After Deaths, Transportation Officials Increase Bike Safety Efforts

Long Beach bike lane

A separated bike lane in Long Beach, a city cited as a model for bike friendliness by several local officials.  (Photo credit: studio-111blog.com)

After a string of high-profile deaths, government officials from across Orange County are ramping up their efforts to make it safer and easier for people to ride bikes.

And they’re working with bicycle advocates to come up with solutions.

At a workshop Monday night, Orange County Transportation Authority officials gathered with dozens of activists to hear their ideas amid thousands of injuries to local cyclists and numerous deaths in recent years.

“We have a serious problem here, and I have no idea what the answers are,” said OCTA Director Todd Spitzer, who is also a county supervisor. “I’m here to hear from you, because we need your ideas.”

The issue has affected elected leaders directly.

“I’ve been hit many, many times myself” while cycling, said OCTA Vice Chairman Jeff Lalloway.

“It’s never fun when a friend dies or someone we know [dies]. It’s very dangerous out there.”

Spitzer agreed, noting that his bike rides on a major street are often formidable.

“I was a cop for 10 years, and I’m more nervous riding on Santiago Canyon Road on a road bike than I am making entry into a house where I don’t know what’s on the inside” said Spitzer, who came up with the idea of a workshop on the issue.

The event was attended by several high-level local officials, including Spitzer, supervisors' Chairman Shawn Nelson, Irvine Mayor Steven Choi, Buena Park Councilwoman Beth Swift, Westminster Councilwoman Diana Carey, Newport Beach Councilwoman Leslie Daigle and transportation authority CEO Darrell Johnson.

Feedback from officials and advocates centered on two main issues: ramping up education for cyclists and drivers and boosting infrastructure investments.

“We really do need better education for our motorists and cyclists as far as sharing the road,” said Bill Cameron, San Clemente’s public works director and city engineer.

Commercials from Los Angeles County’s transportation agency are a good example, he added.

“Motorists don’t really understand how vulnerable we are out there,” said Cameron, who also chairs OCTA’s Technical Advisory Committee.

As for infrastructure, he said that if wide arterial streets in San Clemente aren’t getting the level of traffic that was expected, the city has started adding buffered bike lanes.

And in a sign of San Clemente’s commitment to bike safety, the city recently hired an engineer who’s a specialist in complete streets, Cameron said

It’s a trend that appears to be growing.

OCTA itself is about to hire its first active transportation manager with a job posting now online. The winning applicant will be announced in a few weeks, officials said.

Santa Ana city officials are also reportedly looking to create a similar position.

As far as local cities’ efforts, Irvine officials were credited for being regional leaders in bike infrastructure and safety programs.

City staffers visit schools to educate teenagers about safe routes to schools, and have held 11 bike rodeos to teach bike safety to children.

On the enforcement end, Irvine officials said they’ve had success with diversion, in which they allow youth cyclists who get tickets to take a safety class instead of going to traffic court.

Irvine saw a 27-percent reduction in traffic collisions involving bicycles from 2012 to 2013 with the city on a similar track this year, said city police Lt. Tom Allan.

Orange County sheriff’s Deputy Mike Matranga encouraged cyclists to call cities and report issues such as cars cutting off bikes or driving too close so officials can locate problem spots.

Newport Beach biking activist Frank Peters pointed to bicycle-based police as being able to show drivers how bikes behave on the road.

Peters noted that Newport Beach just bought two electric bikes, which officers can ride and not become fatigued.

That approach also helps educate drivers about how cyclists can make turns and use street lanes, he said.

“It really improves community outreach as well,” with people feeling more comfortable speaking to officers on bikes, Allan said.

Ramon Zavala, the bicycle coordinator at UC Irvine, suggested focusing on the “low-hanging fruit” that can improve bike safety.

“So much stuff can be done with a … very little amount of money,” said Zavala.

One example he cited is having Orange County Bicycle Coalition members provide traffic skills training at OCTA-sponsored events.

Another example he cited is public service announcement saturation, especially on the issue of wrong-way cycling.

Of bike and car collisions from 2009 to 2012 where the cyclist was at fault, 55-percent involved wrong-way cyclists, Zavala said.

“That’s a very simple problem to solve,” said Zavala.

Public service announcements were a regular theme among advocates.

That message has clearly gotten across to OCTA officials, who unveiled a brand-new public service campaign at the event:

Johnson said the ad is scheduled to air 3,400 different times on local cable TV.

He asked for cycling advocates’ help in getting the word out by posting the video on their websites.

The agency has also set up a website with cycling safety tips: BeBikeSmart.com.

More than 51 percent of Orange County residents now identify themselves as being part of minority communities, Johnson added, underscoring a need to focus on varying ethnic backgrounds.

As a result, OCTA’s brochures on bike safety are now in six languages.

Creating more infrastructure, meanwhile, is largely up to individual cities.

And, activists say, there’s good advice out there.

Cities have a “tremendous template” in guidelines from the League of American Bicyclists, said Dan Hazard, the co-founder of Huntington Beach Bicycle Advocates.

