In late February of 2012 in this column, I told you about Caltrans’ (what California’s Department of Transportation is called) plans to install rumble strips on one of the sacred cycling roads in America, California’s Highway 1. And I asked for your help to try to stop the project. Unfortunately, the rumble strips were installed last month and the project is in its final stages now.
Since so many of you joined thousands of cyclists across the USA, and multiple cycling groups, in our unsuccessful effort to stop the project (thank you!), I wanted to update you on how this stretch of Highway 1 has changed now, and tell you what we’re doing today to try to get Caltrans to fix dangerous mistakes in the installation.
To back up a bit, here’s how I explained the project in 2012: “The rumble strips will go in on an 11-mile stretch of Highway 1, starting in Santa Cruz and continuing north up the coast to Davenport. They say it’s to prevent head-on car crashes and drivers going off the road.
“Safety measures are all well and good, but there’s nothing safe about rumble strips for cyclists. This chunk of Highway 1 is among the most famous, most ridden and most celebrated cycling routes anywhere. It’s a key part of Adventure Cycling’s Pacific Coast Bicycle Trail, which runs the length of the west coast and has existed since the 1970s. I bet some of you have ridden this idyllic road. It’s actually how I ‘discovered’ Santa Cruz at the end of my cross-country tour.
“If you haven’t ridden here, you’ve probably seen it on TV, because it’s been used several times for stages in the Tour of California. Plus, it’s traveled by the Arthritis Foundation’s California Coast Classic that RBR publisher John Marsh wrote so glowingly about last year. And, it’s also the route of the super-popular and longtime California Aids Rides, and many other popular cycling events and triathlons.”
A great road ruined
In case you’ve never experienced these miserable wheel-wrecking,tire-puncturing road ruiners, rumble strips come in many nasty varieties, but all consist of deep horizontal grooves (or sometimes raised bumps like mini speed bumps) tightly spaced and continuous on the centerline and/or shoulders of the road.
On the shoulders they are typically placed inside the white line reducing the available shoulder width for cycling (already shrunk in Santa Cruz from erosion and pavement damage caused by steady wind and the harsh ocean climate).
Designed for drivers
Rumble strips were designed in the 1950s as a safety measure to alert inattentive drivers that they are crossing the center of the road or drifting off the sides of it. When a car tire rolls over the strip it gets violently shaken by the deep grooves and makes a loud buzzing noise, startling and alerting the driver to veer back into their lane.
According to Wikipedia, rumble strips were first installed on New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway. You can see how a restricted-use parkway or highway, like an interstate, might be a good use for them. But Highway 1 is anything but highway-like. It’s actually mostly a 2-lane country road with farms, surfing spots, shoulder parking, multiple pull-outs, popular public beaches, scenic spots, and cyclists, pedestrians, surfers and even equestrians frequently sharing the shoulders.
Plus, the stats we rounded up researching this issue indicate that rumble strips would hardly have an impact on preventing the very few head-ons and run-off-the-road crashes. In contrast, simply lowering speed limits or increasing police patrols would help more and have no negative impact on other road users.
So how’d Caltrans do?
Before the rumble strips were installed, local cyclists had several chances to meet with Caltrans to recommend measures to keep the strips away from riders by installing them only where the road is wide enough and only where they would not endanger cyclists.
The good news is that Caltrans listened and for most of the project, provided approximately 5-foot shoulders, even widening them in a few places. Also, the rumble strips actually only cover about a 4.5-mile stretch, not the full 11 miles initially proposed.
The bad news is that in multiple places, the strips were installed where they shouldn’t be. For example, in areas where there are passing lanes. Here, because of the extra lane, the shoulders can be less than 4 feet in places. Plus, traffic speeds are the highest and there are guardrails that lean in toward cyclists. This is an awful place for rumble strips. You feel like you’re threading the needle with the guardrail threatening you on the right and the rumble strips trying to suck you into peril on the left.
The other dangerous installations are where the coastal climate is crumbling the dirt next to the road and narrowing the shoulder down to less than 3 feet. There are only a few of these, but it’s another crazy place to install one more hazard.
What we’ve asking
To address these issues, myself and other members of Santa Cruz County’s Community Traffic Safety Coalition and Regional Bike Committee have asked Caltrans (copying the Santa Cruz County Supervisor), to please repair or remove the dangerous rumble strip sections.
We suggested that where there’s dirt on the road, that the shoulder be widened or the strips be removed. For the passing lanes, we reminded them that there’s supposed to be 5 feet of shoulder and we measured the road to show them that it’s too narrow in places.
We asked them to move the rumble strip, remove the guard rail and widen the shoulder or remove the rumble strips. We’re hoping they can do this, but we’ll have to wait and see.
If you ride this stretch
If you come here to enjoy this beautiful road, what you need to know now is to expect rumble strips on the shoulder and to avoid them. You can ride over them but if you’re not expecting them, you’ll get shaken, could lose control of your bike and crash or much worse, swerve into traffic.
What I’ve noticed so far is that some of the many RVs/motorhomes that frequent the coast (often driven by retired folks) are now afraid to drive on the center rumble strips to move over and pass cyclists safely. The rumble strips shake their rigs so much, they’re simply not going to drive over them. So, when riding here, you’ll want to use all your senses and beware wide vehicles like this passing too closely.
I also experienced one new hazard that never occurred to me and was never brought up in anything we read or learned about rumble strips when we tried to stop this project. Last week, while riding out there, a safe driver moved onto the center rumbles to give me more room, which I always appreciate.
As he passed, I saw a shiny speeding disc keeping right up and realized that the rumble strip had shaken the hubcap off one of his wheels and it was now rocketing down the road ready to hit something or someone. Luckily, it veered away from me, but it didn’t make me feel any better about rumble strips.
In sad yet predictable news, I just learned that Caltrans now plans to install rumble strips on California’s Highway 9, which is potentially – depending on location – an even more inappropriate and dangerous place for them for cyclists, because it’s a winding, steep-in-places mountain road – even less of a highway than Highway 1 is. Caltrans will present the details at the October 19 Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Bike Committee meeting from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Everyone is welcome to attend the meeting and/or submit comments.
To end on a more positive note, with the rapid advances in car technology, it’s likely that within 20 years Caltrans will be forced to repair all the roads they’ve ruined with rumble strips. It’s the wrong “tool” for what they think they’re fixing. Let’s just hope that Caltrans is forced to stop ruining roads sooner rather than later and that no cyclists die as a result of their negligence in the meantime.
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim’s full bio.