How NOT to Make a Street Safety Video

dangerstoppers video titleWe watched the new City of Beverly Hills video ‘Watch Your Walk,’ part of the Dangerstoppers series co-produced by the Beverly Hills Police Department and the city’s Health and Safety Commission, because we were curious what kind of safety advice City Hall dispenses. And true to this trouble-titled video, pedestrians are admonished to take extra care because drivers are off-the-hook for their bad road behavior.

We wondered, why has Beverly Hills suddenly gotten into the street safety business? For years the city has turned a blind eye to driver aggression streets (especially when it’s directed at those who ride a bicycle). Perhaps officials were prompted to act by the average six pedestrians injured every month on Beverly Hills streets. That rate has not declined over the past five years (as our own number-crunching of BHPD data shows, below).

All collisions 2008-2013 graphOr maybe the ‘Watch Your Walk’ video was occasioned by the two collision fatalities this past Spring [per the BHPD monthly traffic report]. That should be a wake-up call to take street safety seriously, and it was. Officials focused attention to long-existent problems in the hillsides. But what about the rest of the city? As we’ve earlier noted, the Traffic and Parking Commission receives BHPD data every month but doesn’t ask many questions about why people are injured so reliably on our streets. Presumably these commissioners chalk it up to ‘accidents.’ Well, we never say ‘accident’ because most often, collisions occur when someone fails to take due care on the road.

Unlike the commission, we’ve wondered why crash injuries continue at that high level. So we looked to data. And from our perspective, it’s no wonder why Beverly Hills remains on par with the worst of small cities in California where street safety is concerned: our officials themselves are not taking due care to prevent collisions. For example, faded crosswalks are the rule here. (We don’t even use thermoplastic like many cities do for its durability.) And few speed limit signs remind drivers to limit slow to 25 mph on residential streets. Most important, there exists near-zero police enforcement to sanction those speeders and red-light runners.

In fact, we’ve grown so concerned about the lack of traffic enforcement that we provided this supportive statement to the Traffic Safety Coalition, which is the red light camera trade association:

The single greatest threat to walkers and bikers in Beverly Hills is the driver who fails to stop at a red light. At every light change on major corridors, two, three, even four drivers run the red, and often sufficiently late to strike someone who’s entered the crosswalk or intersection… So who’s minding the store where safety is concerned? Perhaps automated enforcement is the only option left if our officials value the safety of our walkers and bikers as much as I do. – Mark Elliot, Better Bike

Unlike human officers, our automated enforcement is on the job 24-7 and issues 1200-1400 tickets every month within city limits. But witness the declining number of officer-issued citations:

Signed citations 2008-2013 graphOur police management chalks it up to under-staffing, to officers on temporary disability or vacation, to resource demands elsewhere. But such a steady decline over five years? Doesn’t that suggest some mismanagement of enforcement priorities by the City Manager, Jeff Kolin?

We welcome the Health and Safety Commission’s effort to prop up walker safety precisely where our Traffic and Parking Commission fears to tread. As we all share the road, and that makes it’s important for all of us to recognize our responsibility to keep all road users safe. But the problem with the Dangerstoppers video is that it heaps responsibility upon pedestrians; drivers get a pass. Have a look at the video, co-produced by the Health and Safety Commission and BHPD.

Dangerstoppers: The Cop

dangerstoppers video Office DowlingLet’s take a brief look at the key points made in the video, starting with the Beverly Hills Police Department’s Sgt. Scott Dowling, presented here as an expert. He begins:

I’m tired of responding to accidents involving vehicles versus pedestrians….It’s a two-prong approach: the first is a strict enforcement by law enforcement, the second is education. And I’m here to teach you.

