SM Boulevard Project In Flux But Bike Lanes Are Still on the Table

City Council discussing bike lanes

Photo: Nancy Laemmle

City Council in study session today received some answers from city staff to March 4th questions about ballooning cost projections. But councilmembers unhappy about imprecision and dissatisfied with past staff candor turned the project back with even more questions. Today much remains in flux: cost projections, financing options, and traffic mitigation measures, to name a few things. Consequently there is no resolution on project scope, much less even a firm position on bicycle lanes. Given the uncertainty, that’s good news: that option remains on the table for Santa Monica Boulevard.

We’ll be updating this recap shortly, but suffice to say we may have turned a corner in the discussion. At the outset of this process, for example, the bicycle lane (a Caltrans-approved traffic control device) was dismissed as a “giveaway” to outlaw bikers. Or it was inexplicably derieded as a safety threat to riders. And to those inclined toward a parochial perspective, bicycle lanes on Santa Monica would be nothing more than an undeserved convenience for outsiders passing through our city.

Today, however, we’re hearing policymakers acknowledge the hazards that riders face and they’re beginning to talk substantively about how to accommodate those who bike city streets. Though we’re still very early in this process, at least the tone and tenor of the discussion has changed. Even hard-and-fast opponents of losing “one blade of grass” for  boulevard expansion prefaced their public remarks by expressing support for cycling and riders. (The most dyspeptic NIMBYs didn’t speak up.)

At the risk of overstating it, this new direction opens an opportunity to talk about other bike-friendly measures we can take even before we decide anything for Santa Monica Boulevard. For example we can finally begin an update of our 1977 Bicycle Master Plan. That would allow policymakers some guidance when they finally set out to identify streets suitable for bicycle lanes. We’re having that debate on an ad-hoc basis now precisely because there is no bike plan to look toward.

There’s even a long-shot chance that we’ll take this opportunity to talk more broadly about road safety in our city. That’s a discussion we’re loathe to entertain despite collision data that clearly show the hazards that motorists and riders in Beverly Hills face. Let’s hope that this process prompts the Traffic and Parking Commission to address these things sooner rather than later.

Notably absent from today’s discussion was a single word from our consultant, Psomas, which has declined to recommend the inclusion of bicycle lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard. Psomas has done no favor for any rider navigating that corridor today and into the future. Please remember that when Psomas comes to your city asking for a million dollar mobility planning contract. Beverly Hills should have tapped Snyder!

Keeping Eyes on the Prize

That brings us to perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this reconstruction process: the bicycle lanes question has continued to dominate every meeting from Blue-Ribbon Committee to City Council. Whether any councilmember or public speaker has cursed, praised or simply acknowledged this essential traffic control device, lanes continue to be the focus. Even today, the cost discussion almost took a backseat (so to speak). Our counclmembers agree that we’ll see more riders in the future; it seems like we as a city can’t any longer dodge planning for it, they say.

That’s thanks to the persistence of multimodal mobility advocates and bicycle lane proponents throughout the process, as well as the many public speakers and institutional representatives who stepped up to the mic. You all have really changed the lanes debate from “no!” to “where?”

Thanks Are in Order

We want to acknowledge LACBC’s Eric Bruins for policy guidance today; planning consultant Ryan Snyder for providing a larger mobility context for Council’s discussion; Tish Laemmle, Eric Weinstein and Michael Scheinberg for their reasoned arguments in favor; and especially we tip the hat to the irrepressible Victor Omelczenko, who gave a command performance in how to relate to City Council with an impassioned argument for encouraging cycling.

New York City’s Transformation

NYC bike rackOver the past decade New York City has been transformed from a hardscrabble city where motorists practically had the run of city streets (perhaps our greatest public space!) to a hardscrabble city where those of us who walk and bike have at least a fighting chance to survive. And while the playing field is not exactly level, the transformation of high-profile thoroughfares suggests the problem is recognized. With appropriate policies, better enforcement and continued infrastructure improvements, we’ll at least put non-motorists back on the scoreboard after a century+ shutout by motor traffic interests and an ongoing assist from unaccountable policymakers.

Multimodal mobility has never enjoyed greater support in New York City than during a decade of infrastructure improvements under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Why did the Mayor recognize the needs of non-motor road users and so embrace innovations? Because it simply makes sense. The Mayor had made public health a major priority and active transportation is a health-enhancing activity. (The Mayor himself dropped a few pounds while in office.) The city’s epidemic traffic fatalities were long a problem, and nowhere more than in the boroughs, where wide thoroughfares (like Queens Boulevard, aka the ‘boulevard of death’) showed how closely tied were prevailing vehicle speeds to pedestrian deaths. Slowing traffic through calming measures could mitigate that hazard.

The Mayor was also an efficiency enthusiast who likely bridled at the lost productivity (not to mention lost wages) when pedestrians and cyclists competed for the right-of-way only to come out on the losing end in a collision. Careless riders, too posed a problem. They frightened pedestrians by disregarding traffic controls and even riding against one-way traffic.

Yet bringing order to a metropolis historically resistant to micro-management was no easy task. It couldn’t come at the barrel of gun (as ghoul Rudy Guiliani found when he tried to corral pedestrians with barriers at corners) and lawful behavior in a city long used to negotiating the streets in ad-hoc fashion couldn’t be compelled through higher jaywalking fines. (Indeed our own LAPD could take that lesson to heart and ease-up on the jaywalking crackdown Downtown.)

Bloomberg sought instead to simply reallocate the limited street space to all road users. His DOT could clearly demarcate who belongs where on the streets. With striping the DOT could carve out a place for those who ride. The city fashioned pedestrian plazas from traffic-choked intersections (like this off-the-beaten-path square in Corona, Queens) and many of these so-called ‘demonstration’ projects became permanent fixtures. (Read more about New York’s innovations in Cycling in New York: Innovative Policies at the Urban Frontier.)

It’s been nothing less than a transformation for the few areas in this city of eight million that have benefited from the attention of Bloomberg and his DOT honcho, Janette Sadik-Kahn. But not all areas did benefit. Likewise, not all neighborhoods have been flooded with the investment capital that washed in with Bloomberg’s unprecedented up-zoning of nearly 40% of the city. Bloomberg’s legacy is a complicated one to be sure.

Here we present a slideshow of before/after images of enhanced-mobility infrastructure improvements starting perhaps with the most startling transformation – that of Times Square (looking south on Broadway). Click on an image to start the slideshow.

Lessons from New York

Political leadership is essential. Such change could not come about without the visionary leadership of Department of Transportation chief Janette Sadik-Khan. With unwavering backing from Bloomberg her department implemented many innovations and together they re-wrote the complete streets textbook.

