Two Years and One Death Later, Caltrans Fails to Prioritize Safety on SR-56 Bike Path

Earlier this year on May 10th, Dr. Dan Valentine encountered a sight on the SR-56 bike path that made him realize that he had missed death by five minutes

Car on SR-56 bike path and not the first time. Photo: Dr. Dan Valentine
Car on SR-56 bike path and not the first time. Photo: Dr. Dan Valentine

In a letter he wrote to the Del Mar Times, Caltrans, and us Valentine stated the following:

I came across this scene while on a bike ride along the CA State 56 freeway during the evening rush hour commute on Friday. The car in the picture went off the road, through a fence and came to rest on the bike path that parallels the freeway. The accident happened about 5 minutes before I arrived on scene. The scary part is that my bike ride was delayed by about 5 minutes when I returned home to retrieve my cycling gloves. If we had met, I would have been hit head on (I took the picture after passing the car).

A few years ago, one cyclist was killed by a motorist running off the road and onto this same bike path. This tragic incident, hearing stories about other “near-misses” and seeing numerous holes in the fence over the years makes me think this path is nothing more than a bike lane on a freeway.
While the concept of a walk/jog/bike path along this East-West corridor is commendable, the design is severely flawed. Simply put, distracted drivers in speeding cars and cyclists do not mix. I ride the bike path about 3 times a week and more often during the summer. Seniors, parents and their young children; people of all ages enjoy this trail. I preferred the path because it appeared safer than the surface streets for riding my bike. I have serious doubts now.

Valentine contacted us wanting guidance on how to move forward and put pressure on Caltrans and we provided him with a visual designed by Copenhagenize Design to highlight world-class design guidelines on what sort of bicycle infrastructure ought to be designed based on speed limits and road design to accommodate all road users:

The Copenhagenize Bicycle Planning Guide
The Copenhagenize Bicycle Planning Guide


Caltrans can move people in cars with safety and comfort, but what about people on bicycles? Photo: Dr. Dan Valentine
Caltrans can move people in cars with safety and comfort, but what about people on bicycles? Photo of SR-56 bike path by Dr. Dan Valentine

One of Caltrans' top Strategic goals is to "provide the safest transportation system in the nation for users and workers." In not providing San Diegans with a safe way to ride on the SR-56 bike path, they are failing in meeting one of their own goals. A more substantial barrier than a flimsy fence should be erected to ensure no more preventable deaths like Venuto's happens.

We contacted State Senator Marty Block whose district covers the SR-56 bike path to ask that his office take a lead on ensuring that Caltrans move on installing a more substantial barrier.

By May 21st, after some level of media attention, Valentine wrote to the Rancho Penasquitos Planning Board requesting that the Planning Board support his request to compel Caltrans to put in a sturdy guardrail to make the bike path safe.

Guardrail - It would be nice to install a guardrail along SR 56 where the Bike Path is close to the freeway. Four cars have left the freeway and ended up on the Bike Path since SR 56 opened. Nick Vento was killed in May 2011 in an extremely rare event, but users of this path expect a level of safety higher than they are getting. Class II riders throughout the City have different expectations.

Caltrans then responded as follows

As an alternative to metal beam guard railing, Caltrans plans to install concrete barrier along the edge of shoulder of EB SR-56 in areas where the bike path is less than 30 feet from the edge of traveled way. In these areas, the barrier will not be introducing a fixed object where there would otherwise be the standard minimum clear recovery zone for errant vehicles. Funding to design and construct the proposed project is anticipated for FY 2013/14 or FY 2014/15.

Valentine wrote back to Caltrans thanking them but urging them to make the improvements this year

I am pleased to learn of your response to a recent Rancho Penasquitos Planning Board request regarding bike path safety concerns along the SR 56 freeway. Your understanding of this serious public safety issue and the proposed remedy is admirable. However, given the serious risk to a significant number of cyclists, joggers, parents and children who utilize this bike path, it is requested that you make every effort to allocate funds in this fiscal year. In addition, I would request guidance on how the public provides input into the design and construction of the barrier along the path. Again, I applaud your sensitivity and your action to make the SR 56 bike path a safer and more user-friendly experience for everyone.

