to overcome the latest challenge to working on the other side of the border.

Jesus Hernandez, 34, said he now gets an extra hour and a half of sleep by riding his weatherworn, 7-year-old bike rather than crossing on foot. He had been rising at 2:30 a.m. to make it to work at a San Diego shutter factory by 6:30.

"You never know how bad it will be, so I decided to take the bicycle," said Hernandez. He now leaves his car in Tijuana and hops onto the bicycle for a quick five-minute ride to the trolley station.

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