A map of the City of Santa Cruz. Illustration by Kaileen Smith.
A map of the City of Santa Cruz. Illustration by Kaileen Smith.

The City of Santa Cruz was recognized as a “gold-level bicycle friendly community” by the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) last year, but the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS), in its most recent 2013 report, ranked Santa Cruz first for number of bicyclists killed in California cities of comparable size.

“I know myself, and I know how to ride a bike, but drivers are totally unpredictable,” said Jillian Browy, a mechanic at the community-run bike maintenance shop, The Bike Church. “You never know if somebody’s going to come up behind you and hit you. I’ve had four friends die in as many years.”

The LAB judges cities based on the “five Es” as they relate to bike safety — engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation. It awarded Santa Cruz gold-level status after the city invested in bicycle infrastructure, including the Arana Gulch multi-use trail, San Lorenzo Riverwalk connection, Felker Street Bridge and Laurel Street green lanes, said city transportation planner Claire Fliesler in an email.

This begs the question — with the improvement in bicycle infrastructure and the city’s gold-level award, how could 113 cyclists have been killed or injured in Santa Cruz in 2013?

“It’s something we’d like to delve further into,” said Theresia Rogerson of the Community Traffic Safety Coalition (CTSC). “We want to tease out what the factors are that contribute to seeming to have innovative bicycle infrastructure but still ranking pretty high with injuries and fatalities.”

Even with the improvements made to the city’s infrastructure, Santa Cruz’s growing popularity is a contributing factor to the high number of bike incidents.

“Santa Cruz has become more of a destination for tourists,” Browy said. “Tourists don’t know the area, they don’t know the intricacies of stop lights and stop signs, so people don’t pay attention because they don’t really know where they’re going.”

Rogerson hopes to find the causes of bicycle safety issues in Santa Cruz through CTSC’s research. CTSC compiles reports each year that are based on its own bike observation surveys and California OTS data.

Since its start in 1992, CTSC has aimed to reduce traffic-related injuries while promoting bicycle use.

“Many feel that it’s intimidation that keeps the cyclists from cycling regularly or that stops some new cyclists from taking it up,” Rogerson said.

CTSC is currently drafting a two-year plan that incorporates Vision Zero, an approach to bike safety aiming to reduce bicycle-related deaths to zero by taking human error into consideration when designing traffic systems. The project, which started in Sweden in 1997, has now spread across the world, including U.S. cities like New York and San Francisco.

“There’s always going to be human error [in collisions],” Rogerson said, “but one of the things we don’t want is for human errors to result in a death.”

Although Vision Zero is not implemented in Santa Cruz, the city does have an Active Transportation Plan, which consists of analyzing potential improvements to pedestrian and bicycle routes. This plan’s ultimate goal is to make it safer and more convenient for people to walk and bike in Santa Cruz.

Rogerson pointed out that neither bicyclists nor drivers are solely to blame for bike incidents, but that both parties are normally at fault. Countywide statistics from a 2013 California Highway Patrol report show that 54 percent of the accidents were the bicyclist’s fault and the rest the fault of the driver.

“We need to educate drivers how to be around cyclists just as much as we need to educate cyclists about how to be on the road,” Jillian Browy said.

While the majority of bicycle-related incidents happen in the city, there are some on UC Santa Cruz’s campus too, and not all involve other vehicles. In 2011, UCSC student Adrian Burgueño died after falling off his bike on the Great Meadow Bike path.

UCSC’s Transportation and Parking Services (TAPS) received a grant of $383,000 and is looking to realign and re-grade the bike path later this year, which will increase the sight distance for cyclists and vehicles near the intersection. TAPS offers bike safety classes and free bike lights for students who attend the class.

Despite the advances being made by the city and community support groups like the CTSC, some cyclists in Santa Cruz still feel at risk and want more safety measures.

“Whenever I bike, I [almost] get hit every time,” said Bike Church mechanic and UCSC student Leo Troast. “I never go on a road without someone trying to turn right on me.”

Protected bike lanes, which separate motor vehicle traffic from the roadway that bicyclists use, have garnered support from the advocacy community.

“I’d like to see more dedicated bike paths that are away from the street,” Troast said. “Their own separate little paths, so you don’t have to deal with cars. A little more awareness would be nice, too.”

Ultimately, the shift toward Vision Zero and a safer Santa Cruz for cyclists will be a gradual one, which Rogerson said is just as much about a culture change as it is about infrastructure.

“A shift in philosophy [is important],” Rogerson said. “Even the language we use around it, like not using the word ‘accident,’ but rather using the words ‘crash’ and ‘collision,’ because these are preventable incidents.”