The new Urban Street Design Guide from the National Association of City Transportation Officials is also getting a lot of attention in planning circles.

Among other points, it describes how to create separated bike lanes and flexible sidewalk features.

It also offers before-and-after comparisons:

The state’s transportation agency, Caltrans, formally endorsed the guidelines last week.

“California’s transportation system must be multimodal and support bicycles and pedestrians as well as automobiles,” Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty declared in a statement.

(Click here to check out the design guide.)

As for OCTA, Hazard suggested that the agency have regional bike coordinators who are responsible for different geographic regions in Orange County.

Hazard also said his group has had success with giving five-minute safety presentations at PTA meetings to tell parents that letting kids ride against traffic is “a recipe for disaster.”

San Clemente biking advocate Brenda Miller emphasized the importance of educating children about bike safety.

“Parents are still too afraid of the infrastructure to let their kids ride to school, for good reason,” Miller said.

She encouraged OCTA to create a national- and state-funded program for "bike trains," which would gather kids in neighborhoods and take them to school.

With a fully-trained “engine” and “caboose,” children would be taught how to use bike infrastructure, she said.

“We know that transportation to school is roughly 25 to 30 percent of all average daily trips,” Miller said.

San Clemente already has two schools with active mothers who have been leading this effort, she added.

Miller also suggested using street medians, particularly on wide arterial roads, as separated bike lanes.

“The medians are largely untapped resources,” Miller said, adding that the technology already exists for bike traffic signals.

Another suggestion from Fullerton cycling advocate Vince Buck was that OCTA set up a bicycle advisory committee composed of a cross section of people.

OCTA should also encourage local cities to have bicycle advisory committees, he added.

One meeting participant suggested that the county government itself can make a big difference by encouraging its employees to bike to work.

That idea, however, has apparently been met with concern about legal liabilities from the county CEO’s office.

But Bill Sellin, a board member at the Orange County Bicycle Coalition who worked for the city of Irvine for 34 years, pointed out that biking “predates the automobile.”

He suggested that officials view fast car speeds next to cyclists as a bigger liability than encouraging people to safely ride to work.

Another issue pointed to by advocates is inconsistencies between cities’ municipal codes when it comes to biking.

For example, some cities allow biking on sidewalks while others don’t.

OCTA officials noted that while they can help cities with planning and funding, it ultimately depends on residents and city leaders to advocate for bike projects.

“It starts in all of our individual local communities,” said Lalloway, recognizing that grassroots efforts have proven very effective at having infrastructure built.

Marina Ramirez of the affordable housing group NeighborWorks Orange County encouraged officials to hold more stakeholder forums like Monday night’s to delve into the policies.

“No one knows the streets as much as they do,” said Ramirez.

Meanwhile, Nelson, who is OCTA chairman this year, pointed to Santa Ana as being in a prime position to transform itself into a bicycle-friendly community.

“I think more than any community in Orange County, Santa Ana has the most opportunity to do something big” in changing the way things are, Nelson said.

Santa Ana “would be the perfect place to emulate what we’ve seen in Long Beach” and become a bike-centric city, said Nelson, who added that Long Beach has been doing a “fabulous” job.

That city of 468,000, which borders northwest Orange County, has installed a series of green-colored bike lanes, as well as bike lanes that are separated from car traffic:

Nelson spearheaded a collaborative effort to update bike infrastructure in his North County district, with the construction contract for its first bikeway project approved by county supervisors earlier this month.

That planning effort is now either under way or scheduled across the rest of the county supervisors’ districts, with a South Orange County planning session scheduled for Wednesday, May 28, at 5:30 p.m. at the Laguna Hills Community Center.

Other elected officials active in the bike-friendliness movement include Newport Beach Councilwoman Leslie Daigle and Santa Ana Councilwoman Michele Martinez.

Pressure on local elected officials has also come from biking advocates such as Miller of San Clemente, Peters of Newport Beach and Zavala of UC Irvine.

There’s widespread agreement that good bike infrastructure planning takes bringing officials and residents together to come up with a big-picture plan.

Nelson pointed to county supervisors and OCTA as being able to play a supportive role in persuading people to think “on a much more global scale.”

He added that all the studies he knows of show that the more bicycles you have on the road, the safer it is – not only for cyclists but also for motorists.

The increased focus on bike infrastructure comes amid a growing effort nationwide to transform communities into being more bike and pedestrian friendly.

There’s a “huge movement out there to support active transportation,” Nelson noted.

Advocates say such environments help boost health, public safety and economic development, along with reducing pollution and fostering more enjoyable areas to spend time.

After Monday’s event, OCTA officials plan to take a close look at the advocates’ ideas and keep the conversation going.

A huge shift is taking place, they noted.

OCTA has moved from being a “passive participant” in bike planning to an “active participant,” said Johnson, the agency’s CEO.

“We’re at the beginning of a big sea change,” said Nelson. “The agency, in partnership with the cities, is a believer.”

Please contact Nick Gerda directly at ngerda@gmail.com  and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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