For the past few months, I’ve been part of a Newport Beach city committee looking at how to make the Balboa Boardwalk safer for the many different people who use it, ranging from those on bicycles, to pedestrians, to people using Segways and considering the habits of out-of-town tourists versus local residents.
I consider the boardwalk to be a Newport Beach treasure. It’s a large sidewalk that stretches for about three miles, covering just over half the Balboa Peninsula, as highlighted on this map:
Hundreds of people make use of it each day for such purposes as:
- Leisurely walking strolls
- Leisurely bike rides
- Bicycling for exercise
- Inline skating (Rollerblading)
- Getting to Newport Beach Elementary school
- Walking dogs
So many uses — so many different means of transport — and with houses fronting nearly the entire stretch, as well as beachgoers crossing over, there are many safety concerns. These have culminated in changes from time to time. Last year, out of a new surge in concerns (see What Future For The Balboa Boardwalk?), the committee I’m part of was formed, to explore possible solutions.
Below, I’ll cover issues the boardwalk has, plus what’s been recommended and enacted so far. Hopefully those who live in or come to Newport will find it interesting. I hope it also helps other beach communities with similar boardwalks that may be considering their own changes. As I’ll explain, Newport’s not alone in its struggle, but there seems to be no statewide consensus on “best practices” for boardwalks of this type.
I’m part of the “Oceanfront Safety Steering Committee,” which is made up of local residents and business owners. Specifically, we are:
- Mike Henn, committee chair & our local councilperson
- Dorothy Beek, an oceanfront resident
- Dale Head, a local business owner
- Laura Keane, a resident and representing the Central Newport Beach Community Association
- Bill Mais, an oceanfront resident
- Joe Reiss, a peninsula resident
- Danny Sullivan, a peninsula resident
We’ve also has city representatives regularly taking part, including Newport Beach police Captain Dale Johnson, Brad Sommers of Public Works and city public information manager Tara Finnigan.
At the end of April, we issued an initial report to the city with our findings, which you can read here.
We’re hardly united in our specific views. Some would like to see no bicycles on the boardwalk. Some would like to see skateboards allowed again. But I have to say, being on the committee has been an education about understanding consensus and compromise and trying to come up with solutions for the common good. Not that there have been any huge fights! Instead, various issues have been examined, and then the committee has made recommendations that we’re all largely behind, because the seem to make the most sense.
Onward to the issues.
How could pedestrians be an issue? As someone who rarely walks on the boardwalk (I either rollerblade or bike), I can assure you, they are (see some comments here, as well). The boardwalk is a multi-use pathway. That means it is shared by pedestrians and those on wheels alike. Pedestrians are an issue primarily when they fail to be aware of their surroundings. They often:
- Walk against opposing traffic
- Walk dogs on long leashes, where the dogs cross into opposing traffic
- Walk onto the boardwalk without looking for traffic
Opposing traffic? The boardwalk is divided in two, like a roadway. Traffic (pedestrians & bicyclists alike) move in opposite direction, each direction staying to the right:
Now consider this picture:
Just before I shot it, as I approached when skating, the brown dog at the front was actually sniffing along the walls on the left side of the boardwalk. That mean the leash stretched across the entire area that I (or anyone else) needed to go in order to pass this group.
Or consider this picture:
Here, a woman is walking against traffic. There’s a small girl out in the sand playing — this is probably a mother and daughter, and you can understand her naturally wanting to stay close to her child. But it also poses a conflict to anyone approaching. Is she going to move into the sand? Will she suddenly look up, see you coming and decide to move in your path? And while in this picture the boardwalk is fairly empty, it’s not uncommon at all to have it be fairly crowded with groups of people walking the wrong way.
Then there’s this picture:
Here, three pedestrians take up the entire boardwalk — and this is at a section where the boardwalk is at its widest.
Just like pedestrians, bicyclists can also go the wrong way or take up the entire boardwalk by riding side-by-side. However, the biggest issue of concern is that of speed.