Second, the big gains come not at the center but at the margins. It’s one thing to muscle through signature efforts like Times Square, Herald Square and Union Square. But Manhattan is not the boroughs, where tension with City Hall is ongoing and community boards enjoy significant power. Executive meddling there is not always welcomed even if its for safety. (Witness the soft drink policy fiasco.) At the margins – in quotidian places like Corona, Jackson Heights, and Ozone Park, and corridors like Queens Boulevard, Grand Concourse and Ocean Parkway – complete streets measures will have the greatest impact on the collective consciousness. After all, New York City’s other four boroughs are home to people who may not have traveled to Manhattan in decades. The city has to bring the innovation to them.

The projects with the most significant aggregate impact are the least capital-intensive individually.  New York’s use of ‘continental crosswalks,’ curb extensions, and pedestrian refuges, like so many treatments depicted in these DOT images, are simply paint-on-pavement. Once cleared they can be implemented at a relatively low cost.

Effective leadership benefits from a voters’ mandate for change. Expanded sidewalks and raised pedestrian plazas are capital-intensive. Transformations like Times Square are politically hot-button. And together they’ve generated no small amount of heat for the prior Mayor. They also made the former DOT chief Sadik-Khan a household name (not in a good way). Bloomberg rode a wave of popularity for two terms; his successor prevailed in a landslide – which augurs well for de Blasio’s ‘vision zero’ policy prescription:

The City must take decisive and sustained action to reduce street fatalities each year until we have achieved “Vision Zero” – a city with zero fatalities or serious injuries caused by car crashes on the streets of New York…. The City must invest in dramatic safety improvements targeted towards the most dangerous intersections and thoroughfares, particularly around schools, in neighborhoods where elderly New Yorkers increasingly reside….We must ensure that Department of Transportation expands its capacity to bring safety improvements to at least 50 corridors and dangerous intersections each year….[and] quadruple the number of slow zones – to 52 – over the next four years. – Bill de Blasio

Change can be difficult. ‘Vision zero’ means making tangible change in the fabric of the community. It’s one thing if we riders view the playing field as tilted against us; from that perspective, paint-on-pavement is the stuff of mobility liberation. But if you’re a local wary of being struck by speeding cyclists riding the bike lane in the wrong direction? Sadik-Khan’s changes engendered no small resistance in the ‘hood and even prompted Iris Weinshall, a former DOT chief and all-around anti-bike crank, to lead an epic and losing battle against the now-archetypal Prospect Park green bicycle lane.

New York may suggest the way toward the multimodal mobility future, but it’s a message we’re late in getting out here in Beverly Hills. Despite the language of our plans, our policymakers haven’t made an effort (beyond hand-wringing) to address the negative effects of congestion on quality-of-life. We’ve not even begun to think outside the gridlock box. Simply coaxing a pro-bike lanes recommendation out of our Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee was a major accomplishment.

More Changes for a City Always in Flux

Those of us tired of going head-to-head with motorists may look to New York’s successes and feel envious. But it’s complicated. For those of us fortunate enough to have known that great city prior to Bloomberg’s reign, during the closing decades of the industrial era, say, when crime topped the headlines and hope was sometimes in short supply, the transformations highlighted here prompt ambivalence.

We never like the sclerotic truck traffic and imperious taxis. We hated battling motorists in crosswalks. Taking to the saddle for a quick ride up and over the outer roadway of the Queensboro Bridge with the motorists was lunacy. We remember back when merely riding up 6th avenue from the Broadway wholesale district through the garment district and up into corporate canyon could pigeonhole you as nothing more than an everyday bike messenger: hardly worthy of a patch of blacktop.

Of course New York wasn’t its best self then. But it was damn good enough. The city wore its pride on the sleeve with a preternatural disregard for criticism (and critics). Now as that old era slips into our new one, change seems to abound. Along with the new mobility paradigm comes all the rest: metastasizing Citibanks and Whole Foods Markets that swallow city blocks. It’s arguably safer than ever to ride a bicycle, but to what end? Literally, to what destination are we headed?

Greenpoint Brooklyn

What bike-friendly infrastructure? Greenpoint, Brooklyn muddles through as it waits for bike lanes, bike boxes and curb extensions to arrive.

Northwest QueensIncreasingly we find the city of which we’ve long been enamored not in downtown or midtown Manhattan, or even in the villages east or west. We’re not much interested in Park Slope or Williamsburg either. Get on our rear wheel and follow us to Elmhurst or Jackson Heights, Queens; Washington Heights or Kingsbridge, in the Bronx; Ditmas Park or the Flatlands in Brooklyn. Places like northwest Queens (at right) keep it real with the old New York look and feel even if bike-friendly streets have been slow to reach to this particular margin. But that’s just fine. When the twenty-first century transformation makes its way out to the city corners we’ll be waiting.

Slideshow images courtesy of the New York Department of Transportation. Big h/t to Architect’s Newspaper for the original post and captions.

Blue-Ribbon Winner: Public Input!

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

The High Points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue-ribbon committee

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

Low Points

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Town Advocacy in BH: Opportunities & Constraints

beverly hills city hallIf you want to advocate for a policy change in Beverly Hills,  take some comfort that we’re a small town at heart. You’ll see a councilmember at the farmers market now and again. City Hall is close by enough to touch, after all. Staffers will likely answer your phone call. What’s best is that good ideas don’t necessarily go to an early grave like they might in Los Angeles, where they’re lost in committee. Here your good idea will at least get an honest hearing in Council. So why is it that a family-friendly notion like road safety finds so little traction here?

Well, Beverly Hills is a small town. Why can’t we make the change that we need? For one thing, we don’t have the staff resources available to a larger city. We have the money, of course; this year we’ll give $4.5 million to our Conference and Visitors Bureau to market Beverly Hills. But money alone won’t buy us transformative change. For that we need vision, political leadership, and staff-level creative capacity. The latter is sometimes in short supply in a small town, and Beverly Hills is no exception.

Vision Starts at the Top

It’s an article of faith that vision is communicated down the organizational pyramid. Unfortunately, our City Council has historically drawn from establishment folks who hail mostly from the northern precincts where change is greeted by trepidation. Hence a parochial perspective prevails and we keep on the same path we always have. That is conspicuously the case with mobility: we’re wedded to an auto-era model, and embracing a post-auto paradigm shift to non-motor modes is difficult to grasp.

In one respect that’s the lot of the small city. Council positions are part-time and the honorarium is modest. Candidates step forward if they have the time and money to serve. By contrast, City of Los Angeles pays more than $150,000/yr per councilmember and an available seat can attract a dozen candidates.

Beverly Hills organization chart 2013If vision indeed comes from the top, let’s take a look at the city’s organization chart. The voters sit atop local government and here we can’t deny that a progressive vision is lacking. We just don’t have a progressive base established here in Beverly Hills. Heck, we’re the epitome of bourgeois living! For many, life is good; green lawns and a low crime rate are our inheritance.

