Legendary Bike-Builder on Santa Cruz Rail Trail

Keith Bontrager, who revolutionized mountain-bike design in his Santa Cruz garage decades ago, critiques one Westside segment of the Rail Trail.

PUBLISHED MAR 17, 2022 12:00 A.M.
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Rail Trail in red vs Delaware Avenue in green.

Rail Trail in red vs Delaware Avenue in green.   Keith Bontrager   Contributed

(Editor's note: This is excerpted from a post by Keith Bontrager on NextDoor, outlining his experience as a bicycle commuter on Segment 7 of the Santa Cruz Rail Trail versus a parallel track on a city street and is published here by permission, with edits for clarity by Keith and California Local editors.)

Rail Trail crossings, rights of way and cyclist safety. 


This started in another thread and I've spent a little more time on it since. The discussion below shows a rough comparison of the relative travel time and safety for cycling on the existing trail on the west side and a parallel road segment (Delaware Ave). I think the results show that riding on the road is both faster and safer than it is on the trail as it is currently designed. 

See below for details. 

(Warning - it is a long read)


Riding Time

Today I made a quick comparison between riding on the existing trail segment on the west side (red route on the map) and on the road using Delaware Ave (green route). I rode my town bike (definitely not a racing bike!), at a comfortable pace, stopped at every stop sign, and then proceeded through each crossing and intersection in a safe manner. 

Traffic at 3pm was light, though there were a few trail crossings that required short waits for cross traffic. The trail was lightly used with no significant delays from other trail users. 

It took 10 minutes and 41 seconds to ride the length of the rail trail (red route on the map) and 7 minutes and 4 seconds to ride back on Delaware Ave (green route). It’s rough, but the route on the road is quite a bit faster—it took about two-thirds the time that it took riding on the trail. 

This is a rough study and is not very rigorous. I should have ridden both routes in both directions a few times and averaged the times. Power measurements would make the study more accurate too. I might do that someday. But I think it's likely that this is representative of the typical transit time differences that a commuting cyclist is going to experience on those two routes. 

Also, 7 to 10 minutes is pretty close to or faster than what I'd expect the trip to take in a car so you should all ride your bike more! 

The ~3 1/2 min difference is pretty small, but that difference will increase on longer rides when the trail segments are linked together and it will add up.

This is also likely to be the best case for this rail trail segment; the trail will be slower when there is more traffic. Cyclists do not have the right of way at any of the road crossings so they'll have to wait for gaps in traffic to cross. As cross traffic increases on the busier roads (Fair, Almar, Swift) transit time on the trail will increase. 

Traffic will not have a similar impact when cycling on the road. There are 4 way stops along Delaware Ave and cyclists have their own bike lanes so they do not have to wait behind queued up cars at intersections. They will also not have to wait longer than one car in the crossing traffic to proceed - standard 4 way stop rules.


The average transit time difference was not the most significant comparison I made though. I tried to assess the relative safety for a cyclist on each route. This isn’t an easy thing to measure so I noted what I thought had an impact on that. 

I think riding on most of Delaware Ave is reasonably safe. The intersections are fairly wide, simple, 4 way stops. Sight lines are unobstructed and visibility is typically good in all directions. A cyclist is likely to be seen by drivers, and approaching cars can be seen easily by the cyclist. It is probably one of the safer local primary streets in Santa Cruz.

The biggest risks for a cyclist on Delaware Ave are the narrow sections between Woodrow  and Columbia. There are no bike lanes and there are cars parked along the curb in some sections. A cyclist has to take the lane to avoid opening doors and close passes, relying on the sharrows and driver’s attention to protect them from cars coming from behind. Normally that's not a problem and it wasn't today. It's not optimal road design from a cyclist’s POV. The protected bike lanes on Delaware near Laguna are a great example of a road treatment that improves cyclist safety.

Riding along on the rail trail safely is much more complicated. In addition to pedestrians, the challenges for a cyclist are at the road crossings. 

Image of a green painted road crossing.
The designers have used what's referred to as a hybrid crosswalk at the road crossings (I am not certain that is the official term of art but it's what I have found so far). Those have a center section that is painted with white stripes for pedestrians and a green strip along each side for cyclists. These are not commonly used so figuring out the legalities and rights of way has taken some time (and I am not done so some of this is a best guess for now). 

There are bright yellow signs placed along the side of the road in front of the crosswalks warning the driver that there are cyclists and pedestrians crossing. And there are flashing beacons with a button to activate them near the crosswalk (RRFBs) at busier crossings. An RRFB is a device used for pedestrian crossings on busy streets away from intersections. Push the button, the bright yellow beacons flash and let the drivers know you are going to cross. In my experience there are often a few cars that don't stop after you've actuated the beacon but eventually they do. 

There are stop signs and lines across the trail at all crossings. The cyclist has to stop before the sidewalk at each. (Some of the stop signs are on the left side of the trail which may not be up to code—TBD.)

