Maria Gutzeit
and John Lukes

Los Angeles County Bike Coalition

Maria Gutzeit
Maria Gutzeit
Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Senior Editor

Sunday, September 24, 2006
(Television interview conducted September 20, 2006)

    "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Time Warner Cable, and hosted by Signal Senior Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmakers are Maria Gutzeit and John Lukes of the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition. Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: Who is the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition?

Gutzeit: Countywide, we have about 900 members, and in the Santa Clarita area, we've had 15 to 20 people working on bike advocacy for the last couple years.

Signal: How many people rely on a bicycle to get to work in the morning?

Lukes: I never really took a count, but I was part of the Bike-to-Work Day, and we had quite a number of people who actually were going to work.
    For the last 15 years before I retired, I commuted to work on a bicycle, and I had no problem doing it at all. I was a design engineer. I got to work, I was fresh, and it's sort of an invigorating type of (way) to come to work. So, if I could do it under those circumstances, I think most people could.

Signal: That wasn't in the Santa Clarita Valley, was it?

Lukes: That was not in Santa Clarita. When I moved to the Santa Clarita Valley, I found a friend who drove to the San Fernando Valley, the Van Nuys area, and I went with him with my bicycle. He parked his car and then I rode my bicycle about 10 miles to and from work.

Signal: So you got to the Santa Clarita Valley, you found a place where 17-year-old kids drive 50, 60, 70 mph or more on Soledad Canyon Road. How safe is it to ride a bike in this town?

Lukes: Well, we do have the trail system now, and we have — how many miles of trail system, Maria?

Gutzeit: I don't know off the top of my head. I think it's up to more than 20 miles. Just the Soledad trail itself, out and back from Newhall to Canyon Country (round-trip, is) about 25 miles, that trail by itself.

Signal: Can you ride all the way from one side of town to the other without having to use surface streets?

Gutzeit: If you want, if you live near the trail. But actually, it's kind of what the Bike Coalition is about — getting a full mix of bike facilities so that while we have a great trail system, people have got to be able to get there, got to be able to get off the trail, maybe park their bike at a train station or a bus station. (We've) got to have a little driver education to know that it would be a bad thing if they ran us over. So we definitely need a mix of things, and the trail system by itself is fabulous, and we're hoping to improve the rest of the network.

Signal: What about bicyclist education? You often see bicyclists riding on the sidewalk, or riding through the crosswalk. Those things are illegal, aren't they?

Lukes: I do the Bicyclist Safety Program for the city of Santa Clarita. They provide a booklet for young people that I pass out at the safety programs. I have a video that I show and a question-and-answer period after, and the whole thing takes about a half hour. All the children seem to be very involved watching this particular video; it's a very good video, and it's even good for adults. I also have a handout for adults, giving all the information on bicycle safety.

Signal: What are the rules of the road for bicyclists?

John Lukes
John Lukes
Lukes: You were asking about riding on the sidewalk, for example. It is against the law in the city of Santa Clarita to ride your bicycle on the sidewalk — although as I put it to the younger children, the Sheriff's Department does not give out citations unless they are doing something very illegal. When I say "very illegal," I'm talking about, for example, riding your bicycles up and down in front of stores and making it hazardous for the people walking around. So that's one of the things.
    Other bicycle safety things — everybody has to get to the bike trail system that we have. Some people put their bicycle in their car and they drive to the trail system and begin to ride. Other people, whole families, ride from their homes, and they have to use our surface streets in order to get there.

Signal: It is perfectly legal to ride a bicycle on the street, isn't it?

Gutzeit: Yes.

Lukes: It is 100 percent legal. Yes, it is.

Gutzeit: Although some people will yell out their car windows and tell us otherwise. John had a really good point about another thing that people might not know about. Riding on the sidewalks is also very hazardous, because statistically, one of the worst places you can be is at an intersection, and a driveway on the sidewalk, going the wrong way. The drivers are kind of — you expect to look for cars coming from your left when you're pulling out, and if you have a cyclist coming from the right, it's very dangerous for the cyclist, too. The simple way is, people need to think and act like a car. Follow the normal rules of the road. And bikes are regulated as vehicles in California.

Signal: If there is a bike lane, do you have to use it? Or can you use a traffic lane?

Lukes: Are you talking about a bike lane or a bike path?

Signal: A bike lane that is striped on the asphalt.

Lukes: Then you have to be on the bike lane. (But) if there is a bike path, it is not necessary to ride on the bike path.

Signal: When you come up to an intersection, what are you supposed to?

Lukes: If you are on the street, you are just like an automobile. If there is a stop sign there, you have to come to a stop. If there is a stop light and it's red, you have to stop, just like an automobile. It's an educational thing for young people to ride on the street, because basically, it's exactly the same things they're going to be doing when they get to drive a car.