Some people on racing bikes and speed down the boardwalk, posing a hazard to pedestrians and other bicyclists. Even at slow speeds, there’s still a problem that you have many small children who can suddenly dart from behind patio walls.
OK, I know the picture is at an angle, but hopefully you’ll see what I mean to illustrate. Most of the homes along the boardwalk have patio walls with small gates. Small children often can’t be seen behind these walls until they step out onto the boardwalk — and then, hopefully, you’ve stopped in time.
The same is true when you come to where streets meet the boardwalk. Kids come off of these streets, often running in excitement to reach the beach, and they’re hidden from view until it’s almost too late. Any parent who regularly takes their kids to the peninsula will warn them to look out. But kids will be kids — they aren’t going to look, making high speeds on bikes so very dangerous.
Powered vehicles of any type are not allowed on the boardwalk, with the exception of personal mobility devices (such wheelchairs). So what’s up with Segways? Technically, a Segway rider is classified (I believe) under state law as a pedestrian.
That’s still not gone down well with some residents, who view the Segways as too big or too powerful for the boardwalk. It’s especially a concern when you have groups of many Segway riders all in a row:
They’re seen by some as taking up too much space to get around or, if they’re going around someone, creating conflicts.
If you’ve been to Newport, you’ve probably seen surreys, even if you don’t know that’s what they’re called. They’re like four wheeled bikes that can fit four, six or eight passengers:
Surreys have apparently been banned from the boardwalk for years. That hasn’t stopped people renting them from taking them out on it. Objections range from surreys being too heavy (if they hit someone, potentially they’ll cause more injury than a bike), to them taking up too much space (especially on a crowded weekend, they can clog traffic), to them being a magnet for people who get out of control (it’s not uncommon to see them overloaded with people with people who’ve had too much to drink).
Rollerbladers & Inline Skaters
This is me! And fortunately, there haven’t been too many rollerblading concerns voiced. Some rollerbladers can go to fast (mmm, that’s probably me, but I watch it more now).
Skateboards & Scooters
Banned from the boardwalk for ages, the concern here is that skateboarders might lose control of their skateboards either when skating along or if doing tricks.
Unlike skateboards, scooters like Razor scooters are allowed — but not if they are powered.
Powered Vehicles (Electric Bikes, Scooters, etc.)
Powered vehicles, as I’ve noted, are banned from the boardwalk unless they are Segways or personal mobility devices. Despite this, you’ll still see everything from powered motor scooters to an increasing amount of electric bikes. Concerns about being on the boardwalk primarily come down to speed. But some of the electric bikes also can be quite heavy, thus increasing the potential of injury. FYI, electric bikes are banned even if you don’t use their motors. If they’re capable of being powered, they can’t be taken onto the boardwalk.
Those are the primary issues facing the boardwalk. How do you improve things? Everything from widening the boardwalk to separating bikes from pedestrians has been considered. The committee has taken a go slow, incremental approach to fixes. Rather than expensive reconstruction, can things be made safer by changing habits and enforcing existing laws?
The first solution has been to schedule a series of “saturation patrol enforcement events,” where the police and volunteer police explorers are out in force, to remind everyone of the rules. The first was held at the end of May. The second was supposed to have happened last weekend, though I didn’t see much presence when I went out in the morning. Two more events will happen during the summer.
During the events, you had flyers being distributed at various points along the boardwalk:
People were also instructed to walk their bikes in the McFadden Square “walk zone.” And, there were these high-tech speed reminders:
That’s right — radar units measuring the speed of bikes. And of rollerbladers, if they have any amount of metal (like a phone) that can reflect radar (they worked on me).
Overall, I and the other committee members felt the first event went well. People did seem to go a bit slower in the following weeks. There were fewer surreys out on the boardwalk. After years of no enforcement, it seemed an appropriate ramp up to raise awareness (the police didn’t give out tickets, though they could have, since this was an initial “reminder” event).
