If you expected that Beverly Hills might install bicycle lanes on our segment of Santa Monica Boulevard when reconstructing it next year, you will be sorely disappointed to know that City Council just pounded the final nail into the bike lanes coffin. City Council split on the Blue Ribbon Committee recommendation to expand the corridor and stripe lanes, with majority councilmembers Willie Brien and Nance Krasne and (Mayor) Julian Gold saying “thanks but no thanks” to lanes. That’s a clear rebuke to the scores of pro-lane speakers who addressed Council and their decision flies in the face of hundreds of supportive comments to date.
The prospect of putting bicycle lanes on North Santa Monica Boulevard as part of the corridor’s reconstruction seemed promising just last year. Advocates put on the table a ‘Greenway’ proposal that would include lanes yet sacrifice no Beverly Gardens parkland. But even though Council this week agreed to a wider boulevard that could accommodate bicycle lanes, a three-member majority of Brien, Gold and Krasne agreed among themselves that riders in this city – and from the region beyond – simply don’t need lanes.
The rationale that brought Councilmember Krasne to that conclusion? She believes that Santa Monica Boulevard is too dangerous for riders (whom she in the past has labeled with some humor as “organ donors”). She “loves the cyclists” but prefers that we ride somewhere else. The alternate route she recommends is South Santa Monica.
But if you’ve ridden South Santa Monica, you know it’s a gantlet of harried drivers and curbside parking door zones and unexpected right-hooks. That street is hazardous for riders, of course, and she agrees; so she suggests that the city remove curbside parking from one side of that street. And then maybe install bicycle lanes.
As in ‘Groundhog Day,’ it’s a suggestion that Krasne has brought back time-and-again over the past eighteen months. And once again she received pushback, this time from Lili Bosse (champion of business, and businesses in the triangle will never consent to losing six or seven blocks of precious curbside parking). There were also noncommittal murmurs from Brien and Gold. That idea will never be seriously discussed.
The bicycle-lane-on-South-Santa-Monica concept is useful in one sense, however: it’s the red herring that effectively refocuses attention away from the North Santa Monica bicycle lanes proposal. It is not clear if Krasne’s gambit is a calculating move, though, or simply a naive gesture at accommodating “the cyclists” she claims to love. What is clear is that an empty proposal to locate bicycle lanes elsewhere gave opponents Krasne, Brien and Gold a reason to reject bicycle lanes for North Santa Monica Boulevard.
With an alternative on the table – even if it wasn’t serious – the other councilmembers could then magnanimously propose it for “further study.” Given that South Santa Monica bicycle lanes will plainly never be a reality, Brien, for example, could comfortably recommend that the city should study it “before making a definitive decision” about bicycle lanes anywhere. Gold, too, finds it “something to be considered.” No hurry, though. They Mayor is a big-picture man and we’re not sure how small details like rider safety on Santa Monica fits into it.
We did get some support. In the Council minority were two members who spoke out in favor of making tomorrow’s Santa Monica Boulevard ‘complete': John Mirisch and Lili Bosse. She said, “I absolutely support striping for bicycle lanes.” She continued:
I agree with the speakers [all of whom supported lanes]. Metropolitan cities have bike lanes. You see bike lanes and you see bike-share. I see it as a safety issue…. it will allow for cars to know where they are supposed to be, and where we as a city is supposed to be. – Lili Bosse
Unfortunately, Lili was not so vocally supportive when the question last came to City Council; she let others take the lead in that discussion. After all, sh was one of the two members of a Council liaison committee (along with Brien) who had bilaterally decided not to expand the boulevard. John Mirisch definitely gets the complete street concept and has always been our most vocal supporter.
But plaudits from the minority didn’t cut it on Tuesday. Despite rhetoric about the ‘safer city’ and the ‘smart city,’ City Council doubled-down on auto-mobility at the expense of rider safety. It undermined our existing multimodal mobility policy statements that actually encourage cycling. And in doing so, Beverly Hills rebuked an effective traffic control device approved by both the federal and state DOTs at a moment when transportation agencies across the country are recognizing their obligation to create roadways that provide safe access for all users. The principle is known as ‘complete streets.’