Signal: If you're coming up to Bouquet Junction and you're on Soledad and you want to turn left, do you go out into traffic and use the turn pocket?

Lukes: Most (people are) on the trail system there. But if I were on that type of street, yes, I would look over my shoulder — I also have a mirror on my helmet (with which) I can see behind me — and I check to make sure that it's safe to go across. I put up my hand just like you used to do in automobiles before they had (lighted turn) signals.

Signal: One thing you see often bicyclists do at an intersection is ride through the crosswalk. You're not supposed to ride anything through a crosswalk, right?

Gutzeit: That's something we asked the city to look into as part of the new Non-Motorized Master Plan, because we are concerned, from a bike advocacy standpoint, they're putting us in the situation of pretty much having to ride through the crosswalks, or they're making trails that have multiple crosswalks in the middle of them. I'm sure you've noticed (that) pretty much nobody walks their bike through. Of course we look both ways and all that.

Signal: You're supposed to walk your bike through a crosswalk, right?

Gutzeit: According to the signage. However, according to the state (Department of Transportation), it is not mandatory that they make us walk through. ... I did check with them and they said it's basically up to the local jurisdiction, how they want to designate those street crossings. It can possibly be a crosswalk/bike trail, or maybe permit — call that a little section of sidewalk that bikes are allowed to ride on, so you have these little segments that we have permission to ride on.
    The issue (is) liability. As I mentioned, the intersections are absolutely the most dangerous place for cyclists, with cars turning, not necessarily looking, cyclists admittedly maybe not paying attention to the signals 100 percent. I feel that it's very likely, if a driver hits you and you weren't walking, they're going to point right to the "Walk Bike" sign and say, "You weren't walking," and try and get out of it. So it can be very dangerous and costly for a cyclist to get hit there.

Signal: When you're out there riding your bike on the street, what's the thing drivers do wrong the most?

Lukes: They don't acknowledge as a fact that you are legally on the road. That's the main thing. If they only did that, that would satisfy all the needs, because normally they don't see bicyclists.
    Now, I see a lot of bicyclists doing wrong things, such as riding on the wrong side of the street. When you come to a corner, what you usually do is, you take a quick look to the right and you look to the left (to see) if anybody's coming, and you start your move. By that time, the bicyclist is up there. They're faster than a pedestrian. That's why the law states that you're supposed to ride on the right side of the street, just like an automobile rides on the right side of the street. Unless you're in another country, as I have been, such as New Zealand, then I have to ride on the other side.

Gutzeit: I think some of the main things that are important for cyclists and drivers to both acknowledge is, on the street, the type of accident you're most likely to get into is in front of the bike. A lot of cyclists have a fear riding on the street that they're going to be hit from behind; that's a very small percentage of the accidents. A lot of times, cars will pass us and try to make a quick turn right in front of us, cutting us off, or they'll turn left in front of us — again, because they don't realize the speed of the cyclist or they don't see them.
    The other big thing I think up here with the narrow canyon roads is to give a little bit of elbow room when they're passing us when there's not a shoulder, because sometimes there are rocks and other things on the road.

Signal: How often do you use a bike? Do you rely on a bike because it's more economical, or is it that you want everybody to watch out for you because this is your hobby and this is what you choose to do?

Gutzeit: Me, personally, I do use a bike for errands. I like to run by the bank, the library, do a few little things like that and do my errands, usually on the way to a longer ride. But what I found working up here with the cyclists is, there's really the entire spectrum of people. There are people who like to do 100-mile rides, 200-mile rides; there are people who are ecstatic if they get out on a five- or six-mile ride. I just met somebody who just got their first bike and they made it all the way to the end of the trail. ... Their ultimate dream (was) to make it to the end of the trail. So what we find is, there is a whole mix of people, and (we're) hoping that everybody can get their needs met and do it safely.

Signal: Is there a way to ride all the way from Santa Clarita to the Pacific Ocean?

Lukes: Oh, sure. You take the surface streets. You go over the Newhall Pass by way of The Old Road, and you continue on to the San Fernando Valley, and eventually work your way over to the Sepulveda Pass, through the Veterans Hospital area, and then you continue right on through Santa Monica.

Signal: What if you wanted to go out Highway 126? Can you ride your bike on a state highway?

Lukes: There is a shoulder up there. There are people that do that quite often, yes.

Signal: What is the master plan you were talking about?