On the South-of-Santa-Monica-Boulevard side, though, it’s a little different. The police blotter shows we’re vulnerable to burglary and our sidewalks and commercial districts are simply not maintained to as high a standard as elsewhere. Where a progressive bloc should form is instead undermined by multifamily housing and a younger, transient residential base seemingly less-interested in civic affairs. Local newspapers lay unmolested on the sidewalks. Where southside civic consciousness takes a breather the folks on the northside step forward.

Residents in multifamily housing should be the natural advocates for safe streets. We live closer to services so tend to walk more. Appearances suggest that we’re more likely to ride a bicycle to get around town. But when it comes to street safety our interests simply aren’t shared by those on the northside. And historically haven’t been reflected by the City Council.

Our former Mayor Jimmy Delshad, for example, who is well-known for symbolizing the ascent of Iranian ex-pats in Beverly Hills, put it bluntly when he opposed efforts to install bicycle lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard a few years ago. The corridor may require a modest expansion (a foot or three beyond today’s curb) to provide space for lanes needed to plug the gap. Yet Delshad proclaimed in Council chambers, “We are not widening the boulevard!” Will that view prevail on the Council dais when it comes time this fall to give thumbs-up or down to the bike lane? That’s our work, right?

The Intertwined Roots of Parochialism

It’s perfectly understandable that Beverly Hills policymakers would focus on their own constituency. They rub elbows at fundraisers and functions with folks from their same social circles, of course, and how many of them are asking for bike lanes or sharrows? Moreover, the burghers of Beverly Hills make common cause with haute bourgeois  landowners and hoteliers – the interests that bring in the crucial sales and occupancy taxes that keep our city afloat. Few of them clamor for safe streets.

Even finding a sympathetic ear among our smaller retailers is a challenge. We saw that cracking our Chamber‘s single-minded focus on making parking available for businesses in the triangle was as much of a long shot as getting our city’s Small Business Task Force members to recognize that riders do shop locally (read its report). Other cities have found that to their great benefit cyclists reanimate forlorn strips. Yet cyclists go completely unacknowledged in our Chamber’s city-funded ‘shop local’ promo program. [Update: as of April 2014 the link returns a '404' error. It's a quiet demise to a program that seemingly was rolled out for the City Council funding. It never had much heft behind it.]

The blinkered vision that keeps safety improvements from Beverly Hills streets can find its full expression among members of our Traffic and Parking Commission who are drawn from the same social circles. Four of five members of the commission live on the northside and three of five are motorists at heart. For them, according to their remarks, riders are scofflaws and bike facilities are a giveaway that comes at the expense of motorists. That’s the old zero-sum argument.

Commission members are each entitled to his view, but this is an advisory body that recommends policy changes to Council. In theory its remit covers everything mobility-related, from road safety to parking. And in fact the modest Pilot bike lane program bubbled up though this commission, emerging from its ad-hoc Bicycle Plan Update Committee and through the entire commission. (The ad-hoc committee has been otherwise moribund since formation almost four years ago). But in practice the commission considers mobility to be simply automobility; there is no room for bike riders on their metaphorical street.

Commissioner Julie Steinberg firmly takes the ‘windshield view’ on mobility. Rather than focus on road safety, her pet issue is tour bus blight. Vice Chair Andy Licht has proven himself to be no friend to cyclists. Bike-foe Commissioner Lester J. Friedman is no better for cyclists. Steinberg was reappointed and her current term expires in January of 2015. Licht has also been reappointed; his term is up in March of 2016. Friedman’s term is up in February 2017. All were reappointed with zero input from the cycling community.

Two members of the commission better understand the needs of cyclists, however: Commissioner Jeff Levine and current Chair Alan Grushcow. Both sit on the (largely hypothetical) ad-hoc Bike Plan Update Committee. But both have met with riders and their advocates under the Pilot program process and know our needs. They too were reappointed. Levine’s term ends in April of 2014 and Grushcow is up in September of 2015.

We residents and riders have a responsibility to participate in commission appointments, which are made in Council open session. Public comment is invited. But we have fallen down on the job of providing our perspective. As a result, important commissions like Planning and Traffic draw largely from that same circle of establishment folks and parochial (read: pro-motor) interests without challenge or competition.

What difference does it make you ask? Consider that no city official stepped forward during our General Plan update process in 2010 to say that the time was right to update our Bicycle Master Plan. So that plan, authored in 1977, simply languishes.

At a time when other cities were moving ahead with good transportation plans (like New York under through the vision of transport commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan) and creating bicycle lanes, Beverly Hills doubled-down on the car. But this view is out of sync with the prevailing wisdom especially in neighboring cities like Santa Monica, Los Angeles and West Hollywood. Each recognizes the need for a new vision if we are to realize the benefits of multimodal mobility just as our own plans say.

We’ll have a long wait to remake the Traffic and Parking Commission, sure, but change will start with more progressive folks stepping up for commission duty. This is the long game: with few exceptions these city commissions are stepping-stones for Council candidacies.

Creativity Must Bubble-Up From the Bottom Too

How else can we nudge the old City Hall thinking in a new direction? It must happen from the bottom up too. Here the challenge to get our staff to think more creatively is especially acute. We’re a small city with a bench not that deep, after all, and they may not always be conversant with new technologies or the latest ideas. In addition, our high city salaries and plush benefits mean low turnover. Not much new staff blood flows through the old city hall arteries.

Our transportation division presents an example of how perfectly sensible safe streets concepts and treatments fail to find traction. How can we get good ideas bubbling-up from department desk to City Council and ultimately onto our streets?

First, we need a deeper bench of talented hitters. Our transportation staff is small and remains wedded to a car-centric notion of mobility that hails from the auto era. Until a few years ago, in fact, transportation officials appeared unfamiliar with the growing prevalence of cycling as well as the need to plan for a non-motor mobility future. If staff can’t grasp the best practices in the field, we should hasten their exit and replenish the ranks.

Second, we have to rethink how we plan for transportation. That means more visionary leadership at the department level. It will come as no news to riders that Beverly Hills transportation policy is focused on moving metal rather than people. In fact our Traffic and Parking Commission is charged under the municipal code with facilitating traffic flow. But mobility is too important to our city to simply reduce it to vehicular travel; instead we need to create a mobility planner position in order to ensure that we’re safely and efficiently move people too.

(This week Council will approve the move of our transportation planning and engineering functions from the Public Works department to Community Development, where land use is regulated. That makes all the sense in the world. Read the ordinance.)

