PCH Report: Part II

With congestion on Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) seemingly getting worse from year to year, it is vital to take a look at not only the causes for traffic but also various proposed, possible and theoretical solutions to the problem. Malibu Magazine investigates these in a series called “The PCH Report”.

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Written by Barbara Burke

The Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu is often troubled by terrible traffic congestion, causing driver consternation in the best of times and collision-related catastrophes in the worst. 

In June there were 8 injury collisions and 23 non-injury collisions, and in July there were 22 injury collisions and 31 non-injury collisions, according to Detective David Huelsen of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. 

When PCH shuts down due to a collision, drivers are relegated to only two arteries – California State Routes 23 and 27. The resulting gridlocks are of nightmare proportions. “Malibu is a community of approximately 13,000 people that, by even a conservative estimate, receives 13 million visitors each year,” Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner, Malibu City Councilmember, told Malibu Magazine. “Over the years, many ideas have been discussed and studied regarding how to address and ameliorate the incredible traffic congestion on PCH, especially during peak tourist times. However, facilitating some proposed solutions is often too encumbering, either fiscally or geographically, or both.”

Many Malibuites worry PCH congestion could cause serious negative consequences for the City, as well as for commercial and residential property owners.

 Photo by Julie Wuellner.

Photo by Julie Wuellner.

“Living in Malibu is like being on a big vacation every day and Malibu is as beautiful as it was when we moved here in 1973,” said Nick Rodionoff, a Malibu photographer. “However, both the developers and the City better realize that, if you don’t have an enjoyable destination, we’re in for real trouble because it could ultimately mean there will be a decline in real property values.” 

Wagner agrees. “Density diminishes desire,” he said. “We are over-saturated with visitors and we have to address PCH concerns as soon as possible. If people are extremely frustrated, they’ll stop coming to Malibu – they’ll Tweet or use other social media to let their friends know how ugly and intolerable PCH traffic is and, if that occurs, businesses could fail and housing values could diminish.” 

As with any large problems, crafting possible solutions is complicated. 

Various government agencies with jurisdiction over PCH, lawmakers and Malibu city council persons must collaborate to design and implement panoramic solutions. As collisions and fatalities abound on PCH, changes must be made rapidly. 

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS FOR IMPROVING PCH

All drivers know that when they observe law enforcement in an area, they are especially attentive to the need to comply with laws and traffic signage. This extra attentiveness can help decrease accidents and create a safer driving environment for everyone on the road. Further, having officers at the ready allows for faster response times in the case of an accident and more officers who can assist in traffic congestion management. “The City of Malibu would have to fund hiring more officers,” Detective David Huelsen of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department said. “More law enforcement is always helpful,” he added. 

However, having more officers on site is not an all-around panacea and, over the years, many solutions for how to create a safer, less congested PCH in Malibu have been considered. Some proposed solutions have been outright rejected as entirely impossible, mainly because of Malibu’s position between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains, however, others might be more in the realm of the possible. Often years-long construction to implement these projects would be too onerous or prohibitively expensive for residents and property owners who would strongly oppose them. 

Bike Lanes

“Regarding bike lanes, we are continuously working with the City of Malibu to improve pedestrian and bicycle access on PCH,” Abdolhossein Saghafi, Cal Trans Supervising Traffic Engineer said.

 Photo by Kaelin Mendez.

Photo by Kaelin Mendez.

The project to stripe bike lanes and make them more user-friendly from Zuma Beach to Trancas Canyon has just been completed. Much more complicated is how to improve bike access along the east end of Malibu, where the road is more narrow.

It’s not that it’s never going to happen. Rather, it’s a constant challenge due to rights of way acquisition issues and the simple fact that there is not that much real estate to work with. “If we improve bike lanes in the eastern part of Malibu, they will take away approximately six feet and that means the turn lanes would be compromised,” Wagner noted. 

