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Dangerous Cycling: PCH Malibu (seeing is believing)

This posting is a follow up to Independent Sources Malibu: Sunshine, Movie Stars, and Senseless Deaths on PCH and we recommend that you read that posting first before continuing with this one. Also before reading the post (and certainly before riding on PCH) you must note that there are in fact NO bicycle lanes on PCH, despite the fact that thousands of cyclists ride on it every weekend. Instead, cyclists are forced to ride in a shoulder which ranges in width from a few feet to non-existent and varies in condition from bad to deadly. (h/t: Susan Gans). Henceforth I will refer to this shoulder area as the “bike passageway” since that is how cyclists use it.

Pacific Coast Highway

Just south of the Malibu Pier there is a state road sign that tells you that you are on the Pacific Coast Bicycle trail.

How ironic that this sign is positioned at the beginning of a nine mile stretch that is one of the most unnecessarily dangerous areas for cyclists in California.

PCH is a beautiful stretch of land with sweeping ocean views and hillside and canyon vistas. Furthermore it is the primary (or in some cases sole) method for reaching the many canyon roads that criss-cross the Santa Monica Mountains. For these reasons and others, PCH is extremely popular with road cyclists. However, PCH is an extremely dangerous road–made worse by a lack of planning and care by the state and local agencies who have jurisdiction over it.

Yesterday, I drove a 20 mile stretch heavily traveled by cyclists (click here for satellite image of the route). I wanted to catalog places that are inherently dangerous to cyclists due to encroachments into the bike passageways. I particularly wanted to find areas where cyclists would be forced into traffic lanes occupied by fast moving cars and trucks. The photos below will show you what a dangerous route it really is.

Northbound (permanent protrusions)

I started at the corner of West Channel and Pacific Coast Highway. I selected this as a starting point because it is a common access point for cyclists riding on PCH. Riders coming from the east would take San Vincente to get here and those from the south would likely have taken Ocean Ave. Unfortunately, as riders get on PCH they are immediately faced with a very dangerous stretch.

Due to a landslide in the late 1980s, a retaining wall was built to protect the highway from falling dirt. Unfortunately, the bike passageway has an abundance of weeds, mud, rocks and other debris. The worst however is that about 1/2 mile down for reasons that I cannot fathom the passageway narrows greatly pushing cyclists right out to the road. (This happens right where PCH bends to the right so that drivers not paying attention could easily drift into the shoulder making it even more dangerous.)

Up a mile and past Temescal Canyon is a road construction site that has shown no signs of completion. The construction crew put up 100 yards of concrete barriers forcing cyclists completely into a high speed traffic lane (the same situation that cost Scott and Stas their lives two weeks ago.)

Up another 1/2 mile and just past the intersection of Sunset Blvd. and PCH is an extremely dangerous 1/4 mile. First the bike passageway becomes very uneven and rough before disappearing into a mountain of mud. Cars are given no indication that the shoulder is about to go away and that cyclists will will soon be coming into traffic (with the right-of-way). Worse is that the pavement uneven, muddy and wet making it one of the most dangerous situations one could imagine.

Up another 1/2 mile and just before getting to Topanga Canyon, there is a more recent landslide that Caltrans has been working on shoring up. Unfortunately, Caltrans did not leave any room for cyclists when setting up the barriers. However, to their credit they did put up a “watch for cyclists” sign and also have swept the area inside of the barriers so that one can ride to the right of the barriers (unconventional yes, but safe) and stay out of the way of automobile traffic. [Update (9/30/05): Caltrans or someone has taken down the "watch for cyclists" sign.]

For the next several miles the bike passageway becomes dangerously narrow and also contends with parked cars taking up the passageway. Fortunately, no fixed encroachment of the bike passageway until you pass Pepperdine University and you get to the construction zone where Scott and Stas lost their lives (see link above for full story). This is an inexcusable blockage of the bike passageway and it speaks volumes that even after two unnecessary deaths the construction company has not moved the barriers in even a few feet. If you look at this photo you can see that the concrete barriers appear to be protecting dirt. (Hard to imagine that this was an important enough task to create such a hazard). [Update: it was reported to me that as of today 9/30 the barriers have been removed and that workers on the site were sweeping the bike lane of debris. On behalf of all of us, thanks!]

