Community Editorial: OC Roads Can Be More Bike Friendly

As public demand grows for safe ways to bicycle around town, local governments need to better focus on implementing the Complete Streets Act, a recent state law aimed at making roadways safer for cyclists and pedestrians, according to activists and officials gathered at a Voice of OC Community Editorial Board meeting last week.

“Three years after the Complete Streets Act was passed, and still we have projects that don’t meet the mandates. And bicyclists’ and pedestrians’ lives are put at risk as a result," Brenda Miller, a San Clemente-based activist with PEDal, told those gathered at the Santora Arts Building in downtown Santa Ana. 

“We’re going to get this right,” said Chairman Shawn Nelson of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, who has been spearheading an effort to install a bikeways system in North Orange County.

Nelson, whose bikeways program has become a model for other parts of the county, told editorial board members that many recent road projects were planned before the Complete Streets Act went into effect in 2011. Nonetheless, Nelson said, residents should start to see a shift soon toward projects that better comply with the state law.

The Complete Streets Act requires cities and counties to safely accommodate all users of roadways, including bicyclists, pedestrians, transit riders, children and motorists, when they update their transportation plans.

As Voice of OC reported in May, bicycle riding remains a dangerous feat in many of Orange County’s working-class areas, which often lack basic bicycle lanes.

The dangers of cycling on roadways were also brought to the fore in July, when former Westminster Police Chief James “Mitch” Waller was killed by a passing car while riding a bike on Laguna Canyon Road.

Faced with those dangers, Miller (who recently joined the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board) emphasized that cycling becomes much safer when cities invest in bike lanes and separate bikeways.

“Our policies and our policymakers need to recognize that the safety of a pedestrian and the safety of a bicyclist is equal to the safety of a motorist,” said Miller, who has been helping develop San Clemente’s first Mobility and Complete Streets plan.

We must do “whatever needs to be done to increase safety – for children en route to school, grandmothers walking to the senior center, families going to the beach and just going to the store. You shouldn’t have to risk your life to go buy a bottle of milk or go say your ABC’s at your local elementary school. And those policies occur at a very high level.”

Miller has a receptive ear in Nelson, who has used his positions at the county, Orange County Transportation Authority or OCTA, Southern California Association of Governments and South Coast Air Quality Management District to mobilize bicycle infrastructure improvements in his 4th Supervisorial District.

“I knew that I had an opportunity — because I sit on all these boards — to get the attention of the people required to start chipping away at solving this,” he said.

“OCTA as a technical agency really has the ability and the bully pulpit, because every city participates with OCTA. So that was the right place to start,” said Nelson.

“It takes a vision, and it takes just constant revisiting” to ensure people stay on track, he added.

The effort is considered the first-of-its-kind in Orange County.

“What we’re trying to do is go through district by district and create this system of regional bikeways corridors that will connect up to activities centers, schools” and other major destinations, said Charlie Larwood, department manager for transportation at the Orange County Transportation Authority.

One of the main issues in making streets safer for cyclists, Nelson said, is that many of the busy thoroughfares in cities like Anaheim and Santa Ana were laid out more than 100 years ago and designed for much lighter traffic flows.

“Part of our challenge is just a space fight,” said Nelson. “South County, I think, got an opportunity to watch us screw up a lot of things and master planned it.”

Many areas of South Orange County were designed to have meandering bike and pedestrian trails with greenbelts running through neighborhoods, Nelson pointed out. In central Orange County, the blocks are generally filled with buildings all the way to the streets.

Another issue is the fractured nature of Orange County governance, with several small cities, each responsible for its own transportation planning, grouped next to each other.

Big cities can devote a staff member to applying for grants for the bikeways, while smaller cities often lack that kin of expertise or resources.

“When we started talking about this, Anaheim shows up with a booklet saying, ‘Here’s what we want,’ " said Nelson. "They have a big staff, very adept at writing grants and understanding what their wants are,” said Nelson.

Meanwhile, Nelson said, Buena Park officials needed help in applying for their grants, which, he said, he was happy t arrange.

Miller said that about 30 percent of all trips nationwide are to and from school, so making it safer for kids to bike or walk can make a major reduction in traffic congestion.

“Every child that rides a bike or walks to school takes four car trips off the roadway,” said Miller. As an example, she cited what happened on International Walk to School Day at San Clemente’s Marblehead Elementary School.“With 20 percent of the kids arriving by bicycle and as pedestrians, the gridlock on [Avenida] Vista Hermosa is gone. The parents who want to drop their child off at school at the flag pole en route to the freeway right down the street have free passage into the school parking lot, drop off their child safely, and they can get on the freeway and go,” said Miller.

She wants the OCTA to require greater safety measures for bicyclists in order for cities to secure funding for road projects.

“Cities across Orange County are not updating their transportation plans,” because they don’t want to trigger the Complete Streets Act, said Miller. “And yet there’s no penalty for not doing so. The money has to be made contingent upon compliance with the Complete Streets Act or people are going to continue to die.”

She added that the Southern California Association of Governments “says that the single-occupancy vehicle is the least efficient way of moving people. And yet we’re putting a huge percentage of Measure M’s funding into moving people one box in one car at a time.”

Nelson said that “rightly or wrongly” the reason for its emphasis on freeways is that when Measure M2 was passed in 2006, polls showed that voters’ No. 1 issue was widening freeways.

He added that potential funding for bikeways can be found in the measure’s “Project S,” which has more than $1 billion that can be reallocated.

Even a portion of that funding would go a long way, with the entire 4th District bikeway plan expected to cost less than $30 million.

And Miller said type of investment is exactly what’s needed.

“We know that two-thirds of all trips that are one mile or less are made by automobile. That needs to change,” she said.

OCTA officials emphasized that progress is being made.

“Five or six years ago, we weren’t even having these discussions,” said agency spokesman Joel Zlotnik. “We’ve come a long way in the last few years.”

“We need a plan first before we can do anything,” added Larwood. “And I think by starting with a regional bikeways strategy, building that with education, with outreach, with marketing and understanding of how that will grow, we can gain the support.

"And people like [Brenda] coming to meetings and talking about the need for those, that’s where the change is going to take place.”

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