Aside from the saturation events, the police are supposed to have bike teams out on the boardwalk with more frequency. There’s also a nighttime enforcement event in the works to deter drinking and biking. From 10pm onwards on a weekend, it’s not uncommon to find people spilling out of bars, onto bikes and then onto the boardwalk as they fall over unable to bike. By the way, my understanding is that the legal limit for drunk biking is much lower than for driving a car.
Those radar units I mentioned? They’ve continued being put out on the boardwalk in various locations outside of enforcement events. The main downside to them is occasionally you get the opposite effect — some people speed up to see how fast they can go. The committee recognizes this, but the consensus is that they’re doing more good overall.
Could you really get a ticket for exceeding the 8 mph speed limit on the boardwalk? No, to my understanding. The actual speed limit itself is apparently unenforceable. Your bike’s not equipped with speedometer, for one thing — no law requires this.
Don’t take that as carte blanche to ignore the signs. You can get a ticket instead for “unsafe operation,” which can be a police officer deciding you’re going too fast for the conditions. That could mean going too fast even under the 8 mph posted limit.
Personally, I’d rather see the 8 mph signs scrapped and this “basic speed law” put in place as a warning. On a quiet evening, allowing bikes and skaters to go faster seems safe. The conditions allow it. But the signs probably do serve as a good deterrent for unsafe speed overall.
Crackdown On Surreys
A consequence of the first enforcement action was a sudden drop in people who were willing to rent surreys and take them out on the boardwalk. As I’ve said, they’ve been banned for years. Some surreys even have signs in the surreys themselves saying this:
With business down, shops renting the surreys have been lobbying for them want them to be allowed back on. The Daily Pilot has a good article on the upset and business loss, with a follow-up commentary from committee member and surrey shop owner Dale Head here. Head also maintains a petition in his shop for those who want the ban lifted.
Another shop owner, Debbie Rodgers of Balboa Bikes N Beach Stuff (no site, but Google Maps listing here) came to a committee meeting two weeks ago with pretty heartwrenching plea for the ban to be reversed, because of the impact it’s having on her business during her busiest period.
Personally, I’d like to see a way for a small number of surreys at a time to be accommodated. I think it’s nice that people from out of town (those who almost exclusively rent the surreys) can use the vehicles. Not everyone can ride a bike, and it does look like a lot of fun to take something like this out along the sand. Limit the numbers, and perhaps you eliminate the congestion issue that happens when there are many of them on the boardwalk all at once. There are also different size surreys. The smaller four-seater ones have less opposition from the committee, overall.
Still, I can’t see how these can be allowed to operate during busy weekend or holiday periods. Frankly, there’s sometimes barely enough room for the bikes and pedestrians already out there:
That picture above isn’t even showing the boardwalk at its worst on a busy weekend, trust me.
It’s also not in the committee’s power to reverse the ban. That’s a city law — it’s the city council that would have to reverse it. The committee simply recommended that there be better enforcement of the existing laws. Even if enforcement hadn’t been stepped up, anyone renting the surreys was always at risk of getting a ticket. And as Capt. Johnson explained at the last meeting, the police can’t say they won’t enforce a particular law.
Hopefully, the owners will find alternative routes for those wanting to rent surreys to take. Apparently, many are now taking streets and alleys down further on the Balboa Peninsula to its point and the famed “Wedge” bodysurfing spot. In turn, that has Peninsula Point residents unhappy. Of course, they also don’t deal with what those further up from the point face — a boardwalk directly in front of their property.
Crackdown On Motorized Bikes & Scooters
As I said, there’s been an increase in motorized bikes, scooters and other motorized devices on the boardwalk — and more places locally appearing to rent these. As with surreys, there’s already a ban against motorized vehicles on the boardwalk. Use them, and it’s increasingly likely you’ll get a ticket. Build a business around them, and its increasingly likely you’ll run into the problem surrey shop owners are currently facing.
The Segway Exception
As I said, Segways are allowed. To boot them from the boardwalk, the city would have to pass a local ordinance.
