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Mount Diablo is getting a special set of safety features to protect cyclists

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 7/23/2022 By Annie Vainshtein

Construction is finally under way on a $1.5 million state-funded project to improve bicycle safety along the narrow roadways that twist up Mount Diablo, but the project isn’t as extensive as originally hoped.

California State Parks began building 30 new bicycle turnouts last week on winding roads that lead up the 3,849-foot-high mountain in central Contra Costa County, which is a mecca for Bay Area hikers and cyclists. The turnouts will give a cyclist pedaling uphill room to move off the road to the right so motorists can pass safely without having to veer left into the oncoming lane.

Activists who have been pressuring the state said the new turnouts are the latest step in a too-long climb toward stemming a tragic lineage of collisions on the mountain.

State Parks said 17 collisions involving bicycles and motor vehicles have been investigated by staff since 2010, according to Eddie Guaracha, the Diablo Range district superintendent.

But Mount Diablo Cyclists, an advocacy group, said its own records — which include all incidents probed by the California Highway Patrol — show at least 36 such crashes on the mountain from 2010 to 2021. The number was compiled after public document requests to gain the state’s traffic collision and public safety reports and traffic records, the group said.

The cycling group, which has more than 1,600 members, said it not only pushed the park to implement the idea of bicycle turnouts starting several years ago — when, according to the group’s president, Alan Kalin of Danville, the idea was unique — but also designed them. As far as the group knows, Mount Diablo is the only park, at least in California, to have these kinds of turnouts.

State Parks officials said they expect the project to be completed within 90 days, in three phases. The first focuses on installing 13 turnouts on South Gate Road — one of the main entrances to the park — and will require the road’s closure on weekdays for approximately three weeks.

This new batch is in addition to 17 bicycle turnouts that were installed a few years ago. The initial ones have contributed to a significant decrease in collisions, Guaracha said.

For decades, Mount Diablo has been the unfortunate locus of collisions between drivers and bicyclists on the 26-mile pilgrimage to the top and back. Cyclists can number 150,000 a year, according to Mount Diablo Cyclists, which bases its estimate on public records and the group’s own video surveys over the years.

“Cyclists will tell you that about a third of the time that they go up there, they’re nearly hit by a car as they’re coming down,” said Kalin, who was hospitalized after colliding with a Tesla half a mile from Mount Diablo in April. “But this isn’t just about making it safe for cyclists,” he said. “Bike turnouts also reduce the animosity” between motorists and bikes.

Over the years, Kalin and other members of the group have filed public records requests to obtain traffic collision reports and used them to compile their own surveys to understand how and why so many collisions occur on the mountain.

The number of cyclists plying the mountain skyrocketed during the pandemic, when the nation saw unprecedented levels of bicycling, Kalin said.

The state Legislature approved $1.5 million a year ago for upward of 70 turnouts on the mountain.

“These turnouts will make road conditions on the mountain safer for motorists and cyclists alike,” said state Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, who spearheaded the passage.

But increased design and construction costs mean that the number of new turnouts has been scaled back to 30, according to Glazer’s chief of staff, Daniel Weintraub. Glazer plans to continue advocating for more.

“After a long and winding road to get here, I’m happy that construction of these turnouts has finally begun. I’m hoping that the park will schedule construction of the rest of them soon,” Glazer said.

Cyclists who know Mount Diablo well say the 30 new turnouts won’t cover all the dangerous blind spots. According to the association, 80% of all collisions on the mountain occur on or near blind curves, which number at least 300.

Still, cyclists say, one more bicycle turnout is better than none — and if more parks, cities, and counties adopt them, all the better.

“When you ride a bicycle and you’re hit by a car, that’s a life-changing experience,” Kalin said. In constructing turnouts, he said, “we have saved the life of someone that we’ll never know, and never meet.”

Annie Vainshtein (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @annievain


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