Blue-Ribbon Winner: Public Input!

Melissa Antol speaking at Blue-Ribbon #3With the Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee having wrapped in late January, our recommendations will go to Council for consideration as early as February 18th. Then we’ll know if tomorrow’s boulevard will be a replay of the last century or a break with the past. Let’s look back at the high and low points of this public outreach process as we anticipate Council’s direction.

The High Points

The public spoke! City Council created the Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee to receive public input, and boy did committee members get it. Across four meetings nearly fifty public speakers appeared and more than 150 comments were  submitted electronically. And public sentiment overwhelmingly favored the striping of class II bicycle lanes. That recommendation will be forwarded to Council in a staff report, and we’ll personally take excerpts from those comments to Council. Thank you for your support!

The committee came around safety as a project priority. Safety should be self-evident in a road project, but it was no ‘given’ here because direction handed down from Council said nothing about making safety a priority. That’s not surprising: our transportation officials generally refrain from talking about road safety; there’s scant enforcement and our public safety officials are mum about the prevalence of collisions injuries; and our two Traffic and Parking Commissioners who sat on the Blue-Ribbon committee never even raised rider  safety as a concern.

Yet in the end, committee members came to consensus that the safety of non-motor road users was a priority, and that influenced our boulevard design recommendation in favor (9-2) of bicycle lanes.

‘Multimodal mobility’ evolved from esoteric planner-speak to practical consideration. Our General Plan Circulation Element and Sustainable City Plan talk plenty about the value of multimodal mobility, and they even call for our policies and programs to support it. But the term ‘multimodal mobility’ never passes the lips of transportation officials. Very little has been done to make Beverly Hills bike-friendly.

Yet over four meetings commissioners intrinsically linked the policy goal of enhanced multimodal mobility to safe cycling and even made it a key concern in meeting #4. Of course it doesn’t hurt that federal and state policy guidance legitimize it. By the end of this process ‘multimodal mobilty’ was a concept familiar to the committee and we validated it with our bike lane recommendation.

Ditto ‘complete streets.’  Making our streets accessible to all road users is the principle at the center of ‘complete streets,’ and indeed our City Council identified it as a project priority. Our consultant Psomas even called it out with a few slides in a PowerPoint presentation. But making tomorrow’s Santa Monica Boulevard corridor accessible was no given either. In our first straw poll, the committee bumped ‘complete streets’ down to the bottom of the project priorities list. (Only a single vote – ours – was cast to make it a project priority).

Yet by the end of the committee’s process the ‘complete streets’ concept had informed our deliberations. As Chair Barry Pressman said in meeting #4:

This is an opportunity to change the nature of the boulevard. At 60′ wide we’ve only repaved it; we can easily afford another 6′ [for bicycle lanes]. It’s not ‘for the cyclists’ but we have to make [Santa Monica Boulevard] appropriate for them. The cyclists will be there; they’re already there. This is an historic opportunity to do something different.”

In calling reconstruction a “special opportunity,” Chair Pressman redirected the topic of discussion from blacktop expansion to enhanced safety, and linked multimodal mobility as a practical concern to the very character of the corridor.

The committee managed to look at the larger picture. The regional picture, that is. Beverly Hills is famous for its parochial perspective. We’ve been pilloried for our mid-1980s opposition to the subway; we’ve taken flack over the last few years for fighting Metro on tunneling; and more recently, north-side residents ginned up some crazy arguments against bike-friendly streets when discussing our city’s Pilot bike route program.

But that parochial tenor changed as we talked. Spurious claims that we’d be building a ‘bridge-to-nowhere’ if we striped lanes simply evaporated when West Hollywood and City of Los Angeles committed to meeting our lanes at the city line.

Most importantly, the committee deliberated instead of simply talking at each other. In November’s meeting (#1) it appeared that a majority of committee members came into this process with firmly-held views in opposition to park ‘encroachment.’ Most argued against widening Santa Monica Boulevard. But over time that rigidity relaxed and the committee approached multimodal mobility as something for which we must plan instead of guarding against it like an alien attack.

