THE PCH REPORT
Written by Kelly Rodriquez
Congestion, construction, accidents and fatalities. Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), the iconic highway spanning through Malibu like a vital artery, is plagued by a slew of chronic issues. Malibu Magazine investigates the facts, causes, treatments, and possible cures for maintaining safety on PCH in a new series called “The PCH Report”.
PCH is Malibu’s most prominent roadway, relied upon by locals and tourists alike. But the 13,000 full-time residents of Malibu dwarf in comparison to the nearly 35,000 commuters that pass through Malibu every day on their way to and from work. Public Information Officer Leland Tang of California Highway Patrol-West Valley, said that tourist traffic is a major cause of highway congestion. “As the beaches in Malibu get more and more popular, the traffic [gets worse],” Tang said. “Our beach traffic has never been like it is in the last couple years. It’s just mind-blowing."
Although PCH Public Works stakeholders aim to improve PCH’s infrastructure, construction projects can often cause more congestion problems, Officer Tang said. Public Safety Manager for the City of Malibu Susan Dueñas said that as of October 2017, they have the rule to put “a moratorium on construction on PCH between Memorial Day and Labor Day” to cut down traffic during Malibu’s busiest season. With Malibu’s beach weather often persisting long after Labor Day, however, Officer Tang said day-time construction projects still often coincide with snarled vacation traffic as the high tourist season dies down. “We have beach traffic [in October],” Tang said.
PCH residents often note that car accidents tend to occur in the same places along the highway. Officer Leland Tang, Public Information Officer for the California Highway Patrol-West Valley told us these clustered accident hotspots most often occur where there are different “modalities” interacting. Modalities include but are not limited to pedestrians, cyclists, motorcycles and car traffic. “So at the Malibu Pier, you have pedestrians, you have cycling, you have businesses, cars coming in and out of driveways,” Tang said. “You have a lot of interaction.” This leads to a higher probability of collisions.
While fatalities continue to make up only a small percentage of recorded collisions on PCH, residents are well-acquainted with the horrors PCH can reap. Ask any Malibuite about PCH and you will invariably hear stories of close-calls, totaled cars, and sometimes even stories that are far worse. In 2010, Ellen Shane’s daughter Emily was walking on PCH when a car going 70 miles per hour struck and killed her. Shane, whose husband is working on a documentary about PCH safety said it’s important for non-residents to know that loss on PCH has happened. “Knowing that loss can be prevented, it’s critical to raise awareness and to take certain measures to improve safety,” Shane said.
For many Malibu residents living on PCH, the chance to claim an address on the iconic roadway is a lifelong dream realized. Jon and Michelle Brown, who moved to a Pacific Palisades mobile home park on PCH in 2015, were one such couple. “We found this great place by the beach. [Michelle] was like, ‘We can afford that?’” said Jon. “[It was] this amazing thing.”
With their beloved mixed breed dog Yogi in tow, Jon and Michelle decamped for their new oceanfront property from West Hollywood. And if the loud highway traffic and the summer gridlock took some adjusting to, all in all the Browns could hardly believe their luck. “[We felt like we had] found paradise,” said Jon. Then, one sunny March afternoon not long after the Browns had moved in, their paradise came crashing down. While waiting to cross an unprotected crosswalk just outside their home, Michelle and Yogi were struck by a car, instantly killing Yogi and leaving Michelle with a concussion and her forehead split open. “Everything went from, ‘We’re on a pink cloud’ to ‘What just happened?’” Jon said.
As Michelle recovered and news of the accident spread, it soon became clear that what had happened to the Browns was far from a freak accident. Instead, Michelle realized she was another statistic, the newest member of a vast group whose lives had been forever altered, all in a split second’s time on PCH. “You start to talk and several people in the park here have been killed or [were] related to people that have been killed,” said Jon. “It’s crazy.” “There’s so many stories they all kind of blur together,” Michelle said.
One such tragic story, well-known to Malibu residents, is that of Ellen and Michel Shane who’s 13 year-old daughter, Emily, was struck and killed by a speeding car while walking along PCH in 2010. Since then, Ellen has started the Emily Shane Foundation in Emily’s honor and Michel is working on a documentary on the dangers of PCH.
PCH‘s Different Purposes
PCH, the scenic highway that stretches all along California’s coast, serves different purposes for the millions of people that use it: destination, work commute, and home. To tourists, it’s the picturesque place to drive at sunset and the main artery to hotels and Malibu’s various commercial centers. To commuters, it’s the connecting link between their homes in the valley and work on LA’s Westside. But, to PCH residents, it’s their home and neighborhood.
“[PCH] is not a normal highway,” said State Senator Henry Stern, who grew up in Malibu. Instead, he said, the roadway operates as more of a main street for Malibu and the communities it serves, including the Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica.