A few miles down the road is the site of another landslide. This one comes on a downhill. There appears to have been no attempt to fix this or mitigate it.

Just past Trancas, there is a fairly large road project that eliminates the bike passageway on both sides. Note the cyclist in the photo below is in the middle of the traffic lane and right in the way of the car coming up behind them. Despite having the right of way, there is absolutely nothing the cyclist will be able to do if the driver of the automobile behind them does not slow down.

Southbound (permanent protrusions)

I turned around after the road construction at Trancas (see photo above) which affects southbound cyclists as well. Ignoring the generally dangerous Zuma section (mostly from drivers on the left who are looking at the ocean and not the road) and surfers on the right opening doors and swinging surf boards, the first major obstruction comes at the intersection of PCH and Kanan Dume Road. Here cyclists come across a big wet hole and a couple of traffic cones. I have no idea what this even is but it is quite dangerous.

It is then relatively safe riding on the highway until passing Malibu Colony when you come to the stretch from Malibu Pier to Santa Monica (“blood alley”). While there is no permanent protrusions on this stretch, cyclists are constantly interrupted by: a) absolutely dismal parking jobs by residents seemingly oblivious to the fact that cyclists depend on there being a gap between the highway and their cars, b) delivery trucks that stick out into the street, c) trash bins, and d) pedestrians; all the while cars are speeding up behind one’s flank. (see “temporary” protrusions below for photos of some of these).

The next permanent encroachment in the bike passageway you come upon is the landslide just south of Topanga Canyon. Here the bike passageway disappears but two lanes of speeding cars behind you do not. It is absolutely frightful and lasts a quarter mile or so (probably some of the fastest riding you will do in your life).

The next 1/2 mile of the highway is generally uneven pavement (with lots of little cement droppings left by careless road construction crews) bringing you into the Sunset Blvd. intersection. Here the shoulder is squeezed into non-existence by the Gladstones restaurant. From the photo it looks like Caltrans had to make a choice of protecting the restaurant from errant cars or protecting cyclists. (Gladstones won.)

Up another mile the bike passageway disappears once again. In an eerie replay of Scott and Stas’s tragedy, while I was setting up my camera a cyclist came by and was squeezed into traffic by the barrier and was nearly hit by a catering truck. Fortunately, this particular driver was paying attention but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I was shaken by the experience.

If you look closely at the next photo, you see that the barrier that almost forced the rider above into the catering truck is once again protecting dirt–isn’t this just plain wrong?

“Temporary” Protrusions (observed north and southbound in one 2-hour period)

In addition to the relatively permanent encroachments of the bike passageway there are numerous other blockages more temporary in nature but that can still send cyclists into fast moving traffic. For example, brush clearance crews:

and

Movie crews (which I might add made it far more dangerous by their “orange traffic cones” and you can see how much of the bike passageway they took up):

Utility work:

and more utility work:

and yet more:

Trash bins:

and

and

Big trucks parked:

and

Remember all of these photos were taken on one round trip to Trancas and back and would haven been encountered by anyone riding on PCH that day.

++++++++++++++++++++++

Despite what you read in Independent Sources’ other postings (like improving education or interjecting economics into problem solving), we are realists and we do not expect miracles (e.g., drivers to suddenly change behavior). But we do not believe that it is too much to ask:

  • the permanent and semi-permanent blockages of the bike passageway be immediately addressed
  • parking regulations be created or enforced that would keep automobiles from forcing cyclists into traffic
  • more and better signage at dangerous points
  • construction zones to factor in bicycle traffic

These are just a few of the reasonable actions that the city, state and all responsible parties should take which I believe will be more effective than the recently announced Malibu Sheriff’s policy.

Readers: If I’ve missed something please list it in the comments or email me a photo. Camera phone photos are acceptable but be careful taking them.

Additional resources: Velo Club La Grange, LATri Club.

In memory of Scott Bleifer and Stas Ionov.

Note to our out-of-area readers: I use PCH as a proxy for dangerous riding conditions everywhere. Please do not wait for someone to be killed to address unnecessarily dangerous cycling conditions in your areas.

All photographs were taken by Insider on 9/21/05 from 2 to 4 pm.

