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The cyclists dilemma

Hi-Desert Star: The cyclist’s dilemma

By Courtney Vaughn
Hi-Desert Star
Published: Wednesday, January 13, 2010 1:16 AM CST

YUCCA VALLEY—There are those who believe that the desert’s jagged landscapes and striking sunsets can never fully be appreciated from behind a windshield.

“Let our people travel light and free on their bicycles — nothing on the back but a shirt, nothing tied to the bike but a slicker, in case of rain,” suggested Edward Abbey in “Desert Solitaire.”

Cyclists have taken this to heart, heading out on two-wheeled, slender modes of transport with the wind in their faces and the sun on their backs, but some say it’s easier said than done.

If braving the rugged dirt roads doesn’t interest you, consider this:

Travel from one end of Yucca Valley to the other, using Twentynine Palms Highway, covers approximately 5.5 miles. The average person in good health might consider the distance a practical stretch via bicycle for errands and exercise.

But cyclists say the route is anything but practical.

Local cyclist and custom bike frame builder Trevor Finch knows first-hand the dangers of cycling in the Morongo Basin.

“It’s a very dangerous area to bike in. I’m from England. I’m an ex-bike cop. I think the motorists in general are pretty much anti-cyclist,” Finch said.

Aside from troubles on the highway, back roads such as Onaga and Yucca trails in Yucca Valley, which are designated by the town as bike routes, fall short on pavement.

“Bike lanes just disappear into sand somehow … I pretty much stick to mountain biking because I know the trails now,” Finch says.

But even off-road cycling can bring trouble.

Park doesn’t recommend it

In Joshua Tree National Park, cyclists are faced with the same scenario as on roads in town: They can ride, but at their own risk.

“We’ve had numerous requests for bike rides within the park, but we’ve generally had to discourage it,” said Joe Zarki, chief of interpretation at JTNP.

Zarki said riders are limited to the same trails that motorized vehicles are permitted on, which can be dangerous.

Finch has found this to be true as well.

“I’ve been dusted several times. …Yesterday I was dusted twice while riding near Eureka Peak” he said, referring to vehicles that speed next to cyclists on dirt roads, leaving riders in a cloud of dust.

“The existing park roads don’t really provide what I feel is the comfortable level of safety for riders,” added Zarki, saying he and the rangers would love to see some changes made, but the park’s hands are tied until they get permission from the National Park Service to designate bike lanes or trails.

Consequences can be fatal

The absence of bike lanes leaves a small margin of space between motorists and cyclists. That small margin of space leaves little to no margin for error.

In early November 2009, family members of Douglas Willison were devastated when Willison was struck and killed by a pickup truck while riding his bike late at night on Palomar Avenue in Yucca Valley.

In 2008, Robert Boyd pleaded guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter for killing bicyclists Lyle Rosser and Raymond Moore as they pedaled up the Yucca Grade.

Town leaders admit the current state of cyclist safety is dismal.

“There is a formal bike route within the town of Yucca Valley,” said Deputy Town Manager Shane Stueckle. “Those bike routes are assigned according to state law; those are the lowest level of bike facilities, as defined by the state.”

A published map of designated bike paths throughout Yucca Valley can be picked up at the town’s buildings, though none of the routes have bike lanes, meaning cyclists must follow the standard rule of riding as close to the right-hand edge of the curb as possible.

“There are no true striped and protected bike lanes in Yucca Valley,” added Stueckle.

Despite the acknowledgement from the town about its cold shoulder toward pedestrians and cyclists, staff members say there isn’t a lot they can do.

“In order to install a true bike lane, those roadways need to be widened to the necessary width, so those bike lanes can be established. As you can imagine, that’s a very expensive project,” said Stueckle.

Caltrans public information officer Shelli Lombardo said determining the cost of a bike lane is difficult, because projects like these can go out to bid, meaning Caltrans will contract with a company to perform the work.

“Generally what happens is local governments fund those projects, but there are opportunities to obtain funding through programs,”said Lombardo.

Pedal pushers for a two-wheeled future

According to Jim Brown, communication director for the California Bicycle Coalition, advocacy can play a big part in a local government’s decision to take action.

“What typically happens in communities that don’t have a lot of bicycle facilities is either you have a really forward-thinking city manager or a community activist group that wants to see this (bike lanes installed),” he said over the telephone Friday.

Brown said changing the way Caltrans and local municipalities think about streets is half the battle.

CBC promotes the Complete Streets movement, which encourages traffic engineers to consider all road users — be they pedestrian, motorized scooter or bicycle — when planning road construction.

Summarized Brown, “Streets aren’t just for cars.”

Safety improves with numbers

Bike lanes may be on the back burner for Yucca Valley, but that doesn’t mean the town wishes to banish bikes. Stueckle said bike lanes are on the agenda and will take their place alongside roads when money is available.

Brown pointed out it may be difficult for bike coalitions to convince people that two wheels are better than four.

“California is the spiritual home of the car owner,” said Brown, but he added the best way for bike enthusiasts to improve safety is to lead by example.

“The paradox we have to deal with is that as more people begin to ride bicycles, the safer the environment becomes for cyclists. The accident rate goes down, because motorists become more accustomed to driving next to bikes,” he said.

“Nobody wants to be the sacrificial lamb, but I would encourage people to get out there.”