Gutzeit: One of the big pushes of the Bike Coalition was to get the city to do something called the Bike Master Plan. This is actually a document where the contents are outlined by the state. If you cover certain criteria in your Bike Master Plan, it opens you up for more grant funding. It requires them to look at things like roadway access and design, driver and cyclist education, to have a big public outreach component. So we wanted them to do that.
    The city came back, after one year of lobbying on our part, with an idea for a Non-Motorized Master Plan that incorporates both cycling and pedestrian uses. It had a really good tie-in to the city's "Big Picture" (planning) effort, because above and beyond, a resident's chief concern up here is traffic. The city has been very good at trying to find ways to make it as easy as possible and as safe as possible for people to choose not to take their cars. That's what the plan is all about.

Signal: Is the idea that the city would be taking bicyclists' and pedestrians' needs more into consideration when they're approving new development?

Lukes: Exactly.

Gutzeit: Yes. I mean, what we have right now — they've done very good lately with the trail design and new developments in response to comments that we've put in. But as you can imagine, with the amount of growth up here, the amount of things going on, it's very hard to catch every project. This is going to be an overall standard for roadway design — try to look at getting those last connections on the trail.
    Some of the trails, you're out there and they just stop. So it would prioritize connections, prioritize good designs on the trail where they go under streets, as opposed to having the intersections that are problematic, wherever possible. It's a good, comprehensive plan that will give a better look at that. I can't comment a lot on the pedestrian thing, but I would expect pedestrian accommodations—

Signal: Is there a pedestrian coalition we haven't heard about?

Gutzeit: Not that we know of—

Lukes: The school system handles most of that. But we would like to make it what is called a bicycle-friendly city, meaning education, attitude and facilities. Education is giving bicycle safety education programs to both young people and adults. Attitude is what I was talking about, or Maria referred to it before: people not knowing that a bicycle does belong on the street, and we get somebody hollering something at us — (that) is bad attitude.

Signal: "Get in the bike lane!"

Gutzeit: Yeah.

Lukes: That's right. That's really true. So many people, so many adults — when I give the bicycle safety program to the young people, at the end of the session, it's usually the adults asking the questions, because it's surprising how many of them really don't know the laws pertaining to bicycles.

Signal: They don't know the laws pertaining to driving.

Lukes: That's true.

Signal: This master plan — it sounds like something the city is doing, but most of the growth around here is happening in the unincorporated county territory.

Gutzeit: Definitely. We have been working with the county, too. The city, because it's close, is really easy for us to work with. They've been ready to have meetings with us any time we want. But we did recognize the growth in a lot of the areas we ride is in the county. So we worked with Millie Jones over the course of about a year and a half, Millie Jones in Mike Antonovich's office, first posing some simple questions: "What are your standards?" "What do you do for road width?" "What do you do for the little sensors that make the lights change?"
    There were a lot of inconsistencies between what they do in the county and what the city does. A case in point: Some of the roads that go from the city to the county and back to the city, you'll notice the road widths change.

Signal: For instance?

Gutzeit: Copper Hill.

Lukes: Sand Canyon.

Gutzeit: Sand Canyon, between Soledad and Sierra Highway. Plum Canyon up by you (John).

Lukes: Plum Canyon, that's right. You come from Whites Canyon, you go down, it becomes Plum Canyon. That's county—

Signal: It becomes narrower?

Gutzeit: Yes. And so it's much more nerve-wracking for the road cyclists. There is not a trail up there. It's a lot more nerve-wracking when you just immediately are squished into a really narrow lane with some big SUVs.
    So after talking to Millie for a while, we got them to agree to do what we believe is the first regional county bike planning. (Supervisor) Gloria Molina is doing some of that in her area down in L.A., but we've pointed out the bike routes of concern for commuters, (such as) coming out of Castaic to our industrial center, saying, "Hey, we need to preserve a route for Santa Clarita commuters going into the valley on bikes."
    We're concerned about some of the canyons as they grow, like up Bouquet. We just had a conversation with them about the road widths on Bouquet as they redo it, and they've pledged to us that it's going to have shoulders now, which will be great. That's barring topographic difficulties, so hopefully the whole thing doesn't have a topographic difficulty.

Signal: Does the master plan encompass the whole valley?

Gutzeit: No. The city's master plan is within city boundaries. However, the city did invite the county Public Works staff to come to our public outreach meeting, and they did come and they are going to try and line up the trail connections and keep the bike routes continuous, if there is a road that leaves the city and goes into the county. They're going to try and look at that more in the future.

Signal: So right now, if you're on a bike path in the city and you come up to the border with the county, it just ends?

Lukes: That's usually what happens.

Gutzeit: Yes, pretty much.

Lukes: One of the other things I wanted to mention, as far as safety is concerned, is the fact that pedestrians, runners, usually use stereo headsets when they're running down the trail system. It is against the law for bicyclists to use any type of stereo headsets, because it prevents them from hearing automobiles and things like that.

