Small Town Advocacy in BH: Opportunities & Constraints

beverly hills city hallIf you want to advocate for a policy change in Beverly Hills,  take some comfort that we’re a small town at heart. You’ll see a councilmember at the farmers market now and again. City Hall is close by enough to touch, after all. Staffers will likely answer your phone call. What’s best is that good ideas don’t necessarily go to an early grave like they might in Los Angeles, where they’re lost in committee. Here your good idea will at least get an honest hearing in Council. So why is it that a family-friendly notion like road safety finds so little traction here?

Well, Beverly Hills is a small town. Why can’t we make the change that we need? For one thing, we don’t have the staff resources available to a larger city. We have the money, of course; this year we’ll give $4.5 million to our Conference and Visitors Bureau to market Beverly Hills. But money alone won’t buy us transformative change. For that we need vision, political leadership, and staff-level creative capacity. The latter is sometimes in short supply in a small town, and Beverly Hills is no exception.

Vision Starts at the Top

It’s an article of faith that vision is communicated down the organizational pyramid. Unfortunately, our City Council has historically drawn from establishment folks who hail mostly from the northern precincts where change is greeted by trepidation. Hence a parochial perspective prevails and we keep on the same path we always have. That is conspicuously the case with mobility: we’re wedded to an auto-era model, and embracing a post-auto paradigm shift to non-motor modes is difficult to grasp.

In one respect that’s the lot of the small city. Council positions are part-time and the honorarium is modest. Candidates step forward if they have the time and money to serve. By contrast, City of Los Angeles pays more than $150,000/yr per councilmember and an available seat can attract a dozen candidates.

Beverly Hills organization chart 2013If vision indeed comes from the top, let’s take a look at the city’s organization chart. The voters sit atop local government and here we can’t deny that a progressive vision is lacking. We just don’t have a progressive base established here in Beverly Hills. Heck, we’re the epitome of bourgeois living! For many, life is good; green lawns and a low crime rate are our inheritance.

On the South-of-Santa-Monica-Boulevard side, though, it’s a little different. The police blotter shows we’re vulnerable to burglary and our sidewalks and commercial districts are simply not maintained to as high a standard as elsewhere. Where a progressive bloc should form is instead undermined by multifamily housing and a younger, transient residential base seemingly less-interested in civic affairs. Local newspapers lay unmolested on the sidewalks. Where southside civic consciousness takes a breather the folks on the northside step forward.

Residents in multifamily housing should be the natural advocates for safe streets. We live closer to services so tend to walk more. Appearances suggest that we’re more likely to ride a bicycle to get around town. But when it comes to street safety our interests simply aren’t shared by those on the northside. And historically haven’t been reflected by the City Council.

Our former Mayor Jimmy Delshad, for example, who is well-known for symbolizing the ascent of Iranian ex-pats in Beverly Hills, put it bluntly when he opposed efforts to install bicycle lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard a few years ago. The corridor may require a modest expansion (a foot or three beyond today’s curb) to provide space for lanes needed to plug the gap. Yet Delshad proclaimed in Council chambers, “We are not widening the boulevard!” Will that view prevail on the Council dais when it comes time this fall to give thumbs-up or down to the bike lane? That’s our work, right?

The Intertwined Roots of Parochialism

It’s perfectly understandable that Beverly Hills policymakers would focus on their own constituency. They rub elbows at fundraisers and functions with folks from their same social circles, of course, and how many of them are asking for bike lanes or sharrows? Moreover, the burghers of Beverly Hills make common cause with haute bourgeois  landowners and hoteliers – the interests that bring in the crucial sales and occupancy taxes that keep our city afloat. Few of them clamor for safe streets.

Even finding a sympathetic ear among our smaller retailers is a challenge. We saw that cracking our Chamber‘s single-minded focus on making parking available for businesses in the triangle was as much of a long shot as getting our city’s Small Business Task Force members to recognize that riders do shop locally (read its report). Other cities have found that to their great benefit cyclists reanimate forlorn strips. Yet cyclists go completely unacknowledged in our Chamber’s city-funded ‘shop local’ promo program. [Update: as of April 2014 the link returns a ‘404’ error. It’s a quiet demise to a program that seemingly was rolled out for the City Council funding. It never had much heft behind it.]

The blinkered vision that keeps safety improvements from Beverly Hills streets can find its full expression among members of our Traffic and Parking Commission who are drawn from the same social circles. Four of five members of the commission live on the northside and three of five are motorists at heart. For them, according to their remarks, riders are scofflaws and bike facilities are a giveaway that comes at the expense of motorists. That’s the old zero-sum argument.

Commission members are each entitled to his view, but this is an advisory body that recommends policy changes to Council. In theory its remit covers everything mobility-related, from road safety to parking. And in fact the modest Pilot bike lane program bubbled up though this commission, emerging from its ad-hoc Bicycle Plan Update Committee and through the entire commission. (The ad-hoc committee has been otherwise moribund since formation almost four years ago). But in practice the commission considers mobility to be simply automobility; there is no room for bike riders on their metaphorical street.

Commissioner Julie Steinberg firmly takes the ‘windshield view’ on mobility. Rather than focus on road safety, her pet issue is tour bus blight. Vice Chair Andy Licht has proven himself to be no friend to cyclists. Bike-foe Commissioner Lester J. Friedman is no better for cyclists. Steinberg was reappointed and her current term expires in January of 2015. Licht has also been reappointed; his term is up in March of 2016. Friedman’s term is up in February 2017. All were reappointed with zero input from the cycling community.