Vehicles have the right of way at all crossings unless there is a pedestrian using the crosswalk. Drivers always have to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. A cyclist that is riding across a crossing is not ever likely to have the right of way. That's true even if they are in the hybrid crosswalk unless they have dismounted and become a pedestrian. And they would have to dismount completely - using the bike like a scooter and pushing across with one foot on the ground and one on the pedal is riding from a legal POV. The latter is probably moot for the most part. But if you are hit by a car while crossing it will have an impact on liability.

All of that is OK as long as everyone knows how it works in advance and executes at a high level.  

The complex layouts at some crossings will make it difficult for cyclists to navigate legally and safely. 

The crossing at Bay and California is a very strange design, though it is not the least safe on the trail. It might be so weird that it's safer because the unusual layout and quantity of green paint will get everyone's attention. It’s also likely to be changed when the section from Bay to Beach St is completed.

Riding north there is a stop sign at California. The trail follows a hybrid crosswalk to the left at that intersection, then goes to the right against traffic. To follow the designer's intent you would need to make a sharp left turn from the bike lane into the crosswalk, then cross Bay in front of the stopped cars to your left, then make an immediate right. Making sharp 90 degree turns from a stop is a difficult thing to do. And the cars approaching from behind are not likely to anticipate that move. This may have been the only design option given the constraints, but I think it’s a poor design for a bike path.

If you follow the trail markings I think it's best to dismount at the stop sign and cross in the hybrid crosswalk on foot. You will have the right of way if you are off the bike and in the crosswalk. I have no idea how rights of way work if you ride across. 

And it's probably best to just take the lane, stop, signal a left turn, then ride into the bike path from the stop when you have the right of way. 

There is another crossing that uses an odd configuration at Rankin and Seaside. Based on the design intent, you are meant to ride across Rankin (going west) on the green strip on the edge of the crosswalk, against traffic. Then you make a sharp 90 degree right turn when you reach the opposite sidewalk in order to stay on the green strip as you cross Seaside. That requires a sharp turn at very low speed (with a stop). You'll need to check the traffic coming from behind in order to cross Seaside safely as well. This probably means you will have to stop and pivot the bike 90 degrees manually. Few will bother to do that. Some won't be able to. I think the designer made some poor compromises in a difficult existing road/trail configuration and ended up with an unworkable crossing if the cyclist does everything by the book. Most won’t.

The rest of the crossings have fairly basic layouts with the trail and road crossing at 90 degrees. Each crossing requires the cyclist to stop before they reach the sidewalk. At that point they are set back quite a ways from the active traffic lane.  There are often parked cars that block the driver's view of the cyclist. And there are some wood fences right up to the sidewalk and landscaping plants that will also do that. That's true even if the drivers are looking, and it's not likely they always will be. 

Once stopped the cyclist will need to move forward across the sidewalk and into the street to be able to see and be seen. They will need to check approaching traffic from there and proceed when it's clear. It’s about the same as crossing a street away from an intersection. The responsibility and liability is all on the cyclist. 

It is not clear to me that a cyclist has the right of way if they are riding in the correct portion of the hybrid crosswalk and the RRFBs are flashing (unlike pedestrians). I can't find any mention of it in the local or state laws. They might if the flashing yellow light means the driver has to yield to crossing traffic but I can’t find that in the law. Actuating them may occasionally work to the cyclist's advantage since the drivers would probably stop whether it was a cyclist or pedestrian in the crosswalk. They are not easy to get to on a bike.

As an example of how the rights of way can go wrong, a guy in a pickup going south saw me waiting to cross Almar St, stopped and waved me across. He was being cool - he had the right of way and didn't have to stop. I looked in the other direction as I got ready to ride and a semi truck (full sized) was about 4 car lengths away from the crosswalk going pretty fast, with no indication of slowing down. He didn't. I waited for the semi truck, then the truck driver and I laughed it off as I crossed. Had I started crossing when the pick up driver waved me across it would not have gone well.

The other crossings went without incident. A few more drivers yielded to me as I was waiting to cross even though they had the right of way. That's cool and it means they were paying attention. But that's probably going to add risk for the cyclist in the long run. A cyclist can't rely on cars stopping - they are not obligated to. If a driver coming from one direction yields, there's still the possibility that someone coming from the other direction won't. This is common in my experience at pedestrian crossings away from intersections on Soquel in Midtown. 

The bottom line is that the crossing designs and rights of way at these crossings are very complex, and probably not optimal for safe cycling. It would be a good idea to let people you know who are planning to use the rail trail about the rights of way and visibility issues.

The designs that are shown in planning documents for the rest of the trail are similar to these (including 41st ave), and some are even more complex. At this point I think the crossings and rights of way are quite a bit more complicated than those a cyclist faces riding on the road. That should be part of the discussion whether there will be a rail or not.


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