Qataris Behaving Badly? Let’s Focus on the Homegrown ‘Sheikhs’

Qatari scofflaw and his Ferrari

The infamous Qatari scofflaw and his Ferrari as ‘captured’ by Adam Bornstein.

What’s more ridiculous than wasting ink on the now-departed Qatari sheikh who hot-rodded around Beverly Hills this August? The fact that no ink is spilled about everyday reckless driving tolerated by city policymakers and police officials. Forget Mideast sheikhs behaving badly in their Ferraris and such; we’re got a homegrown haute bourgeoisie who feel entitled to spin around at high speeds on quiet residential streets in off-the-shelf sports cars. And they garner nary a glance from the cops. For come sunset, there is no traffic enforcement in Beverly Hills.

When was the last time you read in the local media about reckless driving here in Beverly Hills? You probably never have. And you wouldn’t until, say a Qatari national runs some stops signs in his eye-catching coach. And only then you’ll read about it if it’s captured on video. But get it on tape and you may well hear officials proclaim their “outrage” at such bad behavior. Here’s the new Beverly Hills Police Chief Dominick Rivetti’s statement from his press conference:

The City of Beverly Hills is outraged about recent incidents of reckless driving on our streets. The Police Department has zero tolerance for unsafe driving, which seriously endangers the lives and property of others. Regardless of who you are, who you know or where you are from. The Beverly Hills Police Department has a reputation of applying the law equally. – Dominick Rivetti, BHPD Chief

Now, as far as we recall, this is the first reckless driving press release (let alone a companion standalone press conference) to address the problem.

Yet this department statement packs no fewer than four disingenuous assertions into its first paragraph alone. The first is the “outrage.” Our police department rarely exhibits much concern about reckless driving or the toll taken by crash injuries. Every month, for example, the department dispatches a supervisor to brief the city’s Traffic and Parking Commission on police department performance. But faced with crash figures that won’t decline, everyone seems to collectively shrug. As the numbers are perfunctorily recited there is no outrage nor even a glimmer of curiosity about why crashes happen. Not even the occasional traffic fatality merits “outrage.” It’s business as usual for the commissioners and the cops.

Second, the police department appears to have a very high tolerance indeed for unsafe driving. Stand at any major corner in Beverly Hills and watch as drivers run the red light. It happens at every single change of the traffic signal. We bet that every pedestrian has a story about nearly being struck in a crosswalk as a car (or three)  plow through well after the red.

After a few near-death experiences of our own we communicated to City Council actual “outrage” about the dangers we face as pedestrians. But we never even received a response. Here’s an excerpt:

While walking home with an armful of groceries tonight at 6:10 I was nearly struck by an westbound driver running the red light at the Wilshire-Canon intersection. I was midway across the curb lane at this signalized intersection, having stepped off the north curb well into my green signal. Suddenly a driver passed though and swerved into the #1 lane to avoid me. I’d earlier discussed with councilmember Krasne the hazards at this very intersection after a similar close call. In both cases, it occurred on a weekday at about 6pm and the near-miss margin was about a foot or so. (Read more)

And third, Beverly Hills is all about who you know and where you are from. Read our local newspapers; they’re all about mapping the social networks that prop up the husbanding of privilege by the boldface names in our small town. Moreover, whatever your problem you are more likely to garner officials’ attention if you live north of Santa Monica Boulevard and come to them with a #NorthOfSantaMonica problem.

And last, I don’t think that Beverly Hills Police Department can seriously claim a reputation for an equitable application of the law. While the cops recently took flak for detaining in handcuffs an African-American man for six hours because, as a spokesman said, “he fit the description” of a suspect, things have improved. But Throughout the 1990s the department faced lawsuits over pretext stops of African-American and Latino drivers. One was a state senator; others were lower-profile. To settled one suit the city established a Human Relations Commission to receive complaints. As always, “The Beverly Hills Police Department deeply regrets the inconvenience” as the spokesman says.

Reckless Driving Gets a Pass

It seems like reckless driving and excessive speeding simply get a pass in Beverly Hills. It is viewed by policymakers, police officials and the media alike as akin to the air that we breathe: so ordinary as to demand no particular comment. You won’t find a word about it (or street safety more broadly) in either of our two local weekly papers. It’s as if we simply gave up the fight for safe streets!

For example, when the Traffic and Parking Commission receives each month the most recent crash injury and citation stats from BHPD, no commissioner follows up with a comment on, or question about, the continuing toll taken by crashes. None asks, How are crash injuries trending? Where are we relative to last year? Are we making progress?

Fatalities in Beverly Hills highlighted in a table of crash injuries January to August 2014

Data compiled by the Beverly Hills Police Department as provided to the Traffic and Parking Commission in the monthly report.

This year to date, our small city where 35-mph and 25-mph speed limits is the rule witnessed no fewer than two auto-occupant crash deaths (one each in May and June) and in August a pedestrian lost his life in a fatal hit-and-run on Crescent (just a block from City Hall). But no commissioner has asked what can be done to mitigate the harm of 435 crash injuries or the 146 (!) hit-and-runs logged by police in 2014. Instead this commission (as always) is more focused on parking permits and tour buses.

Table of cyclist injuries in Beverly Hills 2008-2014

Data compiled by the Beverly Hills Police Department as provided to the Traffic and Parking Commission in the monthly report.

Proportion of cyclist injuries chart (2008-2014)You’ll never hear the Traffic and Parking Commissioner Chair Lester Friedman ask about the 48 injured cyclists who last year filed a police report, or wonder whether the number of cyclist injuries is on the increase. (It is.)

It is not that nobody is talking about it. We’ve appeared before the commission several times to draw attention to the magnitude of the harm. We’ve even aggregated seven years of BHPD data and analyzed the trends because no city staffer ever has. But nobody has come calling for the analysis.

Call it willful disinterest: neither City Hall nor the media seem much interested in this story unless a Qatari is behind the wheel. While cities around Beverly Hills make ‘safe streets’ a rhetorical objective if not a policy pivot, here in Beverly Hills the silence about the harm inflicted by reckless drivers is deafening.

Faded crosswalks at Wilshire and SM Blvd in 2015

It is not only reckless driving that gets a pass. Degraded facilities like these faded crosswalks at Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevard only increase the danger for cyclists, pedestrians and motorists. This is one of the region’s worst intersections for safety, according to the Los Angles Times. Yet the city is in no hurry to repair it.

Would You Double Down on Yesterday’s Planning Paradigm?

Los Angeles intersectionToday the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed critical of efforts to plan for multimodal mobility. Titled, ‘Mr. Mayor, L.A. is not Stockholm,’ by 29-year Santa Monica resident Bruce Feldman. “As I’m sure you know, cyclists make up just 2% of all road traffic…[yet] your road diet would make congestion in our expansive region much worse than it already is,” the writer says of the city’s new mobility policy. Such measures will diminish quality-of-life, he adds, yet paradoxically he finds his cure to the region’s mobility morass in the very policies that today ail us.Why highlight an op-ed that rehearses stale ideas? Because it repeats a spurious argument we hear all the time from critics: equal access to roads for all road users is a giveaway to those who bike and a takeaway from those who drive. As if a motorist’s right-to-the-road – the whole road – were granted by the divine. (The crux of his complaint seems that he simply doesn’t want to share the road.)

We believe that this is the wrong way to frame transportation challenges and choices. Mobility is not the zero-sum game that opponents of road diets and bicycle lanes say it is. On the contrary, only steps that increase access for all users will make our transportation system(s) more efficient and, as important, more safe for road users. We think about it as an intermediate step toward the urban future we envision. We’re not there yet, but we won’t get there without sensible mobility policies. Have a read and then scroll down for our rebuttal.

This is not Mr. Feldman’s first rodeo. In a previous op-ed titled, ‘From Santa Monica, the lament of an “urban villager,”‘ he objected to increased residential densities (a key element of Santa Monica’s embrace of the ‘urban village’ concept). “My beachside community’s downtown core works fine for those who can afford to live there,” he lamented in January of 2014. “They can walk from their $4,000-a-month studio apartments in the hip center of town to their choice of half a dozen coffee joints, and they can pick up the latest fashions on the way so they’ll look good when they get there.”

Well, that sounds pretty good to us. If Santa Monica’s policies are making the city so desirable to, well, the desirables, then we say Beverly Hills needs a bit of magical thinking too.

Feldman also took potshots at those who ride a bike because, evident to him, we clog his roads. And we misbehave! We ride either too fast or too slow; ride in the middle of the lane or alongside stopped traffic; and of course we blow every stop sign (a favorite bugaboo of critics who themselves undoubtedly obey every traffic control).

“Of course, sometimes we’re forced to drive — say when we need to buy food from a nearby grocery store,” he said in his first op-ed (with emphasis added). “Then we have to run a gantlet of empowered cyclists.” Empowered! Sounds like the ‘bicycle lobby‘ is making some impressive gains of which we weren’t aware.

Then as today, he can’t win! On one hand he’s “forced” to drive on city streets; on the other, officials are making that journey even more onerous by squeezing his roadways so others can use the blacktop. By helpfully offering Mayor Garcetti a menu of recommended options (like making main boulevards one-way to facilitate throughput and expanding surface parking to accommodate those who, like him, are “forced” to drive) he’s really just pleading to maintain the status quo – a century-long auto-centric planning paradigm that got us into this mess. “I’ll have some hair of the dog that bit me please!” he seems to say.

Our Reply to Mr. Feldman

To the Editor:

In ‘Mr. Mayor, L.A. is not Stockholm,” Santa Monica resident Bruce Feldman objects to increased residential density and contemporary mobility measures like ‘road diets’ and bus-only lanes. He says they exacerbate traffic congestion. I’m a walker, bicycle rider, and drive, too, and I find travel inconvenient. It’s often hazardous too.
Yet would Mr. Feldman double-down on the policies that over time have brought us to a near-standstill on the Westside today? I fail to see how eight lanes of one-way travel, with increased traffic throughput and higher speeds, will improve our quality-of-life. We’ll see more devastating crashes, that’s for sure. He seems to recommend as the cure more of that which ails us.

Most planners know better. This metro region will welcome millions of newcomers in the coming decades, each of whom requires housing and transportation options that make travel not only more efficient but safer too. Consult the recent Los Angeles Times analysis of county-wide crash injuries and fatalities to see that the hazards we walkers and riders face every day are not a bug but a feature: the’ve been engineered-in the design of our roadways. That must change.

We can no longer afford to view city streets as merely a playground for motorists. Indeed planners  150 years ago recognized that city streets are our greatest of public spaces. And cities including Santa Monica acknowledge as much in city plans. We must recover them not only for safe travel for road users but as an opportunity to collectively enjoy one of the greatest of human achievements, the city.

