Merrimac Way is a four-lane divided road that primarily runs between Harbor Boulevard and Fairview Road in Costa Mesa, providing access to Orange Coast College, the Costa Mesa LDS Institute, the Sunset Cove Apartments, the Coast Apartments, Suburban Cadillac/Buick/GMC, and Aura (a new home development).
Merrimac Way has bike lanes on each side, and is the best way for many bicyclists to enter Orange Coast College. Merrimac Way has relatively little traffic on it (compared to nearby streets Adams, Fairview, and Harbor), and its bicycling infrastructure is better than the adjacent arterials as well. However, with that said, there are still many problems with cycling on Merrimac:
- The speed limit is 35 mph, which cars regularly exceed, making many bicyclists feel unsafe on the road. I frequently see people bicycling on the sidwalk.
- There are sixteen driveways on the street, many of which serve destinations that regularly have cars going in or out (e.g., Orange Coast College and the apartment buildings)
- Eight of the sixteen driveways are packed into the western 1,000 feet of the street.
- In the same 1,000 foot region where there are eight driveways, there is also parallel on-street parking to the right of the bike lane, exposing people on bicycles to the risk of opening car doors and cars pulling out into traffic.
- Cars and delivery trucks regularly double-park around the apartment buildings and car dealership, making that western-region of the street even more hazardous. In fact, had I not been aware of the risks of opening car doors I easily could have been hit by the opening door of a double-parked car in this location.
- The westernmost entry to Orange Coast College (next to the apartments) is blocked from the southern side of the road by a median, meaning that cyclists have to go well out of their way to enter the campus from the south-side of the street. This leads to many cyclists riding against traffic either in the street or on the sidewalk at the north-western edge of the street, which is quite dangerous.
- There is no marked crossing at all along the entire length of the street. This is especially problematic at the western entrance to Orange Coast College, where people walking can be frequently seen crossing without assistance (both faculty/staff/students going to/from campus and also employees of the car dealership who park on campus).
- The majority of the southern side of the street lacks a sidewalk (everywhere east of the LDS Institute).
- The bike lane at both the western and eastern ends is striped to the right of a dedicated right-turn lane, creating the hazardous condition of a bicyclist wanting to go straight while being positioned to the right of a turning car. Instead, the bike lane should be striped so that bicyclists are adjacent to or in the right-most lane that goes straight.
Demonstrating a solution
Costa Mesa’s new Active Transportation plan includes installation of a protected bike lane along Merrimac Way. To help explore what this would look like, the City of Costa Mesa applied for and received a SCAG Tactical Urbansim grant to fund installation of a temporary protected bike lane along Merrimac Way. The city formed an advisory committee to help them design the demonstration (including members of the Costa Mesa Bikeway and Walkability Committee; Orange Coast College students, staff, and faculty; city staff; Global Green; Studio 111; LANI; and SCAG).
The demonstration protected bike lane was installed April 18, in conjunction with Orange Coast College’s installation of their own demonstration campus cycling improvements for Green Coast Day, and left up for a month. The city held a community outreach event, which attracted hundreds of residents.
The demonstration was carried out by closing the right-hand lane of traffic in each direction for a portion of the length of the street. The closed-off lane was marked primarily with tall cones, but also indicated with spray chalk and painted plungers.
Good elements of the demonstration
The demonstration made a number of major changes, that dramatically improved bicycling on the street:
We went from a bike lane that was less than three feet wide, with nothing protecting cyclists from cars going more than 40mph just inches to their left:
to creating a protected bike lane more than five feet wide, with a five foot buffer between the edge of the lanes and cars:
Which street would you rather ride on? Which street would you rather have kids ride on?
They also put green “conflict zone” striping along the demonstration bike lane at each driveway, to help alert drivers to the presence of a bike lane passing through.
The western entrance to Merrimac (at Fairview) was excellently done, with cones and signs directing cars into a single lane at the start of the street, helping bicyclists feel safe as soon as they entered the street.
Reducing the traffic to one lane dramatically reduced the speed of vehicles, making it safer for everyone and easier for people on bicycles and on foot to cross the street without worry.
The combination of all of these changes: a wider bike lane, protection for the bike lane, conflict zone striping, and slower car speeds made the areas of the demonstration dramatically safer and more welcoming to people on bicycles, skateboards, and on foot.
Bad elements of the demonstration
But all was not as it could have been. Here is the diagram of the demonstration again, which will help illustrate some of the problems:
The protected bike lane on the southbound side didn’t start until more than a thousand feet from the Harbor Boulevard intersection. This is the very part of the street where bicyclists must pass by multiple bays of parallel on-street parking, five driveways, areas where double-parked vehicles are commonplace, and the region where cars are merging onto the street from Harbor. This is easily the most hazardous part of the street, and the demonstration did nothing to help cyclists in this area.
As an example, here’s what this part of the street looked like during the demonstration:
And yes, that is a car carrier parked so as to block both the bike lane and right-most lane of traffic (a relatively common sight along this stretch, thanks to the car dealership, despite bicyclists frequently reporting this illegal parking to Costa Mesa Police).
The protected bike lane on the southbound side abandoned cyclists hundreds of feet before Fairview Road, leaving people on bikes to fend for themselves. And, even worse, the people on bikes were positioned to the right of the right-most turn lane (where the existing bike lane travels as well), a dangerous situation.
The protected bike lane on the northbound side of Merrimac also abandoned cyclists hundreds of feet before the intersection, this time leaving people on bikes to the right of two right-turn lanes.
The protected bike lanes did not stop people from double parking in the bike lane and blocking it, even in the areas where the demonstration was in place. See, for example:
There was no protection from parked cars, which pose risks both through opening doors and vehicles pulling out into traffic, for much of the demonstration (and even in the one location, pictured above, where there was some assistance, cars still had to pull through the bike lane to park or enter the street).