Read comments below including one from the Malibu Times reporter who has been providing the most comprehensive coverage of cycling in Malibu. There is also a comment from the rider in the photograph above who was almost hit by a catering truck right in front of me.

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20 Responses to “Dangerous Cycling: PCH Malibu (seeing is believing)”

  1. 1
    Hans Laetz Says:

    Southbound PCH at Kanan-Dume Road: you’re not going to like this.

    The answer to your question about the steel plate and liquid in the road?

    http://www.malibutimes.com/articles/2005/04/27/news/news6.txt

    >”

    Water seepage onto PCH contains human waste
    Wednesday, April 27, 2005

    (photo)

    * The city of Malibu recently conducted tests that show this water on Pacific Coast Highway near Kanan Dume Road is partly composed of human waste. Officials believe the water is seepage from septic pits from a nearby condominium complex. Photo by Hans Laetz / TMT * *

    A city study points to nearby condominium complex septic pits as source of a pool of slimy, green water seeping onto Pacific Coast Highway near Kanan Dume Road.

    By Hans Laetz/ Special to The Malibu Times

    A dirty little secret is percolating up onto Pacific Coast Highway on Point Dume, where thousands of cars splash daily through water that officials say is seeping out from uphill septic pits.

    A groundwater study ordered by the city of Malibu shows the liquid splashed on people and cars to be partly composed of human waste, which an engineer says is likely coming from the Malibu Gardens condominiums.

    City engineer Craig George told The Malibu Times that the exact level of contamination found during a city-ordered preliminary test is “proprietary information” that cannot be released to the public. But he said the contaminated seepage is not an imminent danger to passersby.

    “Of course, all gutter water is to be avoided,” George said in an interview. “But as for people getting sick from this, that’s not a valid concern.”

    Every day, people waiting for buses at Pacific Coast Highway and Kanan Dume Road walk through the splashed water and slime caused by the seepage. Hundreds of bicyclists ride through it every weekend, and nearly 40,000 cars per day drive through the intersection splashing the water into the air….

  2. 2
    wendy marin Says:

    Thank you so much for another comprehensive, well-written account of the treachery facing cyclists who ride on PCH.
    I am the cyclist nearly hit by the catering truck in your photo and, yes, I noted how fortunate for me this driver used his brakes.

    I ride the stretch of PCH from Temescal to Trancas on a regular basis and am aware of the myriad hazards. Your photos, however, bring the problem sharply into focus and I’m left wondering how I’ve managed to escape all those car doors, surfboards, catering trucks and thoughtless parking-spot-obsessed drivers mile after mile, ride after ride.

    I hope the momentum created by the recent tragedy will propel the cycling community to demand safety-related improvements on PCH. We deserve nothing less.

  3. 3
    Insider Says:

    Wendy, I’m glad you were okay. I have to admit I was pretty spooked as that catering truck came up behind you. I didn’t even like standing on that stretch by the Balboa Bay Club let alone out in traffic.

  4. 4
    Alek Says:

    Thanks for such a detailed analysis!
    You did bring up great points and have presented valuable photographs.
    Being a cyclist myself, may I suggest this to other fellow cyclists: please, please use caution at all times! ALWAYS use a rear-view mirror, this way – when riding your bicycle – you will spot an approaching large vehicle (or a catering truck) well in advance, and you will be able to stop and let it pass by. Also, you have to ride defensively! You (i.e. bicyclists) do not own the road, unfortunately the cars do, and they disrespect us, cyclists. So, that’s why a rear-view mirror is essential – as you see in the mirror that a vehicle (especially a large one!) is approaching you rapidly, you’ve got to pull over, and let it pass! Yes, you may lose some time, but – better to lose a few seconds of our time, than our life! Better safe than sorry.
    I had close calls myself, but – let me tell you – being alert, being on the lookout, being PREPARED to pull over at any time really helps, especlally with the presence of a rear-view mirror, really helps.
    Good luck to you all!!
    And – once again, I’m glad, Wendy, that you were ok and not struck by the catering truck.
    Alek

  5. 5
    Max Says:

    I have ridden bikes on more roads in LA than anyone i know, from manhattan beach to ventura, long beach, downtown, hollywood, compton, midcity, venice, koreatown, skid row, inglewood, palmdale, angeles crest, east LA, and i don’t think there is a sketchier road than this stretch of pch, short of riding on a freeway sans shoulder. There are a few things scarier, like crenshaw in inglewood, or la cienega over the baldwin hills, riding on the 101 further norther is less pleasant, but these pictures illustrate the real and quite unnecessary dangers on this road.

