Until January of 1984, Kathleen O'Brien had been thinking she had a very good chance of making the U.S. Olympic cycling team. Though she had only been a competitive cyclist for a couple of years, she is a talented athlete who had been on the U.S. track and field team for nine years. In her mid-twenties, she had decided to give cycling a try, and in a surprisingly short time, she had won the respect of other competitive cyclists. Some of them were even calling her “a real animal," which comes very close to being the highest compliment one cyclist can pay another.
O’Brien, a determined woman with explosive energy and an unruly mane of long blond hair, usually rode anywhere from forty to ninety miles per day, seven days a week. On this particular day, she was using the commute from Del Mar, where she lives, to La Costa, where she worked, as a way to add mileage to her training schedule. She was traveling north on El Camino Real, cruising along in the bike lane at perhaps twenty-five miles per hour. As she approached the intersection at La Costa Avenue, she suddenly sensed in her peripheral vision that something very large was bearing down on her from the left.
“I was aware that something was wrong, and I tried to get out of the way by veering right,” she says. Witnesses later said that a large truck delivering pharmaceuticals to the local drug store had swerved across two lanes of traffic, without signaling, to make a right-hand turn at the light. The truck’s fender struck O’Brien’s rear tire, her bike slammed into the curb, and she vaulted into the air and crashed headfirst into a wooden road sign.
At first the paramedics thought she might have been paralyzed, since she was unable to move her limbs. But after spending a few days in the hospital, she regained the use of her arms and legs. “My helmet saved my life,” she says. ‘‘The top of it was completely crushed.” Miraculously, her only permanent injury was a bulged disc in her back. Later that summer, back in animal form again, O’Brien broke a seven-year-old record at the Rosarito-to-Ensenada bike course.
Just a few days before O’Brien’s accident, a section had been added to the California vehicle code. Section 21200 begins by saying, “Every person riding a bicycle upon a highway shall have all the rights and shall be subject to all the provisions applicable to the driver of a vehicle....” Cyclists celebrated the new law as the emancipation proclamation for their sport. For the first time, they had the legal right to use the roads as equals with motorists. The trouble is, most motorists have never heard of the law and still see cyclists (if they see them at all) as being nothing but a hazard and a nuisance. Every day cyclists are being reminded of what they knew all along: that the laws of physics are not subject to the California vehicle code. Being equal on paper with a motorist is of no value to a cyclist in a collision with a 2000-pound mass of steel and glass.
In December of 1985, less than a year after Kathleen O’Brien’s first cycling accident, she was riding south on the Coast Highway through Encinitas. She had passed the light at Encinitas Boulevard, climbed a short hill, and was riding in the bike lane just across the highway from La Paloma Theatre. Still nervous from her first accident, she was carefully watching the traffic around her. Suddenly, a driver who had just passed her saw a parking space he wanted on the right side of the road. The driver quickly swerved across the bike lane in front of O’Brien and into the parking space. Before O’Brien could react, the driver opened his car door directly into her path. Her neck struck the corner of the door, bending the door so badly that later it couldn’t be closed. She then went flying through the air and landed on the highway. In the few seconds before she lost consciousness, she saw the cars on the road bearing down on her as though they were going to run her over.
Once again O’Brien was lucky — if you can compare a crushed esophagus with good fortune. She also suffered a crushed sternum and internal bleeding. Even now, ten months later, there are times when she has difficulty walking. She occasionally loses control of her bladder and has seen a psychiatrist to help her cope with the frustration and depression of finding herself an incapacitated athlete. Just a few days ago, she got back on a bicycle again. Stiff and obviously in pain, she managed to complete a short workout. She hasn’t abandoned her hopes of becoming a competitive cyclist, though she is thinking it may be impossible for her to train under the traffic conditions in San Diego County.
The most disturbing thing about O’Brien’s unfortunate experiences on the road is that they aren’t particularly unusual. Almost any competitive cyclist can tell stories about his or her own crackups or near-misses involving motorists. Many cyclists say if you ride long enough, you’re going to get hurt. A bicycle mechanic at Leucadia Cyclery says, “Not long ago, we had four accidents within a couple of miles of here in one weekend. It’s gotten to the point where if it’s a sunny day out, we know we’ll be hearing sirens.”
