City Council Study Session: Complete Streets Mentioned

Visualization of a bike lane and active transportation corridor on Santa Monica BoulevardAn update following today’s City Council’s April 17th Study Session. In our earlier review of the draft request for proposals (RFP) for the Santa Monica Boulevard conceptual design, we noted that RFP language seemed to slight the bike lanes option. We also noted that it presumed community opposition to boulevard expansion for lanes, and we also observed that the draft RFP failed to include Complete Streets principles. We argued that because the RFP establishes bidder expectations, it’s important to craft it carefully. Councilmembers agreed and sent it back for revisions. Here’s the recap.

In presenting the draft RFP, Transportation Deputy Aaron Kunz was quite neutral on bike lanes – somewhat in contrast to the RFP that discounted lanes among “enhancement options” open to Council. Aaron also noted that there is substantial rider interest in on-boulevard (Class II) lanes, which we know because the city hears that via the Bike Route Pilot program outreach currently, and because participants in the Westside Cities Council of Governments regional ‘gap closure’ outreach also identified Santa Monica lanes as a priority.

Councilmember Bosse spoke up first in defense of making our city more hospitable to cyclists, and in particular keeping bike lane options open for the boulevard. “The RFP lacks some imagination, I agree,” she said. “Bike-friendly is a goal for all of us, and the language in the RFP should be, ‘It’s a priority for our community.'” Councilmember Bosse also addressed the presumption of community opposition rather than confirmation. “Those conversations [about expansion] were in the past. [The question] ‘Is there a way to add a bike lane?’ wasn’t studied. We need better input from the community.”

Vice-Mayor Mirisch also spoke up clearly in favor of re-crafting the RFP.  His remarks suggested that bike lanes were a priority for him too. “Let’s look for ways to say yes to bike lanes in both directions rather than a reason to say no,” he said.

Councilman (and former Mayor) Brucker, who led the city to its sustainability plan [pdf] in 2009, acknowledged that part of the Beverly Gardens Park (appx. 20 feet) is “part of the streetscape” but noted sensitivity to sacrificing it. “It’s green space, and we’ll need a lot of communication with our residents if we’re going to create [from it] space for a bike lane. Everybody’s goal is to be bike-friendly,” he said, “and the community’s goal is not to give up green space.”

Mayor Brien, while not committed to seeing lanes on the boulevard is nevertheless aware that other cities are moving forward with bike facilities. He referenced the Westside Cities Council of Governments efforts to close bike facilities gaps and to bring the greater Westside around a common bike share platform and vendor. (Read our COG meeting recap.) Perhaps he can be persuaded…

A real surprise was our City Manager, Jeff Kolin. Long rumored to be an avid cyclist, he’s never spoken up in any city meeting where bike improvements were referenced. Today he spoke up to support bike infrastructure. “I’m very supportive of complete streets and supportive of bike lanes,” he said. He then put an end to conjecture about how much green space might be needed. “Our preliminary analysis suggests to widen [the boulevard] by 5 feet for lanes in both directions.” (That’s more than we expected, but it is better to have a known figure than to argue with imprecision.) He echoed Councilmember Brucker when he added, “We’re facing competing interests in our community.”

His remarks raised two questions: Does that 5 feet include that landscaped median that is identified as an optional “enhancement”? And are there really competing interests at play here? Every planning decision involved competing interests; policymaking is about balancing them for the greater good. (We at Better Bike believe that mode-separated traffic is safer for cyclists, less aggravating to motorists, and is above all a step forward into the multimodal future that our plans describe.)

Complete Streets Finds a Place in Beverly Hills

Perhaps the most significant outcome from today’s Council discussion is that Complete Streets principles may yet find expression on tomorrow’s Santa Monica Boulevard. The support was clear for including Complete Streets in the guidance we give to bidders. Councilmember Bosse:

Complete streets is missing in the RFP. As a city we’re late in the game; we’re trailing with regard to bike mobility. Los Angeles, Santa Monica, West Hollywood [are ahead of us]. We want to be the best. We need to make it a priority, and the RFP doesn’t show it…We can do a better job. The RFP needs to be refined.

Vice Mayor Mirisch directly engaged that omission when he asked Aaron, “What is the city’s engagement with Complete Streets?” Aaron replied that the concepts are in the General Plan’s circulation element (if not the actual language). “We’re continuing to educate ourselves,” he said. “It’s not in this RFP but we’re paying full attention [to the principles].”

(Note: the term ‘complete streets’ is not explicitly invoked in our Circulation Element. Nor is the underlying principle – equity in access for all road users regardless of age or ability – substantially represented in it.)

Vice Mayor Mirisch echoed what seemed like a unanimity across the Council about the merits of explicitly including Complete Streets language in the RFP and design principles on the corridor. “I suggest, as Mr. Elliot said, that [the RFP] conform to Complete Streets principles.” And with that sentiment, the Council referred the draft RFP back to Transportation.

The next draft of the RFP should neutralize the language that discounted bike lanes; address the presumed community opposition; and explicitly include Complete Streets principles. “You have your direction,” the Mayor said to Transportation.