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On Santa Monica's beachfront bike path, an uneasy mix

May 03, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

It's another lovely day at the beach in Santa Monica, with a light spring breeze blowing across the sun-dappled sea and cyclists pedaling stress-free along the bike path.

Paradise. Nirvana. Whatever you call it, we're lucky mugs to have a tranquil respite from the urban madness and permanent bottlenecks.

But wait. Do I see a collision in the making?

A woman is pushing a stroller, a teenager is on a skateboard, a man is walking a dog on a leash -- all of them idling along on a path that's marked BIKES ONLY -- and here comes a cyclist, closing in on this knot of nudniks. The cyclist slows, he weaves, he shoots past them and all are safe. But it doesn't always work out like that.

"It happened right here," Jon Louis Mann is telling me as he replays an accident that happened about a week ago. "I was heading south and there's a guy standing in the bike lane with a dog on a leash, and he's talking to another guy."

Mann swerved hard right, skidded and flopped down like a crash-test dummy on the sand, injuring his elbow, shoulder and back. He was so banged up, he couldn't get back on the bike. Before limping off to the doctor's office, he informed the dog walker that the bike path is for bikes and a separate pedestrian path is a mere 20 yards away.

So how'd that go over?

"He flipped me off," Mann says.

The term "bike path" doesn't leave much room for ambiguity. But pedestrians just can't seem to get it. Mann believes the hazards are mounting because so many people are on cellphones or using iPods, oblivious to the world around them.

But I can say from experience that people have been inconsiderate or clueless for years. I used to ride my bike on that path when I lived in Santa Monica in the late '90s, and the hazards were no less frustrating back then. You'd see a clot forming ahead and have to slow down or change lanes, which sometimes meant getting brushed by rollerbladers or cyclists who thought they were in the Tour de France.

My therapeutic outings often left me in a lather, muttering about the parade of imbeciles, and I pedaled home feeling as if I'd just had a nasty commute on the 405. Weekends were so bad, I rode before the hordes descended or not at all.

"On weekends we see lots of accidents," says Matt Balke, who rents bikes and skates at Spokes 'N Stuff. Lots of tourists, he says, and they're too busy enjoying the sights to observe the rules of the road.

Just down from his shop, Tom Moran has owned Sea Mist rentals for 30 years, and he has signs warning customers of the risks they are about to take, beginning with pedestrians and sand that blows onto the trail, causing spinouts.

When it gets hot, thousands of people cross the bike path on their way to the surf, many of them lugging so much beach gear you'd think they were building villages at the water's edge. On some days, lifeguards tell me, they spend more time responding to bike path accidents than pulling swimmers to safety. Injuries slight and serious are common.

"Oh, yeah, you name it," says Capt. Scott Grigsby.

His boss, Mickey Gallagher, adds: "You see head injuries, dislocations, broken bones."

Nice.

As we look out from the operations tower, just south of the Santa Monica Pier, there are as many pedestrians on the bike path as cyclists. At times, groups of four or five stroll abreast of each other, taking up most of the path as cyclists approach from both directions.

"You see this woman walking and doing the arm exercises?" Gallagher asks.

Yes, and I also see a dog walker with an outstretched leash, making it look as though the bike path were an obstacle course.

None of this catapults the issue to the top of our list of regional concerns. But how hard is it, really, to enforce regulations and prevent accidents? Southern California does a lousy job of accommodating bikes on city streets. You'd think we could at least get it right at the beach, but hazards abound.

Santa Monica Police Officer Richard Carranza says he thinks City Hall should send someone out with brochures telling pedestrians to stick to the walkway and cyclists to the bike path in places where both exist. Cyclists, by the way, are often on the wrong trail too. Every once in a while, Carranza says, police do a sting and write tickets.

But as I discover in interviews with pedestrians lollygagging on the bike path just a stone's throw from the designated walkway, many of them have no idea they aren't supposed to be there.

"We didn't know," says British Airways flight attendant Nina Smith, who is strolling with colleague Maria Lindos.

They're standing near a red painted symbol with a cross through a pedestrian symbol, but it's worn by elements and obscured by sand.

Barbara Stinchfield, director of Santa Monica's Department of Community and Cultural Services, says better signs are being designed and the city is preparing the brochures Officer Carranza spoke of.

The city is working on additional solutions with the county, which controls the beach path, and there's a $2.9-million proposal before the Metro board to extend the pedestrian walkway north of the pier, where walkers now share pavement with cyclists and rollerbladers.

For many people, the upgrades can't come soon enough. Scott Riddle, a script reader, has used the path twice a week for 20 years, and he's seen all manner of mishaps.

"Bikes hitting pedestrians, bikes hitting other bikes, bikes hitting little kids," he says.

That's the worst problem of all, in his mind: clueless parents who let their young children wander onto the path as speeding bikes approach.

"It's a wonder dozens of kids aren't killed every day."

Some cyclists need to cool it, too, he says.

"With some of them, the attitude is, 'This is L.A.; I'll pass when I want to pass.' " Ahhh, the scenery, the serenity. What a lovely getaway.

But be sure to bring a first-aid kit.

--

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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