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Learning how to share the road on two wheels

Santa Monica Daily Press: Learning how to share the road on two wheels

By Ashley Archibald

July 20, 2011

CITYWIDE — If you think the roads in Los Angeles are congested, you haven't seen sidewalks, beach paths and other alternative transportation byways in Santa Monica during summer.

The city has a medium-sized population hovering around 90,000, a number which jumps to 200,000 in the daytime with an influx of tourists and fellow Angelenos looking to enjoy the sun, surf and sand.

While those people slow road traffic down to a crawl with all those extra cars, many from outside of town come with nothing but their two feet and a desire to rent a bicycle to zip through traffic with ease.

Some new riders on the road are actually Santa Monicans, encouraged by policy, convenience or health to get out of their cars and onto the streets.

That might seem like a eco-friendly move in a city that prides itself on its green hue, but it also means that people unfamiliar with the rules of the road in Santa Monica pile onto sidewalks and bike paths, frustrating cars, pedestrians and bicyclists alike.

The result, said Sgt. Richard Lewis, spokesperson for the Santa Monica Police Department, has been 70 accidents between bicycles and cars alone since Jan. 1, 2011.

Of those, investigating officers determined that in 41 cases the bicyclist was at fault and in 27 cases the motorist was to blame.

The remaining two were special circumstances — in one, both the bicyclist and the motorist messed up, while in the other, the bicycle broke, causing the accident, Lewis said.

"Usually, they'll be riding their bicycle on the sidewalk, riding the wrong way in traffic or not stopping at red lights and stop signs," Lewis said. "Those are major violations."

Know before you go

Bicycle activists and authorities in Santa Monica share a common voice on one issue: bicyclists and motorists share a responsibility for knowing the rules of the road.

"Everybody needs to obey the law," Lewis said, and since California regards bicycles and motor vehicles in the same light, those laws apply to everyone equally.

Both parties are guilty of violations that add up to unsafe roadways.

Bicyclists have a tendency to blow through red lights and stop signs, while motorists fudge their speed rules, going even 5 mph over the speed limit.

When those two circumstances collide, it can mean devastating consequences to the bicyclist.

The increase in speed causes the severity of the corresponding injury to go up exponentially, said Gary Kavanagh, a local bike activist.

Obeying the rules and keeping a sharp eye out for oncoming traffic of all kinds is the best way to stay safe, Lewis said

"Motorists need to be more vigilant, and aware of surroundings. Bicycles are quick, and move faster than the traffic," he said. "You need to be careful of them coming in and out of traffic, and yield the right of way even if they're not lawfully in the roadway."

Motorists also need to keep an eye out for bicyclists breaking another Santa Monica rule of biking on sidewalks.

That attitude frustrates Roger Swanson, a dedicated bicyclist and pedestrian from the Ocean Park neighborhood.

Swanson, who puts only 3,500 miles each year on his car and walks or rides for the rest of his travels, noted that it's not just newbies that take to the sidewalks when it's convenient for them.

"You know, several times I've almost been run over as a pedestrian," Swanson said. "Sometimes you say to people you aren't supposed to ride on a sidewalk. You make a comment and get an expletive as a response, which just shows the arrogance of some people."

Problematically, the rules about biking on sidewalks are inconsistent throughout the county. In Downtown Los Angeles, for instance, it's perfectly permissible to ride on the sidewalks with pedestrians.

That's when new bicyclists, or experienced bicyclists that need a refresher, should take steps to educate themselves, said Cynthia Rose, of Santa Monica SPOKE, a local biking group.

"People think that when they ride a bike, you always know how to ride a bike, and to a degree that's true," she said. "But education becomes the next step, especially when you ride a bike as an adult."

Opportunities for education are plentiful, but only if you know where to look.

"If you're a new cyclist, unless you're thinking about it, you don't even think you need to go (to websites)," Rose said. "We need publicity and promotion that the information is out there, and easily accessible."

Emily Post says share the road

Much like the dinner table, the road has rules that go beyond the law.

"It's about making people understand that nobody wants to add a bunch of rules, but it's simple etiquette," Rose said.

Some things don't occur to new bicyclists, who "get on a bike and feel free," Rose said.

That sense of freedom can result in unintentional rudeness, both to fellow cyclists and other denizens of the roadways.

"It's about paying attention to the situation that you're in," Rose said. "It's not appropriate to be lollygagging along, two or three abreast."

Much like cars, bikes should be riding one behind the other in the far right hand side of the lane, especially when they're going slower than the traffic around them, said Lucy Dyke, a transportation planning manager with City Hall, and the same is true for bike paths.

"The polite thing to do is ride as close to the right side as is practical, and pass safely when there's room to pass," Dyke said. "Sometimes people ride like they have an expectation, regardless of who's on the path with them."

Near the beach, bikes and pedestrians create a toxic combination on the beach bike path and the adjacent boardwalk.

Though bicyclists have particular right to the bike path, and pedestrians to the boardwalk, when quick-moving commuter bicyclists clash with packs of pedestrians on either roadway, there's a problem.

Part of it is signage, said Ana Giron.

Giron works for Santa Monica Spokes and Stuff, a small beachside shop which rents out bicycles and skates to tourists.

Although she and other employees try to direct their customers to spaces they can use, there's no support from City Hall.

"We tell people to walk two minutes (south), but the city doesn't put up signs for people," Giron said.

The future

City Hall, in conjunction with the bicyclist community, is trying to improve the roadways to make it easier for bicyclists to feel safe getting around, and hopefully cut down on some of the fear that pushes bicyclists onto sidewalks and other dangerous behaviors.

To that end, the Bicycle Action Plan, which should be up for review at the end of July, recommends that 75 percent of bikeways highlighted in a recently-adopted land use document get improvements, Dyke said.

"In many cases, it will provide extra space for bicycles where available in the roadway," Dyke said. "It also calls for way-finding signs to let people know they're on a bike path, and how to get to major destinations by bicycle."

Those kinds of improvements will help, Lewis said.

"When they establish a bike lane, it gives bicyclists more room to ride on the road," he said.

It also slows traffic down, so that slower-moving cyclists can feel more secure.

Those kinds of changes force motorists to remember that roads are there to be shared.

"One thing the city can do and is in the process of doing is get visible markers that tell you that bikes are acceptable," Swanson said.

Making those bike lanes bright and visible will help force motorists to look for bikes. That's the goal of a project under consideration to paint bicycle lanes green, although City Hall is waiting for a change in the California vehicle code before they move forward with the idea.

"It'll tell pedestrians as well as cars that there is a lane reserved for bikes. Not for motorcycles, and not another driving lane. It's for bikes," Swanson said.

Hopefully, these improvements will encourage people to experiment with bicycling as a replacement for cars, which can dovetail with educational efforts to make sure everyone is a responsible citizen of the road.

"Biking is a great choice for people to make in Santa Monica," Dyke said. "It's enjoyable for a lot of people when they try riding their bike … it's a quick alternative for a lot of people."