As Mr. Feldman observed back in early 2014 in this very paper, newcomers to Santa Monica’s downtown “can walk from their $4,000-a-month studio apartments in the hip center of town to their choice of half a dozen coffee joints, and they can pick up the latest fashions on the way so they’ll look good when they get there.” That sounds great! A different approach to urbanization seems to be working very well for Santa Monica.

And today in your pages Mr. Feldman continues to celebrate the Los Angeles of old and, for good measure, then contrasts it with Stockholm, among the world’s most beautiful (and livable) cities. Yet the Stockholm of his description, characterized by a “compact, well-defined central downtown business and shopping core with a large number of residential units,” suggests the Swedes are doing something right too.

Meanwhile, in the Los Angeles metro region we must daily accommodate the diminishing returns of an outmoded approach to urban planning, one based on principles more than a half-century old and less-relevant to today’s challenges than ever. And we want to double-down on that?

I have some advice for Mr. Feldman. I suggest you relocate to Beverly Hills if you want to bear-hug yesterday’s planning paradigm. Here you will share our civic leaders’ continuing embrace of mid-20th century auto-centric planning policies. Here you will enjoy every day the congestion that it has wrought. And here you can sit comfortably in your car, queued at a light or stop sign, while “smug urbanites” pass you by on a bicycle.

Hazardous Intersections That Need a Safety Upgrade TODAY

Crossing guard on Wilshire at Santa Monica Blvd

According to BHPD, at this 9th most dangerous intersection in Beverly Hills you take your life into your hands. Better to cross with a crossing guard!

A couple of weeks ago we reported on a genius LA Times interactive called Walking in L.A. that mapped 817 of the “most dangerous” intersections in the county. As we noted with no surprise, several of most dangerous county intersections (and clusters) are right here in Beverly Hills. Despite the long histories of crashes, not one of them has been made more safe. City of Los Angeles several years ago acknowledged the problem, though, with a plan to stripe 53 problematic crossings for high visibility. Three years later, KPCC asks listeners, Are there others in need of a fix?

First, more about the harm. “Los Angeles has a higher rate of car accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists than the rest of the nation,” KPCC says of the crash data. How big is the disparity? Over a seven-year period ending in 2009, pedestrian fatalities accounted for 11% percent of all national traffic fatalities; bicyclists represented another 1.7% (which is disproportionately high given low rates of cycling). But in Los Angeles, according to a study by the University of Michigan, pedestrians accounted for a whopping one-third of traffic fatalities during that period. That’s three times the national rate. And 3% of fatalities were bicyclists, which nearly doubles the national rate.

Why the disproportionately-high fatality rates? Clearly something needs to be done to improve street safety in the metro area. For decades riders’ advocates had complained that negligence by local governments threatened public health. And nearly ten years ago some crafty DIY engineers took it upon themselves to stripe a faux bicycle lane on a Los Angeles River bridge. In the meanwhile the fatalities piled up.

Then something of a fix. Three years ago, Los Angeles identified 53 intersections for a safety upgrade: these selected intersections would be striped with highly-visible ‘continental’ crosswalks. Call it a first step toward the city’s new Vision Zero policy. “No level of fatality on city streets is inevitable or acceptable,” the city says in its program description. “Vision Zero Action Plan is the City’s foundation for ending traffic deaths and injuries on our streets.”

Los Angeles is following the Big Apple’s lead. Under Bloomberg’s transportation chief, Janette Sadik-Kahn, the city’s approach to street safety shifted. For the first time, really, transportation officials mandated planning for all road users…at least in high-profile city precincts like Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The program marks a break for Los Angeles. It was the first acknowledgment that traffic officials needed to take a systematic approach to ensuring street safety, beginning with engineering. Merely widening streets would no longer cut it; the city mandated that for years but in hindsight it only increased traffic speeds and volume.

The humble crosswalk would seem a small fix; low-hanging fruit perhaps. After all, we’re talking about thermoplastic on pavement. But a key federal study shows that crosswalks like the ‘continental’ are more visible to drives at all hours. They make crossing safer for pedestrians.

Now the map. Consider LA’s 53 intersections chosen for ‘continental’ crosswalks the ‘green shoots’ of improved street safety. KPCC’s interactive ‘Dangerous Intersections in Los Angeles‘ maps them:

KPCC Dangerous Intersections interactive map for greater LA

City of Los Angeles intersections identified for crosswalk upgrades.

Of course, 53 intersections is a mere drop in the bucket; they’re spread rather thinly across a city of 460+ square miles. So KPCC invites visitors to add problem intersections to the map. When we first saw it there were a few user-added intersections in Beverly Hills already (including the notorious Wilshire-Santa Monica deathtrap). But these few hardly get at our intersection safety problem. (Where Los Angeles struggled with fatalities, in Beverly Hills the incidence of injury is much more prevalent.)

KPCC Dangerous Intersections interactive map Beverly Hills section

User-added intersections in Beverly Hills haven’t caught up to the real-life hazards!

But there intersections more injurious to health then those few mapped in Beverly Hills, so we’re adding our own to the KPCC map. How did we decide which Beverly Hills intersections warranted the red flag? We turned to the data generated by our own Beverly Hills Police Department. In a review of crashes in the city between January and September (inclusive) in 2014 we see ten of the worst intersections emerge. These showed the highest number of crash calls to BHPD.

BHPD crash data report for Q1-Q3 of 2014

Reported crashes at ten Beverly Hills intersection according to police (page 1 shown). As provided in response to a public information act request, it’s not even machine-readable.

We obtained the data report through an information request when we saw the findings referenced in a brief police statement. We counted the reported crashes and ordered the intersections from worst to not-as-worse.

Intersection Crashes
Wilshire & La Cienega 45
North SM Blvd & Wilshire 34
Olympic & Beverly Dr. 27
Wilshire & Robertson 26
South SM Blvd & Beverly dr. 18
Wilshire & Beverly Dr. 18
North SM blvd & Bedford 17
North SM Blvd & Beverly Dr. 13
South SM Blvd & Wilshire 9
South SM Blvd & Bedford 6

Here’s what every city transportation official should see every time they boot up the office computer. And Traffic and Parking commissioners should receive a map like this along with the BHPD crash injury data every month. But they don’t, of course. So it’s business as usual. To nobody’s surprise, the rate of crashes and injuries fails to decline year after year.

Worst ten Beverly Hills intersections by 2009 crash frequency mapped

If Los Angeles Can Do It…

If Los Angeles can do It, so can Beverly Hills, right? A crosswalk upgrade is just a first step. ‘Vision Zero’ implicates other changes too, like a reduction in the number of travel lanes (aka ‘road diet’) as well ensuring that engineers and law enforcement reduce prevailing traffic speed. It will take a shift in the professional and political culture in order to begin to value street safety in practice – and not just rhetorically.

Sunset and Crescent Heights crosswalks

Witness this sorry intersection at Sunset and Crescent Heights. Safety-wise, the continental striping is all it has going for it!

We aren’t even close to that culture change in Beverly Hills. For example, the baby step of continental crosswalks has not even been undertaken by the city for these problem intersections. (Only the business triangle and civic center have gotten this kind of pedestrian upgrade. The rest of the city’s designated pedestrian zone is still stuck with faded old-style transverse crosswalks.)

And it’s worse for riders. We mix it up with the motor traffic daily, yet the city has never upgraded any intersection for bicyclists. And that’s despite our hounding of City Hall for five years! Do your fellow riders a favor: call City Hall and ask about street safety. Report a problem Beverly Hills intersection. And pin it to the KPCC map!

And remember: never say ‘accident’ when it comes to a crash. Very few are accidents; most involve carelessness or negligence (or worse). Per New York’s Vision Zero policy statement: “The City of New York must no longer regard traffic crashes as mere ‘accidents,’ but rather as preventable incidents that can be systematically addressed.” Are you listening KPCC?

* Remember that the crash data reflect only a subset of all incidents. And probably a small subset! Drivers may choose to exchange information without a call to police, for example, while riders or walkers, injured or not, may simply choose to go on their way rather than file a report.

New Ambassador Program Promises Smiles. Unless You’re Homeless!

Ambassadors program logo

Don’t ya love the fancy logo?

“When visitors come to Beverly Hills, they expect to be greeted by a friendly face,” said Beverly Hills in late July when announcing our new ‘ambassadors’ program. “Beverly Hills is known world-wide as a destination synonymous with luxury and impeccable service,” we said, and undoubtedly that’s true for Rodeo Drive shoppers and hotel guests alike. For them the smiles do abound. But seem a bit disheveled or chat up a passerby on the sidewalk unprovoked, and one of our twelve new ambassadors may well roll out the frown, as if to say, Don’t overstay the welcome.

The half-million dollars Beverly Hills will spend this year for the new ‘Ambassador’ program is intended to “enhance the high quality of life for which the City is renowned,” according to the program’s webpage. The program’s ‘ambassadors,’ “serving residents, merchants and visitors,” as they do, “are instantly recognizable in their green shirts, black pants and black hats.” This welcome wagon of sorts will greet visitors in the central business district for 22 out of 24 hours every day. Nothing but nothing goes near 24 in Beverly Hills. So who is this program targeting exactly? Not tourists and shoppers.

Positive change not spare change flyerFramed as a “safety and hospitality” initiative, this program is presented as an extension of our ‘Positive Change, Not Spare Change’ program, which discourages panhandling by cautioning people not to give money to panhandlers, which may include homeless individuals.

Like that other program, the ‘ambassador’s program offers a social services twist too. “Ambassadors will work in partnership with the City’s Human Services department, police and other departments to address aggressive panhandling and connect individuals with social service needs to the City’s Changing Lives and Sharing Places (CLASP) Homeless Outreach Team,” the program announcement says. (All of the city’s homeless services are outsourced to non-city organizations, by the way.)

AmbassadorsBut unlike social services, the ‘ambassadors’ program is more about enforcement. It is run by an organization called Block by Block, which is a subsidiary of an industrial hospitality conglomerate (SMS Holdings). It puts “teams of great personalities selected and trained to meet your city’s specific needs.” The ambassadors are the “eyes and ears” of law enforcement, the company says.

In fact our neighbor West Hollywood also contracts Block by Block for CBD security. As WeHo stated in a 2012 enumeration of public safety accomplishments: “The purpose of the Security Ambassadors is to reduce actual crime and unwanted behavior as well as provide a positive perception of safety.” The “Security Ambassadors,” it said, “act as an extra set of eyes and ears for the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Department.”

Block by Block: safety with a smile!As Block by Block likes to point out, these ambassadors are not your father’s cops. They work with smiles!

