True grit: surviving the dangerously sand-covered beachfront bikeway

For months cyclists in Santa Monica and Venice have had to ride over a loose shifting surface of sand.

It is — or rather, should be — the crown jewel of the L.A. area bikeway network.

But the internationally famous 22-mile Marvin Bruade Bike Path, also known as the South Bay, Marina and Santa Monica bike paths, has its problems.

Like the section though Manhattan Beach where cyclists are expected to dismount and walk their bikes when the beach area is busy, or a similar restriction in Redondo Beach that’s enforced 24/7. Or the stretch through Hermosa Beach where bikes are expected to observe an 8 mph speed limit as they wind their way through assorted joggers, skaters and pedestrians.

Can you spot the bike in this bike-only section of the Marvin Braude Bike Path in Santa Monica?

And don’t get me started on the near impassibility of the bike path at prime times through sections of Venice and Santa Monica due to the total lack of enforcement of the bike-only restrictions — despite the promises made over a year ago to the Time’s Steve Lopez.

In fact, while it’s popular with casual cyclists, many more experienced riders — myself included — largely avoid it on weekends and summer afternoons. Personally, if I don’t get there well before noon, I usually opt for a less scenic but far more ridable alternative on the streets.

Like Yogi Berra once said, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”

This is what riders have had to deal with near the Venice boardwalk lately.

Lately, though, there’s been another problem, as the storms of the last few months have left a deposit of sand strewn across the bikeway that lingers to this day.

At first, sections of the path, particularly through the winding curves along Venice Beach, were unridable due to several inches of windblown sand piled high atop the concrete. Yet even now, weeks later, sand remains on major portions of the bikeway, presenting a significant safety hazard to anyone using the path.

Users crowd to the relatively clear portion, cutting the usable surface area to just a small band.

In many sections, it covers most or all of one side of the path, pushing riders, skaters and pedestrians moving in both directions onto a single side of the bike path, greatly increasing the risk of collisions. In other places, it coats the entire pathway with a thin veneer of loose sand, forcing cyclists to traverse a surface that can shift dangerously beneath them, risking a spill if they take a corner too quickly or misjudge an angle.

I’ve used my first aid kit more in the last few months patching up strangers who’ve wiped out on the sand than I have in the last few years.

A small band of sand can cause a bikes wheels to slide dangerously; many are barely visible.

Even more dangerous are the barely visible wisps of sand that spread across many of the path’s curves, threatening to take down any unsuspecting cyclist who happens to overlook such a seemingly insignificant obstacle as they take in the many sights of Venice.

I find myself breaking well before most curves, taking even relatively clear-looking corners slower than I would have earlier in the year on the off-chance that there may be a fine layer of sand I don’t see. But on a bike path frequented by tourists, not many riders have the local knowledge required to anticipate problems like that.

Loose sand makes traction treacherous, especially for narrow-tired bikes and inexperienced riders.

Which means that, sooner or later, you’re going to end up paying for the injuries suffered by a cyclist who looses control and takes a serious spill, or the pedestrian he or she slides into — assuming you’re not the one it happens to. Because even though the state law absolves local governments of any liability for off-road (Class 1) trails, it also requires adequate warning of known hazards.

And if two months worth of sand piled on the bike path isn’t a known hazard, I don’t know what is.

Santa Monica isn't much better; this was taken by the pier.

Of course, a beachfront bike path should imply the presence of sand. But the length and amount of sand, as well as the amount of time it’s been allowed to remain there, goes far beyond any reasonable expectation.

In the past, both the Santa Monica and L.A. sections of the bikeway were swept on a semi-regular basis to keep conditions like this from building up. But this year, budget cutbacks have apparently impacted cleaning operations, making any attempt to clear the path a rarity.

Several cyclists have fallen or crashed into pedestrians attempting to go around this curve.

And on the few occasions when they have tried to clean the sand off, the tool used has been a heavy industrial front loader, rather than the smaller and more efficient Bobcats, sweepers or even hand brooms that have been used in the past.

