The Saga Continues: Push for Bike Safety on the PCH Inches Forward

Bicyclists in Malibu, and bicyclists who drive here to ride on Pacific Coast Highway, have reason to be cautiously optimistic about a few recent developments. Tempers at City Hall are cooler, the cops’ attitudes on PCH have changed subtly, and there is some progress to report on safety improvements. But watch out!

Last year, we had a little girl slaughtered by a suicidal motorist who had driven into oncoming traffic before hitting the child, a pedestrian. The Malibu Public Safety Commission reacted by asking the local deputies to crackdown on bicyclists, and issue one bicyclist a ticket for every moving violation issued to a driver.

Photo: Independent Sources via Soap Box L.A.

Plus, the sheriff’s deputies who patrol PCH for the city were interpreting the Vehicle Code in a most-aggressive manner, and were — at the City’s request — issuing tickets for bicyclists for obstructing traffic. Protests that state law allowed bicyclists to ride in traffic lanes – instead of the shoulder – were ignored.

The sheriff’s department attended a summit meeting between bike clubs and the city commissioners. Eric Bruins, a bicyclist with the patience of a saint, won them over with a studied, reasoned argument about the nature of crashes on PCH, and the way bike laws are enforced across California.

Credit needs to go to the city commissioners and the sheriff’s office, who made an effort to listen to bicyclists. The city commission backed down on the punitive ticket bikers quota idea, and all involved expressed support for sharing the lane instead of requiring bikes to ride amidst the parked cars and bumps on the shoulder.

The public safety commissioners came away saying they had learned a lot. One of the commissioners who was most-critical of bicyclists wrote a column for the local Patch explaining what she had learned about bicyclists’ rights. She gets credit for admitting she had gone the wrong direction, and wrote eloquently about the need to simmer down and ride/drive cooperatively.  (Ed note: Remember Susan Tellem?)

The city also deserves credit for securing a $900,000 grant to improve the very-western end of PCH for bikes, and for getting a $375,000 SCAG grant to start a master traffic safety plan for the entire route.  That study is just about to start, and the city promises it will solicit input from stakeholders. Bicyclists had better make their voices known as this unfolds.

But not all is shiny and bright in Malibu.

The Malibu Public Safety Commission is chaired by a well-meaning and earnest woman, who lives on PCH and actually had her son-in-law die in her arms, at her house in eastern Malibu, minutes after he was struck by a motorist. She has publicly avowed, at meetings, that she will fight with all her power to prevent any changes that increase bike or pedestrian use of PCH between Malibu and Santa Monica.

Photo: Here in Malibu via Soap Box L.A.

In 1999, a very modest City of Malibu plan to fix a few storm drains and pave a few shoulders to make PCH bicycling safer was shot down when the Malibu Public Safety Commission and its chairwoman organized a campaign against it. She is an honest and sincere woman, with a cause forged in blood.

This cause also includes preserving the private residential parking, on state highway property, that has existed in eastern Malibu since 1946, when the road was widened. PCH is used for curbside parking, almost all of it by residents, in eastern Malibu. This residential parking is on both sides of the road, and in front of her house.

Oceanfront Malibu residents also rely on a left turn lane that in most places is used exclusively by residents turning into their garages. Plus, PCH is a 100-foot right of way, and numerous mailboxes, fences, bushes, garbage cans and trees encroach on the public highway.
Add it all up, and three traffic lanes of the seven lanes that make up PCH in eastern Malibuare used for residential purposes: parking on each side of the road, and the median lane used is most of eastern Malibu to turn into garages. It’s been this way since 1964, when the center turn lane was added, the last major safety improvement on PCH in Malibu.

Is it fair that more than a third of this state highway be used for private residential purposes? Can anyone really say there is no room for bicycles or pedestrians along so much of the highway? Where are the property lines, and why are fixed residential encroachments on PCH tolerated by the city and state?

Malibu is required by state law to provide a safe bicycle route and pedestrian trail along PCH. Its own General Plan requires a citywide bike plan. The Coastal Commission plan for Malibu, which the city is obligated to follow, requires a bike lane and pedestrian path. The state Legislature has set up the Pacific Coast Bike Route and the California Coastal Trail, both of which require safe bike and pedestrian access along the highway.

The city will soon write a PCH safety plan. I am worried that the City of Malibu will hear plenty from the residents who will lose their parking, or private turn lanes, in this process.

I think it is time for the people of Malibu to come up with a real plan, to squeeze in safe bike and pedestrian access along the beaches of Malibu. If the city acts constructively, this can be done with a minimum of lost parking places or turn lanes. If Malibu fails to act, other agencies may take over that obligation. It’s happened before.

No one wants to make it miserable for Malibu’s beachfront residents, but I worry that powerful forces are invested in the status quo, which is miserable for pedestrians and bicyclists – many of whom are Malibu residents.

We need help, both in Malibu and in L.A. The biggest safety bottlenecks for pedestrian and bicycle safety on PCH are not in Malibu! The dangerous curves and shoulderless bottlenecks at the Bel Air Bay Club are in the City of Los Angeles. Bicyclists on PCH in Santa Monica and the City of LA have freeway-like conditions with no shoulders at all. The popular coastal bike path ends at a guard rail next to the most-narrow section of PCH, with tight curves and no shoulder – in the City of LA!

There are literally more than a dozen agencies with jurisdiction on PCH and its bridges, ranging from the Army Corps of Engineers to County Beaches and Harbors to the North Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission to Fish and Game to the state Water Board to LAPD to CHP to the sheriff, not to mention the cities of LA, Santa Monica, Malibu and the county, and state parks and the National Parks Service out to the west.

We need bicyclists to speak up!