Irena Ossola was wrapping up the most successful year in her cycling career—completing a tour of Europe where she made it to the podium five times in a month, winning gold twice, and having just placed third at the US National Criterium Championship in Louisville, Kentucky.
Early one morning, she went for a ride in her hometown of Santa Fe.
On her way home, she approached the roundabout that joins West Alameda Street to Siler Road. In the bike lane, Ossola slowed, assuming the car coming in the opposite direction saw her as she prepared to continue through the traffic circle.
But the driver, who had just exited the roundabout, turned left into a driveway, striking Ossola before she could react.
“That person that nearly killed me? That ended my cycling career,” Ossola tells SFR four years after the 2017 crash.
A year passed before she felt 90% back to normal; there had been a two-month stint in the hospital. A traumatic brain injury divided Ossola’s life into two parts: before the crash and after. The toll of her injuries on her memory has forced Ossola to relearn how to manage her emotions and mental stability.
Though few cyclists in Santa Fe approach the sport with Ossola’s intensity, she wants the city’s streets to be safe for everyone to ride on, from commuters to bike enthusiasts.
And Santa Fe—though not one of the worst cities for cyclists in the country—has room for improvement for biking accessibility and safety.
With a fatality rate of 3.2 per 100,000 residents, New Mexico ranks as the third deadliest state for pedestrians and bicyclists, after Florida and Delaware, according to data from 2012 through 2016 compiled by the League of American Bicyclists, a cycling and pedestrian advocacy organization.
Closer to home, the City of Santa Fe ranks third in the state for pedestrian and bike crashes, behind only Albuquerque and Las Cruces, based on the most recent reports from the University of New Mexico’s Traffic Research Unit. While the number of times cars crashed into those walking and biking in Santa Fe made up 6% and 9% of these types of collisions in the state, respectively, the city only accounts for 4% of New Mexico’s population, according to the 2020 census.
Santa Fe, with its mild winters and sunny days, could be an excellent biking city, advocates and regular cyclists tell SFR.
A glaring spot at which the city could do better: Cerrillos Road.
The city’s busiest road, connecting the Southside to eastern parts of Santa Fe, remains a perilous avenue for cyclists, despite several redesigns, the most recent of which wrapped in 2016 and was aimed partly at improving multi-modal transportation facilities.
Turns out, the addition of bike lanes and wide sidewalks didn’t result in a safer avenue for pedestrians and cyclists, according to a preliminary analysis from Santa Fe’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).
The New Mexico Department of Transportation’s pedestrian safety plan released last August supports those findings. The report identified Cerrillos Road, also known as New Mexico 14, as a high-crash corridor in the state, with 44 pedestrian-involved collisions between 2012 and 2018.
Even for experienced bikers, Cerrillos is strictly off limits.
“As a cyclist, a biker, I have never ridden down Cerrillos Road,” Ossola tells SFR. “And I would tell anybody else never to ride down it either.”
But with the final phase of the thoroughfare’s latest redesign in the planning stages—and with completion, a long-awaited handoff of responsibility for the road from the state to the city—there is fresh opportunity to give bicyclists and pedestrians more consideration that is often devoted to cars.
The view along Cerrillos Road differs dramatically from that of the once-famed Route 66, which snaked southwest out of downtown Santa Fe. Parallel to the railroad tracks, the road’s growth was largely driven by commerce, eventually eclipsing El Camino Real—what is today Agua Fría Street—as the primary way in and out of the city.
In 1937, Route 66 was redirected south, bypassing Santa Fe on Interstate 40, and Cerrillos Road gained the designation as part of the Pan American Central Highway.
The motel aesthetic that dominated the road in the ‘30s and ‘40s has slowly been etched away by the arrival of box stores and local businesses serving the community’s evolving needs. As the commerce lining the road grew over the last decade, vehicles have remained the predominant mode of travel.
Recent redesigns of Cerrillos have maintained cars’ dominance on the road.
The transportation department is leading a final segment of redesign—and the road will remain under the agency’s jurisdiction until the anticipated upgrades are made—before transferring the thoroughfare to the City of Santa Fe.
Despite NMDOT’s ownership of the corridor, the city undertook the latest redevelopment of Cerrillos, from Airport Road to St. Michael’s Drive,.
While the city cherishes its historical and cultural significance, the growth and changing population dynamics demand alternative ways of moving around.
Erick Aune, the officer of Santa Fe’s MPO, says sustainable communities, which city officials aim to create and often tout in Santa Fe, must include multi-modal transportation in the design of construction and development projects. More simply: Consider pedestrians and bikers.
The scope for the city-led redesign of the roadway included multimodal facility upgrades, but it’s one thing to paint a bike lane onto a road; ensuring the safety of cyclists and pedestrians is another.
In an effort to assess the safety impacts of the most recent redesign of Cerrillos Road, Aune compared the number of crashes that occurred on two sections of the road.