He may be hear to teach, but from the chart at top we can see that his department is not going to strictly enforce. Yet Officer Dowling misinforms when citing the following “five common reasons” for accidents:

  • Pedestrians who ‘dart-and-dash’ into an unmarked crosswalk “at a pretty fast clip,” perhaps while distracted, into the driver’s way;
  • pedestrians who play ‘chicken’ with drivers by crossing a marked crosswalk once the near driver stops, though presumably poses a danger to the other drivers who plow on through;
  • pedestrians who impede drivers trying to turn right at a signaled crosswalk (for some reason called a ‘blind turn’ in the video);
  • pedestrians (like the woman with child, at right) who present a ‘mid-block surprise’ to drivers when they cross a marked crosswalk with the walk signal; and the perennial favorite,
  • pedestrian ‘jaywalkers’ who pop out between parked cars to put themselves at risk.
dangerstoppers video unmarked crosswalk

Pedestrians have right-of-way at every unmarked crosswalk. And many in Beverly Hills like this one are four-way stops!

While we agree with that last admonition (recall the memorable NYC campaign, “cross at the green, not in-between”), the others may be common sense but aren’t reflective of state or local law. For one thing, pedestrians have the right of way at every marked and unmarked crosswalk (left). Moreover, a pedestrian may rightly wear earbuds, or talk into a phone, or even conduct an imaginary orchestra while crossing the street.  Distracted pedestrians present little to anybody but themselves.

But we should focus on driver distractions as vehicles can do great damage.* Witness the vignette in this video wherein the driver plows into the crosswalk even after the pedestrian has entered it (below). Here the ‘blind turn’ is anything but blind; the sightlines are clear. If only the driver took due care.

dangerstoppers video signaled crosswalkAnd then there is the ‘mid-block surprise’ (right). What are we to make of a safety video that shows a pedestrian legally crossing with the green walk sign in a fully signaled mid-block crosswalk… but then it puts responsibility on her to not be a ‘surprise’ to drivers? Drivers have the red light and have to stop.

As for bad advice, this video isn’t the first example of law enforcement putting the thumb on the scale in the drivers’ favor. We saw it in the Blue Ribbon process when BHPD Sgt. Mader ventured that a bike lane for Santa Monica Boulevard would be dangerous (a theory debunked by PD brass); and we experience the presumption of guilt when an officer responds to a bike-involved collision. Though this video effectively puts the responsibility for safe streets on pedestrians for a change.

Dangerstoppers: The Nurse

dangerstoppers video nurse StewartCedars nurse Donovan Stewart offers some common sense suggestions for keeping safe in the city. (Officer Dowling notes that ‘urban environments’ are where 73% of deaths occur, though without defining the term ‘urban.’) There are plenty of distractions, Stewart says, and he dispenses with this helpful homespun tip: “The same as we would say for children: look left and right before crossing the street.” Good advice.

The video elaborates with a few more canards that in certain contexts may well be recommended but in no way conflict with state or local law:

  • “No texting while walking,” it says, though it is fully legal to text and walk (it’s even legal to work a phone by hand while driving a motor vehicle – if not texting);
  • “no crossing streets with earphones/earbuds” the video says, though it is perfectly legal (riders note: only one earbud under state law!);
  • “make eye contact with the driver” for your safety – and perhaps wave our arms to alert any of the 40,000 drivers daily on major boulevards that we need to cross safely?; and our favorite,
  • “when walking at night, wear bright clothing or reflective gear so that a driver can see you….”

What could be next: a pedestrian helmet law?

The Dangerstoppers video is particularly notable for what isn’t addressed. It makes no mention of speed and the dangers it presents in ‘urban environments.’ On that note, we’ve corresponded with the city again recently and yet again about our own local street where drag-racing is the new sport. Though speed is often a contributing factor in crash injuries, our Traffic and Parking Commission has simply never addressed it.

dangerstoppers video pedestrian has the right of wayThe video doesn’t remind drivers that ‘stop’ means stop! We’ve groused to the city about how frequently drivers run red lights on our major thoroughfares (even when automated cameras keep watch). Casual observation shows that many don’t heed stop signs even. Yet the video puts the responsibility solely on the pedestrian. But pedestrians need not stop as we have the right-of-way in every marked crosswalk and at every alley end and even in every unmarked crosswalk.