Based on the West Hollywood and Santa Monica experience with Block by Block ambassadors, our own Human Relations Commission (which oversees homelessness-related social services contracting) approved the Block by Block engagement back in February as an extension of the ‘Positive Change’ program.  Human Relations agenda excerpt Feb 2015

Make no mistake, though. Though appended to the ‘Positive Change’ program, Block by Block patrol comes not recommended by social services professionals but rather was engaged at the behest of the business community.

Panhandling: A Threat to Public Order?

Is panhandling (or the homelessness for that matter) really that much of a threat to public order in Beverly Hills that we need 22/7 private security to address it? To hear the city tell it, yes. “Aggressive panhandling” is a problem that’s getting worse, City Hall says, perhaps coincident with an overall increase in homelessness – up 17% in just two years according to a press release in June. But while that figure may apply across the greater Westside,  the same Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count showed that homelessness in City of Beverly Hills is largely unchanged from two years ago.

If there was a significant threat to public order, we’d probably already have heard about it. And we haven’t. (For what it’s worth, in our own experience, panhandlers have been entirely, well, professional.) So we looked back at a year of BHPD advisories and press releases and saw no mention of a crime that was even remotely connected with someone from the homelessness community. And we saw no incidents of reported “aggressive panhandling.”

But if you listen closely to business sector representatives in the city meetings that precipitated the inauguration of this half-million dollar per year program, you’ll have heard about panhandling and the homeless as not being so much a threat to order as a threat to the bottom line. (“Disrupted commerce” is the city’s rationale for this program.) While business representatives talked of customers getting shaken down for change, it seemed instead that they were instead ware of daily reminders that 99% of society doesn’t shop Rodeo Drive. We think that it’s the bumming of change that bums out our business community.

Ambassador zone map

Ambassador zone map with shaded area indicating area outside of business triangle.

Tellingly, only business triangle representatives complained of the “aggressive panhandling” problem in city meetings and through the Chamber of Commerce. Yet panhandlers evidently work city-wide. And we have numerous other business districts, including the adjacent South Beverly area. Yet the ambassador program is limited to the triangle (though with an interesting appendage).

If the scale of the patrol zone and the language of ‘deployment’ makes the ambassador program seem more about urban policing and less about “quality-of-life,” say, then you’ve gotten the point. Though Beverly Hills may put a smile on it, this program is all about policing, not social services or ‘ambassador’ greetings. The city’s June press release for example notes that “ambassadors can witness and serve as victim in court proceedings” when victims of “aggressive panhandling are unwilling to go through the process of filling out a police report.”

Our View

Those who allegedly panhandle “aggressively” are a part of the broader panhandler community: they float in at the start of the day and recede like the tide as commercial activity winds down. In that they have much in common with the suits-and-ties folks who flexed their political muscle to get City Council to pony up for ‘ambassadors.’ Like the hoteliers and restauranteurs, our city’s panhandlers simply see economic opportunity here in Beverly Hills and they’re taking advantage. Let’s call them entrepreneurs!

* Enabling the ‘ambassador’ bicycle patrols required a lightening-fast change in the municipal code, which was accomplished. Previously, only official public safety officers were permitted to ride on sidewalks in commercial areas.

Say Goodbye to Santa Monica Boulevard Bike Lanes [recap]

Cycling prohibited graphicIf you expected that Beverly Hills might install bicycle lanes on our segment of North Santa Monica Boulevard when reconstructing it next year, you will be sorely disappointed to know that City Council appears to have pounded the final nail into the bike lanes coffin. The decision reflects a lack of concern for the scores of speakers who supported the inclusion of bicycle lanes as a safety measure and stands as a rebuke to the hundreds more who urged our city in written comments to do the right thing by riders.

[Note: this post has been edited substantially from the original to include new transcribed material from the City Council study session. We’ve also distinguished more clearly our own editorial commentary, which is appended at bottom, and removed some theorizing about City Hall to an upcoming post. We hope it proves more readable!]

City Council Study Session: Project Design Recommendations

At today’s meeting, a split (3-1) Council turned away from the city’s Blue Ribbon Committee recommendation to stripe bicycle lanes and directed staff to proceed with this major corridor reconstruction without the inclusion of bicycle lanes. In the majority were councilmembers Willie Brien, Nance Krasne and (Mayor) Julian Gold who seem to believe that riders in this city – and from the region beyond – simply don’t need lanes on North Santa Monica Boulevard despite overwhelming testimony to the contrary.

The prospect of putting bicycle lanes on North Santa Monica Boulevard seemed promising just last year. Lane advocates had put on the table a ‘Greenway’ design concept that included bicycle lanes yet sacrificed no Beverly Gardens parkland. Support from riders then and now was overwhelmingly in favor of including bicycle lanes.

Just prior to this study session, City Council received eleven more letters in support of bicycle lanes on North Santa Monica. None was opposed. Eight speakers at this meeting supported striping as part of the reconstruction, and most of us framed the issue in terms of our personal safety. (Incidentally, nobody spoke up against the inclusion of bicycle lanes.)

Speakers Sharon Ignarro, Carleton Lee, Tish Laemmle, Rich Hirschinger and Susan Gans, for example, all said they want a separate bicycle lanes for that reason. Laemmle said, “If you stripe the lanes, it will make it safer for everybody [because] the bike lane makes it clear: cars are on one side, bikers are on the other.”

Other reasons for support touched on our place in the larger region and world. Gans properly called out the Beverly Hills section of the boulevard as a “missing link” in the regional multimodal mobility puzzle. She highlighted three classes of users who would benefit from separate bicycle lanes (the “recreational, eco-conscious, and mandatory” riders, the latter with few transportation options). And echoing our own city plans, she urged the city to encourage all of these users to ride “by taking this one-time opportunity to make Santa Monica [boulevard] safer….””

Longtime resident and rider Barbara Linder reminded Council that if we want to be competitive globally for visitors, we have to make cycling safe.  “You talk about ‘destination city’ and we spend a lot of money for holiday lighting,” she said. “I have been to many destination cities throughout the world, and I have ridden a bicycle in most of them, and all of the class-A destination cities have bike lanes.”

Resident Kory Klem (and co-organizer of the Greenway concept presented in January) spoke about the need for Beverly Hills to look forward, not backward, to plan for new modes of mobility. Better Bike spoke up to highlight the city’s obligation to ensure that construction mitigation accommodates riders (as we communicated to the city in a recent letter).

Council Discussion

Councilmember Krasne opened the discussion repeating her position that North Santa Monica boulevard is too dangerous for riders (whom in the past she has labeled ‘organ donors’ with some humor). And that’s even after the blacktop is expanded – an option she supports. “I don’t want the bicyclists competing with heavy trucks, buses, and all the other crazy people on the road,” she said. So far so good; we don’t want to compete with heavy vehicles either. Then she proposed bike lanes on the adjacent south roadway.

I’d like one street designated for the bikers with no parking on the sides, and I’d like that to be [South] Santa Monica. I think it’s doable if we get rid of one of the [travel] lanes and have only two lanes going west and one going east. The bicyclists can have the entire width of the city to ride though, right into Century Park [sic] on ‘big’ Santa Monica where it converges. – Nancy Krasne

Her recommended route is a dangerous ride today, of course; it’s a gantlet of harried drivers and curbside parking door zones and unexpected right-hooks. Removing one travel lane, a row of curbside parking, and then restriping to add bicycle lanes would make for safe travel between Moreno Dr. and Doheny, she said.

The staff report touched on South Santa Monica Boulevard in the construction-related mitigation section, and mentioned the option of temporarily removing 39 parking spaces. But no city representative had suggested making that mitigation measure permanent for bicycle lanes.

Krasne has brought up her South Santa Monica suggestion before. And in truth we liked it then and now; a bicycle boulevard on the south roadway would be great. But every time it’s raised there is pushback because of the loss of parking.

This time pushback came from from Lili Bosse, always a champion of businesses, who agreed with letting the Traffic and Parking Commission review mitigation options on the south roadway. But clearly she was not comfortable with Krasne’s concept. “I have a LOT of questions about this,” she said.

But councilmember Bosse was less equivocal about striping bicycle lanes on North Santa Monica Boulevard:

I absolutely support the widening and the striping of bike lanes. The significant concerns were taking green space from the parks, and I think we’ve come up with a way to achieve a street that will be consistent and safe and w/o taking green space. I take note of what Barbara Linder said. Having just come back from Paris, NY, Washington, Sweden – all of these cities are metropolitan cities and have bike lanes.” – Lili Bosse

More importantly, Bosse said:

I think this is actually a safety issue… Once repaved, bikes will absolutely use those streets. [Striping] would allow for a safer environment. It’s where we as a city need to be.*

Whatever the merits of installing bicycle lanes somewhere off North Santa Monica, merely advancing the proposal takes the focus off of North Santa Monica Boulevard. That allowed other councilmembers to fudge. For example, councilmember Willie Brien said he does not support bicycle lanes for North Santa Monica Boulevard “at this time.”

I think this is a unique opportunity to look at our streetscape and our traffic routes; what we want our business district to be; [whether] we want ‘little’ Santa Monica to be an increasing[ly] pass-through roadway for our city, or do we want to make that a street that’s more usable for our businesses… That’s why we want [traffic and parking commission] to take a look at it. – Councilmember Willie Brien

But the commission will be charged with reviewing mitigation options, not advance mobility planning for the triangle. As for bicycle lanes there someday, Brien was again noncommittal. “Maybe bike lanes in that area, or other alternatives to that. I’m not ready to say where we would do that.” As for North Santa Monica: “I don’t support striping ‘big’ Santa Monica at this point. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t get there, but at this point that was not the intent.”

But the discussion of bicycle lanes among other options was exactly the point of today’s discussion. The lanes was even identified as an option in the staff report (though with the caveat, “if desired”).

When pressed by Bosse about the bigger picture – i.e., how tomorrow’s vision for South Santa Monica might be reconciled with today’s political sensitivity about parking – he punted. “It may be bike lanes; it may not. It may be less parking on there [or] it may be different pedestrian opportunities.” He added, “That’s the point: to take a different look” at a “master street project that actually could meet all of our needs.”

Mayor Julian Gold was up next. He didn’t support boulevard medians but called bicycle lanes “a possibility and something I would consider.” Only not now.

In the matter of widening the roadway, I’m OK with that, and, in concert with the conversations from councilmembers Krasne and Brien, I think the decision about bicycle lane striping is a fallback – it’s something to be considered – but until we resolve the issue of the use of South Santa Monica Boulevard as a potential bike lane, I think we should just leave that unanswered.” – Mayor Julian Gold

So at this key juncture, during the discussion on project design, he’s not supporting bicycle lanes for North Santa Monica Boulevard. And in the end the Council split 3-1 on striping bicycle lanes. (John Mirisch was absent.) It did unite on expanding the boulevard, however, though split (2-2) on the medians. Tomorrow’s boulevard won’t have them.

