Santa Cruz honored with gold award and new grants for biking, but improvement still needed on hazards
Long before bearded hipsters made cycling cool again, Santa Cruz prided itself as a bike-friendly community, and now it has a gold award—plus several sizable grants—to back it up.
The League of American Bicyclists announced its bi-annual Bicycle Friendly Communities awards on Nov. 16. With rankings from platinum to bronze, the league’s rankings are announced each fall and spring. This year Santa Cruz came out in the gold tier, making it one of 24 in the entire country to receive the honor since the awards began in 2003.
A public celebratory ride took place on Nov. 24 from City Hall down the San Lorenzo Riverwalk, although the chilly winter night brought in a lower-than-expected turnout, says Amelia Conlen, director of the nonprofit Bike Santa Cruz County. “But we did have treats donated by the Pacific Cookie Company and Cocoamotion,” she says.
The League of American Bicyclists was originally founded in 1880 as the League of American Wheelmen—as cyclists apparently were then called. The League is a national bicycling advocacy group working to change policy and create a safer experience for anyone who chooses to ditch four wheels in favor of two.
Santa Cruz is now in good company, with only three other gold members in the state: San Francisco, Palo Alto and San Luis Obispo.
Among its accolades, Santa Cruz was acknowledged for its strong infrastructure, cycling education programs and 10 percent of its population biking to work. Sixty percent of Santa Cruz’s arterial streets have bike lanes, compared to an average of 78 percent in most platinum-ranked areas. Davis is the only Californian city that’s achieved platinum status.
On the city’s “report card,” the league noted a few reasons why Santa Cruz did not receive a platinum rating, and a big one is accidents. Santa Cruz County routinely has among the highest rate of per capita bike accidents in the state. The county’s higher-than-average ridership at least partly explains those numbers. Still, the report card notes that the city’s average crashes per 100,000 cyclists is 222, more than twice the average for platinum communities.
Ken Mcleod, the league legal and policy specialist, was one of three reviewers who went over Santa Cruz’s application, and he says the city is on the right track when it comes to transportation. “It seemed very ambitious for the community compared to other applications we received,” he says, “especially with the building of new facilities to encourage more cyclists.”
Earlier this year, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission won two big grants for bike projects. One grant extends part of the Coastal Rail Trail, a planned multi-use 32-mile path from downtown Watsonville to Davenport. The other adds bicycle route signs to instruct commuters about the safest and fastest paths, something Conlen is excited about. “Many cyclists may not be as experienced as others, which is why the sign program is so important around town,” she says.
The league based its awards on 111 questions, as well as data collected by both the city and by the league itself. Criteria ranged from the number of bike-friendly laws to access to cycling education programs. The number of active bicycle advocacy groups within the community also played a factor.
Bike Santa Cruz County, formerly known as People Power, is probably the best-known of those advocacy groups. This year, the nonprofit teamed up with the city to complete the Arana Gulch multi-use trail and the green lane bike path on Laurel Street. One of its programs is the Earn-A-Bike program in Watsonville. Over the course of six weeks, students are taken on bike-related field trips, and they learn to work on bicycles donated by community members—which they then get to keep at the end of the program.
“Having access to bikes can be difficult,” explains Conlen. “Especially the tools and accessories needed to hang-on [to] and maintain one. We provide all that, so the kids are ready to go.”
But there is even more good bike news that didn’t make it into the Bicycle Friendly Community award application. Just three weeks before being honored, Santa Cruz was awarded $3.2 million in grants from Caltrans.
The first grant of $1.4 million went to a program to improve school crossings. The city and environmental nonprofit Ecology Action will work together to improve 24 crosswalks around eight local schools, as well as transportation education in the classrooms. Sometimes changing people’s habits can create serious momentum when it comes to how people get around.
“Many of the crossings are simply perceived as being unsafe—causing more parents to drive and drop off children, which in turn puts more cars on the road,” Santa Cruz transportation manager Jim Burr tells GT in an emailed statement via a city spokesperson. “This is a vicious cycle that the ATP and Safe Routes projects are seeking to reverse.”
The second grant, an impressive $1.8 million, was allocated for the Branciforte Creek Bridge. The project is a multi-use path stretching from under the Soquel Avenue bridge to San Lorenzo Park, and it’s the last remaining gap in the riverwalk along the levees. Staff originally had the idea almost three decades ago, and although it was a popular concept, funding was scarce. Construction on it should begin by 2017 and be finished within six months.
“It’s been a pretty incredible year,” says Conlen.
The League of American Bicyclists also took special interest in Santa Cruz’s Active Transportation Plan (ATP), which the Santa Cruz City Council approved in April.
Mirroring the state’s Active Transportation Program, the ATP takes a comprehensive look at transportation throughout the city, in an attempt to make pedestrian and cycling traffic safer and more convenient. Since August, city staff has been doing public outreach and collecting data for the ATP and aims to submit its first draft to the Transportation and Public Works Commission in March. The city hopes the new Active Transportation Plan will pave the way for even more grants.
More than a small niche, the world of cycling has become its own economy, and more cycling and safer routes mean big business, according to Bike Santa Cruz County. In its 2015 State of Cycling Report, the nonprofit estimated that the cycling industry employed over 1,000 individuals in the county, generating $800 million.
When it comes to building a community, Conlen says, it all boils down to the basics.
“It takes good facilities to make people feel safe enough to get out of their cars and on their bikes,” she says. “If you build it, they will come.”
FINISH LINE Amelia Conlen of Bike Santa Cruz County and transportation planner Claire Fliesler stand near the last remaining project on the San Lorenzo Riverwalk. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER