City Council Recommends Proceeding on Two Pilot Routes [Recap]

Pilot feasibility study map for CrescentBeverly Hills City Council today recommended a limited set of improvements today for two candidate corridors under the city’s Bike Route Pilot Program. Per direction provided to staff, sharrows and signage on Crescent Drive and Burton Way will be installed once implementation particulars are brought back to Council for approval (at some unspecified date). While the recommended measures on two routes are less than cyclists really need, we must note that this is the first time a policy-making body in Beverly Hills actually gave the nod to bike facilities. This could be the beginning of a bike-friendly city network, or a distraction from the real planning we’ve yet to do. Time will tell! 

After continuing the discussion from the meeting in early July and then postponing the continued item twice, today the Council (minus member Bosse) proceeded quickly to call two routes suitable for improvements. The Bike Route Pilot Program [map] has a history dating back to mid-2010 when the Traffic & Parking Commission formed an ad-hoc Bike Plan Update Committee to heed a former commissioner’s call to revisit our outdated 35-year old Bicycle Master Plan. We’ve since covered the Pilot Program extensively and spoke up at every city meeting on the topic. Read all of our meeting recaps.

When the Pilot discussion came before Council on July 3rd, we expressed opposition and asked Council, Why move ahead on a too-limited program when we haven’t done the basic planning behind it? In today’s meeting we found some agreement on that point. “It’s not ready for prime time,” we heard several times from councilmembers.

For example, safety never really figured into the Pilot discussion; and it was touched on too briefly here. Indeed we don’t even have in hand the necessary collision data. As we’ve noted before, the city doesn’t keep it on hand, so neither the Transportation officials or the police representatives were able to offer much insight into the prevalence of hits-and-run or fatalities over the years.  (We’ve argued for better collision data and made that argument again today, but Council didn’t provide such direction to staff.*)

Nevertheless Council signed on to a limited program of improvements despite councilmember concern about whether sharrows, say, would negatively affect road safety or even give license to cyclists to disobey the law.  Councilmember Barry Brucker, for example, expressed concerned that a sharrow might be the “entitlement” that cyclists need to proceed through stop signs without stopping. (He was assured by our contract engineer that sharrows wouldn’t undermine the traffic control.)

The discussion then touched on what streets are appropriate for improvements; how the broader community would benefit; and how such improvements would fit into the larger mobility context. Here’s our recap. Listen to the full item audio [mp3] or only the Council discussion [mp3]. Full audio timeline: after an introduction by Aaron Kunz, Deputy Director for Transportation, engineer Sarah Brandenberg describes the Pilot routes (at 4:18); Traffic & Parking Commissioner offers his view (9:55); and public speakers follow (11:45).

Where Should Improvements Be Targeted?

The agenda item opened with public comment. Speaking in support of greater connectivity were two speakers from West Hollywood: Transportation Commission member David Eichman talked about the need for coordinated planning in his commissioner capacity; and Victor Omelczenk spoke passionately about the joy of moving about on two wheels and the need for a crosstown route. Victor has participated on that city’s Bicycle Task Force (take note Beverly Hills!) and is a member of  the West Hollywood Bicycle Coalition.

It was great to see our neighbors remind our policymakers that Beverly Hills doesn’t exist in a vacuum. While we rely on the larger region for commerce, we rarely look to regional need when setting surface transportation policy. (Shout out to WeHo Bicycle Coalition organizer Kevin Burton for tipping these folks to the meeting.)

Councilmember Brucker was concerned that smaller residential streets might be inappropriate for improvements, however, and asked the WeHo commissioner whether WeHo improvements focused only on the key corridors. Commissioner Eichman said that lanes exist on Santa Monica (and famously stop at our city’s boundary) and San Vicente now, but that the city has studied Fountain and Willoughby for sharrows and he expects to see them there soon.

Mr. Brucker was more amenable to improving our main thoroughfares – notably suggesting the inevitability of Class II lanes on the corridor – and asked our own staff whether other cities offer guidance for Beverly Hills. “Both Long Beach and Glendale are far ahead,” he said, suggesting that Beverly Hills has some catching up to do. Had staff looked at West Hollywood’s recommendations? (Yes.) Had they visited Long Beach or Glendale, cities that have tendered invitations to staff? (Not yet.)

Mayor Willie Brien agreed that it was time that our city moved ahead and perhaps develop a mobility plan. But today was not the day to embark on the mission for which the ad-hoc Bicycle Plan Update Committee was formed more than two years ago. “At the end of the day we have to start doing something,” the Mayor said, “but we can’t wait for the perfect master plan.” The Mayor then polled the Council for questions and support for specific Pilot routes.

Safety First

Vice-Mayor John Mirisch was most sensitive to the safety issues. He cited the three hits-and-run mentioned by BHPD Sgt. Mader as occurring between July 2011 and June 2012 (of 32 collisions serious enough to warrant a police report during that time). “We’re seeing fatal hit and runs in neighboring cities,” Mr. Mirisch said, despairing of that eventuality here too. Would increasing the penalties reduce the incidence of hits-and-run?  The Sergeant said he didn’t think so (drivers panic and flee rather than make a rational calculation, he thought). The City Attorney said that increased penalties may not stand “at least not on the criminal side” because state law establishes that policy. On the civil side, he said, perhaps monetary penalties could stand. “But a fine would be penal [in nature] and maybe preempted [under state law],” he added.

Councilman Julian Gold made a distinction between recreational riders on one hand and the utility/commuters & “enthusiasts” who already ride our roads on the other. The “serious” cyclists will ride anyway, he said, and presumably can take care of themselves on the street. He focused his discussion of Pilot improvements on the non-regular or “recreational” rider – a line of thinking that is prevalent among policymakers and which bubbled up in the Traffic & Parking Commission discussion in May. Then, commissioners distinguished between the cyclists who today flout the law and those who prefer just a Sunday ride.

The premise that experienced cyclists are somehow safer when cycling unprotected on Beverly Hills streets flies in the face of ample evidence that any cyclist can fall victim to a serious collision, however. Good pavement markings, separated travel lanes, and appropriate signage would instead signal to motorists and cyclists alike that our streets are to be shared. Should any transportation planning proceed without that as a central precept?

Mayor Willie Brien also called out the “recreational riders” to distinguish them from other  riders. While Dr. Brien didn’t eschew the Pilot entirely, he didn’t support improvements on key corridors (as did Mr. Brucker). “Santa Monica might not be the best route,” he said, and indicated a preference for focusing on lightly-traveled routes (like Carmelita). His caveat: only signage, no sharrows.

Though Councilmember Bosse was out today, she did offer her view back in July that some of our most heavily-traveled streets by bicyclists today have little future as designated bike routes in Beverly Hills.  “No to Carmelita and no to Charleville,” she said in July. And Beverly Drive, the spine of our key commercial districts, found no favor either.

Where does that leave us? Today Council did come to consensus on two of the five Pilot candidate routes – Crescent Drive north of Wilshire and Burton Way – but these were the easiest pickings among the routes recommended by the Traffic & Parking Commission in May. It was clear from that Traffic & Parking Commission discussion, and the Council’s July Pilot discussion too, that there exists a range of views about appropriate bike-friendly improvements in Beverly Hills. Everybody has a different opinion and it is very easy to cross off all of the proposals because local opposition can arise against each and every one of them. Read more in Brent Bigler’s take on the meeting over at Examined Spoke.

An Editorial Addendum

As we said in July and again today, the entire Pilot Program isn’t ready for prime time because we simply haven’t done the requisite planning to identify where the collision risk is greatest, or really talked about how connectivity can be improved. That’s because the Pilot program proceeded outside of the city’s usual transportation planning processes. We haven’t even begun to think creatively about improvements available to make our streets and intersections safe today. Without a planning foundation we may never come to an informed consensus about what’s right for cyclists on our streets, we believe.

Moreover, our transportation planners are not respecting good practices. No staffer ever mentions the state’s Complete Streets policy, for example; it’s simply not on our city’s radar. But the Complete Streets [FAQ] policy prescriptions make an excellent departure point for any transportation planning discussion. Why aren’t they part of this process?

Last, we have an example on the books today to go by but we don’t even reference it. Our 35-year old Bicycle Master Plan is actually better for safety and connectivity than is the proposed Pilot Program. Our bike plan talks about regional connectivity and begins to suggest the changes necessary to make our streets fully accessible to cyclists. But that document was never even referenced by city staff during the Pilot process. (Despite dating to 1977, that plan is still on the city’s books today as our bike plan.)

Bike Route Pilot program map

Bike Route Pilot program: even if all five routes were approved it wouldn’t reach all parts of our city.

We argued that the Pilot wasn’t ready for prime time not only because it is too little, too late for cyclists who brave our streets, but because it simply doesn’t deliver the goods for better mobility. No approved route connects our schools or directly accesses our commercial centers. No approved route is one taken by most cyclists through town today. And no route even begins to approach the southeast section of our city. There is not a single Pilot proposed measure that will have a material impact on cycling safety in Beverly Hills.

In fact, no Pilot route reaches south of Wilshire Boulevard. Is that real mobility planning for a post-auto era? Of course not.

Now, we know that it is difficult to retrofit a city engineered for motoring. We see cities throughout the region struggling to adapt. Planning is a political activity and of course elected officials must face the ballot box. They are generally risk-averse. But it’s also true that our officials have done nothing to prepare our residents for today’s two-wheeled road users much less herald the coming onslaught of cyclists tomorrow.

As our city approaches its 100th anniversary, we would do well to remember than Beverly Hills was founded in an era when mobility was largely by foot or streetcar. We did just fine back then until we surrendered our most valuable land – the public street – to the motor car exclusively. If today’s discussion is any indication, taking it back will be much more difficult.

We’ll look forward to seeing these two Pilot candidate routes improved with sharrows and signage but we won’t hold our breath. Incremental progress we expect. Indeed here’s our prediction: This fiscal year will close in June without even this limited set of measures being completed. And we be we don’t even see a single sidewalk bike rack installed by year’s end either. Wanna bet?

*The evening Council formal meeting welcomed a procession of twenty cyclists who described how serious injury collisions (and especially hits-and-run) undermine our sense of road safety in Beverly Hills. Recap coming shortly.