    -Max Lucas

  6. 6
    Karen Bleifer Says:

    Wendy,
    I second that, glad that you are ok and that must have been very scary for you and the photographer. Pat sent me this this am.

    Great documentation and thanks for taking two hours out of your day to point all this out to us.

    Alek,
    I know my brother traveled this road MANY times before his tragic end. I also would like to add that Scott was VERY safety conscious and compulsive about his biking practices, including NEVER riding without a rear view mirror and being very aware of what comes up from behind. I feel that the excessive speed of the truck combined with the curve of the road at that point made it IMPOSSIBLE for them to see the truck coming, stop, and get out of the way in time. He was in no hurry to get anywhere he was getting in some extra miles before the ride he was supposed to be on right now!

    If motorists would just slow down and pay attention, instead of worrying about cooking tacos on their way to the next construction site, two wonderful men would still be alive.
    Please let’s all try and get something done here and make PCH as well as all roads safe for cyclists!

    -Karen Bleifer

  7. 7
    bicycling for ladies Says:

    Angeles County. We strive to make bicycling safe and enjoyable. For more information or to support bicycle advocacy in Los Angeles County, visit LA County Bike Coalition. For More Information, visit: La Grange Malibu Times Photos of the PCH siteIndependent Sources

  8. 8
    Insider Says:

    I attended a Malibu City Council meeting last night where the topic of the accident arose as well as overall PCH safety. The actual meeting was very procedural though there were some very articulate speakers on behalf of cyclists. One cyclist spoke about his weekly commute on the Highway and the many close calls he’d had on the Highway. This was scary enough but his young wife and infant were in the audience making his words so much more impactful.

    As I said, the specific topics were quite proceudural (how they would look into the matter, which committee, who on the committee, etc.) but it was the conversations in the hallway and parking lot afterward that were the most telling. There is definitely an opinion held by some Malibu officials and residents that the Highway is simply too dangerous to do anything about and that any improvements to its ridability will only encourage more riders to it and therefore more accidents. I don’t have to tell the readers of this blog how unfortunate this opinion is. No matter what actions are taken by the Malibu City Council, people will still ride on PCH–whether for work or pleasure. To not do everything possible to improve its safety in those areas that can be made safer (and within reasonable costs) is stunningly wrong. But this (do nothing that could encourage cyclists) opinion is something that we will need to deal with and not by lashing out at them or sending angry emails/calls. I would like to note that it would be easy to dismiss these people as callous individuals, but this is not the case. At least one of them had suffered a loss of a family member on PCH–extremely sad story in itself. It is not that they don’t care but instead that they believe the “making it safer” won’t work and will cause more problems, not less. In my opinion to combat this approach will require an inclusive process.

    I will let Susan or Aaron of La Grange and The LA Bike Coalition respectively take the lead in telling us what we should do to work within the system and it will likely involved Caltrans (which was a message repeated over and over) but last night was an eye opener to say the least. I’ll ask them both to keep me informed of next steps so I can post them here. This Saturday is Scott’s memorial ride, I hope some of the people who were voicing the do-nothing (or “nothing can be done”) opinions have a chance to see it. I’ll be there.

  9. 9
    Howard Hackett Says:

    I have been staying on the beach bike path to the north end. 2 years ago a group of about 10 dark suited men with clip boards reviewed the southbound section next to the Bel Aire club. I suspect this project is still in someones desk drawer. Iwould like to ride further north, but hesitate because of what you have shown.

    Thanks for starting this project

  10. 10
    Yoolie Chong Says:

    It is important to spread the message that anyone who drives a vehicle is accountable for the safety of cyclists around them. Drivers must share the road, and they take the ultimate responsibility in preventing accidents with cyclists. Why? Because cyclists are completely defenseless against an oncoming vehicle. Drivers are potential bullies, their cars are weapons, and cyclists are vulnerable targets.