That’s why the addition of bicycle lanes was recommended by the city’s own Blue Ribbon Committee as well as supported by the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, officials from neighboring cities, and of course everyday riders from Beverly Hills and beyond.
The Council’s decision to eschew bicycle lanes where there will be room to accommodate them only makes sense when you acknowledge the rationale: creating extra-wide right-hand lanes prevents bicycle riders from using the entire lane (as allowed under state law) and thus slowing the progress of motorists. That creates conditions to effectively marginalize riders – a situation not appreciably better than what we have today. There is a good reason not to take that approach: as the federal department of transportation reminds, bicycle lanes are more safe on our expanded corridor than extra-wide curb lanes.
How Did We Get To This Point?
Better Bike has been advocating for a bike-friendly Beverly Hills since 2010. Bicycle Lanes for Santa Monica Boulevard was not only a topic of our earliest meetings but it has remained our most high-profile issue ever since. As we’ve observed, bike lanes is the signal issue that would telegraph our city’s commitment to multimodal mobility.
And for a time our hopes were somewhat buoyed. Contemporary thinking about mobility was trending in our favor, after all; the Blue Ribbon Committee’s recommendation to stripe bicycle lanes in January of 2014 put the wind at our back (read the Blue-ribbon status report); and, well, it makes sense to do what we can for rider safety.
Or so we thought! The reality is that City Council wasn’t ever prepared to stripe bicycle lanes even if there is enough room for them. Tuesday’s study session discussion might have been a cliffhanger for some, but ultimately it wasn’t for us. We had already recognized the signs of a done deal. As we recently pointed out in advance of this meeting, the staff report to City Council made only passing reference to bicycle lanes and, more telling, it added this caveat about lanes: “…if desired.”
That staff report also illustrated numerous design options (like medians and landscaping) but presented not one image of a bicycle lane.
And finally the city’s proposed budget for FY 2015-16 (posted online back in May) already noted that “finalized recommendations for final design of the Santa Monica Boulevard Reconstruction Project” were complete. Heck, we thought that’s what Tuesday’s meeting was about!
The ‘Fix’ Came a Year Ago
But an indication that lanes were off the table came much earlier, in March of 2014, when City Council simply sidestepped the Blue Ribbon Committee’s recommendations. At that meeting, three out of five councilmembers most clearly expressed their opposition to bicycle lanes – the only time they’d gone on the record with candid opposition.
Shortly after came the meeting of a two-councilmember ‘liaison’ committee (Bosse + Brien) wherein the quiet decision was made to take boulevard expansion off the table. That would have killed the lanes for good. And if we weren’t closely reading the staff report to find it, as we like to do, we lane supporters would have missed it entirely. Nevertheless we in the community marshaled support to push back against the liaison decision and get the option open again.
Fast forward nearly a year and the lanes question came back to City Council but it punted: let’s talk about it later in the design phase. And that’s where we are today. But it’s clear the issue had already been decided. And indeed any optimism flagged with the recent staff report.
At Tuesday’s meeting we learned that a new Council liaison, appointed by Mayor Gold, including councilmembers Brien and Krasne (the other two members of ‘Team Gold’) met to discuss the boulevard on July 9th. That internal meeting wasn’t electronically noticed or calendared online, by the way. But that’s how City Hall often works: through informal networks, ex-parte communications, and via the hidden hand of lobbyists. They align the City Council stars.
That’s some conspiracy theory, right? No matter; we don’t need to read too much into it. Practically speaking, the political sentiment on the bicycle lanes question actually hasn’t changed since that March of 2014 meeting.
You could ask, How could responsible city officials turn away from a proven multimodal traffic control device on a designated truck and transit route like Santa Monica? Oh you can ask but you will find no answer in an engineering manual. It’s Chinatown, Jake! Indeed it makes more sense to frame City Hall’s resistance to bicycle lanes as a matter of both parochialism and local government captured by one particular social class.
