Santa Monica Boulevard Comes Back May 20th

Santa Monica Boulevard looking east to WilshireDeputy Director for Transportation Aaron Kunz apprized us this week that no decisions have been made about bicycle lanes for Santa Monica Boulevard because staff and the contractor, Psomas, are still refining cost projections for the reconstruction project.

We expected it to come back before City Council for direction this week, but it looks like it won’t come back until May 20th in afternoon study session. At that meeting, Kunz said, the key question will be, To what width do we want to construct the boulevard? 

Update: The Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction project is indeed scheduled for the May 20th Council study session (2:30pm) but it is agendized as an informational item. Council will review justification for the revised cost estimate and discuss appropriate funding, but any decisions about conceptual design will be addressed in a subsequent meeting.

Vice Mayor Julian Gold at the March meeting: No friend to riders!

Recall that when the issue came to Council in early March, the hot-button issues was whether to include bicycle lanes. After much discussion, it seemed that three of five were less-than-sympathetic to cyclist safety; councilmembers Krasne, Brien and Gold seemed unpersuaded that bicycle lanes would make this corridor more safe (even though nearly every rider said so).

Their opposition came despite the fact that inclusion of bicycle lanes was recommended by the city’s Blue Ribbon Santa Monica Boulevard committee in January. The committee also recommended widening the boulevard (to a uniform 66 feet) – the width then cited as necessary to both include dual-directional bicycle lanes and (more importantly) to reduce reconstruction costs. But that was a position that few anticipated the committee to take. The recommendations put bicycle lane opponents and policymakers on the defensive: suddenly opposing bicycle lanes or support for a narrower but more expensive reconstruction had to be justified on the merits.

The Bumpy Road Through Council

When the issue came to Council in March, however, there was a wrinkle: the cost had ballooned to as much as $34 million. Frustrated councilmembers took staff to task for the problematic project cost estimate (read the staff report) and the fuzzy details behind it. They questioned not only the representations by staff (including whether a wider boulevard would really lower the cost) but also seemed even more sensitive to the political consequences of expanding the boulevard. After all, the new estimate gave neighborhood NIMBYs an opportunity to call for the entire project to be reconsidered. “Can’t we just repave it?” was a common refrain. Repaved sans bicycle lanes, of course.

Beverly Gardens Park marked for trimming

Beverly Gardens Park marked for trimming by our consultants. See, a few feet ain’t that bad!

The new, higher cost estimate and calls for project downsizing obscured just how modest was the bump-up to the recommended width. From today’s irregular 60-63 feet width to a consistent dimension of 66 feet would literally be marginal in the scheme of things. But the extra room would allow for multimodal transportation enhancements (as called for by policy guidance at both the federal and state levels and in our plans too).

In early April the Council again heard from staff, who this time put some reasons behind the ballooning estimate. (We won’t go into them here.) And to address concerns about emergency access, they also trotted out the fire and police chiefs. Neither expressed concern about the landscaped median, and the police chief acknowledged to a question from Vice Mayor Lili Bosse that his department sees no safety hazard in including bicycle lanes.

City Council discussing bike lanes

Council hears from the public about the importance of bicycle lanes at the April 1st meeting.

But we already knew that lanes pose no safety problem. In fact, they make riders feel more safe and, judging from studies provided by our consultant Psomas to Council, bicycle lanes actually reduce collision injuries. Moreover, this kind corridor is most suitable for a bicycle lane: no curbside parking, high prevailing traffic speeds and limited cross streets. Not for nothing have cities around us installed so many miles of bicycle lanes. For the skeptical councilmember, we need only point him to the state DOT’s manual of traffic control devices, which codifies the deployment of the bicycle lane, much as it does other devices like crosswalks and lane striping.

