Riding toward the Rail Trail Persistence pays off for Santa Cruz cyclists

The railroad trestle bridge in Santa Cruz. | Kyle Martin

By Kyle Martin

The wheels of government turned slowly for those who depend on two-wheeled transportation in Santa Cruz. But the pieces are finally falling into place for cyclists who want a safer way to get around.

The Coastal Rail Trail, in the planning stages for decades, has had another boost with the start of Santa Cruz’s San Lorenzo River Parkway Trestle Trail Project.  “I’ve waited 20 years for this,” said Keresha Durham, a 37-year Santa Cruz resident and devoted cyclist who attended the groundbreaking on Jan. 10.

“It’s too narrow,” she said of the current bridge trail, detailing her daily predicament crossing the bridge when she has to hop off of her bike and walk beside everyone else in the bridge traffic jam. “If you ‘re commuting to work, you have to stop and walk, which is ridiculous. Would you ask people in their cars to stop every few minutes?”

For her, and residents like her who prefer transportation on two wheels, widening the trestle bridge is something that can’t come too soon. As an executive committee member of the Sierra Club’s Santa Cruz group, Durham said she’s heard countless complaints about cyclists’ safety in Santa Cruz.

The groundbreaking ceremony in the parking lot next to the San Lorenzo River Railroad Trestle Bridge kicked off the beginning of a master transportation overhaul the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission says will “ultimately benefit the region as a whole by enhancing overall accessibility” to public transportation in Santa Cruz County and beyond.

The trestle bridge trail is just one phase of both the Transportation Agency for Monterey County and the transportation commission’s two-county Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network pedestrian and bicycle pathway project. The plan is for an extended network of trail pathways to connect people between the Santa Cruz and San Mateo county line to Pacific Grove in Monterey County without cars. The Coastal Trail alone has a $5.76 million price tag, while the grand total for the entire network grand total comes to $126 million.

There’s no doubt that Santa Cruz is a kind of epicenter of bicycle love, and that’s spreading out to the rest of the region through the Coastal Rail Trail. The League of American Bicyclists recently released a report that shows the city of Santa Cruz has the second-highest bike commuting rate in the United States, and at 13.2 percent is just behind famously bike-friendly Davis. The report, titled Where We Ride: Analysis of Bicycle Commuting in American Cities, uses the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey to gauge the status of biking in cities across the country.

The bike commute rate has grown rapidly since the 2000 census found just 4.6 percent of residents used their bicycles to commute. The city, according to its recent press release, credits its investment in infrastructure and programs that encourage biking and walking.

Keresha Durham is one of these commuters.

“I sold my car for the climate,” she said, adding that she’s been without a car for 14 years. She’s been riding her bike to work and taken up activism and environmental education in her cycling pursuit of a healthier earth.

Since 2011, the city has won more than $21.5 million in competitive grants for projects to improve biking and walking, including the Branciforte Creek Bike/Pedestrian Bridge, Arama Gulch Multi-Use Trail, and projects to improve safe routes to schools. The City has a proposal in the works to further its percentage of bike commuters.

Last month the Downtown Employee Transportation Demand Management program — a package of benefits and incentives that make it easier for downtown employees to choose not to drive to work — was approved by the Downtown Commission. It will be presented to the city council on Feb. 12.

The Coastal Rail Trail proposes to extend the system even further by developing a 32-mile mile biking/walking trail running the length of Santa Cruz County. These transportation projects will help Santa Cruz County by “improving access to jobs, shopping, and other destinations, and reducing overall housing and transportation costs,” according to the transportation commission’s report. “Reduced traffic congestion on roadways can mean less time in traffic for individuals and an improved quality of life.”

The report says area residents have the potential to save thousands of dollars per incident by dropping the number of collisions on area roadways altogether through 2035.

Durham said the renovation of the trail will encourage more effective commuter traffic flow for people getting around on bikes, or their own two feet.

Encouraging greater use of pedestrian and bicycle traffic will help save the environment, she said. Getting people out of their cars is part of the solution to climate change, she said, and this new passage is a “key component to having a future on this earth.”

With a new and improved trestle bridge, things could change for Durham and other residents riding bikes through the streets. That’s her goal as an environmental activist, she said.

“People would complain all the time that they don’t feel safe,” she said. “You’ve got to make active transportation safe and accessible, or people are not going to get out of their cars.”

With their support of the Coastal Rail Trail, activists in the area are gunning for something very specific: the chance to not get hit by cars.

“Often people who get hit by cars, if they don’t need to immediately go to the hospital, they typically don’t report it,” said Jannake Strause, executive director for Bike Santa Cruz County. “It’s kind of a societal issue that bicyclists getting hit is unavoidable and it’s just part of life almost, unfortunately. And we’re trying to change that, but i’d say we don’t hear from people as often as they actually happen.”

Strause said the “main benefit of the rail trail is it provides a facility for people to bike that is completely separate from any vehicle traffic,” whereas throughout the county now, “the only thing separating a bike from a vehicle is paint on the ground.”

She said she hasn’t been hit by a car, “but I’ve had several close calls, and that’s another data point that does not get tracked.“It’s safe to say those numbers would drastically increase” if they were reported.Mark Mesiti-Miller, board chairman for the Santa Cruz County Friends of the Rail Trail, has been hit by cars three times while on a bike.

“It’s okay, I’m still alive,” Mesiti-Miller said. “If we’re not the worst county in California, we’re definitely one of the worst counties in California.”

According to data from the 2017 Annual Traffic Safety report, city residents experienced a decrease in bicycle collisions after an increase in 2016 from 2015. But the report also said state collision rankings from the California Office of Traffic Safety “consistently rank Santa Cruz among the highest for bicyclist crashes,” adding that “our collision numbers are higher than other cities in part due to our high rates of bicycle trips.”

With a new network of trails, cyclists, pedestrians skaters and cars can harmoniously share the roads because “it will create a best way to get around,” Stephen Slade, executive director for the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County,  said. “Everybody benefits.”

Slade doesn’t ride bikes around town anymore. His two adult kids were hit by cars, and his daughter has back problems because of it now. But things are going to change, he said.

“Let’s get back to basics, it’s about people getting around,” he said. “It’s good for the environment.”

The trestle bridge construction is planned to reopen by Memorial Day. And it’s just one of many links in the Coastal Rail Trail system that’s being worked on. Also under way are car-free trails connecting Lee Road to Walker Street in Watsonville (completion anticipated this year), Davenport to Wilder Ranch (due to begin in 2020) and Santa Cruz Wharf to 17th Avenue (targeted for 2024).

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Kyle Martin

About Kyle Martin

Kyle Martin is Fil-Am multimedia journalist born in San Jose, CA who grew up mostly in North Texas around Dallas. After driving his 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee alone cross-country, through the circles of Hell known as the Texas Panhandle and the bottom half of Wyoming, he is now based in the Bay Area. He has experience writing and photographing in Texas, California and elsewhere. Send news tips and restaurant recommendations to kylemartinmedia@gmail.com.