Elevated Crosswalks

Why not build an elevated cross walk - sometimes called a pedestrian bridge? After all, one doesn’t have to look far for an example of such a bridge working well. “There are no current plans to construct elevated pedestrian overcrossings at this time because the projects are complex and costly and, moreover, such projects would severely disrupt traffic flow along PCH during construction,” Eric Menjivar, Caltrans Public Information Officer said. “Before any over-crossings could ever be constructed, first, authorities would have to address the practical problem that currently, there are insufficient rights of way for such projects and obtaining such rights involves legal proceedings involving easement acquisition and, sometimes, the eminent domain process.”


Widen PCH

“You cannot widen PCH – it is what it is,” said Leland Tang, Public Information officer for California Highway Patrol – West Valley. “The last time that option was discussed was three to five years ago... It is entirely untenable – prohibitively expensive – and it was dismissed,” Councilmember Wagner said, noting that landowners would fight any effort.

Change the Speed Limit

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Perhaps the officials could lower the speed limit? A lower speed limit, at least through the stretches of PCH that go directly through town, could result in fewer accidents and less traffic and congestion on PCH. Doing so would not be easy because of applicable regulations. However, this solution would not be impossible. 

“Whether to lower a speed limit on a state highway is a highly complicated process and is dependent upon engineering studies,” Huelsen said. “They compute the average speed of a given sample of drivers and determine other factors to determine the correct speed limit.” 

This solution is a possibility. Citizens who advocate such action may want to get involved and contact their local and state representatives. One thing to explore – if the speed limit were to be lowered – how would that affect the synchronization project? That is an issue, Wagner notes, that would necessitate careful assessment.

Educate Visitors

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Harkening back to relevant statistics, Malibu has 13,000 residents and 13 million visitors per year. For each resident, there are at least a hundred visitors annually, many who only envision beautiful Malibu, not the complications of driving on PCH.

The PCH Task Force is a consortium begun in 2013 that is co-chaired by State Senators Henry Stern and Ben Allen (D-Redondo Beach) at the State level, and Assembly member Richard Bloom, as well as area residents, bicyclist advocates, pedestrians, and local public officials, including Caltrans representatives, and representatives from Los Angeles, Malibu and Santa Monica. The Task Force received a $150,000 corridor grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety to fund pedestrian and bicycle safety assessments and educational outreach, according to Pat Hines, Executive Director of Safe Moves Company, a non-profit organization that coordinates grant-funded efforts. 

 “This is a public outreach project coordinated with the California Office of Safety that is geared toward making PCH safer and it is aimed at letting every driver know that an action that takes just one second, such as taking a selfie or texting when driving along PCH, can change the driver’s life and possibly the lives of others forever,” Hines said.

The grant is funding Public Service Announcements aimed at viewers’ emotions. “These are powerful PSAs,” Hines said. “Senator Stern, who grew up in Malibu, had a childhood friend who died on the PCH – he’s knows full well the tragic consequences.” 

The PSAs will air on gas station televisions to try to educate motorists whom are not familiar with the perils drivers face on the PCH. The grant will also fund an interactive brochure and informational events at schools and farmers’ markets, Hines said.

Uber/Lyft

Wagner, whose surf shop – as well as the pier he operates – abuts the PCH, notes that when Uber and Lyft are used, sometimes they have more than one passenger. So instead of three people driving individual cars, Uber/Lyft provide transport. Further, drivers drop off and pick up passengers so no car must be parked.

Although Uber/Lyft drivers sometimes must pull to the side to assess where their next fare is coming from, at least traffic is somewhat lessened by their presence.

That’s before taking into account the reality that a passenger in an Uber/Lyft may be inebriated or high. When using Uber/Lyft, intoxicated people do not need to get behind the wheel, limiting the risk of accidents.

Provide Motorists with More Information

One of the biggest number of complaints law enforcement receives is that there is not enough real-time information provided to motorists, according to Tang.

Changeable Message Signage can help inform motorists of current traffic conditions and what lies ahead, according to Tang. “There are a total of nine such signs and the City of Malibu coordinates with CHP which monitors all nine signs, although four belong to the City of Malibu, four are owned by Los Angeles County and one is owned by CHP.”