What About That Bicycle Lanes Concept for South Santa Monica?

The prospect of bicycle lanes on South Santa Monica Boulevard seems unrealistic. While it is something we would support, Bosse reminded us that there is political opposition in the business triangle community to removing any curbside parking. We expect that no future City Council will eliminate a travel lane in order to accommodate bicycle riders. (While we support at least a temporary striped bicycle lane during construction as a mitigation measure, Traffic and Parking Commission discussions on the issue suggest it’s probably not in the offing either.)

So why suggest that Santa Monica South be our city’s bike-friendly crosstown street? Perhaps it is Nancy Krasne thinking big. (It doesn’t appear to be part of a calculated strategy. But in light of the political priorities it may well be a naive idea.) Indeed give credit where it is due: she was the lone voice urging the Community Development Department to find a couple of extra feet for blacktop adjacent to the five parking garages, and they found it.

While the South Santa Monica concept may not be realistic, it is very useful to bicycle lane opponents on City Council for two reasons. First, it is a red herring that distracts attention from the question that was actually before City Council during this important design phase: Whether or not to include bicycle lanes on North Santa Monica boulevard. And to that question the Council majority answered unequivocally: No bicycle lanes for North Santa Monica.

Second, it gives bicycle lane opponents Brien and Gold political cover to reject bicycle lanes for North Santa Monica Boulevard. With the Krasne proposal on the table, Brien could recommend that the city simply study concepts like it “before making a definitive decision” about bicycle lanes on the north roadway. For Gold, too, the concept is “something to be considered.” (No need to hurry to put bicycle lanes on our busy truck corridor, though.)

Our Take

Despite rhetoric about the ‘safer city’ and the ‘smart city,’ our City Council doubled-down on auto-mobility at the expense of rider safety. That undermines support for our own multimodal mobility policies and eschews an effective traffic control device that is approved by both the federal and state DOTs for corridors just like this one. And it comes 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. Proponents included officials from neighboring cities and of course everyday riders from Beverly Hills and beyond.

The Council’s decision not to stripe bicycle lanes despite room to accommodate them only makes sense when you acknowledge the rationale: creating extra-wide right-hand lanes prevents bicycle riders from riding in the center of lane as allowed under state law for sub-15 foot lanes. Thus under current City Council direction, riders would not be able to ride in the center of the lane even if safety recommended it. Imagine sharing the right lane with a dirt hauler piloted by a driver who himself wants to use the center of the lane. Where is the marginalized rider to go?

The extra-wide #2 lane endorsed by City Council just recreates the conditions that today have riders concerned about personal safety. That’s why, despite it being recommended by staff, validated by consultant Psomas, and as of this meeting endorsed by City Council, the federal department of transportation says that on an expanded corridor like ours bicycle lanes are more safe for riders than are extra-wide curb lanes.

Did the ‘Fix’ Come a Year Ago?

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 on this corridor 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 is trending in our favor, after all, and the Blue Ribbon Committee in January of 2014 recommended the city stripe bicycle lanes. It put the wind at our back.

But an indication that lanes were off the table came 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 (it is the only time they’ve gone on the record with candid opposition).

That fall a two-member ‘liaison’ committee meeting (Bosse + Brien) decided to take boulevard expansion off the table. That would have killed the lanes for good. (If we weren’t closely reading the staff report we would have been blindsided by it. Nevertheless we marshaled support for pushing back against the liaison decision and got the option on the table again.)

Fast forward a few months and the lanes question came back to City Council, which then punted in January of 2015. “Let’s talk about it later in the design phase,” Council said, deferring the discussion. And that’s where we find ourselves today: discussing project design. And bicycle lanes aren’t much a part of the discussion unlike early 2014.

Visualizations of options from the staff report

No visualization in the staff report pictured a bicycle lane, even though it was an option on the table.

But back then we recognized the signs of a done deal. As we pointed out in advance of this week’s meeting, the new staff report only affirmed our feeling: it made only passing reference to bicycle lanes and, more telling, it added the “if desired” caveat to the bicycle lanes option. And the report also illustrated numerous design options (like medians and landscaping) but tellingly presented not one image of a bicycle lane.

And then there is the city’s proposed budget for FY 2015-16 (which was posted online back in May). It noted as an accomplishment: “Finalized recommendations for final design of the Santa Monica Boulevard Reconstruction Project.” Heck, we thought that was the point of this meeting. You know, to discuss design options?

From the staff report suggesting that the ‘accomplishment’ cited in May would still be on the table today:

This report continues the City Council’s review of the Santa Monica Boulevard Reconstruction project at the 50% design drawing phase, focusing on: 1) widening on the south side of the roadway; 2) drainage concepts; 3) medians; 4) street lights; and 5) traffic mitigation during construction. Staff seeks City Council’s direction on these items in order to proceed with the final design and preparation of construction documents for bidding purposes. – Staff report

From the beginning, though, elements of this process were removed from public view. The staff recommended not to stripe bicycle lanes back in late 2013 before the Blue Ribbon had not even concluded business, for example. And the liaison committee’s decision not to expand the boulevard, announced quietly in November of 2014 in a staff report, came without warning.

Now at this meeting we learned that a new liaison committee (or is it an ad-hoc committee?) included councilmembers Brien and Krasne. They met to discuss boulevard design on July 9th. Now that meeting was effectively internal: it wasn’t electronically noticed or calendared online, we believe, yet according to the discussion what was decided behind those closed doors figured importantly into the Council’s decision today. But that’s how City Hall often works: through informal networks, ex-parte communication, and the hidden hand of lobbyists.

Regardless of how it happened, the Council’s position on bicycle lanes appears to have gelled long ago. That made securing a sensible ‘complete streets’ traffic control facility for busy Santa Monica Boulevard an uphill battle indeed.

*Unfortunately, Lili Bosse was not so vocally supportive of bicycle lanes when the question last came to City Council. She had let other councilmembers take the lead in that discussion despite being one of the two members of a Council liaison committee (along with Brien) that had bilaterally decided not to expand the boulevard – thus precluding bicycle lanes in the future.

Construction Mitigation in Beverly Hills #FAILS Riders

You’re riding westbound on North Santa Monica Boulevard. You’ve made it though the dreaded SM-Wilshire intersection and you’re waiting to pick up the bicycle lane in Century City. You’re in the right-hand lane with a line of cars queued behind you waiting to pass. But you’re in a substandard-width lane up against a solid wall of K-rail to your right and speeding vehicular traffic to the left. You’re desperate for relief but far from the promised land: your own patch of blacktop granted by a bicycle lane. It’s a gantlet with no escape for the remainder of this corridor while you’re in Beverly Hills.

Santa Monica Blvd at Hilton construction: no mitigation for riders!

Santa Monica Blvd during construction: the gantlet that offers no refuge for riders!

This is a dangerous situation for anyone who chooses to ride a bicycle across the Westside. But especially so for less-experienced riders. It shouldn’t exist because there is a  toolbox full of traffic safety mitigation measures that can be deployed to protect bicycle riders in this very situation. These include ‘may take full lane’ signage; detour routes; temporary lanes or paths.

None of these find a place in City of Beverly Hills. Indeed the city has taken no action to make passage safe for riders while this major  Waldorf Hotel project is underway. Not only will these conditions endure for the remainder of construction; they will be the norm through 2017 once the city begins to reconstruct Santa Monica Boulevard.

Yet the cyclist-specific mitigation measures in temporary traffic control (TTC) zones are there for the taking. The Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices should be the first place our transportation officials turn for help. Why doesn’t the city stipulate such measures to make multimodal access safe? Because no law requires Beverly Hills to mandate those measures. In this city, riders are an afterthought. And the insult added to the inevitable injuries is that our own city plans call for encouraging, not discouraging, people to ride a bicycle.

The State’s Commitment to Safe, Multimodal Access

The state’s department of transportation is actually sensitive to such concerns. Caltrans has internalized ‘complete streets’ principles* since at least 2009 and includes them safety in state roadways planning and construction guidance. Deputy Directive DD-64-R2 (newly revised) calls on both state and local agencies to ensure our safety “beginning early in system planning and continuing through project delivery and maintenance and operations.” The deputy directive continues:

Caltrans views all transportation improvements as opportunities to improve safety, access, and mobility for all travelers in California and recognizes bicycle, pedestrian, and transit modes as integral elements of the transportation system…. The intent of this directive is to ensure that travelers of all ages and abilities can move safely and efficiently along and across a network of ‘complete streets.’ – Deputy Directive DD-64-R2 *

In the directive, the agency reminds local agencies that they “have the duty to provide for the safety and mobility needs of all” and goes on to outline specific responsibilities:

  • …establish processes to identify and address the needs of bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users early and continuously throughout planning and project development activities;
  • …ensure regular maintenance and operations activities meet the safety and mobility needs of bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users in construction and maintenance work zones…;
  • Implement current design standards that meet the needs of bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users in design, construction and maintenance work zones….; and
  • Provide guidance on project design, operation, and maintenance of work zones to safely accommodate bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users.

The Federal Government’s Commitment

The federal highway association is also quite clear on its own responsibility to make streets safe during construction. “Bicyclists and pedestrians, including those with disabilities, should be provided with access and reasonably safe passage through the TTC zone,” the FHWA Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices says (in section 6B Fundamental Principles of Temporary Traffic Control). The standard according to FHWA:

The needs and control of all road users (motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians within the highway, or on private roads open to public travel…through a TTC zone shall be an essential part of highway construction, utility work, maintenance operations, and the management of traffic incidents. – FHWA

To that end, FHWA too urges specific measures for temporary traffic control zones. The objective? To guide “in a clear and positive manner” we riders as we approach, and traverse, construction zones. Here are some of the recommended measures:

  • A travel route that replicates the most desirable characteristics of a wide paved shoulder or bikeway through or around the TTC zone is desirable for bicyclists.
  • If the TTC zone interrupts the continuity of an existing bikeway system, signs directing bicyclists through or around the zone and back to the bikeway is desirable.
  • Unless a separate bike path through or around the TTC zone is provided, adequate roadway lane width to allow bicyclists and motor vehicles to travel side by side through or around the TTC zone is desirable. (6D.101CA Bicycle Considerations)
  • When the roadway width is inadequate for allowing bicyclists and motor vehicles to travel side by side, warning signs should be used to advise motorists of the presence of bicyclists in the travel way lanes
  • The use of highly-visible florescent green signage is allowed in temporary traffic control zones.

The MUTCD reminds the officials who manage construction zones: “The most important duty of these individuals should be to check that all TTC devices of the project are consistent with the TTC plan and are effective for motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians, and workers.”