A front loader may be fine for moving a few tons of sand, but it’s entirely inadequate when it comes to removing the last few layers of sand that can make it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain traction. In fact, it can make the situation worse, as the thin layer of sand a front loader leaves behind is often more dangerous than the thicker layer that was there before.

It’s simply the wrong tool for the job. Like using a pipe wrench to adjust your spokes.

A front loader on its way to yet another attempt to inadequately clear sand off the bike path.

Last week, after riding through Venice, I emailed a city official to say that something had to be done before someone gets seriously hurt. The response I got back said that they were working on it, but having trouble determining exactly what department has jurisdiction for the path.

You’d think that would be an easy question to answer after years of previous maintenance. But maybe that’s the effect of several rounds of staff cutbacks, as the institutional knowledge required to actually run the city is seriously depleted along with its staffing levels.

Evidently, though, they must have figured something out. As I rode back along the path on Wednesday, I passed yet another front loader on the bike path, apparently on its way to another semi-effective attempt to clear the concrete.

You can see the sand left behind by a front loader; notice scrape mark and tire tracks.

I’m not holding my breath.

This weekend marks the busiest time of the year on our local beaches, as tourists and locals alike crowd their way onto a few feet of prime beachfront real estate, competing for space on a thin strand of overly popular concrete.

Will the bike path be ready for them — let alone safe?

I wouldn’t count on it. I also wouldn’t count on it being ready for riding anytime soon afterwards.

Because if they can’t manage to sweep off the sand left behind by a few storms, how are they going to clean up after a few hundred thousand beachgoers?

This is what cleaning with front loaders leaves behind, as shown by the scrape marks; a loose sandy surface that can easily bring a cyclist down.

23 comments

  1. Jim Lyle says:

    This has been a bad year for sand removal on the beach bike path. At least Manhattan Beach has cleaned its part after many weeks of neglect. South of Venice, all the way to Torrance Beach, the path is in pretty good shape, but this weekend’s pedestrian traffic will soon change that.

    What’s with the lack of enforcement of “bikes only” laws on the path? Why is it that bicylists get ticketed but pedestrians, dog walkers, roller skaters, skateboarders, nannys pusing strollers, et al., all ignoring BIKES ONLY signs, never do?

    My wife says, I need to remember half the people in the world are stupid; unfortunately, they are all walking on the bike path.

  2. t.e. says:

    why don’t they use a street sweeper? maybe without any water?

    • bikinginla says:

      Good question. A few years back I used to see a small street sweeper used to clean the bike path, just big enough to clear a little more than half the path while still leaving room for bikes to pass. Why it isn’t being used anymore, I have no idea.

      I’ve also seen people assigned to work crews by the courts sweep the path with hand brooms in years past, but haven’t seen that in ages. Again, I have no idea why they’re not taking advantage of the free labor to clear the path these days.

  3. Eric B says:

    Not only is the path recreational, it’s also my commute route. At least in the summer, there’s enough light left at the end of the day that I can see the wisps of sand. I remember taking the path before daylight savings kicked in and trying to distinguish the light-colored sand from the light-colored concrete with my narrow headlight beam.

    But, I have to give them some credit–it still seems the path is better maintained/swept than many roads in the area.

  4. Wendy Reed says:

    A couple of ideas … As to non-bike use, if enough bicyclists were using the bike path, others would be discouraged from using it, and enforcement would become more necessary. As to cleaning, why doesn’t the bicycle constituency work with the cities to get a grant for trail maintenance? Why don’t bicyclists volunteer weekly to sweep the path? My point is simply, why do people always expect someone else to do for them? Half of these bicyclists probably vote for officials preaching smaller government and less taxes. Well, there you go. Just saying.

    • Eric B says:

      “As to cleaning, why doesn’t the motorist constituency work with the cities to get a grant for road maintenance? Why don’t motorists volunteer weekly to sweep the road? My point is simply, why do people always expect someone else to do for them? Half of these motorists probably vote for officials preaching smaller government and less taxes. Well, there you go. Just saying.”

      When was the last time you voted to increase the gas tax? Your road maintenance is paid for through sales and property taxes by all people, not just drivers. Is it too much to ask that a transportation facility be maintained regularly to meet basic safety standards? Grants are fine for capital expenses, but operations needs to be a part of the regular budget. And seriously, your solution is to get out there with a broom?