Such signage can be seen throughout Malibu, such as where one is driving north on PCH approaching Heathercliff and a sign informs motorists to use the right lane to access Zuma Beach. Another two signs seen as one drives further north approaching El Matador inform drivers that pedestrians are crossing from the highway to walk to the beaches. 

Longtime Malibuite Nick Rodionoff agrees and advocates using more signs to inform drivers about traffic conditions. “Perhaps they could inform people at key arteries such as Malibu Canyon and Kanan Road that parking is full and it may take literally three hours to travel five miles,” he said.

Limit Commercial Traffic

Why not limit the times during which commercial drivers can make deliveries to area businesses?

“PCH is a state highway and we cannot restrict traffic access on state highways,” Tang said. “The goal is to manage traffic better, not restrict it. One thing to consider is to restrict commercial traffic and its delivery of goods and such to evening hours when traffic is lighter.”

Wagner agrees, but notes that it is necessary to transport commodities and for delivery services such as UPS and FedEx to have access to Malibu businesses and residents.  

Government being the art of compromise, perhaps there is a space for a compromise here.

THEORETICAL SOLUTIONS

Shuttles and Trolleys to Ferry Beach Goers and Shoppers in Key Areas

Wagner advocates using City property to install pavers and construct parking lots and then employ shuttles to key beaches during peak seasons. “The City just acquired Trancas Fields and that would be a perfect place to put such a parking lot and use it as a terminus at the west end,” he said. “The parking lot could not only ameliorate traffic to and between beaches, it could serve as a great staging area for local fire and police in emergencies such as wildfires.” Huelsen agreed. “That’s a very good idea,” he said. Wagner also notes that the City of Malibu owns the Christmas Tree lot at the terminus of Point Dume which could also be made into a parking area where shuttles could go to Point Dume during peak tourist season. 

Malibuite Carrie Rodionoff agreed. “Years ago, when we had slide, busses circled and cars were parked and there was a shuttle,” she said. “There were trolleys all over Malibu to get people transported. Using shuttles would cut down on congestion as long as motorists had a place to park.”

Michael Koss, President of Koss Real Estate and manager of the Malibu Country Mart, said his company funded a shuttle from Pepperdine, to Ralph’s, to the Malibu Bluffs, and to the Country Mart a few years ago. “For such a shuttle to succeed, the City would have to help private businesses and help in developing ridership,” Koss said. “We’d be very amenable to a public-private partnership.” Wagner heartily advocates such an idea, noting that a downtown Malibu shuttle could ameliorate traffic congestion, especially if its route extended to Surfrider, Malibu Pier and PC Greens.  

“The City owns eleven acres next to the Standard Station and it is perfect for a parking lot to facilitate a shuttle,” Wagner said. 

Other officials heartily agree with that.

“My goal is to get a stand-alone parking lot in the Civic Center so that we can get shuttles to move people around and help reduce the current traffic nightmare,” Councilmember Laura Rosenthal said. “Nothing has been decided, but we are definitely looking at the piece of land at the corner of Webb Way and PCH that the City is buying and that has been used recently as the site for the building equipment for the Wastewater Plant.” In order to accomplish that, City regulations would have to be changed as they currently do not allow for stand- alone parking lots in commercial zones. This idea has support – it may come to fruition.

Prevent Vehicular Traffic in Congested Areas 

In many cities throughout the world, there are areas where streets are cordoned off and only pedestrian traffic is permissible, cutting down on traffic as well as making the area safer for tourists and shoppers. Why not consider this as a solution in key shopping areas, such as the surrounding area of the Country Mart, Malibu Village, Lumber Yard and the new developments,  where there is terrible congestion? “Given the configuration of our current streets and shopping areas, it would be difficult to close down streets for pedestrian use only,” Rosenthal said. “We have talked about it but it is a difficult proposition currently.” This proposal does not fall into the “It’s not going to happen category.” Rather, regulations may have to be changed and configuration altered, but perhaps this solution merits more study.