But Beverly Hills Drops the Ball on Safety for Riders

Despite the state and federal departments of transportation guidance, our city routinely #FAILS riders because our transportation officials turn away from their responsibilities.

That includes the city’s Traffic and Parking Commission, which enjoys a remit to “act as an advisory agency to the council in all matters which relate to parking and traffic.” Not so for traffic mitigation for multimodal users! We recently reminded the Traffic and Parking Commission about the toolbox of available mitigation measures, but our commissioners seemed unconcerned. Over several meetings they discussed Santa Monica Boulevard mitigation and yet didn’t acknowledge the need for rider safety.

For a taste of how staff regard riders’ needs, simply scroll down to the exchange with Aaron Kunz, Deputy Director for Transportation.

Frying Pan into the Fire!

Santa Monica Boulevard riders are about to go from the frying pan into the fire! For if you think negotiating this corridor with substandard-width lanes and potholes and sewer grates is a hassle today, just wait until construction vehicles begin to use the eastbound #2 lane to access a new project staging area on the now-vacant T-1 zone properties at 9900 North Santa Monica Boulevard (southwest of Wilshire & Santa Monica). Here it is on a map:

9900 Wilshire Boulevard T1 zone map

Space for nearly 100 construction vehicles accessed via three SM Blvd curb cuts and not one safety sign for riders to be seen!

Beverly Hills just amended regulations to allow at that location access for staging and construction “without limitation,” including the “parking of delivery and heavy construction vehicles.” And for a period of five years no less. So expect to share the right-hand eastbound lane with heavy-haulers and the up to 91 construction-related vehicles that can use the lot at any one time. Helpfully, “easy ingress and egress” is provided via the same right-hand lane that riders share with trucks, buses and about 50,000 vehicles every day.

The obvious question: How would the city ensure that these construction-related vehicles don’t increase the danger to riders? Turns out it was a question never asked. The benefits to the city were clearly spelled out: less disruption of the Beverly Hilton Hotel’s parking and overall operations; improved construction efficiency; and minimized visibility of construction worker activity around the immediate work area. To our reading that’s a substantial benefit (including cost-savings) to the developer.

What’s in it for rider safety? Nothing. You see it was up to Community Development Department director Susan Healy-Keene to attach appropriate ‘conditions’ to the Development Plan Review permit. But there is none: “buffers and landscaping” will insulate the area from adverse impacts. And while pedestrian concerns are accommodated, there is not a single mention of how this heavy traffic will affect those who ride a bicycle. But that’s no oversight: the agreement discusses landscaping, lighting, portable restrooms and even a prohibition on food trucks. Riders come away empty handed.

But in Beverly Hills one always wants to hold out hope! The final condition of the 9900 Wilshire Development Plan Review document states:

The Director of Community Development reserves the power and right to impose additional conditions and/or restrictions upon this approval if the Director of Community Development or his/her designee determines that the site is being operated in a manner that causes a traffic, safety, noise, dust, light, or any other impact that interferes with the quiet enjoyment of nearby properties and that the existing conditions of approval are inadequate to halt the interference. – Development Plan Review condition #17

We’ll hold our breath. Healy-Keene has proven herself to be no friend of multimodal transportation. Her Community Development Department worked against bicycle lanes for Santa Monica and has shown no concern for an update to our 1977 Bicycle Master Plan. So we’re not surprised that the development plan review process here didn’t take into account our needs.

Playing Rope-a-Dope With Safety Advocates?

It’s difficult to square the federal and state policy guidance with the near-total abdication of responsibility for rider safety along this corridor and elsewhere in the city. Surely someone has stepped up to ask why we can’t do better. Behold the following exchange that unfolded over nearly six months about making this corridor safe during construction.

Since January we repeatedly brought to the attention of Aaron Kunz, Deputy Director for Transportation, the dangerous situation adjacent to the Waldorf project. But he’s given us the runaround time and again. Back in January we first inquired.

I anticipate that Council gave the OK to the text amendment for the 9900 Wilshire T-zone. On that assumption, I’m wondering if your department has any plan to facilitate safe bike travel across Santa Monica Boulevard eastbound for the duration of the construction period. This is a particular concern given the routing of truck traffic as described in the staff report… [yet] there is no mention of cyclists who today use North SM as a crosstown route. There are three curb cuts proposed for NSM and both ingress and egress is planned to/from that corridor. — To Aaron via email on January 7, 2015

To that we did suggest as an option detouring riders from North Santa Monica to the southern roadway (as mentioned in FHWA guidance) provided the right-hand lane on that other corridor is designated as an alternate route and marked with sharrows and/or appropriate signage. Aaron’s response:

I will follow up with the project’s traffic engineer (they contracted with Fehr & Peers). We have discussed signage for bicyclists and that using South SM Blvd. is the best solution. — Aaron in reply on January 9, 2015

Seeing no change, we followed up three weeks later.

Can I follow up with you on this T-zone safety issue to find out what arrangements the city will put in place for cyclists? — To Aaron via email on January 29, 2015

From Aaron in response:

Yes, of course. Fehr & Peers is making the arrangements (they were retained by the developer). We’re waiting to hear back from them. I just inquired about the status. — Aaron in reply on January 29, 2015

Dropping the ball, we then picked it up some months later:

Re: traffic mitigation measures for cyclists now that construction at SM/Wilshire has started, it’s more dangerous than ever for riders. And the restriped intersection (the striped triangle WB) affords no place for riders to queue. Perhaps the city cam [sic] post appropriate safety signage (“may use full lane” is MUTCD approved) on NSM in both directions – as LA did in Century city EB during construction there. — To Aaron via email [date N/A]

He replied:

I’m following up on the status of signage impacts related to the current construction project. — Aaron in reply on June 2, 2015

We asked to clarify:

Do you mean adding signage to the passage between Wilshire & Moreno on NSM? Signage and sharrows might be appropriate and perhaps beginning east of the intersection with appropriate markings through it. It’s a key regional corridor; the more conspicuous the guidance the better. — To Aaron via email on June 6, 2015

Always a prompt responder, Aaron then replied:

I will follow up with development services about the signage for the Waldorf Astoria construction. I recall Fehr & Peers recommended signage that would advise cyclists using alternative routes for construction, with the primary option being South Santa Monica for the section between Wilshire and Moreno. — Aaron in reply on June 8, 2015

We followed up to note that there are measures available besides hanging a sign:

Both the Hilton [now Waldorf] and the SMB projects suggest the same safety concerns and indeed are likely to present very similar (if not the same) mitigation challenges. Beyond signage, there are measures like sharrows and even temporary segregated bike lanes that should be in the toolbox. From the riders’ perspective, the absolute worst thing is being thrown into with angry drivers on streets without protections or refuge. — To Aaron via email on June 8, 2015

For good measure we added, “It probably goes without saying that the more folks we can encourage into the saddle – like our plans recommend – the less congestion we have to accommodate. Has there been any discussion of messaging to that effect? Isn’t it an opportune time to get people on a bicycle?” But we heard nothing back.

We then followed up a couple of weeks later (approaching six months after we first raised the traffic mitigation issue):

Re: Hilton mitigation, you had mentioned signage and possibly an alt route for the Hilton construction. As I mentioned to TPC in my correspondence, there are a number of measures that can be taken beyond simply directing riders to an alternate route. What would the next steps be, and when might they be taken? — To Aaron via email on June 24, 2015

He replied:

Our building department is evaluating your suggestions for bicycles during construction of the Waldorf. We’re also checking on applicable signage. Am hoping to get an update within the next couple of weeks. — Aaron in reply on June 25, 2015

Sensing we’re getting nowhere with the promised ‘update’ that never arrives, we focused in on the problem:

As far as I’m aware today cyclists have full access to the SM Blvd construction corridor west of Wilshire. Yet there is no shoulder, and the right lane in either direction adjacent to the Hilton property is of substandard width. You suggest it remain without signage to alert motorists to the lawful presence of cyclists for a few more weeks? Why can’t the appropriate signage be posted *today* on this key regional corridor? — To Aaron via email on June 26, 2015

No response came back. We followed up.

Just so this doesn’t slip from the to-do list, I hope you’ll hear back from Fehr & Peers shortly about mitigation measures to make SM Blvd / Hilton transit safe for riders for the duration of construction. I had a look back at my emails and see we’ve been discussing this problem (for cyclists) since January – coming up on six months – and asking F&P was the next step then. Can you give me an idea of when you might have something to share — To Aaron via email on July 1, 2015

After than it’s just crickets until we try again. We call that approach to safety problem-solving ‘rope-a-dope.’

What Does This Portend for North Santa Monica Reconstruction?

We’ve asked time and again how the city and its consultants would mitigate the safety impacts arising from construction-related detours, lane closings and narrowed lanes on the reconstruction project but again came away empty-handed. (We brought it to the attention of City Council as recently as yesterday.)

Then just last month came this statement from Aaron Kunz:

For the NSMB reconstruction project we have instructed the consultant team to include mitigation/signage for cyclists in the traffic mitigation plan. Right now we’re working on the requirements that will be included in the construction bidding process and a public outreach program. — Aaron in reply on June 2

Well we’ll see if that ever comes to fruition. You can be we’ll be on hand to raise the issue in community meetings about mitigation, but we can’t force our officials to meet their safety responsibilities. Nevertheless we’ll be following up. And following up. And following up.

*The Complete Street according to Caltrans: “A transportation facility that is planned, designed, operated, and maintained to provide safe mobility for all users, including bicyclists, pedestrians, transit riders, and motorists appropriate to the function and context of the facility.”

Beverly Hills Intersections May be Hazardous to Your Health

Crossing guard on Wilshire at Santa Monica Blvd

The most dangerous intersection for pedestrians in Beverly Hills requires the assistance of a crossing guard with a sign to remind drivers of the law.

To our list of distinguishing features Beverly Hills policymakers can now add another: our intersections rank among LA County’s most dangerous. At least according to a detailed mapping of state injury data by the Los Angeles Times. It mapped intersections where pedestrians were more likely to be injured or killed and found those proximate to the business triangle, and particularly along Santa Monica Boulevard, most dangerous. We hardly need empirical evidence: here you know you’re taking your life into your hands!

You know it by the seat of your pants so to speak: you’re in a losing battling with motorists when you ride a bicycle across North Santa Monica Boulevard at Wilshire. It’s one of the worst intersections in Beverly Hills. That it’s a gantlet for riders is no accident, however; that’s by design. The intent here is to maximize the throughput of vehicles. And despite that effort, this juncture retains its LOS grade of ‘F.’ It cannot accommodate traffic demand given its vehicular capacity. In fact, our city steadfastly refuses to re-stripe this intersection to facilitate safe passage for those on a bicycle. You can see here the poor rider has no guidance through a nightmare:

no pavement markings at Santa Monica Blvd at Wilshire

Only road warriors should cross the Wilshire – North Santa Monica Boulevard intersection. It’s designed to fail all users, but the most experienced at least have a fighting chance.