According to the California Highway Patrol, there were 1440 cycling accidents in San Diego County last year, including eleven fatalities. There are few statistics to compare these with, but it is certain that cycling accidents are on the increase — not necessarily because cycling is getting more dangerous, but because there are so many more bicycle riders in San Diego now than there were just a few years ago. San Diego had become something of a cycling mecca. On a per-capita basis, only two communities in the nation, Sacramento and Phoenix, have more cyclists than San Diego. There are almost twice as many people who commute by bicycle as by public transit. Government studies show that the Coast Highway bike route, between Los Angeles and the Mexican border, is the most heavily traveled cycling route in the United States, with 1500 to 2000 cyclists per weekend.
Some cyclists feel that motorists, already tense and short-tempered because of the growing traffic congestion in San Diego, are further enraged by discovering that they now have to share the roads with an increasing number of cyclists. “It’s getting so bad that San Diego motorists, who feel they are inconvenienced by cyclists, are becoming very malicious,” says Spencer Spicker from behind the counter of his cycling shop in Solana Beach. “When I come in from a ride, my heart is pumping, my adrenalin is flowing — not from the workout, but from dealing with the motorists.”
Many cyclists tell stories of motorists flinging insults at them — some verbal and some as nonverbal as full beer cans, bottles, and shoes. One San Diego cyclist had an angry RV owner pull over in the bike lane and wait for him with a gun. Other cyclists say they have started carrying mace to cope with violent motorists. Twenty-eight-year-old Pam Roesch was struck in the back of the head by the rearview mirror of a van that intentionally ran her off Otay Lakes Road. “I heard an explosion and thought somebody had been shot,” she says. “Then I realized it was me.” She landed in a barbed-wire fence. The driver of the van was never caught.
Several cyclists swear they’ve had bus drivers try to run them off the road. “The North County Transit drivers are the worst,” Spicker says. “They pull up parallel with you and then start moving toward the shoulder. I’ve had to bang on the sides of buses lots of times. They do it intentionally. It’s attempted homicide. They’ll tough at you as they go by, like they're saying, ‘This is my route, buddy. Keep off it.’ ”
Many motorists apparently aren’t even aware that cyclists have a legal right to ride on the roads. “I’ve had lots of drivers yell at me, ‘Get on the damn sidewalk where you belong!’ ” Kathleen O’Brien says. Adds Spicker, “Motorists refuse to believe I have a right to travel at speeds approaching the speed limit. For some reason, that seems to make them angry.”
But in all fairness to motorists, many bike riders say there are two sides to this territorial war. “You hear a lot of cyclists bitching about the motorist, but it’s really both cyclists and motorists who are at fault,” says Gerry Rahill, a cyclist who works at Leucadia Cyclery. A lot of bicyclists these days are saying they are pleased to see the police writing citations to cyclists who run stop signs. If bike riders hope to be treated as equals with motorists, they will have to start observing the same traffic laws as motorists. A surprising number of cyclists are trying to encourage and pressure other cyclists to obey the traffic laws. “I was stopped at a light the other day,” one cyclist says, ‘‘when another cyclist came up behind me and just exploded through the red light. I said something to him, and when he turned around to flip me off, he ran smack into the curb. As I rode past him, I said, ‘You really should stop at the lights.’ ”
“The most dangerous riders are these young guys who just started doing triathlons,” Kathleen O’Brien says. “They have a real macho problem. I hate to say that, but it’s true. They ride out in*the traffic with their butts up in the air, waggling back and forth across the road. There’s no excuse for that.”
There are some competitive cyclists who seem to glory in the danger of their sport. They see themselves as fearless road warriors in magenta Lycra body suits pumping their chrome-alloy dream machines through armies of beer-guzzling pinheads bearing down on them in one-ton death hulks. Cycling for them becomes the ultimate video game, and every time they elude their space invaders, they mentally rack up a few more points on their all-time score.
There are other fatalists, too old to skateboard, who see cycling as the post-punk answer to nihilism — a way to self-medicate their anxiety until the big bomb blows us all away. If they go out in one glorious splat against the side of a beer truck, well, that’s better than sitting around waiting for old age. They’re commonly called “head-down” cyclists, and they’re often seen out on the roads, their heads tucked between their handlebars, pedaling blindly and furiously into oblivion.