There were no marked locations for people on bikes or on foot to cross Merrimac for the entire length of the street, meaning that many people were still crossing mid-street without assistance. While crossing mid-street was and easier due to only having to cross two lanes of traffic, and those two lanes containing cars moving at slower speeds, these people still needed support.
The western-most entrance of Orange Coast College was still inaccessible by bike from the south side of the street, causing many cyclists to continue to ride against-traffic on the sidewalk (or street) on the north-west portion of Merrimac (though one can hardly blame the city for not jackhammering out a median for a month-long demonstration …).
The turns for cars to enter and exit the parking lots were tight, causing cars to have to take the turns at very slow speeds, not be able to make a U-turn on the street, and sometimes hit the cones.
Summary of the demonstration
In summary, the demonstration showed how powerful a protected bike lane can be: in the areas where the demonstration was in place, it turned a street that is stressful even for experienced bicyclists to ride on into a pleasant place to ride a bike, and even a place where kids might be encouraged to ride. However, the lack of support eastbound at Harbor Boulevard, the lack of support heading into each major intersection, the lack of crossing assistance along the street, and the lack of ability to enter the western-most entrance of Orange Coast College from the southern side, lead to the demonstration falling far short of its goal of dramatically increasing the safety of cycling on the street.
To implement a protected bike along along Merrimac Way that actually makes bicycling safer and more attractive, the city should:
- Ensure that cyclists can travel both directions along Merrimac Way protected from vehicular traffic.
- Extend this protected cycling infrastructure through to the end of the street at each intersection – starting the protected bike lane at the start of the street (like was done at Fairview), and ending it by positioning cyclists in the proper area for them to go to their destination (e.g., striping the bike lane through the intersection, positioning it so bicyclists can safely go straight if they desire).
- Add protected crossings along the street. At the minimum there needs to be one at the western-most edge of Orange Coast College..
- Prevent vehicles from parking in the protected bike lane, be they delivery trucks or cars.
- Plan for, or eliminate the need for, cars to make U-turns on the street.
- Iocate the bike lane so that it is not to the left of parked cars, to prevent opening car doors from knocking cyclists into traffic and to prevent cars from having to travel through the bike lane to park.
A look at a few possible designs for the permanent installation
I sincerely hope that the city is able to fund a permanent protected bike lane along Merrimac Way. Doing so would make bicycling (and walking) to Orange Coast College (and the other destinations on the street) dramatically more appealing and safer, which should reduce traffic, increase property values, make parking easier, and increase the sense of community in the region.
The street has a fairly wide median on it for most of its length; removing a lane of traffic in each direction and reducing the width of this median (and/or moving the median towards the south) should allow for protected bike lanes while maintaining parking and other amenities.
Specifically relating to parking, it’s possible to put bike lanes to the right of parked cars (lowering the risk of people on bicycles being hit by an opening car door, and eliminating the need for parking cars to travel through the bike lane), which could be a good option on this street and potentially allow for an increase in on-street parking. Also, creating a dual-direction protected bike lane on the northern side of the street (see third option, below) would allow the south-side parking to remain relatively unaffected (and possibly dramatically improved). It’s my sincere hope that installing a protected bike lane on the street will increase the parking available to the residents of the street, not reduce it.
Uni-direction protected bike lanes on each side
Probably the simplest design would be to create single-direction protected bike lanes on each side of the street, adding in a protected crosswalk at the western edge of OCC. This would be relatively easy to implement, people on bikes would always be traveling with the flow of traffic (assuming they follow the signage), and a protected crossing at the western end of OCC should help pedestrians and bicyclists safely cross at that location. However, this would require frequent crossing of the street (people on bikes would need to be able to get from OCC to the south side of the street at multiple locations), and bicyclists coming from the Tanager Trail may still be tempted to ride against traffic on the north-west side of the street (since the trail drops them off on the north side of the street).
Uni-direction protected bike lanes on each side, with a brief dual-direction portion
The largest problem with the first design (above) is that bicyclists coming in from Harbor, especially from the Tanager Trail, may be tempted to ride against traffic on the north side of the street to enter Orange Coast College (as they frequently do with the present layout). A possible solution is to create a dual-direction protected bike lane (or off-street mutli-use trail) on the north side of the street between Harbor and the western entrance of Orange Coast College. This would still be relatively easy to implement, people on bikes could take the shortest route to get to OCC from Harbor, and people on bikes would typically be traveling with the flow of traffic (assuming they follow the signage). However, the dual-direction bike lane would have bicyclists crossing two or three driveways while traveling against the flow of traffic, a possibly hazardous arrangement that would need good signage and markings to make safe. As with the first design, this design would still require frequent crossings of the street by bicyclists coming to/from OCC.
Dual-direction protected bike lane on the north side
A possibly exciting solution is to construct a dual-direction protected bike lane (or off-street multi-use trail) extending along the entire length of the north-side of the street. As this is the side of the street that most users are traveling to (the housing development, some of the apartments, and all of Orange Coast College), this reduces the need for people on bicycles to cross the street, and also allows them to easily circumnavigate Orange Coast College in either direction. This would thus require fewer crossings of the street for cyclists, but would require extra support for bicyclists at each driveway, as there would always be cyclists traveling against the flow of traffic. The south side of the street could maintain its standard bike lane (hopefully with better positioning relative to parked cars), to assist those bicyclists traveling through this region of Costa Mesa to other areas.
The demonstration protected bike lane on Merrimac Way illustrated how powerful a protected bike lane can be, while simultaneously illustrating the need to extend the support of the protected bike lane all the way to the ends of the street, the need to build crossings into the street, and making sure that parking and other vehicular needs are integrated into the final design.