As a pedestrian, too, you know you’ve entered the danger zone because simply crossing either North or South Santa Monica at Wilshire begs the assistance of a crossing guard. That’s because because no crossing here has been improved. The highly-visible ‘continental’ style crosswalks used in other cities simply find no home here.

Wilshire-Santa Monica intersections unimproved

Intersections in need of an upgrade! Wilshire – Santa Monica just begs for highly-visible ‘continental’ style crosswalks like our neighbors in Los Angeles and West Hollywood enjoy.

The city’s failure to improve these intersections for both riders and walkers despite clearly dangerous conditions is evidence enough of official disregard and indeed negligence. yet the legacy of harm here has never been addressed by the city’s Traffic and Parking Commission. Every month commissioners receive the tally of rider, pedestrian and auto-involved collision injuries in the city. But seldom do they ask a question like, “Where are these crash injuries happening exactly, and what can we do to prevent them?” Instead the commission busies itself with parking districts and valets.

Should officials want actual empirical data, though, they can just turn to the LA Times, which has examined crash data as part of its focus on street safety. Contrast that with the reticence of the two Beverly Hills newspapers (the Weekly and the Courier) which hasn’t the gumption evidently to touch a topic like street safety (despite our entreaties).

The Analysis

The Times analysis looked beyond the top-line numbers (total reported collisions per intersection) to identify intersections that are not only dangerous in absolute numbers of crashes but disproportionately dangerous for pedestrians relative to intersections across the county. The Times called these “statistically dangerous” because they emerged in the analysis as outliers.

The analysis began with crossings where more than ten pedestrian-involved collisions occurred over the eleven-year period (583 in total). That was an indication of frequency. Then the analysis identified intersections where pedestrians were involved at a disproportionately-high rate. For example, the Times found 309 intersections with just three incidents but all of them involved pedestrians. That suggested conditions particularly unsafe for walkers (if not for motorists). And of course the analysis looked for fatalities as an indication of extreme danger: the places where a pedestrian if hit was more likely to be mortally injured.

The Times then mapped those 817 “statistically dangerous” intersections (out of 25,821 total that registered a crash in LA County). “More than 15% of all pedestrians accidents occurred at or near these locations” over the eleven year period examined, says the Times.

But the analysis went further to include intersections with at least one pedestrian-involved collision. While not of high frequency, when mapped these could suggest problem corridors or danger hotspots.

Then the “statistically dangerous” intersections were layered atop a heatmap that illustrated the degree to which intersections departed from the mean in terms of overall hazard. So the map shows specific outlier intersections; danger hotspots; and then problematic corridor segments and clusters that should warrant attention from policymakers and transportation planners.

What did the LA Times find? To nobody’s surprise, perhaps, Beverly Hills is distinguished by the Times analysis of local collision data as home to no fewer than six of the 817 “problematic intersections” County-wide. (These outliers themselves constitute just one-third of one percent of all intersections that counted at least one crash during the study period, and Beverly Hills is home to six of them!)LA Times analysis spreadsheet

Beverly Hills: The Problematic Intersection Outlier

LA Times dangerous intersections map: Wilshire at South Santa Monica

Faded crosswalks throughout the city only add to the pedestrian’s safety concerns.

The analysis identifies a Wilshire – Santa Monica cluster of intersections as among the most dangerous in the County, with the Wilshire – South Santa Monica crossing in particular as one most dangerous for pedestrians. At this crossing, one-third of all collisions involved a pedestrian. That’s in the top half of all problematic intersections according to the Times analysis.

(More incredibly, in one-fifth of the total crashes here, the culprit hit-and-run. Keep in mind that this is no rural road; Beverly Hills congestion ensures that someone fleeing the crime might not get far. Still they run.)

Why is this intersection so “problematic” for pedestrians? Perhaps the perennially-faded crosswalk markings here (at right) contribute to the safety problem. The city will go years without repainting the markings and for some unknown reason won’t use thermoplastic for enhanced durability.

LA-Times-ped-injury-heatmap-Wilshire-SMFurther down the South Santa Monica corridor is the city’s third most dangerous intersection. At Bedford nearly half of all collisions involved a pedestrian. The LA Times analysis ranks this one in the top quintile (20%) of outlier intersections for its overall hazard.

The North Santa Monica corridor emerges as a problematic corridor in the analysis too. And it is not just the Wilshire intersection (at right), which, like the adjacent South Santa Monica crossing, is also poorly-marked. (Nearly one-quarter of all collisions here involved a pedestrian.)

No, this intersection is part of a problem corridor according to the Times analysis. Farther east, between Bedford and Canon, where tourists tread, the data show a string of lower-frequency but “statistically dangerous” crossings (per the analysis) that create a kind of linear cluster of harm-causing intersections.

What Should City Officials Take From This Analysis?

The prevalence of problematic intersections throughout the city should be instructive for Beverly Hills officials: fix these crossings before more walkers and cyclists get hurt. Yet the city, armed with the same data – the data generated by our own police department it’s worth pointing out – has taken no action. In fact, North Santa Monica Boulevard is in the exact condition in which we received it ten years ago from state control (along with a pot of millions in fix-it funds we never spent).

If you think the city disregards the safety of cyclists, consider how they’re putting in danger the many tourists who cross between the business triangle and Beverly Gardens Park to have their picture made with the famous sign.

AKA Hotel proximate collisions map

When the AKA hotel announced its own bike-sharing amenity for guests, we had a feeling it was smack in the center of a cluster of bike-involved collisions. So we mapped it!

And looking ahead to bike-share operating in Beverly Hills by the end of the year, we will also see many two-wheeled tourists attempting to navigate these same dangerous crossings. We mapped past reported bike injury collisions for a one-year period a couple of years ago when one of our hotels inaugurated its own bike-share amenity. The findings weren’t good!

So no wonder City Council is concerned with city liability: if you don’t fix street hazards, just be sure you’re insulated from the harm generated by them. That seems to be the prevailing view in City Hall.

Most frustrating is the way the city puts in harm’s way a defenseless pedestrian. Consider the city’s designated ‘pedestrian-oriented area.’ The LA Times map shows that three “statistically dangerous” intersections (Brighton Way at both Beverly Drive and Bedford, and Roxbury Drive and Wilshire) lay within the pedestrian area. Add in the three other danger hotspots (near Wilshire & Beverly Drive) and you have a cluster of probable harm.

LA Times analysis pedestrian with district map overlaidThe city will get right on this, right? Our transportation planner has probably already looked at locations where collisions most often occur and focused remedial attention on the hazards. Wrong. The city will likely take no significant step to address these issues. We know one well-intentioned stakeholder who has begged the city to address the intersection at Beverly Drive & Olympic for two decades because of a high incidence of car crashes there. But there’s been no indication from City Hall that the city will ever reconfigure it. Two decades and no action!

Former Mayor Lili Bosse recently signed-on our city to the US DOT’s Mayor’s Challenge to improve street safety. Does that augur some positive action? We’re not optimistic: when we asked what the city might do to meet the challenge, we received this anodyne boilerplate: “Transportation Planning will work closely with our Policy & Management team to clarify and identify future goals and strategies for citywide improvements.”

I know I’ll rest easier knowing that City Hall is doing all it can to make streets safe for walkers and riders!

Santa Monica Boulevard Lanes Returns to Council

Santa Monica Boulevard visualization

Santa Monica Boulevard may yet be a street complete if City Council makes room for bicycle lanes. (Photo-illustration: Better Bike & Ryan Snyder Associates)

My gosh, are we still campaigning for bicycle lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard? On Tuesday, City Council again discusses Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction project (which kicked off in January of 2010!) to provide direction on boulevard options and design. At the top of the agenda is the question of whether or not to expand the boulevard the few feet. Will councilmembers ensure we have the width necessary for bicycle lanes? Will Council even say that lanes should be included in this project?

When Beverly Hills City Council last discussed Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction this past January, it kicked the can down the road where bicycle lanes is concerned: the decision was simply deferred to the later design phase. Attribute it to political friction. The boulevard would need to be expanded to about 63′ in order to accommodate Class II bicycle lanes (the state-recommended width is a minimum of 5′).

But bicycle lane opponents opposed giving up ground beyond the north curb face in order to accommodate lanes. Evidently they’re still chafing at a decades-old proposal to add two additional traffic lanes to the corridor. But really it seems they don’t want bicycle lanes on the boulevard at all.

But supporters wanted to find the few extra feet necessary so that lanes wouldn’t be forever precluded, so in January we suggested a land swap: add one foot of grass to Beverly Gardens park on the north side between Canon and Doheny in exchange for an additional two feet of boulevard width along the shorter stretch between Canon and Wilshire. That would allow a uniform 63′ wide boulevard for bicycle lanes yet result in no net loss of park land.

We called it the ‘Beverly Hills Greenway,’ and the concept gained traction in the media (and among the public) because it made sense. Indeed, supporters packed Council chambers, and, in written comments along with advocacy organizations and neighboring cities’ officials, urged Council to stand behind it. Here’s what it looked like:

Beverly Hills Greenway profileBut our Greenway concept put councilmembers in a tough spot: should they choose multimodal mobility for the corridor or cave to bicycle lane opponents – the folks who cried “not one blade of grass lost!”?*

“We Found that Few Feet After All”

No doubt after some diligent study, consultant Psomas found room to tinker after more than a year of insisting that there was no room to expand the boulevard to the south. As summarized in a notice to stakeholders:

At the January 6, 2015 Study Session, Council directed staff to return to City Council at 50% project design with recommendations to widen the roadway on the south side in the 60-foot section between Wilshire and Canon Drive up to 3 feet and/or configuring the lane widths to potentially accommodate multi-modal uses (vehicles, buses and bicycles). The design team is prepared to proceed with designing a 62’-4” roadway in this section pending City Council’s direction. As a comparison, the existing roadway between Doheny Drive and Canon Drive is currently 63 feet. – Study session emailed notice

As summarized by the staff report, this Tuesday afternoon City Council will decide whether or not to expand the boulevard by that extra couple of feet. It is important that we take this step now rather than to lock in a future corridor too narrow for bicycle lanes. You can let City Council know that you support a wider boulevard.

Where Will the Additional Room for Boulevard Expansion Come From?

Why the change of heart? And where will this extra space come from? Let’s take a look at the situation.