How many bicycle riders have to die before Caltrans prioritizes their safety? Photo: Dr. Dan Valentine

Valentine then followed up with Senator Block on May 20th stating:

Caltrans has not responded directly to my initial request and have publicly stated they cannot comment due to pending litigation related to the death of the cyclist Nick Venuto almost 2 years ago.
The Caltrans response I obtained was from a March 6th Rancho Penasquitos Planning Board request via e-mail to look into the possibility of installing a barrier along the SR 56 bike path. The request apparently was not through the formal meeting process (since I couldn’t locate the request and Caltrans’ comments in the meeting minutes). I e-mailed the RPQ Planning Board chairman on Monday night requesting a copy of the e-mail with the Caltrans response but have received no response as of yet.
My concern is that the pending litigation against Caltrans could severely or even permanently delay action to mitigate this very serious public safety issue. Any action on your part to help ensure that Caltrans will follow through on their stated commitment would be greatly appreciated. As well, I believe my request to move up the timeline to install a barrier along the path is not unreasonable.
Again, I thank you for your interest and support in remedying this problem."

We haven't heard anything further from Block's office.

Earlier last month Valentine wrote to his State Senator Mark Wyland and the Rancho Penasquitos Planning Board stating the following (emphasis by Valentine):

After reviewing the Caltrans response documents (included below) provided by Michael Lieberman, I have a few observations and follow-up comments:

SR 56 BP 2008-2011 Collisions Report

It is noted that four traffic collisions were documented in the report.  Incident #4 dated 5-31-11 was the Nick Venuto fatal incident (including another person experiencing major injuries).  The diagram and summary were deleted from the document (I suspect due to “pending litigation” or severity of the event).  My hope is that no other incidents were omitted from this report.

Since June 2008, counting the 4 Caltrans documented events,  2 additional photographed incidents in June 2011 and March 2012 (see attached photos) and my recent event on May 10, 2013 (attached photo),  the number of documented traffic collisions on this bike path totals seven events.     This equates to one bike path breach every 8.6 months.   At least 2 of the events (almost 30%)  occurred during rush hour- 6:20 pm and 5:00pm; a time when freeway traffic and bike path usage are correspondingly high.  As well, alcohol or fatigue were not factors in the collisions.    Conclusion:  It is not a matter of if another fence breach will occur but when, where and who will be affected.

SR 56 Barrier Project Report

The Caltrans proposal calls for a total of 733 feet of barrier to be installed along the entire bike path that extends some 10 miles.  As best as I can determine, none of the seven documented collisions occurred in areas where the barriers are proposed to be installed.  These events took place in areas where ice plant or shrubs are part of the landscape, doing nothing to stop the vehicles from reaching the path.   Conclusion:  Install barrier along all areas where there is a possibility of a bike path breach.


I believe it is imperative that every public agency/planning group do their part to ensure there is an expedient and adequate solution to this public safety issue.  It is encouraging to know that Michael Lieberman (Representative Brain Maienschein’s office) has pledged to take the lead in communicating with Caltrans to ensure progress is being made to resolve this issue.  Senator Marty Block’s office is also aware of developments relative to SR 56 bike path safety.

I would ask the Rancho Penasquitos Planning Board to lend vigorous support in getting this project to completion.  I appreciate all your efforts to ensuring the safety of the SR 56 bike path.


Dan Valentine


Yesterday evening, we had another similar incident that sadly resulted in injuries for the bicycle rider when a car flew off I-5 and onto Santa Fe Road.


As of today, no changes have been implemented on the SR-56 - two years after Venuto's death. Who knows how long it will take for Caltrans to implement changes along Santa Fe Street that adjoins the I-5. Will it take a lawsuit or a death before safety improvements are made?

We know Caltrans management can direct quick action when needed. Last year, Caltrans moved with incredible swiftness to remove Nick Venuto's ghost bike. However when it comes to the safety of San Diego's bicycle riders - Caltrans remains unwilling to move or act.

We would like you to write to Caltrans and ask them to install a protective and permanent barrier to protect the vulnerable road users from the vehicle operators who continue to put riders in danger and their lives at risk along SR-56 and I-5.
Email Caltrans at and copy your state elected official in your correspondence.

News, Links, and Other Views

City of San Diego

  • The Genesee Interchange Project is scheduled to begin construction this fall - expected to be completed in 2016.  The project includes a 3 mile bike path from Roselle Street to Voigt Drive.
  • Bike to Work Day raised awareness of the need for safe bike infrastructure both on urban streets and along dedicated bike paths as well as a discussion of potholes, helmets, and collisions.
  • The Voice of San Diego Morning Report highlights the controversy surrounding New York City's bike share program, San Diego's poor "bike score," and the need for bicyclists to follow traffic laws.
  • The City Council has approved the San Diego River Park Master Plan.
  • Pointing out unsafe road conditions and the high number of pedestrians and bicyclists injured by motor vehicles, young people are asking for no-cost bus passes.
  • In order to revitalize the "undeniable" blight along C Street downtown, boosters have proposed sprucing up the area with large digital advertising signs - how about a car free east-west bike path instead?
  • In City Heights:  planning + workshops + surveys + no  implementation = planning fatigue.
  • The search continues for Ralph Peeks, a bicyclist last seen riding his mountain bike on Camino Ruiz.
  • Sunday night on KPRI 102.1 FM Mayor Bob Filner played John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High to “bring that John Denver sense back . . . in terms of a walkable, bikable San Diego.”

