bike lanes through Malibu

Highway safety task force officials say some parking and center left-turn lanes would need to be eliminated.

By Hans Laetz / Special to The Malibu Times

A county bicycle coalition asked a multiagency Pacific Coast Highway safety task force Friday for continuous, three-foot wide bike lanes to be squeezed onto both sides of the highway through the entire length of Malibu.

Members of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition "would like PCH to be a place where families and commuters alike, not just expert bike riders, can enjoy the ride along the coast," said Kastle Lund, coalition executive director.

After the Friday meeting of the task force, state Department of Transportation officials said some areas in eastern Malibu could accommodate bike lanes only if a small amount of on-street parking was banned, or if the center left turn lane was eliminated in a few tight places.

"We have the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other," said Dan Freeman, District 7 Caltrans operations manager, of the difficulty to find space for bike lanes.

Residents who live along the highway in eastern Malibu are mostly supportive of a bike lane plan, even if it means a few parking places will be lost.

"I would say we should build the bike lane," said resident Thomas Cavanaugh. "But, in my opinion, the bigger problem is where there is construction on the side of the road."

Cavanaugh might lose the parking place in front of his rental, but said compromises must be reached.

"I ride my bike too … I run the gauntlet."

Other residents have said in the past that the very nature of the highway, with its twists and turns and speeding cars, makes it inappropriate for bicycles.

At last week's meeting, Caltrans officials said that Pacific Coast Highway is the state's only official bike route by virtue of state legislation passed in 1975 and 1990. A county official noted that the official designation of the "Pacific Coast Bike Route" obligates local governments to make provisions for safe bicycling on a shared basis with cars.

"So many drivers in Malibu think that they own the roadway and that they don't have to share the road with bicyclists," Malibu Parks and Recreation Commission member Dermot Stoker said at the meeting. "That's just ignorance."

The request for bike lanes came before the safety task force chaired by state Sen. Sheila Kuehl and composed of officials from six elected governments, five law enforcement agencies, five parks agencies, four fire departments and a few other agencies that have some aspect of dominion over Pacific Coast Highway between Santa Monica and Point Mugu.

It was prompted by the deaths of Scott Bleifer, 41, of Santa Monica, and Stanislav Ionov, 46, of Calabasas on Sept. 10. A catering truck struck the men from behind after moving into traffic to avoid construction barriers placed on the shoulder of the highway near John Tyler Drive.

Sheriff's deputies said the bicyclists had the legal right to occupy the traffic lane, and have charged the truck driver with two counts of vehicular homicide. The construction barriers were blocking the road's shoulder, but had been legally placed as directed under a Caltrans encroachment permit.

Caltrans officials said Friday they were considering revising construction permit processes for Pacific Coast Highway to include mandating provisions for bicycle riders. Bike riders said the fatal accident scene had room for the two traffic lanes to be shifted toward the median during the 11 months that the shoulder was barricaded.

Committee members were asked to work with Caltrans and report back in three months with specific plans to either get the bikes out of traffic lanes, or failing that, come up with plans to handle bikes and traffic together.

City Manager Katie Lichtig said Malibu returned funding for Pacific Coast Highway bicycle safety improvements to regional transportation planners in 1996, because the city does not maintain or control the state highway.

But Caltrans and Metropolitan Transportation Administration officials were surprised, and said they did not know that Malibu had ceded bicycle safety planning to them eight years ago.

And bicycle coalition members said that as late as last summer, Malibu had refused to join a county project aimed at securing funding for small widening and other safety projects on the highway.

"We were told that Malibu doesn't do bike safety," Lund said. "The city manager wasn't probably even aware of the low-ranking aide who told us that."

Michelle Mowery, a bike engineer for the City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation, said the Caltrans idea of installing "share the road" signs "is nice, but, in reality, little more than a public service announcement."

"Some cities are putting up signs that say 'Bicycles Allowed Full Use of Lane' signs," she said.

Those signs, used in San Francisco, alert motorists to state laws that give bicyclists legal right to occupy a lane but require riders to keep as far to the right of a street as safely possible.

Other Caltrans signs came into criticism: "So you put up a 'shoulder closed ahead' sign and I come riding up to it," said one biker. "Then what is supposed to happen?"

"This isn't a time to finger-point or look for blame," Sen. Kuehl said. "We need to move on and address these concerns."

Pacific Coast Highway, from the Charthouse restaurant east, is within the city limits of Los Angeles and Santa Monica, and several landslides in this area have permanently eliminated shoulders. Bike riders have said hazards in Malibu more often consist of parked vehicles or construction barriers on shoulders.

Although the highway has a paved width of at least 60 feet through most of Malibu, the center left-turn lane from Malibu Pier to Topanga Canyon Boulevard leaves less room for bicyclists, and on-street parking use is heavier there as well. City Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich has said, in the past, that a bike lane may only be possible in the western section of Malibu.

Barry Kurtz, representing the county Department of Beaches and Harbors, warned that a bike lane through only part of Malibu "raises the issue of an attractive nuisance," drawing Los Angeles bike riders through the hazardous stretch east of the city to get to the bike lane in western Malibu.

"There are sections of PCH that have zero shoulder," Kurtz said. "I would suggest that Caltrans go back and look at every single stretch of road to evaluate how we can add a shoulder.

"And what we really need to do is revisit our standards for construction projects on this road," Kurtz added. "You can't have the fog line right next to the concrete railing."

One bicyclist waved a PCH bike safety study from the 1970s, and pointed to pictures of hazardous situations that had not changed in 30 years.

Conley Ulich said experts might concentrate on installing "some sort of technology that I'm not even sure has been invented yet that could pop up from the pavement to ping-pong vehicles back into the traffic before they hit bikes."

"Think big," the city council member said, "because this needs a big solution."

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