And there are masochistic cyclists who think of bicycles as instruments of self-torture. They talk about “pain threshold” as though it were some sort of exotic orgasm. They wear their lacerations like gold medals, blood is their friend, and they wouldn’t be caught dead wearing one of those silly plastic brain buckets.
But these categories of cyclists exclude the vast majority of bicycle riders who actually pedal for pleasure, rather than pain. Many of them cycle with their families. Some of them are mature enough to be called senior citizens. A growing number of them arc starting to think of cycling as a perfectly functional form of transportation, useful for getting to work*, to the store, and to the beach.
Gordy Shields fits into this category of cyclist. He is an articulate man, in his sixties, apparently quite sane, and with no visible scars. He says he has been cycling for nearly twenty-five years, and judging by his heavily muscled thighs, he appears to be telling the truth. A semi-retired Grossmont College counselor, he has very quietly gone about doing more to help and encourage the average cyclist in San Diego than probably anyone else.
Shields is chairman of the SANDAQ (San Diego Association of Governments) Bicycle Facilities Committee, It’s a volunteer position, with no compensation, though it carries a fair amount of political clout. In 1987 the committee will fund more than a million dollars’ worth of bikeway improvements in San Diego County, including $370,000 for widening the Sunset Cliffs bridge across the San Diego River, $206,200 for 2.6 miles of bike lane on Mast Boulevard in Santee, and $164,000 for six-tenths of a mile of bike lane on Bancroft Drive in La Mesa.
Those might seem like rather expensive projects for improving bicycle facilities, and they are. But they are nothing compared to the money San Diego might lose if those improvements aren’t made. “The whole thrust of SANDAG is not for recreational bicycling,” Shields explains, “but rather to get people to accept bicycling as a form of commuter traffic. The federal government has set deadlines to meet regional air-quality standards, and if those deadlines aren’t met, local governments start losing [federal highway] money. Well, bicycles don’t emit any air pollutants, so they are obviously a perfect way to meet those air quality standards.”
In early 1986, bicycles accounted for 200,000 daily trips in San Diego; by 1987 SANDAG wants to increase those trips to 260,000. By 2005 it wants to increase them to 450,000. If SANDAG has any hope of meeting those goals, it will have to make major improvements in bike facilities and bike safety. “Most people don’t realize that there are more bicycles in San Diego County than there are automobiles,” Shields says. “The trouble is, most of them are standing in people’s garages.
When I ask people why they aren’t riding their bicycles more, the most common response I get is, ‘I’m afraid. I’m scared to death some motorist is going to hit me.’ ”
State law requires that two percent of the gasoline sales tax be used to improve facilities for non-motorized forms of transportation. SANDAG’s share of that money ($850,000 in 1986) will pay for its bikeway improvements next year. But Gordy Shields says that amount isn’t enough. “Governor Deukmejian has completely emasculated the bicycle program in this state. Before he was governor, California was the national leader in bicycle facilities.” The current national design standards for bike lanes were largely adapted from California standards developed by the state Department of Transportation (Caltrans) under the Brown administration. A statewide plan for commuter cycling, cycling route maps, and free bike lockers at transit stations were some of the efforts made by the Brown administration to encourage cycling. But under the Deukmejian administration, Caltrans lost sixty percent of its bicycle program staff. According to SANDAG’s 1986 report, “Construction of bikeway projects proceeded at only fifty percent of plan objective due to inadequate funding at local and state levels.” SANDAG officials say their current funding for bicycle facilities is about one-third what they need to meet their goals. Either the state no longer is concerned about meeting the federal air-quality standards, or it doesn’t see bicycles as the way to do it.
To Shields, that attitude is ridiculous. “San Diego is the perfect place for bicycle commuters,” he scowls. “With our weather, there’s absolutely no reason why a commuter can’t get on his bike and ride to work every day of the year here.”