The video doesn’t note that engineering and design play a role in street safety. From the wide corridors of postwar suburbs (called ‘dangerous by design’ in this report) to local streets like ours, engineering our streets to be ‘complete’ and accessible to all road users makes a difference in safety. Looked at another way, not instituting traffic-calming treatment on residential street is a policy decision. The Walkable and Livable Communities Institute can tell you all about it. (Check out their traffic calming videos.)

Designing for speed street cross section

Courtesy of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute.

The Take-Away: Safety is the City’s Job, Not the Pedestrian’s Responsibility

From watching the Beverly Hills video, you’re forgiven for thinking that streets that by design speed the traffic aren’t of your concern. Or that  faded crosswalks that render pedestrians less-visible to drivers (especially at night) are none of your business. Or that you need to wear reflective clothing to be seen, and need to defer to drivers when you have the right of way. That’s because the burden of self-preservation falls to you, the pedestrian.

But just as streets can be engineered to be safe and laws are there to be enforced for pubic health, welfare and safety, we should expect our transportation officials and policymakers to step up and take responsibility – not shoulder it off on pedestrians.

This video closes with Officer Dowling reminding us, “It’s the goal of the Beverly Hills Police Department to make the road safe, and it’s your responsibility to help.” We beg to differ: it’s the responsibility of the police and the city to make our roads safe. That’s a responsibility and not a goal. It’s also the responsibility of all road users (including drivers and riders) to follow the law and take due care when sharing the road. And yes, use common sense when sharing it. If there’s a takeaway from this video it’s that common sense is necessary but not sufficient to keep us whole.

Let’s hope the Health and Safety Commission recognizes the error, and in the next Dangerstoppers video puts responsibility for road safety where it belongs: with officials. Let’s hear from the BHPD about its “strict enforcement” when their own data suggests that enforcement is a sloughed-off responsibility. Let’s ask Traffic and Parking Commission members about what they’re doing to lower the persistent (high) level of collision injuries when they’re not even asking basic questions.

And let’s hear from Susan Healey Keene, Director of the Community Development Department (which has responsibility for transportation planning); and also Aaron Kunz, Deputy Director for Transportation.

And if we’re looking to improve road-user behavior, let’s start admonishing the road users who bring the harm: drivers in two-ton boxes who fail to recognize their duty of care under the law. A prior Dangerstoppers video addresses distracted driving. That’s fine and good. But there’s much more to do to get drivers to behave properly. Then we can talk about what pedestrians and riders can do to make our streets sharable.

*Federal figures put domestic vehicle collision deaths at 35,000 for 2012, according to the National Transportation Safety Administration.

Strava App Data Maps Rides for Planners, Too

strava logoReader Brent Bigler recently forwarded our way a Strava heatmap that shows the frequency of rides through Beverly Hills. Riders use Strava’s mobile app to track rides and training performance. And the data collected by the app in the aggregate is extremely useful to riders and planners alike. Let’s take a closer look at the heatmap and talk with Strava’s data jockey to learn more about what the data mean.

Everybody in Los Angeles, driver, walker and biker alike, has a favorite route to recommend. Riding Mid-City to Santa Monica? Take 3rd street, snake through the Civic Center parking structure, and you’ll pop out on Rexford Dr. near Santa Monica Boulevard. (Eastbounders take the Civic Center Drive turnoff at City Hall and then turn right to reach 3rd). Riding Beverly Hills to Venice? Try Beverwil south to National, then west to Overland and south again to Venice.

But you don’t need to take our word for it with Strava’s app-generated data. One look at the heatmap (filtered for bike data) shows that many riders take these recommended routes.

