Better Bike dropped in on the Traffic & Parking Commission last week for an update on how the city will promote the upcoming Bike Routes Pilot meetings this month (meeting first next Wednesday and then on April 25th). While we couldn’t stay long enough for the bike update (often it’s pushed to the end of the meeting) we did learn a thing or two about bike collisions: four bicycle injury collisions have been reported in January, with four more following in February, according to Commission Chair Julie Steinberg. That’s too much for our comfort.
Attending a Traffic & Parking Commission meeting can try the patience, but sometimes little gems come of it. Like the revelation that the city pays upwards of 20% of our total parking meter take to companies that process meter point-of-purchase charges. Twenty percent! Or that the long-promised handicapped placard crackdown hasn’t happened yet. After nearly three years of talking about it. And, of course, the $40 million, 10-year parking operations deficit we’re bailing out with General Fund monies.
Then there’s bike safety. Bike-involved collisions evidently happen all the time in Beverly Hills. But nobody really knows to what extent because we simply don’t track them. We learn about them only anecdotally. The Chair herself in this meeting was speaking from anecdotal knowledge when she asked the police department for additional insight into collision prevalence. Could the department return with information about these incidents?
Commissioner Alan Grushcow, an ad-hoc Bike Plan Update Committee member, said that there is an ongoing bicycle process underway and that relevant collision data would be of interest to the committee. “Can we have that information earlier next time,” he asked, “so that we can integrate it into the Commission’s process?” That’s a great question!
What’s surprising is that bike-involved collisions came up at all. This is a commission more focused on traffic flow and parking permits than street safety (in our experience). Indeed we’ve been attending these meetings pretty regularly for 18 months and can’t remember the last time this commission addressed bike collisions head-on as it were.
Nor has the Transportation division of Public Works shown any inclination to address known intersection hazards or even fixing the serious pavement irregularities on Santa Monica Boulevard (right) that force cyclists deep into the vehicular travel lane. And we’ve asked. But cyclists, we’re told, will have to wait until late in 2014 for the fix.
In response to the data inquiry, Aaron Kunz, Deputy Director for Transportation, said that his division is working on it. What’s more, he said that it’s a joint effort across several departments. Really? Does that mean that reported bike collisions will inform Transportation decision-making in the future? Or that commissioners will regularly hear about incidents at commission meetings? For that matter, why hasn’t the Police Department made road injury collisions (never say ‘accident’!) part of their regular report at every meeting?
More Timely Collision Data is Needed
Today we’re simply getting the data too late to make useful decisions at the circumstances or contributing causes become clear. Now, we know that good data exists because the California Highway Patrol makes it available via their SWITRS database. It’s very detailed data, including intersection and some causal factors. Indeed one can simply generate automated reports via the website. But this very useful information is just not available in anything close to real-time. SWITRS hasn’t yet compiled injury data for 2011.
Having collision data in hand would be a very positive step forward for diagnosing safety problems. For example, which of our many poorly-designed intersections contribute most to bike collisions? How often does factors like excessive speed or even rider carelessness contribute to a collision? We need to know today where these collisions are occurring, why, and how frequently. SWITRS is very valuable as an historical record but it doesn’t do much for us in real-time.
Better Bike has requested more recent data but we were told by the PD that the data isn’t automatically aggregated. To search for a ‘bike involved’ collision in the first quarter of 2012, for example, means asking the PD to manually pull it from the BHPD records database. While that’s not too complicated, we also understand that cops have other things to do.
A Reporting Pipeline is Needed Too
It’s one thing to collect and even package the data. It’s another thing to make it available. What we need is something approximating real-time data if we are to know the extent of injury and fatality collisions and what they say about safety on our streets. Think of it as an extension of the police blotter: today I can find out about a petty crime or burglary because the PD reports it to the media. The local outlets run it, often organized by neighborhood. But there are no reported injury or even fatality crash data. Why not?
We need a reporting pipeline! That data is already collected. If we can aggregate it and then make it available to the public, we might well have a new tool to understand safety deficiencies. We hope that’s what Aaron is referring to when he said that multiple departments are working on it.
The Traffic & Parking Commission is in a unique position to play an advisory role by, for example, suggesting a policy change that might required automated reporting of collision data, much like the police blotter. Imagine a Twitter feed that simply broadcasts recent collisions with the key factors included.
Even better, let’s create a BHPD API so that create a machine-readable API so that the collision data is searchable via a website. That takes the feed idea one step further: a site like Better Bike could create a web widget to allow our readers to specify an intersection, a neighborhood, or a date range to receive near real-time, constantly updated collision data. So if I take a spill at Wilshire & Santa Monica, simply by plugging my query into a Better Bike search box I can know if there have been any other incidents there. Shouldn’t Transportation have access to that kind of specific data too?
Today, a collision data API is pie-in-the-sky for Beverly Hills. In many cities, though, that kind of data is finding open arms among the stakeholder community wherein ordinary folks working on caffeine and charity find new uses for city data. Turn on that data ‘fire hose,’ they say, and we’ll find a way to use the flow. New York, San Francisco, and other big cities are leading the charge to release city data, and Beverly Hills, as a ‘smart city’ with a ‘smart city committee’ could join them.
That can happen with the Traffic & Parking Commission‘s help. We’ve put these ideas to the BHPD informally, but we need the Commission to play a more active role in connecting us with tools that we need to keep ourselves safe.
Traffic & Parking Commission: A New Mandate?
But today our Traffic & Parking Commission is tasked primarily with parking issues. Shouldn’t we be focusing more directly on safety? We have an epidemic of blatant red-light running on Wilshire, for example, and we know from police updates that collisions result. Not infrequently we see the broken plastic on the ground. But where is the data and the enforcement? An active commission could request it.
The Chair’s interest in bicycle-involved collisions is perhaps a good sign. Let’s rechristen this body as the new Beverly Hills ‘Mobility and Safety Commission.’ Isn’t that the problem that needs to be addressed anyway?
Those Community Bike Meetings….
We attended this Traffic & Parking Commission meeting because we wanted to know how the city will promote these public meetings. Will it be underwhelming like the Bike Plan Update Committee’s efforts to date? Notice for those meetings came literally the day before, which doesn’t encourage participation. Would these meetings be different?
We couldn’t stay late to hear the bike update so we went to the city’s on-demand multimedia page where meeting audio is typically posted. But it turns out that this commission hasn’t posted meeting audio since April of 2011. That’s a year ago. Almost alone among city commissions, the T&P Commission leaves stakeholders to wonder what’s been accomplished at their meetings. (Public Works, parent department of Transportation, is just as bad.)
What we do know is that the city has mailed out postcards (above) to residents. But Better Bike is headquartered on one of the identified Pilot bike routes [< pdf map] yet we’ve not received one. It looks like we won’t be noticed for the Wednesday meeting until late Monday? That doesn’t encourage participation either, does it?
But it does fit with the Public Works philosophy when it comes to public communication: the less the better. When we went to Public Works to pick up a few cars, we noticed that the info kiosk (at right) was pretty bare. Is this all the public needs to know about, say, the capital improvement projects underway in our city?
We at Better Bike will be walking flyers to local businesses and bike shops to generate some interest in these Pilot bike routes [pdf] community meetings. Want a stack to distribute around town? Let us know.