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December 2, 2022

Council Urges Action on Bike Path Bollards

Fatality prompts look at Foss Creek Trail obstacles

When Santa Rosa chef Rob Reyes died on Aug. 23 by colliding with a bollard along the West County Regional Trail in Graton, his friends, family and employees of the La Rosa restaurant he co-owned were shocked and even outraged that a “safety” feature could be fatal. So too were hundreds of local cyclists, the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition and City Council member (and vice mayor) Ariel Kelley.

The cause of death was given as blunt force trauma to his chest, according to the Sonoma County Coroner’s Office. At the Sept. 19 Healdsburg City Council meeting after the incident, Kelley said she uses the Foss Creek bike and pedestrian path daily, and asked that the city look into the safety issues surrounding bollards in town, in particular on the Foss Creek Trail.

Public Works Director and City Engineer Larry Zimmer undertook the “Use of Safety Bollards in Healdsburg” study, and had it prepared for discussion at the Nov. 7 meeting of the council. That meeting, however, was canceled by technical audio problems, and the topic was rescheduled for this past Monday’s council meeting, Nov. 21. 

Zimmer’s Public Works recommendation was surprising and straightforward: “Based on current Caltrans design standards, it is recommended that many of the bollards on the Foss Creek Pathway can and should be removed.” In most cases, only the center bollard needs to remain, said Zimmer, because bollards “make clear that vehicles are prohibited on the pathway, and prevent inadvertent entry. 

“Additionally, the center bollard will be a physical means of indicating to cyclists they are entering a street and encourage slowing down,” he continued. Yellow striping would be added to the trail 40 feet before the obstacle and surrounding the remaining bollard, which would be painted with reflective elements.

That solution drew qualified support from Eris Weaver, the executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition. In a letter to the council and public comment during Monday’s meeting, she cited the same authority Zimmer did, the California Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, but pointed out it recommends simple signage and redesigned path entry and other remedial measures before bollards are used. Their advice on bollards was that “Such devices should be used only where extreme problems are encountered.”

“Bollards should be the last resort; instead, we’ve stuck bollards everywhere as a first resort,” Weaver told the council on Monday. 

“There is no good data regarding the statistical risk of injury from colliding with a bollard versus the risk of being struck by a driver on a bike path,” she wrote in her earlier letter to the city. “Anecdotally, while I’ve heard many stories about cyclists colliding with bollards, I’ve not heard any locally about vehicles driving on paths.”

Though Weaver’s informed testimony was valuable, Zimmer’s obligation to run a public works department put less emphasis on immediacy and more on process. Still, her recommendations and his were not that far apart. Zimmer’s study suggested removing all but one bollard, in the center of the bike lane, in most locations where multiple bollards are currently in use. 

One single example where Zimmer favored leaving a bollard in place, at a footbridge over Foss Creek adjacent to Grove Street, drew the most attention in the meeting, possibly because the location is not far from the City Council Chambers and familiar to city staff.

Zimmer’s argument for retaining the bollards—one at each end of the small bridge—was that the footbridge was narrow, not designed for heavy loads, and any vehicle that tried to cross could cause extensive and expensive damage.

But the only way a vehicle could get on the path would be to enter it illegally from an unmarked driveway off Grove Street near the Montessori School in the first place. Why not block access to the trail at that point with bollards? asked Kelley. Though Zimmer expressed caution and was doubtful such an obstacle would be simple, he agreed to consider it. 

The council and he agreed too and agreed to remove the bridge bollards but increase signage and striping to call attention to the crossing. “Council felt that the tight bridge crossing and the path curvature warranted their removal,” summarized Zimmer the next day. “Their conclusion is logical, and I cannot disagree.”

The biggest disconnect appeared to be the timeline Zimmer recommended versus the heightened awareness and concern over the risks. He presented a projection that removing about 25 bollards and adding appropriate striping would cost $55,000. Any alternatives to the recommended project “will result in changes to that estimate,” such as an additional $35,000 if new flexible bollards were called for.

The Public Works proposal suggested delaying the project until it could be scheduled and fit within the department’s contracted work, which would delay any work until Fiscal Year 2023-24 at the earliest, and possibly a year beyond that. 

“Since these bollards have been in place for many years, it is not considered urgent to replace them immediately, but that the work can be budgeted and scheduled for a future fiscal year,” read the report. 

While four council members were generally supportive of Zimmer and his report, Kelley led the charge to encourage a sooner response than a later one. “I’d love to see this proceed swiftly. I know that often it takes a really long time to get things in motion. So even if we did try to calendar it for down the road, it sometimes even gets kicked further down the road.”

Mayor Ozzy Jimenez agreed, saying “doing and starting this as soon as possible is something I’d be interested in.” Councilmember Evelyn Mitchel asked if there were funds and human resources available to start the work sooner than the next budget cycle, and Assistant City Manager Andrew Sturmfels said there was a balance in Measure T funds that could be accessed. (That measure uses a half-cent sales tax to fund public safety.) 

That became the council’s direction to Zimmer—start making plans for bollard removal to begin in the spring, as soon as resources are rescheduled and a budget amendment could be passed to enable Measure T funds.

“This is a great opportunity to demonstrate our desire to be a more bike-friendly community,” said Kelley, “and prioritize the safety of our cyclists and pedestrians.” 

“I’m glad that the council asked that the poles on the bridge near Grove Street be removed,” said Weaver the next day. “The approved action will, I think, be an improvement, offering a little more space for cyclists to maneuver and making the poles more visible.” But she said the action fell short of her hopes for a comprehensive study of the use of bollards, which would have required additional study—and funds.