The entirety of the North Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction project corridor stretches from Wilshire to Doheny, but the section we’re concerned about here stretches from Wilshire to Canon – about seven blocks where boulevard width is only 60.’ It is too narrow to fit four travel lanes plus a median and dual bicycle lanes. See this segment map:

Santa Monica Blvd project corridor map from Wilshire to Canon

Segment of Santa Monica Boulevard from Wilshire to Canon is only 60′ wide today. Expansion to 63′ is limited by the five garages (in yellow).

While councilmember Nancy Krasne long urged the city to look for space beyond the south curb, our consultant Psomas thought it impractical. Bicycle lane supporters seemed to agree.

Said Aaron Kunz, Deputy Director for Transportation, just an additional 2 feet 4 inches would allow for a 63′ wide roadway that “can accommodate 4’6″ bicycle lanes.” While state law requires five-foot bicycle lanes (a 4’6″ lane would be considered substandard), deviations are allowed with permission from the state DOT. How would it work in practice? We would put the bicycle lane up against five parking garages west of Canon.

Check out our animated graphic to see how a a bit of space might accommodate a bicycle lane:

Santa Monica Blvd bike lane illustrated

This animated image shows how additional space, recovered beyond the south-side curb and hard up against our traffic garages, might be able to accommodate bicycle lanes.

Placing a bicycle lane so close to the parking garages may not be ideal, but practically speaking this half-loaf of bread is better than having no bread at all. We will be in Council chambers this Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. to support the expansion of Santa Monica Boulevard to accommodate bicycle lanes. (Consult the agenda.)

But A Wide Boulevard Alone Won’t Ensure That We have Bicycle Lanes!

Even with the necessary width now available, safe passage along this key regional route depends on installing a bicycle lane too. This is a designated truck route, and multiple bus lines ply it daily. Not least, North Santa Monica accommodates an average 50,000 autos on any given weekday. It is critical that Santa Monica be reconstructed with bicycle lanes to ensure the safety of bicycle travelers on this busy corridor.

Yet bicycle lanes on Santa Monica is hardly a fait accomplis. City Council may well choose to expand the boulevard but instead of striping lanes the city may simply create extra-wide 15′ right-hand lanes. Make no mistake: this approach has nothing to do with rider safety but everything to do with getting riders out of the motorists’ way. That’s because under state law a ‘substandard’ width lane (accepted as less than 15′ wide) would allow riders to claim the entire right-hand lane. And that makes City Hall nervous for it may slow motor traffic.

What are the odds that Beverly Hills will put the brakes on bicycle lanes? We think the odds are good that the City Council will direct our consultants not to stripe bicycle lanes. After seeing the staff report for the Tuesday meeting we’re confident. Why? The report makes only one passing reference to bicycle lanes. And it adds a caveat: “if desired.” When 15′ lanes were last discussed back in January of 2014 during the Blue Ribbon Committee process, staff proposed that bicycle lanes be left out.

Why create the conditions for lanes but not stripe them? We heard no good argument to support the choice then, and it makes no sense now. According to federal transportation policy guidance, an extra-wide right lane without a separate bike facility is not safe and US DOT advises against it.

Visualizations of options from the staff reportSecond, the staff report talks a lot about design choices like medians and landscaping, but in illustrating the various options it never depicts a bicycle lane on the boulevard (at right). To put a fine point on it, one illustration depicts garage landscaping exactly where a bicycle lane would go.

One doesn’t need a crystal ball to foretell the future: City Council wants no bicycle lane on Santa Monica boulevard. Indeed we have no ‘complete streets’ principles or such language in any of our city plans. But If we don’t stripe bicycle lanes now, we surely won’t be striping them later – perhaps not for another decade or generation.

If you want to advocate for striping bicycle lanes as part of the reconstruction project you can join us this Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. for the City Council study session. Or contact City Council and make known your interest in safe streets in Beverly Hills.

What About Ensuring Rider Safety During Construction?

That is another reason to contact City Council: it should not turn its back on rider safety during the lengthy construction phase. Yet from the mitigation discussions to date in the Traffic and Parking Commission, which focused exclusively on resident inconvenience, it appears that in City Hall is not much concerned with riders.


State DOT is concerned, and it identifies “considerations in planning for bicyclists in temporary traffic control zones” in chapter 6 of the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices. These include:

  • A travel route that replicates the most desirable characteristics of a wide paved shoulder or bikeway through or around the TTC zone is desirable for bicyclists.
  • If the TTC zone interrupts the continuity of an existing bikeway system, signs directing bicyclists through or around the zone and back to the bikeway is desirable.
  • Unless a separate bike path through or around the TTC zone is provided, adequate roadway lane width to allow bicyclists and motor vehicles to travel side by side through or around the TTC zone is desirable. (6D.101CA Bicycle Considerations)
  • When the roadway width is inadequate for allowing bicyclists and motor vehicles to travel side by side, warning signs should be used to advise motorists of the presence of bicyclists in the travel way lanes.

We sent our own letter to the Traffic and Parking Commission to remind them. Have a look at this stretch of Santa Monica west of Wilshire (adjacent to the Waldorf Hotel construction site) to understand what it means to the rider navigating a construction zone. Motorists routinely travel this stretch at 50 mph yet there’s no opportunity for a rider to escape.

Santa Monica Blvd at the Waldorf construction site: no mitigation for riders!

Santa Monica Blvd at the Waldorf Hotel construction site: no mitigation for riders!

We’ve asked again and again since January: Can’t we at least see a single ‘may take full lane’ sign? But we’ve yet to receive a satisfactory answer from Aaron Kunz. “Our building department is evaluating your suggestions for bicycles during construction of the Waldorf,” he replied to our most recent query. “We’re also checking on applicable signage. Am hoping to get an update within the next couple of weeks.” That was the reply in January too!

With the mitigation discussion moving to City Council on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. in City Council study session, have a look at the staff report and come prepared to comment!

*Turns out that “one blade of grass” slogan from bicycle lane opponents rings hollow. Given the drought, Beverly Hills is taking unprecedented measures to reduce the irrigation burden, which will likely mean a trim to many blades of grass at Beverly Gardens Park. And how’s this for irony: members of the same “not one blade of grass” community north of the Boulevard signed onto a campaign to get the city to remove forty – forty! – mature ficus trees from park-adjacent Park Way. Why? “They drop berries,” said the homeowner leading the effort. And the city agreed to create a tree replacement plan to cull forty mature ficus trees!

[This post has been updated to include material from the just-released staff report.]

LA Sizzles But Beverly Hills Sees Scant Tech-Sector Interest

Beverly Hills iphone appFortune magazine has posted only the latest piece branding our region a SoCal version of Silicon Valley. Trading on the genuine article’s well-earned reputation for bootstrapped innovation, Fortune attempts to shine some of that new-economy spotlight on our own town. We call ourselves the ‘smart city,’ after all. City boosters never pass up an opportunity to tout our leadership on technology (and many other issues). But when it comes to the tech-sector, we just don’t have the buzz. Are we not as ‘smart’ as we think we are?

The Smart City?

Yes, we fancy ours the ‘smart city.’ We’ve got ‘flex-pay’ parking meters, online bill payment, ‘smart’ irrigation and even our own mobile apps like ‘Ask Bev,’ a “high-tech citizen request system.” City Council has implemented ‘smart traffic management’ too. But on the wish list remains ‘e-Gov’ (check out the program website!) and an expanded wireless network. It all comes under this umbrella:

Expand the use of technology to improve efficiency in all initiatives including communications infrastructure and safety programs. (Priorities 2011-12 & 2012-13)

Such so-called ‘smart city’ initiatives have been ongoing for nearly ten years, but have they delivered a smarter city? In the communications arena, the city has yet to lay broadband fiber, for example, and whatever our boast about e-Gov, we’re still in the last century when it comes to civic engagement. (Our conventional methods poorly applied tend to discourage it.)

What about ‘open data’ and the civic hacker initiatives we hear about? Beverly Hills makes virtually no data available (the new water tracker tool is an exception to the rule). Even our monthly BHPD data report to Traffic and Parking Commission runs a full month behind. In any case, the police department and our transportation planners perform zero analysis on crash injuries – a step that could help policymakers address unsafe intersections, say.

Beverly Hills vision statement: technology programs

Are we so known? Though we’d like to steal a bit of that tech-sector limelight, the reality is that innovation in the digital arena happens somewhere else. Fortune’s ‘Silicon Beach’ analogy may find footing in areas like Santa Monica, Venice and Playa, but it won’t reflect the reality here in Beverly Hills.

Indeed in our very limited tech community we count two heavies – Netflix and Relativity Media. But they are likely on their way out anyway: the former will move to Los Angeles, according to reports, and the latter just filed for bankruptcy. Will Beverly Hills be able to fill their spaces with other tech firms? Can we attract new startups to locate in Beverly Hills?

We’re not optimistic about Beverly Hills the ‘smart city.’ You see there is little here that would appeal to the tech-minded besides double-digit priced mansions. Through-and-through we’re a distinctly 20th century city. Consider our our auto-era mindset, for example, or our over-reliance on hospitality and tourism to pay the bills. Hotels practically control City Hall. In so many ways we’re not the forward-looking visionary city we think we are.

The Visionary City sloganThe Visionary City?

We like to talk about ‘vision’ here in Beverly Hills. But our vision is relatively short-sighted. We’ve not gazed to the horizon of possibilities but instead focused on what we can get done today, before the staffers head back to the suburbs. Let’s take a look at some ambitious initiatives that really didn’t meet the vision.

We’ll start with fiber. City Council has talked about bringing fiber broadband to the masses for years. Indeed it is all the rage because cities from Santa Monica to Chattanooga find some competitive advantage (lower costs, freedom from proprietary control) in providing municipally-owned broadband services.

But our city has taken no step toward fulfilling the promise of broadband via fiber. Even our brief flirtation with outsourcing fiber broadband to Google fizzled, leaving our ‘smart city’ committee wishing we could catch up to the likes of Chattanooga.

Google fiber announcement via In Focus March 2010While we gave up on fiber rollout, what about municipal Wifi? We have only a very limited public network according to the city’s map:

WiFi coverage map

The larger map shows the only hotspot in the hot South Beverly Drive area while the inset map shows hypothetical coverage, which should – but doesn’t – extend through the 200 block.

If there’s anything that today’s tech-minded folks for granted it is the omnipresence of WiFi. But Beverly Hills does not deliver on this crucial leading-edge pubic infrastructure. Our system hardly covers the entirety of the business triangle, much less service the commercial districts beyond. Even for these relatively few hotspots the connectivity isn’t very good. Let’s just say that our system is no threat to Time Warner.

What about E-Government? To civic engagement folks it’s a precondition for governing in the 21st century. But real ‘E-Gov’ (as we say) doesn’t play much of a role in governing in Beverly Hills. We’re an old-school institution that doesn’t even count online as a designated posting place for public meeting agendas. (Check the bulletin board at the library, staff say, when we point out that some or other meeting wasn’t even noticed on the city’s website.)