Third, there exists a baked-in aversion to risk (or even a climate of fear) that pervades city hall. It impedes the adoption of new practices or the consideration of outside-the-box ideas. Staff should be encouraged to bring new ideas to the table. (But see point #1.)  Some administrative measures (like signage) need no Council approval as our departments are already charged with keeping streets safe. Such low-hanging fruit shouldn’t get lost in clinging to an auto-era mindset. Can’t we move forward on such modest measures as signage?

What About Us Bike Advocates?

Clearly there is a role for mobility advocates to play in order to drag our city into an era of 21st century multimodal mobility planning. For one thing, we can bring staff up to speed with the best practices. We’re nothing if not an information-sharing community, after all. But the challenge has been to find a receptive ear among transportation officials not evidently open to suggestion. As a result, many good ideas like those communicated in any of the first, second, third, fourth and fifth meeting with bike advocates have simply fallen by the wayside. We hope that this will change now that transportation responsibilities falls under Community Development director Susan Healy Keene.

What about that climate of fear and aversion to risk? That we advocates can’t do much about. It comes down to good management, and that falls to the City Manager, currently Jeff Kolin, who establishes expectations, oversees implementation, and crafts the climate within which staffers work. (We recently had something to say about the role of the City Manager.)

The most critical tasks for any advocate for safe streets is to simply spread the word, to vote for the candidates who represent our interests, and to participate in Council and commission meetings. If you are a rider interested in road safety, apprize yourself about the candidates who would endorse ‘complete streets’ principles, for example, and vote for them. In the upcoming election, Better Bike will help you make the right choices.

That is our job: to participate. Should bike advocates be the ones pushing complete streets principles? Need bicycle advocates harangue officials for bike lanes and basic safety measures like state-approved signage? Yes and yes. Because officials see the problems but for the variety of reasons suggested above don’t step forward to address them. In fact, complete streets principles wouldn’t have even been mentioned in the city’s call to bidders on the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction project if we hadn’t lobbied Council to make sure that it was included. (Provisions for ‘livable streets’ and on-street bike lanes were included.)

Here’s your next opportunity to make Beverly Hills more bike-friendly. This Tuesday, September 10th at 2:30 pm, Beverly Hills City Council will hear from our consultant about public outreach for the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction project. Council will also provide feedback to the consultant on the range of preliminary conceptual options. If you are interested in seeing bike lanes on the corridor, read the staff report and be sure to represent your interests to Council. Drop councilmembers a line or consult our handy city departments cheat sheet. Heck, just show up to say your piece this Tuesday. We’ll see you there!

Measure J: We Can’t Support It

Measure J, the initiative on the Los Angeles County ballot to extend the voter approved half-cent transportation sales tax, has found support among transit advocates and some cycling advocates too. A two-thirds ‘yes’ vote on J would extend the ‘sunset’ of the 2008-era 30-year tax hike for an additional 30 years in order to generate $67 billion total for mobility investment across the county. (About $43 billion from the Measure J extension.) With Metro behind it, it’s tempting to go along because we do need transit options. But this initiative amplifies concerns that accompanied the original Measure R and is one of three tax-hike proposals on the ballot. It may not have sufficiently broad support. Already two key LA County Supervisors, Ridley-Thomas and Antonovich, have declined to endorse it. We join them. With 26 years yet to go on Measure R yet, we feel that leveraging a sales tax increase so far into the future for improvements not clearly specified (much less costed) begs voters take a pass.

We might be a minority voice, and here on the Westside in particular. Measure J has found broad support among boosters of multimodal mobility, including out-front members of the Los Angeles cycling advocacy community; key outlets like Streetsblog LA; and even the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition, which came out in support with an editorial:

LACBC works closely with MoveLA, the coalition of labor, business, and environmental organizations backing Measure J. MoveLA shares our vision of a bikeable, walkable, and transit-friendly Los Angeles County and are working with us at Metro to ensure that our regional transportation policy supports these goals.

(It’s worth noting that Move LA is headquartered in an office adjoining the LACBC’s suite on Spring Street.)

The Los Angeles Times also endorsed Measure J, finding it “a win for transit, the economy and the future of L.A. County.” The projects accelerated by Measure J, the editorial said, “would ease congestion, reduce pollution and increase quality of life, without raising taxes.” The editorial also labeled valid arguments against both measures R & J as “tired,” which is a disservice to those who thoughtfully analyzed the pros and cons.

The proponents’ take on Measure J is that bonding against the next 5+ decades of the sales tax bump will prudently accelerate investment across the county when we most need it. It would create 410,000 jobs at a time when our state can barely keep the lights (on much less fund big projects), they say; given Washington intransigence, Angelenos must step up to the plate with another three-decade levy. (Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s proposal to pack 30 years of transit construction into the next ten years – 30/10 – largely at federal expense didn’t fly in DC.)

Measure J opponents find much they can live without, however. Measure J proposes a raft of projects that still will rely on federal cost-sharing – funding not necessarily forthcoming given today’s fractious politics (not to mention prevailing anti-urban bias among House leadership in Congress.) Yet Metro’s own project sheet notes that the particulars on many projects (including the most broad outlines) have yet to be nailed down. Details are to be decided by the Metro board. (Beverly Hills City Council recently declined to endorse Measure J precisely because it views Metro as wielding too much power.)

Metro Measure J projects mapMoreover, some find it implausible to imagine that Metro will be able to manage so many big projects when the organization has its hands full today with the significant projects that have already broken ground. Critics grimly predict that Metro’s limited project management capacity can only be a recipe for fiscal imprudence. Opponents have also raised a social justice argument in opposition to Measure J, saying that any sales tax is a flat tax on consumption that falls inordinately on the less economically advantaged.

Looking at the substance of the proposed projects, critics question whether Measure J should tap receipts so far in the future to fund transportation projects today when we can’t even anticipate tomorrow’s needs. And should projects serve tomorrow’s users at the expense of those traveling today? The Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, for example, recently took their arguments to city councils to say that rail investment doesn’t well serve the much larger number of bus riders who suffer today under bus service cutbacks. They add that our least-advantaged travelers don’t directly benefit from roadway investment either.

More About Measure J

According to Metro, the economic and transportation benefits of Measure J justify extending the sunset date to 2069 only four years into the original Measure R’s 30-year horizon:

By starting construction on seven rail and rapid transit projects, and up to eight highway projects within the next five years, instead of the twenty years currently planned, this job creation will be accelerated. The measure will also provide an additional thirty years of continued funding for local transportation improvements (ex. pothole repair, signal synchronization, local roadway and bridge safety improvements), countywide bus and rail service operations, Metrolink and Metro Rail capital improvements, and administration.

Contrary to how the initiative is often talked about, it’s not all about mass transit. Metro of course is the lead agency on the $1.3 billion I-405 expansion project, and Measure J would plow significant money into auto infrastructure. If current statewide apportioning ratios hold for Measure J projects too, active transportation facilities might only nibble a few percent of that big pot o’gold (even considering the program’s 15% local return).