Parochialism reigns because city leaders view today’s problems without imagination; there is no larger picture. And we through them though a prism of the past. Ours is a decidedly insular perspective colored by undue, inflated self-regard. “We’re exceptional,” Beverly Hills leaders like to tell themselves, and then pat themselves on the back every chance they get in Council Chambers. Of course that insularity is misplaced: we benefit so much from the region, yet feel little responsibility toward those with whom we share it.
(During Tuesday’s meeting, staff even noted that 8 of the 11 written communications in support of bicycle lanes came from outside the city. Forget those folks, Jake – they’re outsiders!)
Capture of City Hall is a different and more serious matter. Beverly Hills is resource-rich and it is not just about revenues. We benefit from a citizenry that is educated and savvy. City government has no shortage of management and legal professionals volunteering for commissions and the like. Smart people (generally speaking) run for City Council. Too, our size (fewer than 40,000 people) makes the city small enough to manage efficiently.
Yet political influence in City Hall is husbanded largely by one social class: affluent property owners who enjoy intermingling among their own and benefit from their social network. And they find material benefit in pulling the levers of power. Tuesday’s crippling of our historic preservation policy is but one example of how land use regulations when relaxed predominantly benefit property owners at the expense of the whole. (Not to mention that our exceptionalism and insularity was on full display – see below.)
And the structure of governance benefits that class, it seeks to perpetuates itself. It’s all about being a team player. Want to serve on a commission? Become a team player through the ‘Team Beverly Hills‘ program. Ready to apply? Be prepared to get vetted by councilmembers appointed by the Mayor. If you’re on the team but have never even attended a single commission meeting, no worries – you might well get that appointment anyway. On the other hand, if you’re knowledgeable about commission work but you’re perceived as a bit of a rabble-rouser you simply need not apply; the entry gate is closed.
Parochialism and political capture together are the bulwark against an embrace of progressive policies in Beverly Hills. And together, we feel, they explain much about why the city won’t facilitate safe multimodal mobility even if our planning documents say the right things. Or why we wait to stripe crosswalks until they’re ghosts of their former selves. Or why after twenty years of elevated crash injuries the city still hasn’t improved the Olympic-Beverly intersection.
With that in mind, do you expect Beverly Hills would embrace those who bike and follow the lead of San Francisco, Davis and Long Beach? No chance. Will we adopt sensible programs to enhance street safety like Santa Monica? Nope. As our councilmembers like to say, “We’re not Santa Monica.” Or whatever. Despite state and federal policy guidance that recommends lanes, we’re just not that into it.
The debate over our city’s historic preservation program put us in mind of the collective disregard many of our entitled residents have for the broader region. A few years ago, Beverly Hills adopted an ordinance creating an historic preservation and tax credits program. At that time, we also appointed our first urban designer to advise on property eligibility. We also empowered our Cultural Heritage Commission to play a key role in vetting applications.
Our Planning Commission took the lead, however, in a process to raise the bar significantly for properties to be considered eligible. As part of a ‘streamlining’ (proponents’ term) the process, useful tools like single-family historic districts were taken off the table. The list of esteemed architects was whittled. And the role of the commission was undermined.
Members of the commission rebelled and our urban designer departed without so much as a press release to announce it. The LA Conservancy was very disappointed too. In measured comments to Council a representative urged the city to step back from doing the damage. The Conservancy’s widely-respected ‘A’ grade awarded to the Beverly Hills program was at stake, he reminded councilmembers.
With City Council set to adopt the ordinance making the deleterious ‘streamlining’ changes just this past Tuesday, City Hall received nearly two-dozen form letters in support of weakening the program. One is reproduced here; all included the entire body text verbatim. One line illuminates the collective disregard for out-of-towners’ views: “I don’t really care what ‘grade’ the Conservancy gives us, and I don’t think you should either.”
A fitting sentiment for a city where no good program can survive and where good ideas for new initiatives die a slow death in City Council.