And the initiatives that we have put in place simply tinker at the margin. We’ve got the online bill pay, sure, and our ‘Government Efficiency 2.0’ effort “streamlines” development by allowing us to pull development permits remotely. But these are transactional tools. What about real public engagement?

Consider the city’s website. It should be our gateway to E-Government. But our site lags far behind other cities in design and functionality. (It was beyond its shelf-life even years ago when it was last upgraded.) Check out these nested menus!

Beverly Hills city website menus smallAnd while we hear about City Hall efforts like “electronic presentation of agenda materials,” the truth is that we still like our paper: just last month a city committee elected to keep receiving the thick paper packets. Moreover, the electronic agenda materials that are posted online are often PDFs scanned from paper documents anyway (rather than generated from native files) and they are sometimes are not searchable because there’s no OCR layer.

Other city efforts we see as distinctly small-ball too. Our so-called ‘smart traffic management’ scheme? Council priorities perfunctorily touch on “demand/flow models or other tools” but what does that mean in practice? Evidently not much: vehicular congestion is as bad as ever. Heck, the city has not even re-striped faded pavement markings, and those are the foundation of traffic control. When was the last time you saw a newly-repainted lane marker or crosswalk in Beverly Hills?

Beverly Hills website on iPhone

Talk about non-responsive web design!

Mobile is very hot these days, of course. Some cities use mobile apps to engage the citizenry and encourage participation. But the city falls short of a ‘smart city’ promise here too. Just have a look at the way the city’s website renders on a smartphone. #FAIL!

The city’s mobile apps are not much better. The explorer-type Mobile Beverly Hills app feels like a proof of concept: it is slow, buggy and the listings are incomplete (none of the city’s smaller parks are listed for example). It hasn’t made much progress since we first reviewed it in 2012. Some cities have found mobile apps to be a valuable means of helping people report problems (potholes, etc.) but our own Ask Bev Mobile requires password sign-in every time you open it. That discourages impulse reporting. Should I want to report a pothole, do I want to log in every time? And when I use the app without login, it’s not clear from the feedback that a case was even filed.

Smart iPhone App via In focus August 2010Like the city’s website, these apps are in need of user interface improvement, yet neither app has been updated in the past 18 months. So neither is tuned to take advantage of the newest iPhone operating system (iOS 8). But when these apps were announced by the city, boy, there was ‘smart city’ promise wafting through the air. Three years on it’s more of a dodgy scent!

What a Real ‘Smart City’ Should Do

We see thoughtful civic innovations like ‘open data‘ rolled out in other cities. We should copy their lead. Open data, a tech movement that has revolutionized the way some local governments keep the public informed, make public information more, well, public. Crime data helps everyone better understand the safety of the environment in which we live and work, for example. But it also informs City Hall by providing fodder for tinkerers who want to put the voluminous information we collect to use. Armchair analysts come up with new ways of looking at urban problems that were likely never envisioned by staffers.

Citizen analysts sift the policing data to examine the effectiveness of police resources management, for example; or use it to surface social factors that affect public safety. In that same vein we see ‘hackathons’ wherein open data evangelists come together to  incubate civic projects. City of Santa Monica does it:

From the event announcement:

You are invited to join us as we make available new real-time data for Big Blue Bus scheduling (GTFS-rt), real-time on-street and lot parking, Fire Department Calls for Service, and citywide water usage data. During the meetup, you will be provided with the opportunity to learn about all aspects of the City’s open data program, including providing input to help shape future events.

Why isn’t there a place for open data and hackathons in Beverly Hills? Well, for one thing our departments make very few datasets public. Maybe you want to use budget data to illustrate change in departments’ funding or staffing over time. How would you do it? Today you would scrape annual budget reports (PDFs) to get those numbers because the structured finance data isn’t available. Though we boast about our ‘transparent’ budgeting process, the city has never even posted its final FY 2014-15 operations budget, so you’d have to request it.

The data that we’d most like a crack at working with is BHPD crash data. As Beverly Hills-based bike advocate, Better Bike would map bike-related injuries and analyze the factors that contributed to them. But the police won’t release collision information to the public; they also claim there’s no automated way to even search it by criterion.

The police department does tally crash injuries monthly for our Traffic and Parking Commission, but city analysts don’t chart the data so policymakers have no idea how injury rates are trending.

Turns out they’re trending mostly upward. We scraped the data from seven years of department reports and plugged them into a spreadsheet. And we found pretty much zero progress over time in reducing the number of crash injuries. Worse, bike injuries, in fact, are way up since 2008. We presented these general findings to our Traffic and Parking commissioners (who likely had no idea about those trends) and received a polite ‘thank you’ but no follow up for our charts. Imagine what we could do with data on crash locations!

Beverly Hills Water Tracker

The city’s water tracker is fine for checking your own wastage, but not much help in shaming your neighbors.

But wait, there’s more we would like to do. We want to take a crack at displaying water consumption data by household to map the biggest water wasters. We would also assess its consumption pattern over time. But Beverly Hills City Hall isn’t interested in these measures. For good reason, the data searched through the ‘water tracker’ tool is available only to an account holder. So there is no bigger picture of consumption that any of us can piece together.

If we’d had that data years ago we could have charted the trends to guess how little progress the city would make on conservation. And maybe saved the effort of regular exhortations and instead moved right to sanctions.

City of Santa Monica is making their water usage data open and available to the public for civic hackers and whomever. Why not Beverly Hills?

Will We Ever Become a Technophile’s City?

Few startups will form here and few established firms will see an incentive to relocate if they don’t regard Beverly Hills as leading-edge or even competitive with other areas in the realm of technology and innovation. Just check out Fortune’s ‘Technologist’s Guide‘ map. We see branch offices of the best-known technology firms – Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Twitter, and Facebook – and high-flying app-makers like Snapchat, Tinder and even Whisper. Where is Beverly Hills represented here?

Fortune Magazine's technology map

Fortune Magazine maps plenty of tech action, but none of it is happening in Beverly Hills.

Of course it’s not. We have no major tech firms here except an outlier: a small frontier outpost of YouTube. We’d like some of that tech gloss to be sure, but let’s face that we’re just not that hip to tech folks. We’re so ‘old economy,’ in fact, that our budget is practically shackled to industries like retailing, hospitality, and medical, law and finance. Tourism and commerce run this city.

Even if we don’t suck in the smarts, boy do we attract the capital! Fortune notes that Beverly Hills is a bedroom community of choice for the richest of the ‘Silicon’ elite. Jeff Bezos paid $24 million for his home here. Minecraft’s founder bought a $70 million spread. Irrational exuberance has evidently been great for our real estate sellers and city coffers, but we aren’t seeing the trickle-down in tech jobs and knowledge workers. Capital just doesn’t lend the same glow as a critical mass of technologists. It smells alright, but it doesn’t have the same luster.

Will Beverly Hills bask in the glow of the tech economy? Or are we consigned to be the bedroom community for elite who prefer to work in Santa Monica and Los Angeles? Those cities are investing in broadband fiber and WiFi networks as well as life-enhancing safe-streets and alternative modes of transportation because it appeals to today’s techies. Will we ever roll out those innovations here? Bike lanes and the like?

That’s the only way we’ll drag our city into the 21st century. Living up to our self-assigned reputation will take a much more visionary City Council than we have today.


NIMBYs Whiffed on Bike Lanes But Killed the Dog Park

Roxbury dog park visualization

This year northside Beverly Hills residents swung for the fences but whiffed when they tried to kill bicycle lanes for North Santa Monica (Council kept lanes on the table). But two years ago, the southwest NIMBYs scored a base by killing off a preliminary proposal for an off-leash dog run for Roxbury Park. And it took only a bunt: just five dog park opponents persuaded City Council to nix the whole idea… even though it came recommended by staff, was endorsed unanimously by the parks commission and was supported by local dog-keepers. The Backstory The city had been looking to create a dog park for years. Dogs need outdoor recreation, of course, and every morning dogs of all stripes make … Continue reading

Tracking Hazards and Collisions: Maps and More Maps!

The infamous ‘mashup’ that plotted Bay Area rental apartments on a Google map a decade ago was just the beginning. Within reach of every armchair cartographer today is city data and the tools (like Google fusion tables) to bring complex datasets to life. We riders are among the beneficiaries! Because some smart folks have shown some ingenuity to map road hazards and crashes. Let’s take a look at some of the maps. First let’s think about the importance of recording the collision. Jot details down at the scene before you forget them. Local bike attorneys sometimes provide branded pocket forms that remind us what needs to be noted; these cards prompt you to simply fill in the blanks. However you … Continue reading

Are You a ‘Team Player’? Traffic Commission Has Two Vacancies


Do you savor cracking down on tour buses in Beverly Hills? Can you see yourself jawboning about handicapped placard abuse year-after-year? Do you thirst for control over parking valets? Do you relish the chance to break the chops of our taxi franchisees?  Then does the city have an opportunity for you! The Traffic and Parking Commission has a couple of open chairs just begging to be warmed. You could be the lucky next commissioner! The Traffic and Parking Commission “shall act as an advisory agency to the council in all matters which relate to parking and traffic,” says the municipal code. Its remit includes to “advise and counsel as to ways and means to improve general traffic conditions” and prepare … Continue reading

Our 1977 Bicycle Master Plan: Will It Ever Be Updated?


While we wait for word about North Santa Monica Boulevard bicycle lanes, we’re wondering if there’s any effort to make Beverly Hills as a whole more bike-friendly. One sensible first step is to update our 1970s-era Bicycle Master Plan. It needs a refresher. And since the 2010 General Plan process left that bike plan behind, City Hall has talked about revisiting it. Yet we’ve seen no action. Before we embark on bike-share or install bike lanes, why don’t we properly plan for citywide bike routes like it says in that old plan? The city knows that our Bicycle Master Plan is out-of-date. It dates from the great bicycle renaissance of the 1970s. Despite the four decades that have passed, it … Continue reading

Is a Mandatory Bike Helmet Law the Answer?

State Senator Carol Liu

State Senator Carol Liu recently introduced a bill that would require every bike rider regardless of age to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle. Though a well-intentioned safety measure, SB 192 and its helmet mandate has spurred a backlash among some riders and several established statewide bike advocacy organizations. Why the opposition? Why not mandate helmets for adults? On first look, helmets can only increase safety by wrapping the noggin in plastic. So it might seem like a common-sense safety measure to require riders to wear them. Accordingly, SB 192, if it became law, would “require every person, regardless of age, to wear a bicycle helmet when operating a bicycle… [and] require a person engaged in these activities in the … Continue reading