Personally, I think it’s incredibly confusing that they are allowed. Why on earth would you think an electric bike shouldn’t be allowed if you’re seeing electric Segways scooting up and down the boardwalk?
The local Segway shop has done an excellent job of lobbying that they shouldn’t be banned. Problems, we’re told, are due mostly to out-of-town tour groups that come into the city. The local shop says it runs carefully controlled tours. And during a city study session that was held, about three or four local residents that own Segways also spoke against any possible ban.
Right now, the committee recommendation is for the city to explore requiring any Segway tours on the boardwalk to have a city business license and perhaps agree to certain safety considerations. That seems a reasonable next step. Still, I remain concerned that allowing them sends the wrong signal. But I’m waiting to see how some new signage that’s coming might change things. Ultimately, the Segways could find themselves banned, too.
Objections to the vehicles above being on the boardwalk tend to center around the size or weight of them. That produces counter arguments. Segways are smaller in some ways than bikes allowed on the boardwalk. A surrey can take up as much room as two bike riding side-by-side, and that’s not banned.
And what about things like these:
The first is a pretty awesome non-electric bike, but it’s pretty heavy. Should that be banned? The second is a seated bike that takes up plenty of space like a surrey. But that’s allowed? And what about people towing trailers with kids? Should those go?
Certainly some consistency in why some vehicles are allowed and some are banned would make sense — and that’s a tough job when there are so many different types of unpowered vehicles out there. But this is a topic the committee has yet to tackle.
As I said, they’ve long been banned. I’d like to see that lifted. I’d rather see skateboard tricks banned, but not skateboards used for transportation. I regularly see both kids and adults using skateboards as a means from going between Point A and Point B. Sometimes they’re carrying groceries, body boards or surfboards — not things you’d expect from those trying to do tricks. But I don’t have a good argument against the situation that a board could go out of control and perhaps run into someone or under a bike, other than that anything can go out of control.
Immediate Structural Changes
So far, I’ve covered issues with vehicles. How about changes to the boardwalk itself. Some are being tested; some have been considered but would require more money and significant changes.
The boardwalk has existing signs with the posted speed limit and vehicles not allowed. These will likely be upgraded, especially to somehow note that Segways are an exception to the powered vehicle ban. Meanwhile, new “message” signs like these examples are being considered:
NOTE: The signs have now been installed. See Newport Beach Boardwalks Gets “Slow Down,” “Share The Path” & “Beach Crossings” Safety Signs.
Currently between 8th and 9th streets (this is marked on the map), new striping is being tested. Instead of a dashed yellow line, a solid one has been painted:
Does this mean you can’t pass someone? No. On a regular road, you can’t cross a solid yellow line like this. On the boardwalk, the lines don’t have a legal meaning.
The new striping isn’t meant to preventing passing movements. Instead, it’s designed to discourage some people from swerving through the dashed lines as if they were a virtual slalom course. It’s also to see if it helps encourage people to stick to their side of the boardwalk when not passing.
At the street-side entrance to the boardwalk, there are also new yellow lines painted to warn pedestrians:
I don’t know how effective these really will be. It’s also being considered striping the entire area where streets intersect with the boardwalk, to highlight that many pedestrians will be crossing.
Long-Term Structural Changes
New signs and new striping can be done quickly and with little expense (less than $20,000, the report estimated). Beyond that, there are other changes that have been considered.
Widen The Boardwalk
From the report:
The committee reviewed the suggestion to slightly widen the boardwalk and agreed that a wider boardwalk does not equal a safer boardwalk. Many felt that it would encourage cyclists to go faster and pedestrians to spread out further. Public Works estimates that adding an additional two feet of width to the current boardwalk would cost approximately $1.5 million. Widening it by five feet would cost approximately $2.6 million. These estimates do not include the cost of additional street lights, underground conduit, etc.
I still think this will need to be considered. Perhaps the boardwalk can be widened between streets to have passing areas. That wouldn’t require the removal of light posts, though the merge back to a narrower path might cause conflicts. Still, it can get very crowded, and some widening might help without producing the “speedway” effect that some worry about.