    • “Why don’t bicyclists volunteer weekly to sweep the path?”

      Why don’t you volunteer to go work on the 405 expansion?

      • Wendy Reed says:

        @danceralamode Are you suggesting I should go get hit by a car? To be clear, I volunteer thousands of hours in my community, 100 miles from the subject bike trail, hence my suggestions. In most communities, users need to engage in the management these resources in one manner or another.

        • Wendy Reed says:

          *management OF these resources

        • No, I am not suggesting you get hit by a car. If I wanted to suggest that, I’d say it. What I am saying is that it’s ridiculous to suggest that bicyclists have the responsibility for the repair and maintenance of cycling facilities.

          Do motorists have to physically repave streets and fill potholes or better yet sweep the streets themselves? No, there is city paid street-sweeping for it. Do pedestrians have to phyically fix the cracks and breaks in the sidewalks? No, they don’t. Our tax dollars repair and maintain those facilities (driver’s license fees, registration fees, gas taxes, etc. do not fully cover it). Bicycle paths need to be kept free of hazards, especially now, when more and more people are commuting by bicycle. And cyclists should not have to carry a broom on their bike to make it so.

        • Eric B says:

          If we appear to be snarky, it’s because we are. But hopefully you’ve seen the double-standard surrounding bike facilities and bicyclists in general. Bicyclists are regularly told to go do something for themselves that is provided to just about every other mode.

          Our facilities are “amenities” that need to be funded by outside grants rather than part of routine transportation planning/construction.

          We should be responsible for paying for our own infrastructure despite the fact that no other mode comes close to being self-sustaining.

          Motorists want us off “their roads” and pedestrians (understandably) don’t want us on the sidewalk.

          Bicyclists pay taxes too, and we want our government to provide commensurate services. In fact, compared to our impact (fiscal and environmental), we are probably net donors to the government. In return, we’d simply like our few bike paths to be swept.

          Think about it this way: the presence of that bike path keeps my 4,000 pound SUV off PCH 4 days a week (80 miles). That’s got to be worth something.

          • Wendy Reed says:

            Well, my first suggestion was to work with the cities for a grant, simply because the tax situation is so bad right now, I didn’t think you would have success just asking for services. But if you help support the Cities’ grant application, then when city finances improve, and they see how useful and well used the paths are, the cities might keep up the work. You can take it or leave it, but if you attend conferences and study this stuff, you will find this is how things are done. They don’t yet understand the importance of bicycle transportation, but it is up and coming concerns, there is money available, and if your goal is to get the path maintained, that’s a way to get it done. I understand your feeling that it is not equal; it is not. But complaining won’t solve that. A grant will.

  5. ubrayj02 says:

    I grew up dealing with summertime crowds on this bike path, and this is nothing new. Once winter comes, the path clears out. There are always lost tourists walking shoulder to shoulder across the width of the path, but this isn’t a bike highway – it’s an attraction, a recreation facility, not a place for real transportation. The design of this path is so ridiculously winding and so poorly swept and cleaned that is cannot be anything other than a distraction.

    I think that a better bike path would be one that ran on Pacific Avenue between Marina Del Rey, Venice, and Santa Monica.

    Is there no local merchants group that can hire some of the young and indigent to sweep this path several times a day?

    On the Strand, the trashcans were always overflowing as well. This area gets more people than Disneyland ever year, and money is made selling cheap crap, food, parking. You’d think that there would be a concerted effort to see trash and sand put in its place with a small army of cleaners and sweepers.

  6. On March 20, this was the last stretch I rode on my double century. I was very tired, it was after 10pm at night, and I was on the strand from Redondo up to Mar Vista/Venice (don’t know exactly where I got on and off–I was REALLY tired). I wasn’t going more than about 15mph at that point, but it was sandy and curvy and I almost ate it a number of times (especially because I couldn’t really see the curves until I was on them and I couldn’t tell until I felt it under me that it was sand and not path). Now, I know that I was out there in the dark, and that was my own doing, blah, blah, blah, but from my experience in the dark, I can effectively say that the sand on the path is definitely a huge safety concern.

