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THE SAFETY ZONE | JERRY HICKS

Coast Trail a Ribbon of Relief

October 09, 2000|JERRY HICKS

Lauren Bernath, a schoolteacher from Newport Beach, bought a new bicycle last Thursday and celebrated the day with a long ride with her fiance along Orange County's upper coast.

"Beautiful sky, great wind and a new bike," Bernath said. "A perfect day."

And relatively safe.

Worries about vehicle traffic are a hazard of bicycle riding in Orange County. If you want safety at a relaxing pace, you might consider the 9-mile stretch of coastal trail between Sunset Beach and the Santa Ana River's mouth on the outskirts of Newport Beach.

I rode my own bicycle there last Thursday and found it great relief from the built-in tension of sharing space with super vans and SUVs.

I'm sort of your below-average biker. Nine miles for me leaves me craving liquid relief. But I shared Bernath's enthusiasm for the day. With the onshore wind, you barely hear the traffic from nearby Pacific Coast Highway. You don't have to offer more than a nod to others passing by to share a kinship that, for this moment at least, you've all escaped the urban sprawl.

You can pretty much ride from Seal Beach to Newport Beach. That includes, however, a few street detours and a short stretch along Pacific Coast Highway. But from Warner Avenue at Sunset Beach to just south of Brookhurst Street, you can ride uninterrupted along the beach.

It's not actually a bicycle path, it's a paved "multi-use" trail. Bicyclists must share it with joggers, rollerskaters pushing baby carts, skateboarders, dog walkers, and those just out for a stroll. Plus Milton Zinn of Fountain Valley.

The trail is for non-motorized traffic, but Zinn, who has multiple sclerosis, convinced officials his small motor cart can't go fast enough to keep up with most bicyclists.

"It's the one place where we all seem to get along," Zinn said of the coastal trail. "At least as much as you can expect."

Which means the multi-use trail is not completely problem-free when it comes to safety.

"Too many bicyclists ride too fast," said Rob Atkins of Tustin, who jogs there twice a week. "Especially in summer, when this trail gets crowded."

That's true. Large posted signs make clear that bicyclists cannot ride more than 10 miles an hour, and no more than five miles an hour around pedestrians. Numerous bicyclists broke both those rules when I was there. But then the signs also say pedestrians should stay to the right, and most pedestrians I saw ignored that one.

Bicyclists have a few minor complaints too.

"Sometimes people on foot will cross right in front of you suddenly, and you'll have to dodge to keep from hitting them," said 69-year-old bicyclist Lloyd Marchand, who's been riding there six years. "But you learn to accept it."

Many bicyclists travel along PCH's bike paths instead of the multi-use trail. Several explained to me it was so they could ride faster. They were respecting the multi-use trail's slow traffic purpose.

Here's a different perspective on the multi-use trail, from Don Harvey, executive director of the Orange County Bicycle Coalition. The problem with multi-use trails, he said, is that they aren't really for the serious bicycle rider. Also, they disguise the real problem bicycle riders face in this county:

"There are simply not enough bicycle paths along our streets," Harvey said. "It's the streets where people work and live. That's where we need to put our efforts."

He may be right. But if you're a recreational rider, the coastal trail can produce a great day, as it did for me.

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