Part of the Council’s confusion comes via an earlier staff report to the Blue Ribbon committee (in January) that included a remark from BHPD’s Sgt. Mader. He was quoted as saying that the department didn’t recommend bicycle lanes. As was confirmed in this April meeting by the chief,  the department has taken or takes no such position. That erroneous or intentional inclusion in effect put the thumb on the scale against lanes.*

SM Blvd Project Re-Scoped

Perhaps the most significant news to come out of this April meeting was twofold: new boulevard width options (63.5 or 64 feet uniform width in addition to the earlier 63 or 66 feet) and a surprising staff recommendation that the scope of the project be reduced. Instead of reconstructing the whole boulevard at one time, the city could simply defer the west-of-Wilshire segment until later. That would save some upfront cost, sure; the cost of the attenuated boulevard project would be lower by about $5 million in the near term, and design decisions for the western end of Santa Monica could be deferred. The problem, some councilmembers pointed out, is that deferring construction will incur even higher costs later.

There are additional problems with this approach which we will address at the May 20th meeting: deferral would also include the reconstruction of the Wilshire-Santa Monica intersection, which is one of the most hazardous for riders. As we’ve seen with our own eyes, navigating transit across Santa Monica is dangerous for inexperienced boulevard riders and problematic for the experienced rider alike.

And the second problem is that deferring design work on the western-most segment might preclude the eventual addition of lanes at all. Why? The ‘Gateway’ properties west of Wilshire (on the south side of Santa Monica) are zoned for transportation, which limits development. But politically-influential landowners are champing at the bit to rezone them for commercial use (and at a higher density too). In particular they will be loath to cede an inch of their land for a roadway dedication, as might be required for a wider boulevard. That’s necessary because we’re boxed in by the Hilton project’s minimal setbacks from the road. There simply may not be available width for dual bicycle lanes if the corridor must squeeze between the Hilton and the Gateway development.

In order to avoid jeopardizing multimodal mobility on the corridor, we should cement the corridor’s conceptual design now and guarantee it with a Gateway properties land dedication. For if we don’t lock it in today, the second phase of Santa Monica reconstruction might well put the squeeze on bicycle lanes and transit infrastructure.

Next Steps

The cynical among us would see the two-bite approach as offering political cover to City Council members who are loath to OK a $35 million project. (Never mind that our Parking Operations fund went $20 million into the red for the construction and maintenance of parking garages.) And we’ll know more about Council’s predisposition to defer that work when the issue comes before Council in the May 20th study session. We will also know more about boulevard widths: will it be 63, 63.5, 64 or 66 feet? (Sixty-four feet is the minimum that will accommodate lanes now or in the future.)

At this meeting we might also glean more about the Council’s thinking about bicycle lanes. We’ll welcome your attendance and any comments you want to send Council’s way.

  •  When: May 20, 2014 at 2:30 pm
  • Where: City Council Chambers

Has the bicycle lanes die been cast already? Three of five councilmembers seemed not to really care for the concept back in April. That includes former Mayor Willie Brien, who led the Westside COG last year. It was he who put his signature to a letter affirming our city’s support for bike-friendly streets (not to mention bike share).

Willie Brien

Beverly Hills Councilmember Willie Brien talks about bike-friendly streets, but on the dais he exhibits scant enthusiasm for rider safety.

Yet Willie Brien was the most strident opponent of widening the boulevard for lanes or even cost-savings. Maybe this meeting will inform our understanding about where he stands on bicycle lanes for one of our most busy corridors. Stay tuned!

Dissatisfied with the state of road safety in Beverly Hills for those who choose to bike? You should be.

Consider that City Manager Jeff Kolin is a rider, so he knows better. And our Director of  Community Development, Susan Healy Keene, oversees transportation; she resides in Santa Monica, arguably the city doing the best job with alternative transportation. And our Deputy Director for transportation, Aaron Kunz, lives right next door in West Hollywood. That city is making great progress on its own bike plan and improvements. So why don’t we see those improvements in policies and facilities here?

We encourage you to pick up the phone to ask city officials why Beverly Hills won’t plan for multimodal mobility as our own plans say we should.* Use our handy contact City Hall Cheat Sheet and tell them Better Bike sent you. Let us know what you find out!

*Our city plans are very clear on both encouraging cycling and calling for the creation of a citywide bike network (per our 1977-era Bicycle Master Plan, which remains on the books). Despite over 150 people who ride in or through Beverly Hills calling for bicycle lanes on this corridor, staff has not been swayed.