Though some members had come into this process asking, “Can’t cyclists ride somewhere else?” Now the committee was searching for consensus on incremental widening IF it meant greater safety and efficiencies in terms of cost and time. Ultimately we came forward with  recommendations to both expand the boulevard and stripe class II lanes immediately – a testament to deliberation as a potentially mind-changing process.

Blue-ribbon committee

Committee members celebrate the comity with a post-meeting stand-up on January 22nd.

Low Points

The Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee process was not without its shortcomings. The process seemed pro-forma as if city staff simply checked-off the box to hold a few meetings. Agendas were without substance. The committee received materials too late (including written public comments) to fully consider them. (That changed when we complained.) Maybe it’s not surprising that the committee didn’t much mention written comments in discussions. And no visualizations or case studies were on hand to help the committee members imagine what a ‘complete’ Santa Monica Boulevard could look like. Concepts like ‘multimodal mobility’ and ‘complete streets’ can remain esoteric if not fleshed-out with illustrations of real-world application. (West Hollywood used them in their pedestrian and bicycle mobility plan update, a public process wherein stakeholders talked at length about design features and tradeoffs.)

A dearth of staff direction prior to the last meeting let the committee preoccupy itself with details best left to engineers, like drainage particulars, curb radii and the like. Only when we received marching orders in the form of a decision matrix were we able to methodically work through the decisions that needed to be made.

 

Some committee members groused about public input. We may not agree with what every member of the public says, but public participation is key to local democracy and we appreciate it. Besides, Council appointed us to receive it, so why look a gift horse in the mouth? But it became clear in the contentious meeting #3 that the problem wasn’t any specific expressed view but the views of pro-bike people in the aggregate. It must be the “bike lobby,” one committee member said.

Some made it personal. Blue-Ribbon Committee member Howard Fisher is no fan of cycling or those who ride. Indeed he opposes any bike-friendly improvement for Santa Monica Boulevard. “I don’t think this is an appropriate street for bikes,” he said in meeting #3 . “We just redid the 405 freeway and there’s no bike lane there, there are no sidewalks there,” he added in a bit of odd parellism.

But it wasn’t enough to simply offer his view; he felt that the pro-bike folks talked too much.”You let Mark Elliot chew up an awful lot of time,” he admonished the Chair, and later scolded Dr. Pressman for revisiting the bicycle lanes issue until the Chair achieved his  desired committee outcome. (For the record, the Chair opposed the striping of bicycle lanes.)

But if Howard Fisher calls you out for talking too much, you’re probably on the right track if only because the time you’re taking to talk is time that’s not his to talk. And Mr. Fisher does plenty of talking himself. He’s the  Planning Commission Vice-Chair and a political power-broker around town. He’s also an asset-protection attorney “representing wealthy entrepreneurs and their families,” according to his bio on Offshore Investment (a publication promoting those who work to shelter income and hide investments from the reach of the US taxman).

But the lowest low in all of these meetings came a few moments after the highest highlight. The bright spot was a 9-year old city resident stepping up to the microphone:

I’m Nina Salomon, this is my mom, and I want to say that we need bike lanes on Santa Monica because I know people who have been hit….

She continued for less than a minute more before introducing her mother Danielle. “I’m a bike commuter and I’ve been hit by a car, and my friends have been hit,” she said, trying to make her case for rider safety. Then the tide turned. Before even a minute passed she was rudely interrupted by one of our committee members who cut her off.

Then came the lowest of low points. Was it a committee member or a member of the public who loudly blurted out, “You have this lady with her stooge….” This 9-year old who has taken her time to attend a public meeting on a school night is a stooge? It gets no ruder than that, does it?

What could unbridle such hostility? Was it watching mom & daughter speak out in favor of bike lanes? Did public support for bike lanes in the aggregate simply exhaust his patience? Had he lost his taste for local democracy when public sentiment didn’t blow his way? Whichever, his was a gesture that in a moment reaffirmed an archetype of parochial selfishness that most of us residents work hard to overcome. Yet here in the flesh was Beverly Hills at its worst.

In the end the committee’s support for bicycle lanes was a triumph for safe, multimodal mobility, and the committee’s work is cause for celebration, but low points like these do leave a bad taste in the mouth.