Santa Cruz railroad trestle bridge
The railroad trestle bridge over the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz has a walkway along the bridge that was originally built for railroad worker access. Over time, this became a popular public access between the Boardwalk and East Cliff Drive. The city of Santa Cruz and Union Pacific Railroad now permit public access on this walkway.
In 2004, Eric Lindsay was a testing engineer for Santa Cruz Bicycles. He had drank a few beers when he and his girlfriend headed home from his work. While his girlfriend Victoria opted to take the walkway, Eric rode his bike in the middle of the night across the railroad trestle instead of the walkway. He lost control, fell 20 feet to the concrete pylons below, spent nine days in a coma and woke up as a paraplegic.
Lindsay filed suit a year later against the City of Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Seaside Company (which owns property adjoining the bridge) and Union Pacific Railroad (which owns the bridge). The trial court granted the defendants summary judgement. Lindley appealed and lost again.
One of Lindsley’s arguments was that because the railroad and the city didn’t enforce railroad trespassing rules and because he and hundreds of other cyclists and pedestrians cross the trestle on a daily basis, the railroad tacitly approves that use of their bridge and implies that the bridge is safe for that type of use.
I’m glad the courts rejected that argument — if the court ruled that railroads and other private property owners have a duty to keep their properties safe for trespassers, I foresee more trespassing prosecutions. In Santa Cruz County, the railroad rights of way are among the more popular cycling and walking paths. I use them myself on occasion. They’re reasonably safe — trains operate on a regular schedule, they go very slowly, and the engineers know to look out for people near the tracks — but the rail line is not intended for bike use and there are some inherent dangers and you need to be aware.
In the case of the trestle bridge, the no trespassing signs are very obvious and a walkway is provided along the side of the bridge. If the court ruled that the railroad or the city are obligated to restrict access to the bridge, the only way that could be accomplished is by blocking off the walkway as well — walkers and bikers must cross the tracks to get to the walkway.
Lindsley, incidentally, has moved on with his life — he now designs and rides gravity powered quadracycles on Santa Cruz county trails.
Los Gatos parking and “shared space”
Cole is going after the town of Los Gatos for damages. She and her lawyer allege the parking strip alongside a busy road is inherently dangerous. Cole’s attorney Mike Kelly says “Look at the parking. The vehicles are almost in the flow of traffic. They should hand everyone an orange vest.”
I’m a fan of Hans Monderman’s Shared Space approach to traffic engineering. The idea is that “intrigue and uncertainty” are more effective than posted signs and regulations at slowing traffic and making conditions safer and smoother for all users of the roadway.
Making the road and parking lot safe enough for drunk drivers makes it, paradoxically, more dangerous overall. In my time serving on a city transportation advisory board, the biggest hurdle to implementing any kind of real change was fear of lawsuits just like Ms. Cole’s. Everybody wants barricades to absolutely remove any chance of any encounter with wayward motorists, but the “safer” we make roads and vehicles, the more dangerous they become to the more vulnerable road users, cyclists and pedestrians in particular.
Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic goes into quite a bit of detail on “Shared Space” and other fascinating stuff about the psychology and sociology of traffic if you want to learn more.
What about true hazards?
I’m glad for the system we have where individuals and public entities are held responsible when there are real hazards. I think Iowa went overboard with the restrictions they placed on organized bike rides in the wake of Kirk Ullrich settlement. Bike riders are users of the road, and roads and other facilities intended for public use should be built and maintained to safely accommodate cyclists.