Shields sees the Deukmejian administration’s prejudice against bicycles as the political equivalent of the same war cyclists encounter on the roads all the time. “A lot of politicians think bicycles are subordinate to cars, and cyclists use the roads by the grace of God and the tolerance of motorists. Their argument is that motorists paid for the streets, and the damn cyclists should get out of the way. A few months ago. Assemblyman Bill Bradley [from Escondido] raised that hoary old argument with me,” Shields says. “He had proposed a bill to the state legislature, AB 3912, that would have given local jurisdictions the right to close off to bicycles any streets or highways which they see fit. Apparently there was one person up on Mt. Helix — a judge, I understand — who had to slow down behind some cyclists coming down Fuerte Drive. So Bradley wrote this law, and all hell broke loose.” Within a week, Bradley got several hundred calls and letters from bicyclists and, shocked by the response, he quickly withdrew the bill.
“Bicyclists are starting to emerge as a political force,” Shields says, “and we intend to keep it that way.”
In 1983 an active young triathlete (who will remain anonymous) was riding his bicycle from Poway to Mira Mesa. By auto, that trip is made on I-15, but since bicycles are not allowed on the freeway under most circumstances, a bike path parallel to the freeway had been built by the City of San Diego. This cyclist was descending a hill on a frontage road, going about twenty-five miles per hour, preparing to turn onto the bike path. At the same time, a moped, going about thirty-five miles per hour, was coming up the bike path, preparing to turn onto the frontage road. Since motor vehicles with engines smaller than 125cc are not allowed on the freeway, the moped had a legal right to use the bike path.
At the junction of the frontage road and the bike path were some large bushes that apparently hadn’t been trimmed in several years. Because of the bushes, neither the cyclist nor the moped rider could see the other, and because of the freeway noise above them, they couldn’t hear each other. When the moped swung into the left side of the bike lane to make the turn, the two vehicles collided.
After the cyclist was taken to the hospital with a broken neck, the police officer on the scene wrote a report noting the tall bushes. The next day, the city sent a crew out to trim them.
The cyclist’s attorney, Gary Naughton, filed a suit against the city, claiming it had failed to exercise reasonable care by not maintaining safe conditions on the bike path. Naughton also claimed that the cyclist, after his recovery, experienced strange nerve sensations that affected his sex life. The suit was recently settled out o'f court, with the City of San Diego paying the cyclist something in the neighborhood of $100,000.
SANDAG has classified its bikeways into three elements. The first element, the bike path, can be defined as a right of way for bicycles either separated from the road by a berm or else a paved trail completely separate from the roadway. Bike paths have been shown to be nothing but trouble, and (except for a few places, such as the Rose Canyon bike path, where there are no other alternatives) SANDAG recommends against their construction. Besides being dangerous, bike paths average about $40,000 per mile to construct, mostly because of the high cost of purchasing rights of way. Still, there are sixty-two miles of bike paths in San Diego County.
The second element in bikeway classification is the bike lane, which most often is simply a lane four feet wide along the right shoulder of the road, with a white line separating motorists from cyclists. Bike lanes average about $5000 per mile — the cost for asphalt, paint, and labor — and there are 238 miles of them in San Diego County. Many cyclists insist that bike lanes are not safe either, that the cyclists are vulnerable at intersections (usually from motorists turning right without looking for cyclists), that the lanes accumulate road debris, and that the lanes are rarely maintained. Cyclists also say the lanes suggest a security to the rider that doesn’t really exist. “I’ll tell you what,’’ one cyclist says. “I would never, under any circumstances,' ride in a bike lane, even though the law says you’re supposed to. I’ve had better luck with accidents than most people by riding on the white line. That way I’m saying to cars behind me, ‘I’m here, and. you’re going to see me whether you want to or not.’”
Most cyclists aren’t that extreme in their dislike for bike lanes. Studies have shown that bike lanes are safer than no lanes. The law says that cyclists must use the lanes if they are present, and police will write citations if they don’t.
The third element of bikeways is bike routes. Most often, they are simply roads designated by road signs as desirable cycling routes; they have no striped lines separating the cyclists from motorists. While novice cyclists feel safer on bike paths and lanes, the expert cyclists prefer the simpler bike routes over all other cycling facilities, not because they are necessarily safer, but because bike routes give cyclists the freedom to use the entire road in the same way as a motorist.