Strava Beverly Hills heatmap

Of course the most popular routes are through streets like Santa Monica, Wilshire, Olympic boulevards and Burton Way. But secondary streets get a lot of use too, and using Strava data could be a transformational tool for city transportation officials when identifying safe bike routes as our 1977 Bicycle Master Plan recommends.

Remember that when City Council a year ago approved limited  bike lanes and sharrows under a pilot project, they didn’t heed the advice of riders, who identified Beverly Drive, Santa Monica Boulevard, and Wilshire alternatives Charleville Drive and Gregory Way as the best routes for bike-friendly treatments. We also suggested that Elevado (rather than the staff-recommended Carmelita) offers good crosstown connectivity. These recommendations are supported by the Strava data.

Backbone missing piece map

Beverly Hills is the missing link in our regional bike route network.

Not to mention the need for class II bicycle lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard. That was a proposal upon which a Council majority has frowned. Yet our Beverly Hills segment of this regional corridor begs for officials to close the gap in the Westside’s ‘backbone’ bikeway network.

More About the Heatmap

The Strava system uses a mobile app to track runners and riders via global positioning system (GPS) satellites. The GPS  “pulses” triangulate rider location (each pinpoints a user in space and time) and that data is then collected by Strava and aggregated to map the individual rider’s route as well as route popularity more generally. Strava at HQ maps the data points and out pops a heatmap of ride frequency.

Of course it’s not quite that simple. We asked Strava’s GIS lead, Brian Riordan, how the heatmap is generated. The data for the heatmap is displayed dynamically on demand. So that each time the map is resized, the ride data is redrawn and “re-normalized” at the scale of the regenerated map. Instead of merely moving the same data around in the browser, it is re-plotted to show subtleties in the relative popularity of displayed routes.

Strava map redraws according to zoomWe can see this from the screen capture at right (cropped to show only Beverly Hills). We begin with a broader view including West Los Angeles. When we zoom into BH, changing scale, differences emerge in the relative popularity of the secondary routes. We see it in the subtle color changes on these routes.

There are some caveats to the Strava heatmap, however. It’s not a real-time metric; the data is current only through October. And there is little the user can do to dice-and-slice this data: the heatmap only allows limited color tweaking and no capacity exists for the user to fiddle with thresholds to dynamically distinguish more heavily-traveled secondary routes from less-traveled secondary routes. Is the ratio of rides on Santa Monica relative to Carmelita only 2:1, or do SM trips greatly outnumber Carmelita trips by as much as 10:1? We don’t know. Likewise with Elevado and Carmelita: they visually they rank more or less the same, but is one more frequently ridden? A threshold slider might help us dynamically tease out the difference.

More About Strava

More important as a caveat is the data itself. Where is it coming from? Strava is embraced as a training tool or fitness tracker and so naturally appeals to sport-minded riders. We’d like to see the app find a representative user base including commuters and recreational riders too. San Francisco-based Strava is reaching a wider audience, Brian says, given the incorporation of smartphones into exercise regimens. So Strava data will likely be more representative (and more fine grained) going forward. (Check out the Strava engineering blog to see the uses to which the app’s data can be put.)

And what about all that good data? How can we make good use of it to create safe and practical bike routes? Strava offers a ‘Metro’ product to local governments like Beverly Hills and the County of Los Angeles (as well as advocacy organizations):

Using Strava Metro, departments of transportation and city planners, as well as advocacy groups and corporations, can make informed and effective decisions when planning, maintaining, and upgrading cycling and pedestrian corridors….Strava Metro data enables DOTs and advocacy groups to perform detailed analyses and glean insights into cycling and running patterns dissected by time of day, day of week, season and local geography. – Metro website

Needless to say, there is value to digging into the aggregated data especially a regional level where scale gives us a much broader picture of routes taken. Forget route recommendations: Strava essentially crowdsources the best routes!

What Does the Heatmap Say About Beverly Hills?