Metro Measure J Fact Sheet imageBut active transportation interests (and pro-bike supporters in particular) aren’t the key supporters of Measure J anyway: it is the agencies that would benefit, and labor, its representative unions, and materials suppliers who really stand to gain. (As measurej.org notes, it is a “coalition of Charitable, Business and Labor Organizations.”) Not for nothing is Measure J being sold as a jobs initiative as much as a mobility program. (See the Metro Measure J Fact Sheet at right.)

Measure R in 2008 enjoyed majority support across Los Angeles County, but it barely surpassed the necessary 2/3 threshold of approval at the ballot box. Just as were reasons not to have supported Measure R, there still exist valid objections to extending the half-cent sales tax increase (over an additional thirty years under J) and that may threaten the initiative’s success on November 6th.

Why We Don’t Endorse Measure J

We would like to be able to stand with proponents in support of Measure J (we supported Measure R) but we feel that the “tired arguments” (as the LA Times editorialized) against this initiative are persuasive. Supporters note the wide net that a sales tax casts to spread the cost of mobility options across a wider constituency, but any sales tax is regressive. When conservative supply-siders like Malcom Forbes press the flat tax, and corporations like Amazon routinely sidestep collecting it, we believe that it falls too much on the least economically empowered. We’re also sympathetic to the Bus Riders Union arguments that under-serving the much larger bus constituency undermines Metro’s campaign for a larger checkbook for more ambitious projects.

New People Mover from Visual Environment of Los Angeles (1971)

Envisioning the people-moving future of Los Angeles circa 1971

We’re also concerned that Measure J leverages the future without regard to tomorrow’s unanticipated long-term transportation needs. Should we be borrowing against funding through 2069 for only one or two decades of improvement? On one hand, will it leave anything for needs that we can’t today forecast? On the other, will it saddle us with infrastructure that may not serve us well a half-century hence? Imagine if we had drawn upon today’s transit funding to build the freeways of the 1960s. We’d have much more of what we don’t need, yet have fewer resources to tap for what we do need. Today that’s mass transit and active transportation facilities, but yesterday’s policymakers didn’t have the vision (even if planners did, right). Greenhouse gas reduction wasn’t on the radar then (much less state law).

But mostly our reluctance to endorse Measure J simply boils down to a lack of faith. The prospect of decades of indebtedness chasing too many projects over a compressed timeframe sounds like the makings of a megaproject bubble. We count ourselves among the critics who find it difficult to imagine that Metro will be able to manage so many big projects. Metro has much on its plate today. Even without Measure J, Expo will crawl to completion and the Purple Line will one day reach the sea. But Measure J will likely nourish perceptions (if not the actuality) of waste, fraud, and abuse in public-sector megaprojects. (Academic planner Bent Flyvbjerg has found that strategic misrepresentation of project cost and overly-optimistic projections regarding performance and timelines not only plague major public projects but are instrumental in securing policymaker approval for them.)

Some may be comforted by the Measure R-mandated annual monitoring and spending review. Yet two factors argue against complacency. First, extending the sales tax bump for double the initial 30-year term will undoubtedly overtax the capacity of any oversight body, namely the independent taxpayer oversight committee charged with the task. With so many more projects getting off the ground, can we even ensure effective oversight?

And second, taxpayers only need look to other big-scale public construction programs in order to question whether we in California (or the United States for that matter) have what it takes to usher publicly-funded megaprojects from conception to realization efficiently and cost-effectively. Consider the Los Angeles Community College District expansion program. It has been wracked with corruption and self-dealing for many years, according to a long-running series in the Los Angeles Times. Efforts at reform under public scrutiny have not been wholly successful at reining it in. Nothing about that $6 billion program (“Do it for the kids!”) inspires confidence.

And then there’s the California High Speed Rail Authority, which was created by ballot initiative statewide and endowed to put California train travel on the literal fast track. That program was also billed as a bold step toward a multimodal future, and also sold as a jobs program. But the Authority has wobbled under public scrutiny. Successive proposals and route plans have called into question the credibility of the appointed body. And now, years later, and under new direction, the program has been scaled down to appease local constituencies. But then it never promised an end-to-end high speed rail right-of-way anyway. Top-end speed projections seem overly optimistic. In sum, it seems to virtually embody Flyvbjerg’s findings about megaprojects.

We don’t want to see the same happen throughout Los Angeles County. We instead favor our existing program of mobility project acceleration under the promised oversight and annual reports. Voters are being asked to allow a return to the well when we’ll not even have learned what new post-election direction Congress and the executive branch will take. So we’ll take a pass this time and prefer to revisit the promises of Measure J the next time around, perhaps.

Wrench-in-a-Box: Getting Started in Bike Repair

Cartlandia Bike Rack for saleWhen I came across a for-sale listing on Bike Portland for a bike repair turnkey operation, I realized two things: it’s an awfully long way to go to buy out a business; and whatever the fantasy that a turnkey business offers – like a fully-contained wrench-in-a-box bike repair trailer – setting up shop in SoCal as a bike repair guy simply isn’t for me. Sure, I’ve got a few Park tools in a cabinet. Once in a while I like to turn a wrench. But a career in cycling isn’t for me. It could be a great opportunity for someone, right?

Cartlandia Bike Rack rearBut it did get me to thinking how career opportunities in turnkey bike repair seem to come along much more often than other endeavors. Last Fall we were approached by the founder of a local hardware store in Beverly Hills who was looking to complement the store’s sales of low-end hybrids and cruisers with a service facility. There was space in the back of the shop, and even a large storeroom that might be converted.

With what little business sense I do have, I recognized an opportunity: out back of the shop was the city-owned parking garage where a fleet of rental bikes might be one day moored. And at that moment, City Council was mulling over Crescent Drive in front of the store for a bike route. With practically zero bucks required, there was no barrier to entry. The enterprising wrench could simply show up to grease some hubs.

325 North Crescent exterior

This could have been a bike shop!

But that opportunity found no takers. Nor did an empty, small city-owned retail space on Crescent – a space affordable enough at a low city rent to launch a bike business. Why is it that these opportunities are chasing entrepreneurs?

I had that thought again as I saw this Portland listing for a full-equipped, portable bike repair trailer. In business for only a year, it had occupied a space designated for a mobile business like a food truck. (An innovation that we don’t have down here yet, evidently.) There’s nothing to say that a creative bike wrencher couldn’t make this setup work for housecalls. Or perhaps set anchor on a park corner with the permission of local authorities much like a bookmobile. Remember those? Remember the slogan, Reading is fundamental? So is cycling. Let’s find people to seize these opportunities.