    By the way, I am not a cyclist, but I spend at least four hours a day driving and avoiding accidents as a sales representative for Johnson and Johnson. I have shared the story of Scott Bleifer’s death with my Western Area sales team and included several sobering reminders about driving safety:

    1- Always pay attention while driving. Don’t get distracted by passengers, talking on the cell phone, or fumbling with the CD player. A small distraction can have tragic results.

    2- Always watch for cyclists and pedestrians. They are defenseless against a moving vehicle.

    3- Always slow down (even less than the speed limit) in construction zones and narrow roads. Watch for cyclists, stranded vehicles, and pedestrians.

    Please share this message with anyone you know that drives a vehicle. We must take responsibility for the safety of others when we get behind the wheel.

    Scott, the Trojans kicked Oregon’s @ss. You should have been there…

  11. 11
    Chris Says:

    I was biking with my girlfriend up that way not too long ago–Malibu, that is. First, I was really amazed by the road conditions. But I was more amazed by the speed of the traffic. The street is always packed with cars and people in that area use that chunk of road like a freeway. I can’t imagine that a panel truck could hit the brakes going 70 mph and blend left to avoid a cyclist on the right. Given the amount of bike and car traffic, it is really just a matter of time until someone is killed again.

  12. 12
    Pavel Ionov Says:

    Thank you very much Insider for an excellent article and all those who have made such thoughtful contributions here. I am brother of Stas Ionov and would like to say that the family appreciates your efforts more than we can express. It is so heart-warming that so many people care so much. It is a great comfort to us and we know that it meant a lot to Stas to be a part of this wonderful community. Thank you also to all of those who contacted the newspapers about this tragedy and for all other efforts that have done so much to bring attention to the dangerous conditions for cyclists on PCH.

    For those who knew Stas, we have created a memorial website, for you to share your memories, thoughts and announcements. Thank you again.

    Link to Stas’ website: http://www.stasionov.org/

  13. 13
    Insider Says:

    Pavel, we are as saddened by the loss of Stas as we are Scott. In researching Stas for one of the earlier articles I was blown away by his accomplishments (and these are just the ones that I found Googling his name). Once again, incredibly sorry about the whole thing.

  14. 14
    Pavel Ionov Says:

    Insider, thank you very much for these kind words. Naturally Stas himself thought that he has not accomplishing nearly enough, while he was accomplishing more than enough for most of us. His interests were just as wide as his accomplishments and he managed to get remarkably good at everything he did. It was biking and running lately, before they included sailing, tennis, skiing, mountain climbing, and whitewater kayaking to just name a few. It saddens me to think how many more things he could have done. Thank you again for the excellent and to the point reports and your kind words. There isn’t much that can be done for Stas anymore, but there is certainly a lot more that can be done for the safety of others who share Stas’ passion for biking and I am glad that you and others here are trying to bring it about.

  15. 15
    The Cycling Dude - Do U Bicycle? Cycling commentary, events, links, news, opinion, reviews, stories, travelogue Says:

    These are just a few of the reasonable actions that the city, state and all responsible parties should take which I believe will be more effective than the recently announced Malibu Sheriff’s policy. READ THE FULL STORY– Dangerous Cycling: PCH Malibu ( Seeing is believing ). I Join Independent Sources in stressing that the story of this stretch of PCH serves as a proxy for dangerous riding conditions EVERYWHERE. Please DO NOT wait for someone to be killed to address unnecessarily dangerous bicycling conditions in your

  16. 16
    Velo Club La Grange: In Memory of Scott Bleifer Says:

    [...] Dangerous Cycling: PCH Malibu [...]

  17. 17
    Main Page - Memories of Stas Ionov Says:

    [...] ars, and senseless deaths on PCH” (http://independentsources.com/2005/09/16/malibu/) Ind [...]

  18. 18
    Velo Club La Grange: Public Policy Says:

    [...] Dangerous Cycling: PCH Malibu [...]

  19. 19
    Chris McGregor Says:

    Thanks for the write-up, Great work

  20. 20
    The Pacific Coast Highway Death Trap Says:

    [...] s to the debate going on in Malibu about how much they can/should do to make cycling safer.Training on PCH (Malibu)pacifico555 Reply | Return to Index | Report Pos [...]