Separate Bike Path
From the report:
The Police Department spoke to cities that have separate paths for bikes and pedestrians. Many report that the separation has created a new problem. They now have a raceway for bikes, unhindered by slow-moving pedestrians. In addition to this concern, the committee did not relish the idea of placing more concrete on the beach and staff believes the Coastal Commission will object to this idea as well.
I’d love to see this. But I’m not sure how well it would work. For one thing, check out LA Times columnist Steve Lopez’s article about the Santa Monica bike path (supposed to be here, but the wrong story currently loads. The Times tells me they’re fixing it, so read it here for now). Rather than the raceway issue, the bigger problem is pedestrians ignoring the bikes-only signs.
If a separate path were built in Newport, pedestrians would still have to cross it to reach the beach. A lot of engineering could be done to pipe them to particular crossing points — perhaps walls put up to prevent conflicts — and that’s likely more expense than it’s worth.
Speed Bumps Or Traffic Calming
From the report:
The committee considered “traffic calming” devices such as rippled concrete to slow down cyclists. Public Works could not find any devices that are currently used for this purpose and the idea raises safety concerns related to rollerblading, roller skating and pedestrians.
McFadden Square Walk Zone
At the base of Newport Beach Pier is McFadden Square, also known as McFadden Plaza. Officially this is a walk zone for bikes and skates (how skates are supposed to walk, I don’t know).
Yeah, I know the picture’s kind of funky. I moved my iPhone when shooting it. But you can see a painted sign on the ground saying no bikes, as well as the “Walk Bikes” sign. Despite this, people routinely bike through the area:
Perhaps the enforcement campaigns will help encourage obeying the walk zone. Personally, I wonder if “Walk When Crowded” signs would be a better solution. It’s pretty weird to walk your bike when there’s no one around, which is often the case outside the weekends. And since many people don’t, that gives the impression that you don’t have to walk at all. But maybe encouraging walking when it makes sense would get more compliances.
Parking Lot Madness
The boardwalk gets divided by the parking lot at Newport Beach Pier. Bicyclists get deliberately routed like this:
Into traffic like this:
It’s terrible. Even worse, during the school year, is where kids are being routed as they ride to Newport Beach Elementary school. Hopefully the city will figure a dedicated path that allows bikes to continue on without having to dodge cars like this.
The Southern Stop Signs
At the sound end of the boardwalk (some saw the east end), there’s a series of four stop signs:
View Balboa Boardwalk & Safety Issues in a larger map
Personally, I’d like to see these removed for those on the boardwalk. Pedestrians, to my understanding, don’t have to obey them. They’re not motor vehicles. I’m not sure rollerbladers have to. Certainly neither group does. And if you’re a bicyclist, it’s odd to then be required to stop when others are already crossing and stopping traffic (if it’s there) for you.
But the signs represent some of the most dangerous spots on the boardwalk. That’s because cars often ignore the signs. If you’re not watching out, you could get hit. That’s why I’m hoping that speed bumps could be added either at the limit lines for these signs or just before, to slow cars down.
Extending The Boardwalk
Personally, I’d like to see the boardwalk be extended to run the length of the Balboa Peninsula. That’s a hot political potato. Those with houses not fronted by the boardwalk won’t want it coming through (even though the city still owns the right of way, to my knowledge).
In the north, I wonder if it could be extended in a compromise — not running it directly in front of homes but offset a few feet away, perhaps even further out where the beach gets wider.
There’s a safety aspect to this. The boardwalk ends at 36th Street:
The people get routed into Oceanfront Drive, like this:
You have two way bike traffic, with bikes on the right side (as in the picture directly above) then riding directly against car traffic to their right. And on the left, you cars backing out of garages only inches away from bicyclists — many of them kids. It’s not safe at all.
That’s it, my rundown on the current situation. I’d love to hear from others, so please, leave your comments below.