Working on planning a recent show on Bike Talk, I’m beginning to realize how widespread is the co-operative movement globally, and how it’s pervasive in so many industries. (Best Western, the American hospitality corporation: I bet you didn’t know it was member-owned.) We need to connect cooperatively-minded folks with low-barrier or cheap turnkey opportunities like the Bike Rack. Good for them, good for cycling, good for everyone.

Beverly Hills: Falling Down on Execution [editorial]

Beverly Hills Website early 2012

Beverly Hills says only Flash-based web browsers are welcome.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” That tireless slogan is often uttered by policy pushers when they want to elevate political expedience above effectiveness. It’s the heads-up to recalibrate and ratchet down constituent expectations. Of course we can’t expect perfection; but too often we don’t even get the ‘good.’ For the past six months we’ve waited for Beverly Hills to refresh the city website. It’s been in the pipeline but it simply never materialized. Until now.

Like many initiatives that Beverly Hills undertakes, whether ‘smart city’ or ‘green city’ or bike planning, our rhetoric suggests ambition but founders on execution. Our purported bicycle program for example has been years in the making. But like the city’s website refresh, somewhere it ran aground. What began in early 2010 as an update to our outdated 1970s-era Bicycle Master Plan devolved the next year into a much more limited ‘Pilot program‘ to only identify bike routes and bike-friendly improvements. Shortly thereafter, restrictions were slapped on the program that precluded road diets or removal of street parking or other good practices that achieve more accessible streets and discourage motoring. We see it in neighboring cities but not here.

Then even the limited Pilot program was watered-down. Only three of five routes recommended by our Traffic & Parking Commission to Council, which then rubber stamped only two of them. Of those two, Crescent Drive was truncated and the other, Burton Way (the easiest of the candidate routes) was tossed in later in the process by our Transportation staffers. They were eager to show some progress, no doubt.

For cyclists who ply our streets, though, the proof is in the pudding. Will Pilot measures make any difference in terms of safety or convenience? Will they encourage any additional would-be cyclists to get out that dusty ride and shift a local trip from car to bicycle? Not likely: Beverly Hills will remain the adversary’s territory where hostile drivers dominate car-choked streets because we’ve simply fallen down on planning and implementing safe and complete streets.

When cyclists began participating in the Pilot process, it was with hope that we would find a way to coexist with motor traffic on our city’s narrow streets. We believed that with state-recommended improvements to streets and intersections, we could make bike travel safer and more welcoming. We believed we were participating in a good-faith effort. On the city side, however, the process seemed engineered to produce few improvements.

That slow march of bike planning is paralleled here in Beverly Hills by our city’s faltering efforts to simply update the website. Before pushing the button on this story, we were looking at the old website. That was just a few days ago. It was a tired design implemented in 2008 – that’s five years without an update – even as time-to-refresh on the Internet gets shorter and shorter. In style and function it recalled the glory days of the Internet circa 1999. (See it for yourself on the Wayback Machine’s index.)

Why so long? Last year I took a personalized tour of the Information Technology department deep in the bowels of the library building. So I know it’s not for want of technology. Server tower after server tower hummed. I heard about 99.9% ‘uptime.’ But I didn’t sense any urgency.

City’s Online Presence Lags Its Peers

Many cities see in their online presence the public face of City Hall. And a portal for transactional business. And a communications gateway that shapes community attitudes regarding policy initiatives. Not for nothing do cities keep their homepages interesting and attractive to web visitors by updating regularly and using it to provide near real-time updates on city news.

Not so Beverly Hills. Progress on the refresh was so slow that we were first told the Spring; then Summer; and as Summer turned into Fall, we were still waiting.

A key concern is that any bike-friendly programming that we do will be hampered by the same handicapped implementation that we see today on the city’s new website. This ‘Beta’ release presents the visitor with empty pages, incomplete pages, place-holder text, and links that point nowhere. It’s not like there hasn’t been a chance to test these links! Consider it an indication of what to expect from city initiatives in general. We’ve seen it with our orphaned Beverly Hills iPhone app (as we’ve noted). Indeed the city has been impervious to pleas to be more open with stakeholders and to make site improvements for greater usability. But nothing changed. Is it a product of baked-in resistance?

What does this suggest for improved streets made to be more bike-friendly here in Beverly Hills? It suggests we’ll have a really slow rollout of half-baked measures that exists in some form of ‘Beta’ release for a really long time. Now, it would be one thing if we did let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If we delayed implementation of street safety measures, say, because we wanted to get it just right. Or if we lagged behind but suddenly sprang forth with imaginative approaches to policy problems. If only our transportation planners and policymakers had something truly innovative up their sleeve.

But we don’t lead with innovations. We never have and we likely won’t ever. In fact, the good planning that serves Beverly Hills well today actually dates back nearly one hundred years to our founding. We’ve got great planning ‘bones’ as they say, but it’s been a long time since we complemented our winding streets, alleys, and walkable districts with new planning concepts. Like bike accommodations!

If our city’s new website provided information that we stakeholders need to participate in local government, then we’ll know that we’ve been annexed to some other municipality like West Hollywood. Perhaps then cyclists in and around Beverly Hills could expect safer streets for road users and find, as if handed down from the heavens, the specific treatments that make cycling more safe and enjoyable too.

Motorists: What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?

  • What-do-you-do-songWhat do you do with the mad that you feel
  • When you feel so mad you could bite?
  • When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong…
  • And nothing you do seems very right?

I couldn’t help but think of the classic Mr. Rogers song, What Do You Do?, while riding Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills recently. With an impatient motorist on my back wheel and angst all around me, I chanted this stanza from the Rogers ditty simply to keep myself composed.

Still I couldn’t help but wonder: was I the road user that most needed a mantra? What about those folks inside those shells of glass and steel always in a hurry to get somewhere? Why aren’t they doing something to keep themselves composed, so to speak?

It is a fair question, I think, because the cyclist bears the brunt of road rage and intimidation and other such grade-school tantrums. Consider how a motorist reacts when a cyclist snakes to the front of the long car queue, for example, or when the cyclist can’t quite hustle the speed limit. Damn those cyclists! Ride on the sidewalk! I wish that those drivers would heed Mr. Roger’s sage advice. Take this stanza as your mantra, motorists!
 

  • It’s great to be able to stop
  • When you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong,
  • And be able to do something else instead
  • And think this song:
  • I can stop when I want to
  • Can stop when I wish.
  • I can stop, stop, stop any time.

 
Not to essentialize these folks; they’re more than motorists. Clearly they’re ambulatory too. Some may also ride a bike. (Most of us are multi-modal even if it’s been a while since we learned to ride a bike.) Many cyclists drive, of course because we’re mere mortals in a car-centric world without jet heels like Flash Gordon.

