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SOUTH BAY COVER STORY : On the War Path : Cyclists Battle Skaters and Pedestrians for Space on Seaside 'Bikes Only' Lane

July 07, 1994|ADRIAN MAHER and JAMES BENNING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Avid cyclist Andy Hale races along the beach bicycle path like a human pinball.

He slips by two carefree pedestrians sipping beer. He eases around a bare-chested jogger weaving in the lane. He ducks a chain of 12 children on in-line skates. He steers clear of being hooked by sticks carried by two roller-hockey players. Ahead, he maneuvers around a skater towed by a dog on a leash.

Time for a breather.

"This path is just not set up for people trying to bike," Hale said. "There are so many who don't understand the rules of the road. You really need a bell or whistle to be out here."

A first-aid kit could come in handy, too.

More than 20 years after the first segments of the 21.6-mile seaside path from Torrance to Pacific Palisades were laid, many believe it has become a victim of its success. Frustration--and injuries--have mounted as cyclists jockey for space on the 14-foot-wide ribbon of concrete with a host of in-line roller-skaters, skateboarders and pedestrians, who in recent years have taken to the trail in droves.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works recently estimated that 1.5 million cyclists pedal along the path annually. But county officials are increasingly worried about the hundreds of thousands of additional users who ignore the "Bikes Only" signs along the pavement (all but a one-mile segment in Pacific Palisades and a nearly two-mile segment in Hermosa Beach is designated for bikes only).

Sure, plenty of people spend a mishap-free afternoon zipping along the path, a favorite among tourists and residents alike.

But it can get dicey, as cyclist Dave Jeffords, who is recovering from a broken collarbone and concussion he suffered last year in a head-on collision with another cyclist, can attest: "It's like running a human slalom course. It's actually safer to just ride up the Pacific Coast Highway."

Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who took a tumble a number of years ago while bike riding in Venice, said: "It's really quite a mess out there; you really just have to take it slow, take your time."

County and city officials concede that solutions are hard to come by.

"We're aware there are problems, but what to do about them I don't know," said Dennis Morefield, a spokesman for County Supervisor Deane Dana, whose district includes the path south from Marina del Rey. "In this economy, you can't think about building a separate path for skaters."

*

Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence of the problem mounts from people who use the path and from the authorities who patrol it.

Los Angeles County lifeguards estimate that almost half of last year's 2,300 first-aid calls from Marina del Rey to Torrance were for injuries on the bike path. Ankle and wrist sprains and strains, along with bad scrapes, accounted for most of the calls.

In 10 years, there has been only one death on the path: a pedestrian who was struck by a cyclist in 1986 just north of the Santa Monica Pier and died after four years in a coma, said Dean Smith of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors.

Although officials do not keep precise numbers on accidents, they believe the situation is deteriorating.

"Every year, it's just getting more and more out of control--the bike path is being used by everybody," said Craig Mattox, a Santa Monica Beach lifeguard. "We're seeing more collisions, head traumas and cervical injuries. It's a nightmare out here."

Most lifeguards are used to treating what they call "cheese pizzas"--severe abrasions. But other injuries can be grislier. Dan Cabrera, a part-time county lifeguard, remembers a head-on collision between cyclists that left one bike rider with the sprocket gears stuck in his head.

"It went in behind his right ear and pulled his scalp back a bit," he said.

Lifeguards say stretches of the path near popular South Bay beaches are particularly dangerous. Beach-goers frequently dart across the path, oblivious to the crush of oncoming bike and skate traffic. Inevitably, collisions occur.

Officials in Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach have installed flashing lights that, when activated on crowded days, warn cyclists to walk their bikes along busy sections of the path. The lights have significantly curbed the number of accidents in those areas, officials said.

But many path enthusiasts believe trail rules are haphazardly enforced. Bikers say they receive tickets if they ride on pedestrian walkways, but they believe tickets are rarely issued to pedestrians or skaters who use the bike path.

They may have a point. Police have been wary of cracking down on a recreational activity that is a petty violation of the law.

*

In Manhattan Beach, where roller-skating on the path is almost as popular as cycling, police issued about 25 citations to skaters last year.

"We normally wait until a complaint is made," Capt. Robert Cashion said. "Technically, they are in violation of the law and, if there was an accident, a skater could be held liable."

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