Beverly Hills Calls for Public Input on SM Blvd Project

Santa Monica Boulevard looking east to WilshireBeverly Hills City Council just created a ‘blue ribbon’ residents committee to coordinate public input about conceptual designs and alternatives for the first phase of the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction project. Expected to break ground in early 2015, the project will reconfigure this key corridor. Many design questions remain, however – not least whether bicycle lanes will one day find their place here to complete the regional ‘backbone’ bicycle network that cyclists care about.

A blue-ribbon committee for a boulevard project? Yes indeed, and this is some good news for anybody who cares about multimodal mobility. It is important that we Include all stakeholders in the conversation about design options for tomorrow’s Santa Monica  Boulevard. If left to city transportation officials, we would have a reconstructed corridor that looks like what we have today: blacktop optimized for vehicular flow with crappy crosswalks but no bicycle lanes (with better landscaping). Inviting public comment from the cycling community and others is a good first step toward creating a ‘complete street’ organized to move people and not simply move cars.

Backbone missing piece map

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

If we are to move people by bicycle, it is also critical that we plug the gaping hole in the Westside regional bicycle ‘backbone’ network – an omission that endangers cyclists and highlights our city as one insensitive to road safety for anybody other than drivers.

Even better, cyclists’ interests will be represented on this new ‘blue-ribbon’ residents committee. Appointed by Vice Mayor Lili Bosse, Mark Elliot, organizer of Better Bike, will be advocating for a complete corridor. We’ve have been dialoging with our city officials for more than three years about safety  improvements for cyclists, but officials and policymakers have proven incredibly impervious to suggestion. With this new committee created to coordinate public input on the Santa Monica project, we finally will have some representation in the process.

It almost didn’t happen. When City Council debated creating a residents committee in session on October 15th, two councilmembers weren’t particularly enthusiastic. Dr. Julian Gold and Dr. Willie Brien preferred to simply throw the whole process to city commissioners, who we know have shown scant interest in road safety. Even the Traffic & Parking Commission as a whole has shown little regard for the safety of cyclists.* But Mayor John Mirisch and Vice Mayor Lili Bosse were in favor of a committee approach. And then Nancy Krasne’s swing vote cinched it: a blue-ribbon committee to vet design options for Santa Monica Boulevard. (Visit the city’s project webpage.)

The consensus in favor of the committee appeared in part prompted by the city transportation staff’s limited notification radius recommendation. Staff would have notified northside homeowners and neighboring businesses only, but not the city as a whole. [read the staff report]. Prevailing voices on City Council argued for greater public input given that this project is of such significant citywide interest.

Why A Commission Anyway?

Greater public participation in the choice of conceptual alternatives and final selection of appropriate design for Santa Monica Boulevard is essential. Left to transportation staff and our design-engineering consultant, Psomas, we would have no bicycle lanes at all, or perhaps a uni-directional on-street lane with the other located somewhere off the boulevard. That’s a mismatch with existing lanes to the east and west, but politically it’s an easier lift: there’s no need to widen the boulevard even by a few feet. And that’s all that’s needed!

But design selection process will be a political process; widening the existing corridor by even a few feet is politically troublesome. The problem is that staff and council often receive the heat while too few speak up to advocate (in this case) for a safer corridor. So it goes with complete streets improvements. Unfortunately, Beverly Hills is not taking a dime of state or federal money for this project, so federal-funding strings don’t come into play. That’s a lever that cycling advocates don’t have to achieve the best possible design.

We have to speak up. If you’ve followed the process to date, you’ll recall that earlier in the year the city posted a request-for-proposals that included no complete streets language to guide bidders. (We spoke up and Council added it.) Some members of City Council preferred to keep the design selection process ‘in-house.’ We argued to Council to open it up to stakeholder participation and consensus emerged to create one.

Your Participation Matters

Santa Monica Blvd options cross-sectionDeciding to what extent Class II (on-street) bicycle lanes are part of this project will be the meat of the blue-ribbon committee’s work, we think. When Psomas presented a preliminary report to Council late this summer, design options (at right) included some variation of Class II on-street bicycle lanes. These ‘enhancements’ (as they were called) reminded us that the city views the corridor’s primary function as moving motor traffic.

We have to speak up. Bicycle lanes aren’t the only ‘enhancement’ we feel is needed for the reconstructed corridor; ‘complete street’ pedestrian crossings are essential too. Today’s poorly-marked and poorly-maintained crosswalks are an anachronistic throwback to this city’s suburban-era romance with the motorcar. We can do better. Curb bulb-outs could shorten the crossing distance on cross streets, for example.

We safe street advocates can point to existing City of Beverly Hills plans to argue for such ‘enhancements.’ The Sustainable City Plan calls on residents to walk or ride a bicycle wherever possible to reduce auto congestion and emissions. If the plan’s goal is to “foster an energy efficient, walk-able community” (as it says), then the plan’s policy goal is appropriate too: “Reduce traffic congestion while improving the pedestrian experience on roadways and encourage alternative forms of travel.” That is something that the blue-ribbon committee should consider, and we’ll have to remind them.

The Circulation Element of the General Plan is on board too. It says we should provide “realistic options” to driving a car, including “improving bicycle or pedestrian travel routes,” if we want to discourage vehicle miles traveled. To that end, the Circulation Element notes that amendments were recently adopted in the General Plan to put “a greater emphasis” on walking, bicycle riding, and transit in policy goals. Let’s remind the blue-ribbon committee and the policymakers that we cyclists stand with our plan.

Beverly Hills Bicycle Master Plan of Bikeways map (1976)

Beverly Hills citywide bicycle network circa 1977

And then there’s the Bicycle Master Plan, which was authored back at the height of the bike renaissance in 1977. But it is still on the books! For good reason: it recommends a 22-mile citywide network of bicycle lanes with Santa Monica Boulevard as one of three key crosstown routes. From that corridor an extensive system of subsidiary routes branch north and south to reach parks and schools (right).

City transportation staff and policymakers can’t distance themselves far enough from this plan. They didn’t even bring it up for an update when the rest of the General Plan was adopted in 2010. But we’ll stand with it because we agree with the premise of the citywide network:

These bikeway facilities would serve the interests of both children and adults, so that the system could serve as alternative transportation to parks, schools, shopping areas, etc. – from the Bicycle Master Plan

In the intervening 35 years we have made zero progress toward that master plan’s objectives, but we can start now with bicycle lanes on tomorrow’s Santa Monica Boulevard. Let’s hear from walkers, cyclists and other active transportation advocates who are eager to re-vision Santa Monica Boulevard as a multimodal corridor safe for all road users.

How Can You Get Involved?

The blue-ribbon committee will meet initially on November 7th with evaluation of conceptual corridor designs to follow on December 10th. Finally, recommendations will be developed on January 8th and thereafter presented to Council. Enthusiasts are advised to join also one of the two mobile tours (November 13th and November 17th) of the project corridor. Reserve in advance by email or by calling 310-285-1092.

Want to take a more active role? Also submit your concerns via the city’s project webpage or send them directly to Better Bike and we’ll present them to the committee. (If you submit to the city, cc us too!)

And while you’re at it, let the city know that the recently released residents survey probably won’t accurately gauge public support for or against bicycle lanes because the single question about the issue is constructed to undermine the validity of the findings. That’s the way our transportation staff rolls in Beverly Hills.

*The recently-departed late Traffic & Parking commissioner Joyce Braun is distinguished by her interest in updating the plan, and two succeeding commissioners, Jeff Levine and Alan Grushcow, have met with cyclists, supported an expansive Pilot bike improvement program, and generally appreciate our interest in safe streets.