When we get behind the wheel in rush hour traffic and creep forward (inevitably in the slowest travel lane) we too can implode in a pique of childhood rage. If you prick us, do we not bleed? Yep – just like any other motorist. When we do emotionally bulge at the seams we would do well to repeat the Rogers mantra.

We can choose how we move, however. My answer to our everyday Carmageddon is simply to apply some discretion to my motor trips. Why? I recognize that I’m not my best self when I’m behind the wheel. I’ll cop to the obvious: inside my shell I’m not accountable to fellow motorists or to the larger community of Angelenos. So sometimes I’ll misbehave behind the wheel. Asking a mere mortal locked in Los Angeles motor madness to act rationally and prudently may be asking too much. (Hence the need for the mantra.)

As a cyclist, I appreciate that Beverly Hills is well-served by a half-dozen bus lines (like Rome, all Westside roads and transit routes seem to converge here). Every bus is equipped with dual bike racks to make that ‘last mile’ trip from home to bus, or bus to work, more convenient. There are not many trips that I couldn’t make by transit.

But truthfully I’d simply rather ride a bike than take the bus or the car. Even on the hottest days. Even when heading to the northeast requires a jog through the avenues of Lincoln Heights or the northern reaches of Downtown. Why? It’s all about control: my route, my pace, my mood. Auto travel sacrifices one or two of them. Isn’t it ironic that so many of us still fancy single-passenger trips when the ostensible benefits of same have long yielded to the reality of overcrowded roads?

Sometimes I can’t conveniently avoid driving, and at those times I try to be cognizant of my impact on the environment, the economy, and of course my fellow motorists. That takes the edge off. It is a benefit of making a conscious mode choice instead of reflexively taking the default option. When I do choose to drive, at least I know what I’m getting into.

For those times when we do find ourselves behind the wheel, remember Mr. Rogers. Here’s his song in its entirety. Download the sheet music. Make it your mantra on two wheels or four!
 

  • What do you do with the mad that you feel
  • When you feel so mad you could bite?
  • When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong…
  • And nothing you do seems very right?
  • What do you do? Do you punch a bag?
  • Do you pound some clay or some dough?
  • Do you round up friends for a game of tag?
  • Or see how fast you go?
  • It’s great to be able to stop
  • When you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong,
  • And be able to do something else instead
  • And think this song:
  • I can stop when I want to
  • Can stop when I wish.
  • I can stop, stop, stop any time.
  • And what a good feeling to feel like this
  • And know that the feeling is really mine.
  • Know that there’s something deep inside
  • That helps us become what we can.
  • For a girl can be someday a woman
  • And a boy can be someday a man.
  • What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?
  • © 1968 By Fred M. Rogers

Who Holds Beverly Hills City Hall to Account?

Beverly Hills sealWe’re simply not getting the best from our staff. Anyone who works with City Hall on a regular basis will tell you that. Enthusiasm is low, dedication is scarce, and across departments imagination is practically non-existent. We’re not progressing like other cities: where they integrate new modes of mobility on city streets and make real strides toward sustainability, we only talk the talk. Calls for safer streets are met with an impassive shrug, and why not? Staff can wait us out. Career tenure and generous compensation offer no incentive to work smarter or harder. Where’s the management vision that will take us into the 21st century?

City Manager staff performance policy statementWe the people can elect well-intentioned and highly motivated councilmembers, but we can’t directly hold our department staff accountable for lackluster performance. That’s the City Manager’s job, in theory. He or she establishes the performance expectations (at right). But are we really employing the “best of the best” when we hire staff? We pay near the top of the salary range ( 75th percentile) as a matter of policy but are we getting sufficient performance in return?

Consider our Public Works department. It’s primarily a paving & capital construction contract manager, a job it performs so well that adjacent Los Angeles neighborhoods want to accede to our city for smooth blacktop and trimmed trees. But the department falls down when it comes to mobility. Transportation is a core function of Public Works, but bike planning has been put on a back burner for many years. Our Bicycle Master Plan is 35 years old and in desperate need of an updated, but Public Works sees fit to only develop a ‘pilot’ program for possible improvements to selected bike routes. Or none at all. To add insult, the old plan is a damn sight better than what’s on the table today.

Of course we need the political will to progress, but even were that in place, program development and implementation falls to city departments. And they don’t have a very good track record for creative solutions to pressing problems. More often, staffers simply kick the can down the road so problems big and small only get deferred.

Who’s Watching City Hall?

City Hall performance suffers in part because there aren’t enough eyes on city business to encourage improvement. Indeed, who’s watching and encouraging City Hall to do better? Not the general public. The prevailing disinterest among stakeholders is evident in low turnout at the polls. Not the homeowner associations. They are quintessential single-interest organizations that react only to what’s coming to their backyard. There are few organizations advocating for change in Beverly Hills.

Nor will it be the media to the rescue. The Los Angeles Times has its hands full with Sacramento and Gateway Cities corruption. Here we have two local newspapers in town (both free) and an online ‘hyperlocal’ site, Patch, but the papers are about 50% classified advertising and Patch is no investigative powerhouse. It’s more of a community bulletin board.

Reserved-for-press

There is room in Beverly Hills for a more aggressive media watchdog!

Look to our Beverly Hills Courier to suggest the problem: rather than bring an investigative scrutiny to City Hall, this is largely an agenda driven paper. It gins up turmoil on sacred cow issues like Metro and Roxbury but succeeds less well on the traditional turf of the fourth estate like investigations and real muckraking. The Beverly Hills Weekly is more balanced but no more aggressive. Its main claim is that it’s not the Courier.

Until the public demands better, we’ll be stuck in a rut with the same old practices that militate against change.

Take communication with stakeholders, for example. Communication is an essential aspect of governing, yet when it comes to dealing with stakeholders our city comes up way short. Public Works, for example, gets a grade of D. Let us count the ways: Public Works Commission meeting minutes have yet to be posted for any meeting in 2012. (No commission staff reports are posted online either.) The city’s on-demand audiovisual library holds only two commission meeting videos (nothing more fresh than mid-2010). And there are times when the monthly meeting of the Public Works Commission isn’t even noticed online in advance.

Public Works Department information kiosk

Public Works Department information kiosk

Even the easiest communication task of all eludes Public Works: stocking its own information carousel in the department’s lobby. Indeed it is always conspicuously bare (at right). Yet Public Works is our city’s second biggest budget line item after public safety in the proposed city operations budget.

Why harp on audiovisual stuff and a silly information carousel? It’s important that commission business be accessible to stakeholders, of course, and it would be useful to know the responsibilities of our second biggest not-safety department. And then there’s performance metrics: the city’s own 2010-2011 budget identified both the timely posting of meeting video and communications via the lobby as indications of department performance. By such measures Public Works is not performing well enough.

Budget document not legibile

Difficult to understand the city’s proposed FY 2012-13 budget when one can’t read it!