Aune tabulated the crashes that took place within the redesigned section and an unchanged portion of Cerrillos, St. Michael’s Drive to St. Francis, which acted as a control to determine the impact of the redesign.
Aune hoped to determine how the design affected safety outcomes for pedestrians and bicyclists. On the renovated section of Cerrillos, west of St. Michael’s, the number of pedestrian- or bike-involved crashes hovered around 15 per year, both before and after the redesign that aimed to include better facilities for non-vehicle users.
The wider trend for crash rates for cars on Cerrillos shows safety outcomes didn’t improve for vehicles. “On both sections of roads, crashes and injuries were higher after reconstruction was completed than before,” reads a memo Aune shared with NMDOT.
Aune admits that a more rigorous analysis of crash data would be necessary to draw concrete conclusions about how the Cerrillos redesign impacted public safety. But advocates like Aune and Ossola agree that the renovated section, from Airport Road to St. Michael’s Drive, doesn’t encourage cyclists to use the motorway—despite the painted-on bike lanes.
For the next section of the Cerrillos redesign, further east, cycling and pedestrian advocates want the road to reflect the needs of all users in an effort to build a more sustainable community.
In her role as Public Works Director, Regina Wheeler describes why a sustainable mindset would benefit Santa Feans.
“You get better health indicators from the community, right? As people are moving their bodies to get from place to place, you reduce congestion, you reduce pollution,” she tells SFR.
Estevan Gonzales, a transportation department engineer who is working on the Cerrillos Road project, tells SFR that the first stage—the study phase—will determine the project’s overall goals.
This section of road’s primary function is vehicular traffic, Gonzales explains. According to the project website, officials hope the study will help identify ways to maximize traffic operations for cars and other modes of transportation, while minimizing environmental impacts on the approach to downtown.
This phase of the Cerrillos Road redesign follows two previous reconstructions of the arterial boulevard, which resulted in much-needed renovations to the roadway. With the third and final section to receive a makeover, the NMDOT will relinquish maintenance responsibilities for the road and 14 others.
The handover is part of the road transfer agreement the city signed in return for the construction of Highway 599 in the 1990s and a number of upgrades on those streets.
Aune, working with the city, lobbied NMDOT to prioritize the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists on the newest designs.
To visualize what it means to maximize traffic operations, Aune points to the 2016 construction of the Interstate 25 and Cerrillos Road interchange, known as the diverging diamond.
Aune argues that the space allocated to that NMDOT-led project, which is roughly equivalent to the area of downtown Santa Fe, achieves the goal of moving vehicles quickly. Aune pauses to ask, “Is it really needed? And then what are the results of 30 years of a really wide and super-fast interchange?”
By continuing to prioritize traffic operations—as the NMDOT and the city have historically done—roads, and the community that surrounds them, will maintain the imbalanced network of transportation systems that continue to protect drivers over other users.
The 2019 Santa Fe Metropolitan Bicycle Master Plan, published by the MPO, outlines strategies the city and NMDOT could undertake to improve biking and pedestrian safety when redesigning and retrofitting streets.
Tim Rogers, a trails program manager for Santa Fe Conservation Trust and one of the master plan’s authors, says a lot of the streets and roads in the city “are designed purely, or 99%, with motor vehicle through-traffic in mind, which is kind of a highway mindset.”
It has shifted over time, Rogers says, but there remains a significant lag between intentions and results because “road projects come along very slowly.”
Rogers applauds the city for some progress made since the 2012 master plan, its first iteration, was published. He points to the bike lanes established on Siringo Road and Galisteo Street, but Rogers doesn’t shy away from highlighting missed opportunities.
On Alta Vista Street across from Salvador Perez Center, the city installed street parking instead of bike lanes as a previous report had suggested, explains Rogers.
A study to reduce the number of lanes on Paseo de Peralta, from South Guadalupe Street to East Alameda Street, presented to the City Council, “got shot down,” Rogers says. Of that decision, he explains, councilors and constituents often have “a knee jerk reaction like, ‘Oh, you’re gonna reduce the number of lanes? This is gonna cause delays for cars.’”
He says, “It’s not just the city and DOT, but our citizens feel that way often.”
“To page through the law books today is to stumble again and again upon evidence of automobile supremacy,” writes Gregory Shill, a University of Iowa College of Law professor, who studies the impact of policy on transportation.
Shill characterizes automobile supremacy as a legal force that creates a landscape where Americans, dependent on cars, have few other options for transportation. From the publicly-funded interstate highway system to advancing the convenience of motorists, Shill underscores how federal, state and local governments have created a system in which vehicles are king.
Advocates confirm that cars in Santa Fe—like the rest of the nation—control the streets.
The umbrella of pedestrians and cyclists is wide, explains Catherine Rivard, a Santa Fe lawyer who represents cyclists involved in crashes. While some users choose to walk and bike for some trips in addition to also regularly using cars, there are a number of cyclists and pedestrians whose only form of transportation is a bike or their feet.
