In the photo that local TV stations ran of Josh Alper when he died, he has his arm around his wife, Annette Marines. Tall and lanky, he’s slouching down a bit in the photo, but even still the top of her head only comes to his chin.
Marines found it surreal—she still isn’t sure how they got that photo. Maybe Facebook, she thinks.
Today, sitting in downtown Santa Cruz, Marines still wears her wedding ring on her left hand. On a chain around her neck, she wears his. Along with a lock of his hair, the ring is the only thing she got back from police after her husband was struck by a car and killed while riding his bike along Highway 1 on November 2. He was 40. She still is.
Inside the right-hand pocket of her winter coat, Marines has pinned a small black and white button someone gave to her at the funeral. It says, “Never forget Josh Alper.” As if she could.
“This is a lifetime of thinking about him, and it’s just the beginning of it,” she says.
Alper, a well-known local musician and UCSC librarian, was killed when a 63-year-old man driving on Highway 1 crossed over the yellow dividing lines into oncoming traffic. His car went all the way into the bike lane and crashed into Alper, who was on a ride with a group from the Bike Dojo, a local cycling gym. The other riders were spread out enough that they did not see the collision.
The driver’s name has not been released, and he was not arrested. No alcohol was found in his system. The official story is that the man fell asleep at the wheel. However, in early reports witnesses said they saw him get out of his car while holding onto his cell phone. The District Attorney’s office is currently investigating the case and could still press charges.
As surreal, as horrific as it has been to lose her partner, at this point there is one thing that seems cut and dry to Marines: “I think the bottom line is just personal responsibility for your actions,” she says. “Especially when you kill someone.”
Josh Alper is not the only bicyclist who has died this way—in the bike lane, obeying all the rules of the road and wearing a helmet. In November, just 10 days after Alper’s death, a 41-year-old cyclist was hit by a car and killed in Newport Beach. While riding her bicycle in Woodside last September, Joy Covey, the former CFO of Amazon.com, was struck and killed by a van making a left turn. And in August, a 24-year-old woman was run over by a delivery truck in San Francisco. There are many more stories like these.
As Daniel Duane points out in a November New York Times op-ed (“Is It OK To Kill Cyclists?”), drivers who kill or injure bicyclists are almost never cited by local authorities. In cases where they have been, “the penalty’s meagerness defied belief,” writes Duane, citing the 2011 case of a teen near Seattle who drove into 49-year-old cyclist John Przychodze from behind, killing him. After he passed a breathalyzer test, police issued him a $42 ticket for making an unsafe lane change.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that many cyclists say they are treated like second-class citizens on the road. But in Santa Cruz, bicycle advocates are trying to change that.
Last fall, Governor Jerry Brown signed the Three Foot Bill—a new law that requires drivers to give cyclists three feet of space when passing them. Drivers can be fined if they violate the law, with higher rates if they injure a cyclist while violating the law.
While it is definitely a victory for cyclists, the Three Foot Bill is more of an educational tool than something that is expected to be strictly enforced, says Amelia Conlen, the director of Santa Cruz bike advocacy organization People Power. “It’s a way to talk to drivers about how they should be driving around cyclists,” she says.
Drivers, meanwhile, often complain that cyclists get in the way, blow through stop signs or otherwise ride recklessly on the roads.
Ironically, Alper was the type of bike advocate who insisted on fellow cyclists following the letter of the law exactly when using the roads, in order to stay safe and keep peaceful relations with drivers.
“He would stick his head out the window and yell at cyclists who would run stop signs,” says Marines, “Because he was just like, ‘What are you doing? You’re going to get hit, or you’re going to hurt someone.’”
“There’s this frame of thought that cyclists should obey the law so that the wider public will respect us more or acknowledge our right to be on the road more,” says Richard Masoner of local cycling blog Cyclelicious. “If only cyclists were all completely law-abiding, then motorists would respect our right to the road. I don’t think that’s the reason harassment exists. I think the reason harassment exists is because we are identified as a different type of person.”
“People should ride safely, but cyclists aren’t getting hit and killed because of the actions of cyclists. They’re getting hit and killed because of cars,” he says.
The central issue, says People Power’s Conlen, is creating a genuinely safe space for bicyclists in a system of roads that has evolved over the last century to primarily serve cars.
“We hear a lot about driver/cyclist tensions, but if we have infrastructure that makes it really clear where the cars are supposed to be, where the bikes are supposed to be, and what each of them is supposed to do at an intersection or turn, I think that takes a lot of the conflict away.”
And by infrastructure, Conlen doesn’t just mean bike lanes. There is a huge segment of the population that doesn’t feel safe riding in bike lanes next to traffic, with the possibility of cars swerving or turning into them, she says. And devastating stories like what happened to Alper show that their fears are not unfounded.
“How many people are going to not ride now that that happened?” wonders Dave Snyder, the executive director of the Oakland-based California Bicycle Coalition, a lobbying organization that works to get bike laws passed. “How many people are saying, ‘Fuck that, I’m not going to ride. I don’t want that to happen to me?’”
Snyder, whose organization was key in getting Brown to pass the Three Foot Bill, says driver education is important, but not nearly as important as better infrastructure.
“The Three Foot Bill can go only so far. It’s not going to do anything to prevent someone getting killed because a driver fell asleep at the wheel,” he says. He lowers his voice, already slightly raspy, to a grave sort of rumble: “You don’t think ‘three feet’ in your sleep.”
Rather than simply building more traditional bike lanes, Conlen and Snyder advocate separated bike lanes—barricaded by concrete, plastic buffers, planters or rows of parked cars. If there were more setups like that, Conlen says, more people would feel safe riding. And the more bikes are on the road, the safer it is, and the more aware drivers are.