Looking at the mapped data for Beverly Hills, a few things are immediately apparent:

Santa Monica Boulevard is a regional connector. We knew it was. So why not designate and improve it as such? Today it is a dangerous ride, so dangerous, in fact, that Beverly Hills councilmember Nancy Krasne called riders there “organ donors.” Of course she refused to consider a separate bike lane there, calling it “unsafe.” But we see improving safety on this defacto regional connector a no-brainer.

Crosstown routes rule. Even major crosstown boulevards like Wilshire, Santa Monica and Wilshire see frequent riders despite these corridors being intimidating for all but the more experienced road-warriors. As for secondary routes, several come to the foreground. To the north, Elevado emerges as a favored route. Why not? It connects Sunset to Santa Monica via a handy shortcut through the Hilton property (via Whittier and Merv Griffin Way). To the south, Charleville appears to be a favored alternative to Wilshire (it also connects three schools) while Gregory, wider and less congested than Charleville, is a favored alternative to Olympic.

Beverly Drive is a favorite north-south route. Not only because it’s a commercial spine, but also because it connects to Beverwill and Culver City beyond. Unfortunately, Council refused to consider Beverly Drive for bike-friendly improvements. Surprisingly, Beverly Glen and Coldwater also see riders, but we expect given the grade in the canyons that these are spandex folks.

What’s most remarkable is that none of the most frequently-chosen routes in Beverly Hills at least as displayed by the Strava heatmap have received a single bike-friendly or safety-improving treatment like a lane, sharrow, or signage (except Burton Way). And yet they’re all popular because they take riders where we need to go. Of course that’s why many of them are congested with vehicles too. The difference is that City of Beverly Hills welcomes motorists but not riders despite our own Sustainable City Plan’s emphasis on multimodal mobility.

Santa Monica Blvd Recap & Update

Recently we spoke with Aaron Kunz, Deputy Director for Transportation, about Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction and what to next expect in the process. Recall that back in March, the Council majority seemed unwilling to concede an extra foot of width to accommodate them. But the ballooning cost estimate stalled the project, and the Council deferred action pending more information about costs and traffic mitigation. Santa Monica Boulevard: Quick Recap of the Timeline The reconstruction of Santa Monica Boulevard has proved to be a much greater challenge than expected when the project was put on the city’s agenda in September of 2010. Back then, construction was anticipated to begin mid-2013. But that timeline began to slide in early 2012 when, prior … Continue reading

Beverly Hills Chamber Addresses SM Blvd Bike Lanes

The Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce’s Government Affairs Committee is inviting for a discussion debate representatives from the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, the pro-bike community, and northside neighbors opposed to lanes for tomorrow’s Santa Monica Boulevard. Scheduled for August 21st at 8am, the GAC meeting will also fold in a discussion of this fall’s ballot propositions. But the sparks will likely come from the pro and con views on the bicycle lanes. We hope you can make it! Scroll for details. Because proposed lanes would negatively affect no businesses, and because park ‘preservation’ is not generally on the Chamber’s agenda, we’re wondering why the Chamber would make this issue part of its government affairs meeting. After all, the Chamber … Continue reading

City Disses Cycling, Promotes Sham ‘Heart Healthy’ Event

Beverly Hills Healthy City

Who in Beverly Hills City Hall thinks that marketing a local luxe hotel and medical practice will lead to better community health outcomes? Perhaps only a city that turns its back on cycling for fun, fitness, and recreation could embrace the ‘Love Your Body’ workshop promoted in this city press release. It’s part of a new initiative, ‘Beverly Hills Healthy City,’ which prompts us to get moving. Literally! The Mayor, Lili Bosse, leads a popular Monday morning walk. Now we’re all for active mobility, but we don’t think a workshop offering “inspirational personal wellness solutions” is the best means to healthy ends. But then who are we to quibble about a ‘heart healthy’ workshop like ‘Love Your Body’? We have … Continue reading