Often, these users with no other options for transit became victims of a system that protects drivers and casts blame on pedestrians and bikers, explains Rivard.
As an example Rivard points to New Mexico’s tort law scheme—the system of civil suits whereby victims seek compensation from those who harm them—as a nearly impenetrable defense for drivers who injure cyclists and pedestrians.
“Why should we have a system in which the person operating the more dangerous piece of equipment is presumed to not be liable?” Rivard asks, drawing a comparison between the mantra of criminal law: “innocent until proven guilty” and tort law’s equivalent: “innocent until proven liable.”
It’s not a direct analogy, Rivard explains, because in criminal cases the state must prove guilt. But in the case of an injured cyclist, “the victim ends up having to prove that the person with the dangerous instrumentality was at fault.”
For over two decades, Gary Schiffmiller commuted to work by foot or bike at the New Mexico Environment Department by traveling northeast on the Acequia Trail. Every weekday he’d cut onto Baca Street to cross Cerrillos Road. When riding on Baca, “I take the whole damn lane,” Schiffmiller tells SFR, explaining that on roads like Baca, cyclists are entitled to ride in the middle of the lane, like a vehicle.
Painted on a number of Santa Fe’s narrow one-lane roads, including Baca, are “sharrows”—signals that the road is a bike route and cyclists can use the full lane.
Schiffmiller says sharrows don’t work.
“There are plenty of drivers who think share the road means, ‘Those damn bicyclists should get the heck out of my way and share the road,’” he says. Instead, Schiffmiller advocates for posted signs that can’t be worn away, like those painted on the streets, that clearly state, “Bikes may use full lane.”
That’s not the case on Baca, where one winter morning in 2017 Schiffmiller was riding his bike when a car rear-ended him.
Though he didn’t sustain significant injuries from the crash, he suffered whiplash and underwent therapy before getting back on a bike again.
Schiffmiller explains that the driver, who he says hadn’t sufficiently scraped the frost off their windshield, was charged with careless driving, which Schiffmiller calls a slap on the wrist.
When the first draft of redesign options for the final section of Cerrillos Road came to Wheeler and Aune’s attention, they had questions for NMDOT.
Would the transportation department consider traffic-calming techniques like reducing lane sizes? Maybe adding a pedestrian crossing at Railfan Road, which sits just across from NMDOT’s Santa Fe offices? Perhaps lower the posted speed limit? What was the state agency doing to improve pedestrian and bike safety on a road that is notoriously dangerous—by the agency’s own standards—for non-vehicular users?
“We believe that results from a design that strives to maximize…vehicular traffic ought to maximize safety for all users as a concurrent goal,” reads a memo the City of Santa Fe and the local MPO sent to the agency, requesting more attention to multi-modal transportation, which includes all the users of roads.
Following the memo and a period of public engagement, NMDOT has modified its originally proposed designs to include many of the suggestions made by the city and MPO, Wheeler explains.
“I would have said something different a month ago,” she tells SFR. But since then “the DOT has really embraced the feedback in that document.”
Gonzales of the transportation department says his agency took the desires of the city and MPO into consideration. “We’ve dived into what we can do for bicyclists as well as pedestrians,” Gonzales tells SFR. “We’re still working out the details.”
As the agency continues to develop a proposal that will satisfy the city and its drivers, Gonzales explains there is a lot that needs to fit in that narrow section of road, from sidewalks to utility poles.
“To fit all those users in that existing right of way footprint is really challenging,” Gonzales says. “We’re trying not to acquire any commercial properties which is, of course, really expensive and could kill the project.”
Gonzales points to the limitations presented by that portion of Cerrillos Road: The agency only has 80 feet of right of way to work with, despite seeing traffic from 28,000 vehicles per day, and must also incorporate a plan to manage stormwater runoff.
Gonzales confirms that the 1.7 mile section of Cerrillos will maintain two lanes of traffic and the 35 mph posted speed limit that’s in place now.
“In this particular case, there’s so much value to…Santa Fe collaborating with DOT with these goals that we have as a community of being multi-modal and pedestrian and bicycle friendly and safe,” Wheeler says of the recent collaboration with the transportation agency. “Because if we’re not going to stand up to DOT and require those things, who’s going to do it?”
In waiting for the study phase of this Cerrillos redesign—and future road renovations—to advance, advocates patiently wait for signs of progress, knowing these projects take a long time to proceed.
While she’s waiting, Ossola has turned the end of her cycling career into motivation to continue her dream of being a professional athlete. Since recovering from the crash four years ago, she has leveraged her past cycling experience to compete as a professional triathlete—on top of working as a coach and fitness guide.
“I’m still here and I’m still active,” Ossola says. “Now I’ve made it this far to go into helping other people and to start coaching for myself to get people out there.”