Malibu resident Ellen Shane, echoed Stern’s sentiment. “Our main street is a highway,” Shane said.
In Malibu, this dichotomy is not new, nor are the traffic issues it can present, from rush hour gridlock to accidents caused by drivers unfamiliar with PCH. However, while Malibu’s population has remained relatively unchanged in recent years, hovering at just around 13,000 people, the city has experienced increases in tourism and commuter traffic in the last decade; Malibu now sees a record 15 million visitors annually, and commuter traffic has increased seven percent over the last decade according to CalTrans, with 34,250 commuters now traveling through Malibu daily. At the same time, PCH accident rates have been steadily rising. In 2011, there were about 100 recorded collisions on PCH in Malibu, according to the Transportation Injury Mapping System (TIMS), a tool developed by UC Berkeley which collects and compiles collision data from across the state. In 2015, that number rose to 156. And while the most recent statistics show a slight dip in collision rates for the first time in a decade, with 24 less collisions reported in 2017 than in 2016, law enforcement agencies, local officials and advocates say there is still much work to be done in making PCH safer.
“Malibu is its own worst enemy,” said Leland Tang, Public Information Officer for the California Highway Patrol-West Valley. “[It’s] so good at promoting [itself] and maintaining that great image. You’re getting everyone from all over the county going there.” Tang said when tourists travel to southern California, they come to Malibu as a “destination spot” to see the colorful sunsets over the ocean. But, those golden hours can be risky when coupled with rush hour traffic. The most common time collisions occurred in 2017 was between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Saturdays. The fact that tourists and commuters now account for the bulk of annual drivers on PCH has complicated efforts at promoting highway safety and effectively addressing accident rates, difficult tasks already for the public agencies and officials tasked with them.
Tang pointed to a recent “huge public awareness campaign” from California Highway Patrol which the agency found hadn’t been effective in reaching commuters and tourists. “The problem with PCH is that Malibu only has 13,000 residents,” Tang said. This number is dwarfed by the millions of tourists and commuters that come to Malibu. “But, we have at least a million more people that pass through or utilize PCH on an annual basis, so there lies the challenge: how do we educate the non-residents?”
Similarly, Ellen Shane said she believed the majority of unsafe driving decisions on PCH were made by non-residents. “It’s the people visiting here that don’t know the roads putting themselves in danger,” Shane said. “The worst thing I’ve seen is families with young children running across the street. That’s a death wish.”
Jeremy Wolf, Malibu District Representative for Senator Henry Stern, said their office all too often hears from constituents worried about PCH safety. “I know people who live off PCH, who say that they don’t like to leave their house on the weekends because they don’t feel safe on PCH,” Wolf said. “They hide out in their house because they don’t want to be in the craziness of it. It shouldn’t be like that.”
Even before Michelle Brown’s 2015 accident, she said she was struck by how often she saw what she considered unsafe driving on PCH. “What a lot of people don’t know is [that the speed limit is] 45 miles an hour with a suggested 35 in a lot of areas,” she said. “So people drive 60, even though it’s 45. There’s a big difference between 60 and 45.” The car that caused the chain reaction which led to her own accident, she said, was just one example, traveling approximately 60 miles per hour in a 45 miles per hour zone. Later, Michelle said, she found out the driver had been speeding avoid rush hour traffic.
Ellen Shane said that speeding drivers are a common sight on PCH. “No one follows the speed limit, ever,” Shane said. “When you’re going 70 miles per hour, you’re going to endanger people.” However drivers traveling at low speeds can cause unsafe conditions as well. “One of the big collision factors [on the TIMS tool] is rear ends,” Tang said. “[And] rear ends [are not sustained at] a high speed. Someone’s distracted or whatever, [and] they rear end.”
Besides driving speeds, another factor which can complicate efforts at improving conditions on PCH, Tang said, is simple the fact that four different law agencies are tasked with patrolling different sections of PCH. The Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD) governs from the McClure Tunnel to Temescal Canyon, while the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) holds jurisdiction from Temescal Canyon to Coastline Drive, just near Mastro’s Steakhouse. CHP governs from Coastline Drive to Topanga Canyon, and the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Department is in charge from Topanga Canyon to Leo Carrillo State Beach. Then from Leo Carrillo State Beach to the Ventura County line, CHP takes back over.
The complex web of jurisdictions governing this 30-mile stretch of continuous roadway has made communication difficult in the past, Tang said. Sustained coordination and communication between agencies is key. Tang cited a PCH signal synchronization project CalTrans headed early this year. Though the project only fell under CalTrans jurisdiction, he said, the other three agencies were engaged throughout. Without that coordination, he said, big traffic problems could have emerged across the highway. “If Sunset and Temescal start to back up, then you’re going start to see the back-up go right into Malibu,” he said. “That’s where the coordination comes in. Coordinating with all three agencies is important.”
