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Blocking bike lanes in Santa Monica and Putting Bike Riders at Risk

A week or so back, I was riding eastbound on San Vicente Blvd in Santa Monica, a block or two above Ocean Ave.

It’s my usual route home after biking to the beach; drivers seem familiar with the bike lanes there, and, for the most part, seem to respect and stay out of them.

On 6th near Wilshire; photo courtesy of Cynthia Rose and Santa Monica Spoke

Except for delivery drivers, that is.

The lane ahead was blocked by a UPS truck. So I checked the traffic behind me, signaled my lane change, and rode around it before returning to the bike lane — just as a driver was pulling out from his parking spot in front of the truck, his view of me completely blocked by the large truck just behind him.

Fortunately, he saw me in time and jammed on his brakes. There was nothing I could have done to avoid a collision; hitting my own brakes would have left me directly in his path, while swerving to the left would have put me in front of traffic coming up rapidly from behind.

Unfortunately, it’s not an unusual problem.

While Gary Kavanagh is on a short hiatus, Ted Rogers and Juan Matute will cover the Santa Monica beat for Streetsblog. This column is supported by Bike Center and the Library Alehouse

Spend time riding the bike lanes that bisect Santa Monica, and you’ll find your way blocked on a nearly daily basis. Sometimes several times the same day. Or the same block.

Bike lane blocked by cones on Ocean Avenue

While Santa Monica is rapidly installing bike lanes — including the city’s first green bike lanes — they seem to do little to ensure that the lanes are kept clear and ridable.

The city’s bike lanes are frequently blocked by construction work, forcing riders to compete with impatient drivers for reduced space in the traffic lanes. Meanwhile, a lack of coordination magnifies the risk, as happened recently when construction work obliterated the northbound bike lane on Ocean Ave between Pico and Colorado, while the most practical alternate route, the recently installed bike lanes on Main Street, were blocked by construction at City Hall.

Construction work blocking bike lane on Ocean Avenue

Sometimes it’s necessary to block a bike lane; after all, you don’t want to ride through a construction zone where your helmet — or lack of one — is all that stands between you and swinging cranes or falling construction materials. Some other cities seem to manage the situation better, though, requiring work crews to maintain an alternate pathway for bikes around the worksite without flinging them dangerously into traffic.

Utility crews also need to block bike lanes to do their work from time to time; in fact, CVC 21211 specifically exempts utility vehicles from the law prohibiting blocking of bikeways.

Yes, bike lanes are bikeways. While CVC 21211(a) specifically refers to Class 1 bicycle paths or trails, section (b), which specifically bans parking in a bikeway, does not.

On the other hand, there is no reason why delivery trucks should need to block the lane. Or be allowed to.

Utility truck blocking bike lane on Arizona

Yet it’s one of the most common complaints of bicyclists who ride in or through the beachfront city. Myself included.

Fedex, UPS, bottled water companies, wine distributors and other trucks and vans of all sizes, purposes and descriptions seem to consider bike lanes their own personal parking plazas, even when there is adequate curbside parking available.

I understand why. It’s a lot easier to stop in the bike lane for a few minutes than it is to search for a large enough space in Santa Monica’s vastly over-populated parking environment, or struggle to back out of a driveway into traffic after parking there.

And delivery drivers are far more likely to be ticketed by SaMo police and meter readers for parking in a red zone or briefly blocking a driveway than for stopping in the middle of a bike lane, even though the latter is far more likely to result in actual harm.

As my incident illustrates, it’s just a matter of time before someone is killed or seriously injured riding around a blocked Santa Monica bike lane, if it hasn’t happened already.

UPS truck blocking bike lane on San Vicente, Sept. 2012

Local drivers are used to the more established bike lanes and expect riders to remain in them; they may be unprepared to see a bike in front of them when there’s a bike lane next to them. Meanwhile, drivers frequently speed on open stretches of surface streets — in Santa Monica and pretty much everywhere else on the planet — and too often find themselves distracted by their proximity to the beach and the search for parking, paying little or no attention to anyone else on the road with them.

To say it’s a recipe for disaster is putting it mildly.

Unfortunately, it also a problem of jurisdiction in a county made up of roughly 80 separate cities, each of which may interpret state law in their own way, and often do.

For instance, the City of Los Angeles regards bike lanes as legal lanes of traffic just like the traffic lanes to their left, albeit reserved for the use of bicycles, just like HOV lanes are reserved for vehicles with multiple occupants. In addition, the LAPD has concluded that CVC 21211 applies to Class II bike lanes as well as Class 1 bike paths, and enforces the law accordingly, ticketing or towing vehicles that block them.

Of course your experience may vary depending on the officer and the situation.

UPS truck blocking bike lane on San Vicente on Tuesday

But when I reached out to a representative of the Santa Monica Police Department to ask what their policy was regarding trucks blocking bike lanes, I was told they didn’t have one — officially or unofficially. In addition, their interpretation was that CVC 21211 didn’t apply to bike lanes, but only to off-road trails.

However, in a follow-up email, I was told that the Santa Monica’s City Attorney’s office would examine the law to determine if CVC 21211 does apply to bike lanes. But regardless, he added, CVC 22502(a), which requires that vehicles park parallel to and no further than 18” from the curb would apply, so vehicles could be ticketed for double parking.

His suggestion was to pass carefully on the left after checking for oncoming traffic when you find a vehicle blocking the bike lane, just as I did at the beginning of this story. And if trucks double parked in the bike lane raises your blood pressure as much as it does mine, you can call the non-emergency SMPD dispatch number at 310/458-8491 to request that an officer come out to investigate.

There’s a good chance the truck will have moved by the time they get there. But they may be able to catch them doing the same thing a block or two away.

I’ve also tried to address the problem directly with UPS, but despite numerous promises from as high as the VP level, nothing has changed.

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