San Diego Region

  • In an email to the Rancho Penasquitos Planning Commission, Caltrans has indicated that it plans to install concrete barriers along the Route 56 bike path.
  • After the Tour of California, Escondido is evaluating the impact the event had on the city.
  • Temecula has hired a consultant to update the city's plan for bike paths and trails.
  • Inspired by livable streets projects in North County, a UT editor hopes South County will follow suit.
  • An overview of some cycling events, issues, and resources from the San Diego Free Press.


  • A study by the Harvard School of Public Health calls for an overhaul of bicycle engineering guidelines and endorses cycle tracks and other design options besides painted lanes.  The study also calls into question the bias of AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials).
  • Boston plans to build more bike lanes, rental kiosks, and may build cycle tracks on major roads.
  • A street-level report on the state of Washington DC's cycle tracks.
  • A look at the rise of two-wheeled entrepreneurs around the nation.
  • After using Twitter to boast about hitting a cyclist with her car, police tracked down the driver, Emma Way.  An investigation is underway, but she has not been arrested yet.  The incident has prompted a wider discussion about the relationship between cyclists and motorists.
  • Toronto’s infamous anti-bike mayor, Rob Ford, was caught on video smoking crack.
  • Vehicle miles driven are on the decline, but most transportation policymakers haven’t recognized this yet.
  • In an effort to bike to work safely in Los Angeles, cyclists are organizing bike trains.
  • A protest by people both for and against new bike lanes in San Pedro was scheduled last Monday.
  • Police are planning to increase patrols along the LA River bike path after a couple cyclists were recently attacked.

Connecting the SR-56 Bike Path to the UTC Job Centers

We received an email from reader, Ryan Smith, who lives along the 56 corridor and wants to bike to work. His email stated the following:

I live around the 56 corridor and reluctantly drive the 56 for my daily commute to the UTC area. I know that the 56 corridor bike path doesn't directly connect to the UTC area, unless one risks a brief run on the 5 or 805. Would you know if there are plans to create a specific bike path (I don't trust shoulders on the highway) to connect El Camino Real to La Jolla Village Dr/Miramar Road which would go parallel with the 5 or 805, but not force bicyclists to brave those specific highways? I think this would be highly instrumental in making the 56 bike path corridor much more useful as a biking commute. The only alternatives are to (a) go all the way to Torrey Pines and bike up the steep hill into UTC, (b) head over to Miramar Rd and brave that street traffic (during commute hours!). Neither of those alternatives is highly desirable.

We didn't know the answer so we contacted SANDAG planner, Chris Carterette to learn if any plans were afoot. Carterette contacted Caltrans Bike/Ped Coordinator, Seth Cutter, who responded as follows:

Two of the projects associated with the North Coast Bikeway plan address the two major impediments that Mr. Smith encounters on his commute from the SR-56 corridor to the UTC area.

The "bike trail" that is proposed from Sorrento Valley Rd./Roselle St./Sorrento Valley Coaster Station that will go up the hill to Genesee Ave. and then cross over Genesee and continue on up to Voigt Dr. is expected to go to construction late this year or early 2014. It will likely take a good two years to construct, but will provide a separate bike path-type experience for users, as opposed to the current situation where cyclists must ride along the I-5 freeway shoulders or take the long way as Mr. Smith pointed out. Additionally, the path is expected to be shielded significantly by grade, landscaping, or a combination or the two for a better quality of experience.

The second impediment is the gap in the connection from the SR-56 bike path to the Old Sorrento Valley Rd. bike path, just south of Carmel Valley Rd. Currently bicyclists and pedestrians have to get off of the path and use Carmel Valley Rd. through the I-5 interchange to access Old Sorrento Valley Rd. Caltrans does have this connection identified as a project in the North Coast Bikeway, the I-5 North Coast Corridor EIR/EIS, and the Public Works Program within the large I-5 North Coast Corridor project. This proposed connection could be several years from being constructed, but we are trying to push up the schedule. We have been told that environmental clearance should not be an issue, due to the level of study that has already been performed in the lagoon. The problem with the current schedule is that freeway work is not expected to be performed in the area for quite a few years. Recently, however, Caltrans Design engineers started studying the proposal with the intent to come up with a set of design plans for the project. Perhaps the new Caltrans Active Transportation Program that is in the process of being set up for non-motorized and enhancement projects will provide a source of funding.