Signal: Even if you're in your car, it's illegal to have headphones covering both ears.

Lukes: Correct. It's basically the same thing. And this becomes a problem on the trail system when you are coming upon some people with headsets on and you try to tell them, "Passing on your left," and they really don't hear it. So it is a problem, and you have to approach it saying it louder and louder until they can really hear us.

Signal: Early in the discussions of the Newhall Ranch project, there was a plan for bike, pedestrian and equestrian trail extending from the Magic Mountain Parkway area to the area west side of Interstate 5. Is that happening?

Gutzeit: Yes. We looked at their trail plan for the Newhall Ranch, and at this point, we feel pretty comfortable with it. They will connect to that existing trail right now, which is along Magic Mountain behind Pavilions, or what people call the Jefferson Apartments. That's going to go over some train trussel, apparently, and wind its way basically parallel to (Highway) 126 along with the river. It should be pretty scenic.
    The other really good thing that they did, which I was very concerned about, is what about people who aren't on the trail, whose house isn't on the trail or maybe have to get to a workplace or a video store to drop off a video? They've put bike lanes on almost all of the streets up there, which is fabulous. And when you're laying down new road, it is very cheap to put in a little extra width for a striped bike lane, and it's much more affordable than doing a separate trail.

Signal: West of the freeway, they've expanded The Old Road and added traffic lanes, but it would seem like when it's busy, it would be hard to ride a bike there. What are some of the more dangerous places in town?

Lukes: We have some pretty standard rides, as the dedicated bicyclist rides on. One of them is in Placerita Canyon. It would be nice to have some signs there: "Watch For Bicycles." Another one is going over Whites Canyon — these are challenges — going up over Whites Canyon and then down on the Plum Canyon side. Places like that, people should be aware that there are bicyclists. (Also), going down Soledad Canyon and continuing on Soledad Canyon all the way through Agua Dulce and coming around.

Gutzeit: Those are the big rides, but right now they're in less populated areas. The design issues that we'd like to see corrected are, for instance, there's kind of a wide sidewalk-bike path on the north side of Newhall Ranch Road, just north of Bridgeport. Lots of driveways ... a car driver comes flying down the hill and does a rolling right turn without looking at the bike.
    Another one there, northbound on McBean, you have to go from the trail to a little traffic island, then across more traffic through another traffic island to the other side. That's a pretty complicated move for even advanced cyclists, and certainly not for little kids. So that's why we prefer either to go over or under major streets, if you're going to do a trail—

Signal: It costs way too much money to go under the street, doesn't it?

Lukes: That's right.

Gutzeit: They're using flood control channels. ... In that case, honestly, I think it would be safer just to leave the bikes in a marked lane on the road, because then the bikes are where the drivers expect to see them.

Signal: What kind of resistance do you get? Are developers fighting these changes?

Gutzeit: I don't really think so, because part of the marketing of the city of Santa Clarita and this area is the healthy communities, and people like to get out with their kids on the weekend and go for a little ride, or they like to be able to go ride over to the coffee shop and have a cup of coffee with their girlfriend. So yes, I think it adds to the community and it's something that people ask for in public hearings. I've heard them ask for trails.

Lukes: It's not the new areas that are being built, it's the old sections that have established-width roads (where) the city is having problems putting bike lanes or bike paths. For example, in the Whites Canyon area, you have an elementary school, a middle school and a high school, and there is a lot of activity going on up there. What would be really good is to have a bike lane going down Whites Canyon so that the schoolchildren can use something like that.
    Any area, not only in that area but any place in the city, there should be some type of bike lanes or bike paths for the children to ride to school. And then naturally, the bicycle education to go with it, so that they start riding their bicycles.

Gutzeit: This whole plan that we've been talking about in the city — they're going to be getting the draft in the next month or so, and then there will be another public outreach.

Signal: So this isn't a done deal yet.

Gutzeit: No. There will be a meeting at City Hall, and the draft will be online on the city's Web site. We really want people — if they have issues in their area that are intimidating to them (when they) get out on their bike or to go by foot to their school with their children or something — definitely there is still time to comment.

Signal: What do you want people to know?

Lukes: We want them to know, with their bicycles, that if they are on the street, they belong on the street.

Gutzeit: I want people to know to take a look around when they're driving home. Everywhere in this city, you see people on bikes. Our city manager is a cyclist, planning commissioners are cyclists, their neighbor is probably a cyclist. These aren't some Tour de France guys out here taking over their city. We're—

Signal: Regular people?

Gutzeit: Regular people who are on their bikes and just trying to get by, get to work, or get some exercise. We'll try and stay out of their way if they do the same to us.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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