Is it safe to walk or ride a bike in Claremont?

Data from the California Office of Traffic Safety has consistently ranked Claremont in the bottom 20% for pedestrian and bicycle safety compared to other cities similar size. Courier photo/Steven Felschundneff

by Steven Felschundneff |

Is Claremont the city of Trees, PhDs and unsafe streets? Data suggests it may be, but what exactly can be done to make our highways and byways safer for all?

According to the California Office of Traffic Safety, Claremont ranks in the bottom 20% of similar sized cities in a composite of all traffic deaths and injuries. The highest mark the city received was 23rd out of 94 cities in data from 2017, but its rank sunk every year after that until 2020, when it moved down to just 11th out of 91 cities.

The Office of Traffic Safety scoured public records to compile its rankings, which include the number of injury or fatal collisions, the city’s population, and the daily amount of vehicle miles traveled. It further broke down the findings into collisions involving motorcycles, bicycles, or pedestrians, as well as whether alcohol was a factor. Lastly, in the case of cyclists and walkers, incidents that involved youths age 15 and under were listed separately.

When it comes to walking or riding a bike, recent year’s numbers are particularly troubling. In 2018 Claremont experienced one crash in which a bicyclist was killed and 23 in which bicyclists were injured, earning the rank of the fourth most dangerous city with a population of  25,000 to 50,000. Five of those wrecks involved people under the age of 15, making Claremont the third most dangerous place for youth on bicycles.

In that same year, pedestrian safety in Claremont was much better, with 11 crashes and a rank near the middle at 42 out of 97 cities. Two of those walkers were youths, for whom Claremont was the 23rd most dangerous place.

In 2020 the data flipped and the city ranked pretty well for bicyclist injuries, with seven wrecks and a 30th ranking. However, 15 pedestrian accidents that year dropped Claremont down to the seventh most dangerous place for walkers.

Claremont Police Lieutenant Mike Ciszek said he is perplexed by the data from the state because it doesn’t jibe with the numbers recorded by his department. For example, in 2020 the Office of Traffic Safety reports 155 injury or fatal collisions in Claremont, but CPD figures show 109 injuries and five fatalities for that year. Ciszek also found it hard to believe that the 22 alcohol-involved collisions recorded in 2020 wasn’t fairly low for a city of our size, particularly given that the state ranked Claremont 80th out of 91 cities for DUI arrests.

A new advocacy group, Claremont Streets for People, aims to educate the public and encourage the city to address bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure shortfalls to make the city a safer place to get around by any mode of transportation, not just cars.

(L-R) Buff Brown, Ross Pringle and Paul Steinberg are part of a new advocacy group, Claremont Streets for People, that aims to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety in Claremont. Courier photo/Steven Felschundneff

The group has been out in force at recent Claremont City Council meetings, asking that the city hire a specialized planning and design firm to author a comprehensive master plan for pedestrian and bicycle users.

According to the California Highway Patrol, between 2011 and 2020 our city had 163 crashes among bicyclists and 113 involving pedestrians. Of those, there were three bicyclist fatalities and five pedestrians killed. It should be noted that one bicycle fatality was an intentional act for which the driver pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter.

Part of the safety problem may be that Claremont is a huge destination for cycling, so more bikes are on the roadways. Of the roughly 9,000 students at the Colleges 7,000 do not have cars and must get around by other means. As a result, more people ride a bike or walk for transportation.

“It seems there is a combination of high demand for cycling and low protection for cyclists,” said Paul Steinberg, Claremont Streets for People member and a Harvey Mudd College professor. “So that is speculation on my part about what combination of things leads to that outcome. What is not speculation is that it is one of the most dangerous places to ride a bicycle in the state of California, and there are proven solutions that reduce bicycle danger. So that research is very clear that when you create infrastructure that prioritizes the well-being of pedestrians, cyclists and children, that it is safer.”

In order for the streets to be truly safe experts say there needs to be a well thought out and interconnected series of thoroughfares that prioritize bicycling over cars. For many riders, major streets like Indian Hill and Foothill boulevards will never feel safe, so Claremont needs to create alternate ways for cyclists to traverse the city.

“We think infrastructure is not designed for biking, that’s what we are focusing our advocacy on,” said Buff Brown, who is also part of Claremont Streets for People.

What makes our streets dangerous is hard to pinpoint. Researchers believe it has more to do with the way streets are designed, which prioritizes motorists getting to their destinations quickly, rather than traffic enforcement, or even driver behavior.

According to research, the number one safety issue for people riding bikes is getting hit by a car, and the faster that vehicle is traveling, the greater the odds are that a collision will be fatal. Long, straight and wide streets practically invite drivers to speed, and getting them to slow down often involves creating obstacles that must be navigated. An example is creating a “diagonal divider,” which allows cyclists to go through an intersection, while forcing cars to make a right turn. Ideally, these traffic calming techniques would be used on smaller city streets, which would have the added benefit of reducing traffic speed for residents of the street.

The city is currently in the process of redesigning Mountain Avenue, which has been the focus of resident complaints about speeding and distracted drivers for years. The plan is to reduce the current four lanes of car traffic to three lanes, creating a median in the middle with dedicated left-hand turn pockets. Bicycle safety advocates would like to see it restricted to two lanes with a dedicated and separate bicycle lane, much like the one that was built recently along Foothill.

“The research shows that cities that have made these investments have reductions in fatalities and injuries, and Claremont Streets for People was formed out of a concern that Claremont is not doing what it needs to do to ensure the safety of kids and others who would like the option of traveling without a car,” Steinberg said.

Before the pandemic, Claremont police made visits to our schools to educate students on safety tips, including riding defensively, always making eye contact with motorists and wearing the proper clothing as well as a helmet.

Ciszek believes one of the biggest factors negatively impacting driver and cyclist safety is the distraction of texts and calls on cell phones. “Drivers need to be reminded to stay off their devices,” he said.

In 2019, researchers at the Claremont Colleges, including Steinberg, surveyed 450 Claremont adults to learn about cycling behavior. They found that 43% knew someone who had been injured while riding a bike in Claremont.

The survey found that 74% of men and 81% of women said they would like to ride bikes more often and that the number one reason these people do not ride a bicycle more was proximity to cars. According to the survey, topping the list of priorities were safe intersections, more bike lanes, better roads, and lighting.

“We believe these data lend a sense of urgency to the exciting prospect of making Claremont a leader in active transportation,” according to a statement from Claremont Streets for People. “This aspiration is widely shared in Claremont and citizens are becoming increasingly vocal; calls for greater bicycle safety have been shared in the public comment period at every city council meeting for the past three months.”


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