Carterette followed up and responded

The City of San Diego may also have some improvements in the vicinity, as they are working on alternatives analysis for Coastal Rail Trail from Roselle to Gilman. It is a challenging area.

Carterette also sent a pdf document showing what this North Coast Bikeway looks like on a map. The connection referred to by Cutter can be viewed in the image below.

UTC to 56 Connection. Coming soon.
UTC to 56 Connection. Coming soon. Click for a bigger version

Thank you Chris and Seth for the responses. We're looking forward to seeing the connection made complete.

Caltrans Dislikes Ghost Bike Memorials that Honor Bicyclist's Lives

Nick Venuto Ghost Bike Memorial.To be removed by Caltrans on 7/20/2012. Photo: Shane Schaetz

Last May, Nick Venuto was killed when riding on the bike path that parallels State Route 56 when a driver lost control of her SUV while speeding and flipped over and onto the bike path instantly killing Venuto who was riding by at that moment. As is the custom around the country, riders wishing to honor a dead rider's life and memorialize it placed a ghost bike on the flimsy chainlink fence that separates the bike path from SR-56 - the fence that did nothing to save Venuto's life.

Now, I just learned that Caltrans is forbidding any memorials being placed on the flimsy fence separating the bike path from State Route 56.

Caltrans Take Down Notice. Photo: Shane Schaetz

The note states:

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) sympathizes with your loss and understands your efforts to remember your loved one with this roadside memorial, but the state law prohibits such monuments to be placed alongside the roadway for the safety of other motorists and pedestrians. Please contact the Caltrans Public Information Office at 619-688-6670 as soon as possible to make arrangements for the removal of this memorial. If no contact is made with the office by 7-20-12, we will remove the items and store them for up to 30 days at one of our maintenance offices for your pick up.

I have contacted Seth Cutter, our bike/ped coordinator to ask for some clarification on this notice and will post an update when I hear back from him.

UPDATE (7/10): Cutter responded as follows,

Being a member of the bicycling community, I understand that there is a significant meaning behind the ghost bike that memorializes any fallen cyclist. It is however Caltrans policy to look out for the safety of all users of the State Highway System.

Please understand that Caltrans is sensitive to the efforts made by family members and friends to memorialize the loss of a loved one, but state law prohibits monuments to be placed on any State Right-of-Way for the safety of other motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists. The memorial on the bike path fence falls within the state Right-of-Way and so is treated the same way as a highway roadside memorial.

In consideration of family members, the memorial is tagged to give them an opportunity to remove sentimental items beforehand.  Memorial items left in place after the due date will be respectfully removed and stored for 30 days for pick up. It is important to note that Caltrans treats memorials on state Right-of-Way the same regardless of specific location.  

If you have any further questions about removal of memorials, please contact our District's Public Information Officer Cathryne Bruce-Johnson at (619) 688-6670.

Upcoming San Diego Rides

Down Townies Rides - Every Sunday. Meet at Velo Cult

With the long weekend ahead of us, the Sunday Down Townies rides are back in full swing. Anyone is welcome. The group will head to Ocean Beach this week for brunch. The destination is To the Point which promotes locally sourced, seasonal and sustainable menu that is worth trying. For those who don't want to make the whole ride (maybe 20 miles round trip with some climbing) the group plans to meet at the flag pole in Old Town around 10:00. The ride starts at 9AM at Velo Cult bike shop located at 2220 Fern Street.




Nick Venuto




In late May this year, a San Diego biotech executive who was also a father of two was killed when an SUV driver lost control of her vehicle while speeding and flipped over and onto a Class I bike path along SR 56. As sadness descended upon the bicycle community in San Diego, Nick Venuto's family and friends have decided to organize a memorial ride in honor of his memory and his passion for riding. The ride will be held on July 9th.

Critical Manners Ride for the Law Abiding Cyclists - The first Critical Manners ride will be held on August 12. With San Diego's critical mass gaining both size and notoriety, it is certainly doing quite a bit to garner attention in the form of praise and blame. Praise, because the city and its governing body still refuse to take a lead in determining a transportation policy that is not solely based on the automobile. Thus, over a thousand cyclists descend every month to ride the streets that are the sole domain of the automobile. The cyclists who ride critical mass also get to be blamed because a some of the rowdier cyclists have attracted enough attention to place all critical mass riders in the same morass that Southern California has placed bicyclists for decades. Thus some cyclists disillusioned with critical mass in San Diego have rallied to create another group ride that would alleviate the bad name that critical mass has purportedly brought to San Diegan cyclists.

Below is a video taken by a rider during the April Critical Mass ride that begins every last Friday at the Big Fountain in Balboa Park:

I encourage any and all group rides and wish the Courteous Mass group much success. Hope to see you there! (h/t Travis)