    I was on the path this weekend as I came down from Latigo Canyon, and, even though my riding partner and I were actually riding quite slowly (we were both really hurting so only going about 10mph), whenever we had to dodge a pedestrian or child running across the path, the sand on the path made it even more precarious. So, yes, the sand on the path is an issue.

    The question is, what do we do about it? Deluge city officials with complaints and requests to have the path cleaned up? Who’s the best person to call/email and request action?

  7. bikinginla says:

    Wendy, you actually have some good suggestions. As Eric pointed out, no other transportation group is expected to pitch in and maintain their own transportation network, but I have no problem reaching out to various organizations and governmental bodies to see if we can get some funding to maintain the path, if that’s what the problem is. And Ubrayj has a great suggestion of asking the local merchants to undertake maintenance. Maybe this is something the LACBC could look into.

    As for more bicyclists using the path to discourage other users, I only wish that were the case. This is already one of the country’s most popular bike paths, attracting cyclists of every type and ability level. But rather than displacing anyone, it simply crowds more and more people into the same space, some on two wheels, some on two feet, some skating and some one Segways, leading to the inevitable and entirely predictable conflicts. The only solution I can envision is to build a parallel pedestrian pathway, as they’ve done on other sections of the path.

    As for who is responsible, I just found out that L.A. County has responsibility for maintaining the bike path through Venice, as well as around the Marina. Whether they are also responsible for maintaining the path through Santa Monica as well is TBD. I’ll reach out to them after the holiday and see if we can get something done.

    • Steve F says:

      The County sweeps the path every thursday morning with street sweepers. Aside from some periods in the winter, they keep it pretty clean. I use the path every day and I’m perfectly happy with the County’s performance.

  8. Wendy Reed says:

    Yes, perhaps try Erica Yoshimoto at LACBC. She is new to LACBC and was amazingly supportive this year, traveling all the way up here for our Bicycle Ride Day. Also check out the Recreation Trails Nonmotorized grant program, maybe coordinate with your local trails council or conservancy. If you don’t get good response from County Parks, let me know, I know a couple of folks at Parks, but it might not be considered a Parks resource, rather a Maintenance resource, and that’s a whole different department. You might ask County Parks to ask a grant from the State Conservancy of the area (Santa Monica Mtns Conservancy?) or its Joint Powers Authority, the Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority. They have all the money, they shoudl give some to maintain the bike path, particularly if it is so well traveled. Heck, they should widen it into two or three sections, to accomodate the various users. Our nonprofit conservancy sponsored a year-long collaborative project with a variety of trails users and developed a Trails Policy, it is posted at http://avconservancy.org/AVC_Trail_Policy.pdf.

  9. This path is actually the only place in L.A. I’ve ever gotten injured on a bike. Thousands of miles of street riding, but it was hitting a pile of sand on a Taco Tuesday ride around midnight that caused a spill, a ruined pair of jeans and a cut that still has a scar. The real bummer was having to bike home on one good leg…

  10. ScottH says:

    Interesting input here (except one comment that suggested “bikes-only” compliance will come with more people using the path. In my experience, crowded stretches have more walkers, less-crowded stretches have fewer walkers – it has nothing to do with use.

    Here are some “I can’t believe I’m seeing this” moments: 1. Diaper-changing on the path, 2. People walking four-abreast on the bike path where the pedestrian walkway runs right alongside, 3. People who watch one direction when crossing, apparently clueless the bike path is two-way.

    Oh, and about the sand. I know they’re obnoxious but how about those leaf-blowers gardeners use? They’d blow that sand off in a second.

    • bikinginla says:

      Great idea about the leaf-blowers. A couple of maintenance workers should be able to clear the path in a few hours using one of those. My only question is whether it would just blow the sand back onto the path, but it would certainly be worth trying.

  11. ScottH says:

    Hey, now THERE’S a constructive response!

  12. Wendy Reed says:

    I think the leaf-blowers would work better than street sweepers. Passers-by might complain about the noise and scattered dust of the blowers, but they should work better.

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