Santa Cruz has some of these types of bike lanes—there’s the cycle track down by the Boardwalk, and part of High Street is separated with little plastic markers called “bollards.” But there are other areas where bicyclists are more vulnerable. Ocean Street could really use a separated bike lane, Conlen says, and she’d like to see one on Soquel Avenue all the way out to Aptos, too.
There are certainly some victories when it comes to bike awareness in Santa Cruz, says Snyder. Micah Posner, the former head of People Power, got elected to city council last November. “The fact that they would vote him in shows you something about how much they support bicycling in Santa Cruz,” says Snyder. However, Posner has publicly expressed dissatisfaction that he has been kept off transportation-related boards, limiting his ability to enact change.
“You could celebrate the victories and talk about how it’s getting better,” Snyder continues. “Or you could compare yourself to a city like Amsterdam, or a city like Davis. Compare yourself to the potential and recognize that you’re a pitiful, embarrassing, sliver of potential. You’ve done almost nothing.”
A Question Of Identity
In the office for the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, Senior Transportation Planner Cory Caletti flips through the Monterey Bay Area “Complete Streets Guidebook,” a hefty volume of research and diagrams outlining dozens of options for transforming our streets into more bike- and pedestrian-friendly spaces. “The focus is on shifting the emphasis from moving cars to mobility—mobility of people,” she says.
It’s about expanding the number of choices people have for getting from Point A to Point B. It sounds simple enough.
“It’s not really rocket science,” says Caletti, pointing out the dozens of different options in the book like a wedding planner explaining color combinations. “Having bike lanes that are wide enough so that the cyclist isn’t pinched into the door zone; having green bike lanes; having cycle tracks; having contra-flow bike lanes—that’s basically a separated bike lane that’s going in the opposite direction of traffic on a one-way road. There are a lot of treatments available.”
So why isn’t our supposedly bike-friendly city brimming with them?
“It’s a challenge,” admits Christophe Schneiter, the Assistant Director of Public Works. “Money is always a problem. Money and, ‘Is there room to do these things?’ Do you have to take out a lane of traffic? Do you have to take out parking? While we want to do more separated bike facilities, it’s finding the resources and right of way to do those things. It’s not easy. We’re a built-out city, and an expensive one, so it’s a big challenge.”
There are other California cities with much more innovative and wide-reaching bike infrastructure than Santa Cruz. Take Davis, for example, which was an early leader in innovations like bike-only roundabouts and bike-specific traffic light heads. Or San Francisco, which has a bike share program that extends down the Bay into San Jose. Or Long Beach, which abruptly declared itself “the most bike friendly city in America” a few years ago, and has since implemented a series of bike boulevards and business districts.
“We do a lot of great bike projects; we have some innovative stuff in Santa Cruz,” says People Power’s Conlen. “I just don't think we’ve taken it on as part of our identity and really embraced it. But if people were excited about it, if our city council was excited about it, that could be something that really took off,” she says.
Indeed, one of the major unifying factors among cities with progressive bike facilities is that they have all incorporated biking into their identity. Davis, for example, has a bicycle as the city’s official symbol.
In Long Beach, the city first decided it wanted to be known as a bike-friendly place, then started looking into how to make that a reality. About six years ago, they started looking for grants to facilitate bike programs. They secured $12 million from county, state and federal resources, and then hired a team of specialists to implement three pilot projects within three years. Since then, all three projects have proven to be award-winning safety improvements. Long Beach has built protected bike lanes, created bike business districts with increased signage, and implemented traffic calming features and reduced speed limits. There is also a bike share program currently in the works.
Grandiose as it may sound, Charlie Gandy, mobility coordinator for Long Beach, equates his city’s transformation to President Kennedy deciding to send a U.S. shuttle to the moon.
“It was about deciding that was a worthy endeavor,” he says. “Not knowing all the steps to get there, but saying, ‘Let’s get there in a decade,’ and putting the sense of urgency on it,” he says, with a get-it-done Texas twang. Gandy moved to California from his hometown of Austin, where he worked on the “Keep Austin Weird” branding campaign.
“It’s a conscious political decision that needs to be made and then managed,” says Gandy. And the change in mindset at the top trickles down to residents, he believes. “When the city as the authority figure communicates that bikes belong on the street by painting bike lanes and building infrastructure, that sends a message to motorists that the authority figure expects bikes to be here. The more the authority figure communicates right-use on the street, the more compliance we have between all users, and there’s a reduction in the friction between the two.”
Here in Santa Cruz, the issue may be at a crossroads. While there is a lot more that could be done to make things safer, the newly approved Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail could be a harbinger of more bike-friendly times to come.
Just this winter, the Regional Transportation Commission and Congressman Sam Farr secured $5.3 million in federal money to fund the first three stretches of the 32-mile coastal bike/pedestrian trail that will eventually provide safe, separated bike and pedestrian access from Watsonville to Davenport—including the area where the collision that killed Alper took place.
The first portion of the trail, which is being built in stages, will connect Natural Bridges Drive to the Wharf intersection, by the Sanctuary Exploration Center. It is expected to take about three years to complete. A lot of agencies are involved, and there has to be a detailed Environmental Impact Report, and a coastal permit, and then there will be a public review period, says Public Works’ Schneiter, who is a leader on the project.
Bike advocates are excited about the trail, in particular the potential it has to bring out cyclists who have been afraid to ride on unprotected roads along with car traffic. That’s the first step, they say, in fixing a situation that has already led to tragedy too many times.
“I don't think there's a share-the-road mentality across the board,” says Marines. “As much as I want cyclists to be safe on the road, they are vulnerable. Cyclists are vulnerable being that close to a vehicle.”