Two members of the commission better understand the needs of cyclists, however: Commissioner Jeff Levine and current Chair Alan Grushcow. Both sit on the (largely hypothetical) ad-hoc Bike Plan Update Committee. But both have met with riders and their advocates under the Pilot program process and know our needs. They too were reappointed. Levine’s term ends in April of 2014 and Grushcow is up in September of 2015.

We residents and riders have a responsibility to participate in commission appointments, which are made in Council open session. Public comment is invited. But we have fallen down on the job of providing our perspective. As a result, important commissions like Planning and Traffic draw largely from that same circle of establishment folks and parochial (read: pro-motor) interests without challenge or competition.

What difference does it make you ask? Consider that no city official stepped forward during our General Plan update process in 2010 to say that the time was right to update our Bicycle Master Plan. So that plan, authored in 1977, simply languishes.

At a time when other cities were moving ahead with good transportation plans (like New York under through the vision of transport commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan) and creating bicycle lanes, Beverly Hills doubled-down on the car. But this view is out of sync with the prevailing wisdom especially in neighboring cities like Santa Monica, Los Angeles and West Hollywood. Each recognizes the need for a new vision if we are to realize the benefits of multimodal mobility just as our own plans say.

We’ll have a long wait to remake the Traffic and Parking Commission, sure, but change will start with more progressive folks stepping up for commission duty. This is the long game: with few exceptions these city commissions are stepping-stones for Council candidacies.

Creativity Must Bubble-Up From the Bottom Too

How else can we nudge the old City Hall thinking in a new direction? It must happen from the bottom up too. Here the challenge to get our staff to think more creatively is especially acute. We’re a small city with a bench not that deep, after all, and they may not always be conversant with new technologies or the latest ideas. In addition, our high city salaries and plush benefits mean low turnover. Not much new staff blood flows through the old city hall arteries.

Our transportation division presents an example of how perfectly sensible safe streets concepts and treatments fail to find traction. How can we get good ideas bubbling-up from department desk to City Council and ultimately onto our streets?

First, we need a deeper bench of talented hitters. Our transportation staff is small and remains wedded to a car-centric notion of mobility that hails from the auto era. Until a few years ago, in fact, transportation officials appeared unfamiliar with the growing prevalence of cycling as well as the need to plan for a non-motor mobility future. If staff can’t grasp the best practices in the field, we should hasten their exit and replenish the ranks.

Second, we have to rethink how we plan for transportation. That means more visionary leadership at the department level. It will come as no news to riders that Beverly Hills transportation policy is focused on moving metal rather than people. In fact our Traffic and Parking Commission is charged under the municipal code with facilitating traffic flow. But mobility is too important to our city to simply reduce it to vehicular travel; instead we need to create a mobility planner position in order to ensure that we’re safely and efficiently move people too.

(This week Council will approve the move of our transportation planning and engineering functions from the Public Works department to Community Development, where land use is regulated. That makes all the sense in the world. Read the ordinance.)

Third, there exists a baked-in aversion to risk (or even a climate of fear) that pervades city hall. It impedes the adoption of new practices or the consideration of outside-the-box ideas. Staff should be encouraged to bring new ideas to the table. (But see point #1.)  Some administrative measures (like signage) need no Council approval as our departments are already charged with keeping streets safe. Such low-hanging fruit shouldn’t get lost in clinging to an auto-era mindset. Can’t we move forward on such modest measures as signage?

What About Us Bike Advocates?

Clearly there is a role for mobility advocates to play in order to drag our city into an era of 21st century multimodal mobility planning. For one thing, we can bring staff up to speed with the best practices. We’re nothing if not an information-sharing community, after all. But the challenge has been to find a receptive ear among transportation officials not evidently open to suggestion. As a result, many good ideas like those communicated in any of the first, second, third, fourth and fifth meeting with bike advocates have simply fallen by the wayside. We hope that this will change now that transportation responsibilities falls under Community Development director Susan Healy Keene.

What about that climate of fear and aversion to risk? That we advocates can’t do much about. It comes down to good management, and that falls to the City Manager, currently Jeff Kolin, who establishes expectations, oversees implementation, and crafts the climate within which staffers work. (We recently had something to say about the role of the City Manager.)

The most critical tasks for any advocate for safe streets is to simply spread the word, to vote for the candidates who represent our interests, and to participate in Council and commission meetings. If you are a rider interested in road safety, apprize yourself about the candidates who would endorse ‘complete streets’ principles, for example, and vote for them. In the upcoming election, Better Bike will help you make the right choices.

That is our job: to participate. Should bike advocates be the ones pushing complete streets principles? Need bicycle advocates harangue officials for bike lanes and basic safety measures like state-approved signage? Yes and yes. Because officials see the problems but for the variety of reasons suggested above don’t step forward to address them. In fact, complete streets principles wouldn’t have even been mentioned in the city’s call to bidders on the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction project if we hadn’t lobbied Council to make sure that it was included. (Provisions for ‘livable streets’ and on-street bike lanes were included.)

Here’s your next opportunity to make Beverly Hills more bike-friendly. This Tuesday, September 10th at 2:30 pm, Beverly Hills City Council will hear from our consultant about public outreach for the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction project. Council will also provide feedback to the consultant on the range of preliminary conceptual options. If you are interested in seeing bike lanes on the corridor, read the staff report and be sure to represent your interests to Council. Drop councilmembers a line or consult our handy city departments cheat sheet. Heck, just show up to say your piece this Tuesday. We’ll see you there!