PCH Task Force
Realizing there was a lot to face in keeping PCH safe for its various stakeholders, the PCH Taskforce emerged in 2013, made up of residents, bicycle enthusiasts, representatives from the cities of Los Angeles, Malibu and Santa Monica, Caltrans, and the offices of State Senators Henry Stern and Ben Allen, and Assembly member Richard Bloom. Stern describes the task force as “an advocacy engine” for safety on PCH. “It’s a place for all of us involved to get on the same page,” he said. Wolf, who works as Senator Stern’s PCH Taskforce conduit, said the task force’s main goals are to “promote a safe PCH” and “to improve coordination between all the partners.”
Much of the task force’s recent work, Wolf said, has centered around PCH’s traffic congestion, a complaint their office often receives from locals. “That’s one of the biggest things Malibu residents complain about,” Wolf said. Recent task force projects have been aimed at alleviating some of this gridlock, including recent traffic light synchronization throughout Malibu. “[The taskforce is] hoping that’ll alleviate some of the traffic build-up,” Wolf said.
Wolf and Tang also cited other Taskforce projects, including efforts to send alerts to non-residents, getting the Metro-Service Freeway Patrol to patrol PCH in case they need to escort vehicles involved in accidents that could block the flow of traffic, getting approval to put up permanent Changeable Message Signs (CMS), instituting sensors along PCH to report congestion, as well as public safety awareness campaigns. “[We try to see] if there are ways we can, through engineering, mitigate some of these issues and make the road safer,” Tang said. “And then obviously [law] enforcement, [which] is a last part of the equation. Everything else should be first.”
In the Browns’ case, the PCH Taskforce was instrumental in implementing a better light at the crosswalk where Michelle Brown was injured—but not before Jon and Michelle had made considerable “noise” to expedite the process, they said, including bringing pictures of Michelle’s head injuries to a Task force meeting. “We showed those pictures because I think [people] don’t really understand the gravity of how dangerous it is,” Michelle said. The Browns said they felt the need to “make noise” because CalTrans had said they were going to put in the new signal as early as September 2013, but kept delaying the process. It was not until they spoke up at PCH Taskforce meeting in 2015, however, that the agency began to take action. “When she got into the accident, I was like, ’Ok guys, what’s going on?’” said Jon of CalTrans. “’You are on the record, stating that you’re going to put this light in -- what’s the holdup?’ “I never like to take away from what the residents of the park [had] already been working on,” said Jon. “But I think [showing pictures of Michelle’s injuries] really made a big difference.” Finally, in the summer of 2017 a new pedestrian walkway with flashing stop lights, called a High-intensity Activated crosswalk (HAWK), was placed outside the Browns’ mobile park home, only the second such system to be installed in Los Angeles. “It works very successfully,” said Tang. While Jon and Michelle were pleased to see changes finally being implemented, they contended the system is far from perfect, with cars even running the HAWK system’s red light during its opening ceremony in May of last year. “Even when we did the official walk, you press the button and people went through the red light,” Jon said. “‘See, it’s not perfect.’ But it’s better than nothing.”
The Road They Love
Even with all of its problems, many Malibu residents feel a strong love for the stretch of road that goes straight through our hometown. Similarly, those involved in the PCH Task force said that they love the ocean-side roadway enough to fight to fix it. Stern, who grew up in Malibu and knows the tragedy PCH can read, said the highway has always been a big part of his life. “It was part of the community,” Stern, said. “I grew up with a strange relationship with PCH.”
In 2005, while a junior at Malibu High School, he lost two high school friends, Tyler Love and Keith Patrick, in a collision on PCH. Their deaths have been a personal reason to strive for a fatality-free PCH, Stern said. “My dream is a fatality-free PCH,” Stern said. Wolf, who grew up surfing along PCH, calls it a “second home.” “The amount of times I’ve changed out of a wetsuit on PCH, I can’t count them,” Wolf said. “But in the back of my mind, I’m always thinking, ‘Wow, I hope I don’t get hit by a car right now.’”
And despite the accident that left Michelle with a three-inch scar and indentation on her forehead, the Browns said that they never seriously considered moving away from PCH. “I think there was a thought for a minute where we were like, ‘Are we not going to stay here?’” said Jon. However, the couple quickly realized that leaving their new home was not an option. Instead, they would work to better it. “I think that’s part of the reason we did get so involved, because we weren’t just about to run away and be like, ‘Forget this place, this horrible thing happened, let’s just leave,’” Michelle said. “We didn’t want this bad incident to direct how the rest of our lives moved forward. We wanted to do something about it [to] make that crosswalk safer, because we love living here.” MM