But it’s not just Public Works. Our city’s entire communications apparatus is broken. At Better Bike we often have to chase down public information that should be easily available. Maybe it is link to a staff report mentioned on a City Council agenda that is broken. Or a relevant referenced document appears nowhere on the website. Or a key public document like the city budget is posted in a form that’s not readable (at least to this Mac user).

Then there are the ‘special’ meetings that pop up out of nowhere, sometimes noticed only on the Civic Center corkboard. (‘Special’ is a designation that circumvents the state’s 72 hours required advance notice.)

Make no mistake: this is not about convenience. Stakeholders often complain to City Council and the Planning Commission that official notice has not been properly tendered – a complaint with legal merit that can (and has) complicated governing. But we’re too familiar with this kind of notice. Nearly every meeting between the Public Works staff and bike advocates last Summer into Spring was routinely noticed only 24 hours in advance – at 5pm the day before the meeting.

Maybe it’s worth noting that the transportation planner and Deputy Director for transportation (both part of Public Works) reserve 20% and 30% of their working hours respectively for “customer service,” according to the part of the FY 2011-12 adopted city budget that we can read. Shouldn’t that include standard for outreach like timely notice? And more information posted to the Public Works website? Have a look at the less-than-user friendly Bike Plan Update Committee webpage for an indication of the underwhelming effort put into the bike route pilot process.

When we bring these things to the attention of city staff, they offer to send the MIA document or apologize for some or other glitch that precluded advance meeting notice, but they just don’t want to address the underlying problem: City Hall is just not communicating effectively with stakeholders. City of Los Angeles has over ninety neighborhood councils, and most of these voluntary organizations do a much better job of communicating with its stakeholders, in our opinion.

Where is the Internal Oversight?

Managing City Hall effectively is the City Manager’s job, isn’t it? After all, it is suggested by the job title. Cities hire a City Manager because part-time City Councils are not supposed to micromanage staff; they have important policy decisions to make. But the City Manager is supposed to manage the managers who manage the staff. In departments like Public Works and offices like Communications, who’s doing the managing? The failure to address some basics like timely online posting of committee and commission meetings reflects a lack of appreciation for good governance principles.

So we have to agree with the Beverly Hills Courier newspaper when it rails this week against “bloated [city] staff, bloated compensation, huge retirement payouts, and reduced service.” We can’t say it better. While it pains us to side with the Courier, even a broken clock shows the right time twice a day, and the Courier gets this one right.

When we look at our city’s vision statement this sticks out:

Beverly Hills is known throughout the region, state, and nation as a leading edge, innovative community in its government, business, and technology programs. (Vision Statement #3)

While the vision talks about innovation, we see something different: a city offering excellent salaries and generous pensions to staffers but delivering a mediocre return to stakeholders. Crucially, we see no commitment among staff to a better Beverly Hills.

The long-term challenge is that we don’t lose pace relative to other cities. When we become complacent, when we’re a place for good emergency response and tidy streets only, we will lose shopper and businesses to more progressive cities. That’s already happening. Just as shoppers and business owners have the option to locate elsewhere, we too must look elsewhere for better models of city management because we’re not seeing effective management here when it comes to the principles of good government.

At Better Bike we work for a better, more mobile and less auto-dependent Beverly Hills, but without the support and vision from staff we’ll only remain what we are today: a traffic-clogged burgh that makes other cities look more enviable every day.

Bike Wrenching: Craftwork for a Post Fix-It Nation?

wrench & bolt

The New York Times recently published an essay titled, A Nation That’s Losing Its Toolbox. The toolbox here is metaphorical: it’s not that we don’t have tools, we’ve simply lost our ability to use them. Home Depot caters to the needy homeowner with DIY classes, the piece notes, but we’ve culturally lost the will to wrench. Perhaps the shift from manufacturing to services has undermined American familiarity and facility with tools, and with the loss goes the mechanical ingenuity that long charted a course for our industrial and industrious nation. The irony here is that we have more tools than ever at our disposal. Warehouse-style retailers like Home Depot offer aisles stacked with them, and even provide fix-it classes. Indeed … Continue reading

Let’s Stop the Clock on Bike Routes in Beverly Hills [Editorial]

Stop the clock on bike routes? For two years we have urged City of Beverly Hills to move with dispatch on new bike routes because our streets are simply not sufficiently safe for cyclists. When the city finally put in place a process and identified three possible bike routes (before City Council for discussion today), we’re faced with either plowing ahead or applying the brakes. We chose the latter: we can do better. Rather than make a significant misstep, we urge Council to stop the clock and revisit the process in order to come up with a better bike route proposal. You know its got to be difficult for Better Bike to suggest that the city stop the clock on … Continue reading

As Beverly Hills Celebrates 100 Years, Lend Your Voice

100th-ribbon

Beverly Hills is now gearing up for an 18-month long (!) centennial celebration of “style, class and glamour” which will culminate on January 28th of 2014 – exactly 100 years to the day of the city’s founding. With retired Playboy executive Richard Rosenzweig chairing a Blue ribbon committee to gin up ideas, could we expect a ‘What Happens in Las Vegas’ style fete? Or a more sober affair characteristic of the self-congratulatory, irony-free backslapping that is our city’s stock-in-trade? That’s a false choice! We can affirm our “tradition of elegance and civic pride” (as the press release says) with a celebration worthy of a our long an interesting history, though it is not the history that you will likely read … Continue reading

Beverly Hills Reaches Out When It Suits City Hall

e-Notice screen

We received a press release yesterday from City of Beverly Hills decrying Metro for finalizing the Purple Line Constitution station. (“Scientific Data, Alternate Routes Ignored.”) School and city officials have fought bitterly tunneling under the high school, and this release virtually promises a suit. Whatever the merit, the release raised our eyebrow because City Hall never talks policy with the public. It’s a challenge simply to get City Hall to post timely online agendas, or to make city department documents available. Ironically, in this case we indicated a preference not to receive subway notices (right). But if it suits City Hall, the saying goes, Don’t call us. We’ll call you. Oh the trials and tribulations of simply squeezing information out … Continue reading

Next Time it May Be You

cayenne

When Traffic & Parking Commission declined to recommend safety improvements for cyclists on Beverly Drive, one of our heavily traveled streets, commissioners argued that cyclists don’t obey the law. They said that sharrows might give cyclists a “false sense of security.” They even said that sharrows might cause drivers to panic. I had this in mind when a careless Cayenne driver broadsided me right on Beverly Drive on Saturday near the Art Fair, even as I was riding legally and prudently and without the harm of sharrows. What does the commission say to that? It is every cyclist’s nightmare: the roar of the engine catches your attention and you turn to see a huge vehicle bearing right down on you. … Continue reading