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Create Two Levels on PCH

Over the years, there have been suggestions about constructing a double-level PCH, with one level going north and west and the other south and east, Wagner said.  Today, the idea has no legs at all. “Building a two-level PCH would never happen,” Huelsen said. 

First, the same landowners who would object to having rights of way established to compromise – or take over – their driveways or land – in order to  widen PCH would also vehemently object to such processes which would be necessary to build a two-level highway. Second, even if the project were somehow approved, and its truly astronomical cost were somehow funded, construction of the project would paralyze the roadway for years, Huelsen noted.

Third, Wagner said, “We need to think ahead – it makes no sense to build a two-level highway when we know that the sea level is almost certainly going to rise. At worst, in a few decades, the lower level – what is PCH now – would be submerged.” This simply isn’t going to happen. 

Establish a Ferry Between Malibu and the Santa Monica Pier

Back in the day when Alice’s Restaurant was at the end of the Malibu Pier, its owner Bob Yuro, fellow restaurateur Bob Morris, who still operates Paradise Cove Restaurant, and Harry Gesner, a long time Malibu developer, floated the idea of establishing a pier to ferry to transport visitors from Santa Monica to Malibu. Ultimately, the idea lost support. Historically, a ferry was first used by the Rindge family and then again in the 1970s when Malibu was paralyzed by a mudslide that completely blocked PCH. The disaster damage repaired, the ferry was discontinued. One wonders, why not consider establishing a pier-to-pier ferry between the Santa Monica Pier and the Malibu Pier today? Unfortunately, there are several impediments to establishing one now. “To implement a ferry system, Cal Trans would provide a permit to work along its right of way after the Coastal Commission gave its decision concerning whether such a service was to exist,” Menjivar said.

 The proposed route of a ferry from Santa Monica to Malibu.

The proposed route of a ferry from Santa Monica to Malibu.

Wagner notes that the State Land Commission owns the land the pier sits on, leases it to State Parks, and Malibu Pier Partners, owned by Wagner and another partner, operate as Master Concessionaire for the Pier.  Further, Surfrider, the Pier and the Malibu Lagoon have just been designated as National Historic sites. Talk about red tape! When so many government agencies are involved, getting permission to do anything – let alone change a historical landmark – is a multi-year process. Wagner also notes that the Malibu Pier is not configured for landing a large water craft. “A pier to pier ferry is not as viable as one thinks because the entire pier would have to be rebuilt or we would have to have ferries dock way off the pier, unload passengers onto smaller craft, and have them then dock,” Wagner said. “If we did everything we would have to do... a ferry ticket would be at least $100 and no one would want to pay that.” Finally, Councilmember Rosenthal notes that, as always, parking is a central concern. Even if a ferry were installed – or a hydrofoil employed – there were be a practical problem – where would all the passengers park? It simply isn’t going to happen.

If Not by Land or Sea - What About by Air?

Rooftop commuting occurs in some areas throughout the world. Indeed, in May, Uber unveiled an electric air taxi prototype, named UberAIR. The company has announced Dallas and LA as two of the ‘launch cities’ it will partner with in order to bring UberAIR to the market. It is still searching for the third city and hope to begin commercial operations in 2023.

That’s innovative. That’s very cool. 

However, one very practical reality nixes this as an option in Malibu – there are no airports or public rooftops to utilize.

It simply isn’t going to happen.


Our Conclusion

Overall, what Malibuites want most is to keep precious Malibu’s unique character and to ensure that there are necessary services to keep Malibu a vibrant, thriving community that provides locals with a quality standard of living. 

Similar to most problems of this scale, it is imperative that lawmakers, city council members and residents work together to understand and address the various problems that arise on PCH. In future years, it will be essential for all parties involved to collaborate and implement panoramic solutions to combat PCH’s increasing number of accidents and worsening congestion. 


Holly Bieler