“A few years ago, everybody thought bike paths were going to be the answer,” Gordy Shields says, “but we try to avoid them now if there’s another alternative.” Besides the fact that joggers, skateboarders, mopeds, dogs, and pedestrians compete for the paths, the cyclists are vulnerable to cars backing out of driveways that intersect the paths. And as the bicycle/moped collision illustrates, there’s a problem getting routine maintenance done on the paths.
A few years ago, Caltrans built a bike path from Encinitas to Solana Beach, with a large berm separating the path from the Coast Highway. “We told them they’d have nothing but problems with it,” Shields says. The path was eight feet wide, and the smallest Caltrans street sweeper was ten feet wide, making it necessary for Caltrans to buy a new sweeper, just for those two miles of path, at a cost of $80,000. Even so, most cyclists refuse to use that path, and those who do tell war stories of collisions with pedestrians crossing the path with surfboards under their arms, beachgoers with ice chests and umbrellas, baby strollers, and even head-on collisions with cyclists traveling in the opposite direction.
One Saturday in 1984, at least a dozen riders from the San Diego Bicycle Club were injured on that stretch of highway, all in one accident. They had been heading south on the Coast Highway, after already putting in twenty-five miles of a round-trip ride from UCSD to San Marcos. They were traveling in a double paceline — twenty riders, two abreast — with the lead riders breaking the wind resistance and the other riders drafting behind. When the paceline came to Swami’s, at the southern end of Encinitas where the bermed bike path began, they stayed on the highway side of the berm and continued on toward Cardiff, past the state park. The law says that cyclists can ride in the traffic lane if they are traveling at or near the speed limit, and since they were going almost thirty-five miles per hour, they were within the law.
As they were approaching the stoplight at Chesterfield Drive, a woman parked along the highway in a big Olds 88 opened her driver’s-side door directly in front of the paceline. The first rider went through the window (it was up), the second rider collided with the door, the third rider collided with him, and so on down the line to something like the twelfth rider (eyewitness accounts of the chaotic accident vary).
Again, Gary Naughton represented the cyclists’ club. “My partner and I met with the club,” he recalls. “They were all bandaged up. One guy had 124 stitches in his scalp. There were multiple lacerations, a few broken collar bones, broken arms. Besides their injuries, they had all been riding very expensive bikes — on some of those bikes, just the front wheel is worth $200.
“There were some interesting legal points brought out in that case,” Naughton says, sitting at the desk in his La Jolla office. “The primary cause for the first rider’s collision was obviously the woman opening her door, and maybe the second and third guy, too. But what about the fourth and fifth guy? Where does the liability end? In this case, we decided it ended with the sixth rider. After that we determined that the riders went down because they were following too close — they were tailgating.”
Naughton was eventually able to win a settlement of about $22,000 for the club. “One good thing about cyclists is that they generally don’t get greedy,” he says. “They want their bikes fixed, they want their medical bills paid, and they want some medium settlement for their pain and suffering.”
Naughton and his partner, Jeff Demos, have started specializing in representing cyclists with personal-injury claims. They see San Diego as a prime area for this kind of practice, given the growing number of cyclists here — and cycling accidents — and the trend by cyclists to become more aggressive in defending their rights against motorists, both on and off the road.
Naughton sees the war on the roads as a classical confrontation in American values. “You’ve got one kind of guy who’s living the American dream,” Naughton says with the practiced charm of a trial attorney. “He’s driving his big American car down the highway, smoking a cigar, not giving a damn about anybody else. And then you’ve got your young, athletic, California-lifestyle kind of guy, clipping along at thirty miles an hour on his thousand-dollar bike, determined he’s got as much right to the road as the motorist, and he’s not going to stop no matter what. Well, you’ve got a mental collision before you’ve got a vehicle collision.”
Naughton has taken product liability cases against major bicycle manufacturers (the pedal spindle on a touring bike broke) and claims against construction companies that did not adequately provide for cyclists’ safety on their road projects (the cyclist, squeezing through a road construction site, was struck on the back of the head by the rearview mirror of a hit-and-run motorist).
He also turns away a lot of cases: a tearful woman who was upset that a passenger in a passing car had grabbed her body, a “head-down” cyclist who ran into the back of a parked semi trailer (he hit the truck so hard he woke up the driver sleeping in the cab), a cyclist who was hit while riding at night without lights, and a cyclist who wanted to sue the city because he went down after hitting a pothole the size of a quarter. “I have to pick and choose my clients,” Naughton says, “because as soon as I settle one case, the guy gets hurt again. At some point, you have to wonder if the guy is doing something wrong.”
Naughton believes part of the blame for the high number of cycling accidents can be attributed to poor public awareness of the laws regarding cyclists and bikeways. “We have a very poor educational system regarding bike safety,” he says. “When you took your driver’s license test, there might have been one question about bike safety on that test. That shouldn’t be.” The state has recently added some questions about bicycling to the driver’s test. But in the long run, Naughton believes, the best public education system might turn out to be a few well-publicized injury cases in which cyclists won large settlements against negligent motorists and public entities that failed to provide for cyclists’ safety.
The odd twists and turns cycling popularity has taken in the last few years makes for a strange study in public planning. Ten years ago, when California was promoting cycling as a way to get people out of their cars and into a nonpolluting form of transportation, the public was generally indifferent. Then came the '84 Olympics, lengthy TV coverage of the Iron-man Triathlon in Hawaii, the well-publicized Race across America, and the recent success of American Greg Le Mond in the Tour de France. Suddenly there’s a cycling boom — not among the older, environmentally correct, Sierra Club types, but rather among younger, fashion-conscious cyclists who are willing to spend large amounts of money for color-coordinated cycling shorts and jerseys that complement the colors of their sleek machines. The brand of goggles a cyclist wears today makes a fashion statement, and bikes are subconsciously rated on sex appeal in the same way a Porsche is rated over a Toyota. It’s a different kind of cycling boom than former Governor Jerry Brown might have imagined, but a boom nevertheless.
How could a public planner possibly know that a technologically simple nineteenth-century form of transportation would suddenly become fashionable? Sweating had never been chic before. Just when everybody had forgotten that the firs: paved roads in this country were built for bicycles, there comes a large popular movement to reclaim those public roads for bike use again. Trying to adapt to that trend is causing confusion and frustration among local governments.
When engineers for the City of San Diego built the handsome cobblestone bike path along Harbor Drive’s Embarcadero downtown. they thought they were making a well-intentioned gesture to accommodate cyclists. Unfortunately, they did it without seeking advice from the cyclists themselves. After the path was completed, the city found to its dismay that cyclists cursed the city every time they rode on it, for the embarrassingly obvious fact that to a cyclist, cobblestones are a cruel form of torture — bumpy to ride on, slippery, and just plain dangerous.
Architects and engineers have traditionally not been taught how to design facilities that will accommodate cyclists, and at least part of the reason there are so many cycling accidents in San Diego is that our modem road and highway system was developed almost exclusively for the use of automobiles. Trying to rethink that system now to make it usable by an intrinsically different form of transportation is a patch-work, often rinky-dink way to have to design anything. The two forms of transportation simply may not ever be completely compatible, and to make them function together with a reasonable degree of safety will undoubtedly cost a lot of money.
One example of this is the problem of loop detectors, those diamond-shaped metal devices implanted in the roads at intersections to detect the metal in cars and make the stoplights change. Most loop detectors aren’t sensitive to bicycles, which is why cyclists often have to wait for a car to come along before a light will turn green — unless they get off their bikes and go push the pedestrian button. More often, the cyclists will simply ride through the red light. Some loop detectors can be adjusted so they are bike-sensitive, and many major bikeways are now equipped with them. But it will be many years before all loop detectors are sensitive to bikes.
In spite of the dangers of riding bicycles on San Diego’s roads, few committed cyclists consider accidents a reason to stop cycling. As Gordy Shields says, “More than 50,000 people get killed in auto accidents each year, and something like a half a million get maimed. That doesn’t stop anybody from riding in automobiles, and cycling accidents shouldn’t stop people from riding bicycles.’’
Bike-shop owner Spencer Spicker voices the opinion of the more militant cyclist. “I don’t see any chance of the situation getting any better,” he says. “There’s no law, no police action that will help. It’s up to the cyclist to learn how to protect himself against these people driving lethal weapons. Speaking for myself, San Diego has beautiful scenery, beautiful roads, and I want to ride on them. I have a right to ride on them without being killed. I’m just looking for a chance at survival.”