Time for Beverly Hills to Adopt a Complete Streets Policy!

bike chattanooga bike share map

One of Chattanooga’s steps forward: a bike share system!

Chattanooga, Tennessee beat Beverly Hills in the broadband arena a few years ago with citywide 1gigabit-per-second Internet. Back then nobody paid much attention: Chattanooga is hardly on the minds of many Angelenos. But our own city dithered on broadband, which left Time Warner with a broadband monopoly. Now Chattanooga leaps ahead with a real complete streets policy to make travel safer for all road users. Yet our our “world class” city can’t seem to entertain a discussion about street safety or plan effectively for multimodal mobility. What gives?

According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, streets “designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities” are termed ‘complete.’ In practice, the Coalition says,

Complete Streets make it easy to cross the street, walk to shops, and bicycle to work. They allow buses to run on time and make it safe for people to walk to and from train stations. – National Complete Streets Coalition

Safe streets and access for all road users regardless of mode of travel: what a radical prescription for mobility! The equity-in-access proposition is no stranger to transportation planners or the public alike; we’ve all heard of the Americans With Disabilities Act. It mandates nationwide disabled access to public and private facilities. But for the rest of us on public streets we’re left to fend for ourselves. And these streets are often dangerous by design.

ADA rampDespite its limited scope, the ADA reach is broad; it has required the only real improvements to the public right-of-way in Beverly Hills that we’ve seen in years: those ubiquitous studded sidewalk ramps (at right) that make crossing streets less hazardous for the visually-impaired.

The rest of us mostly get worn-out crosswalks, poorly-marked intersections and boulevards made for speed.

Complete streets features on Montana in Santa MonicaWe can do much more. Other cities install highly-visible zebra crosswalks using thermoplastic; they make their streets complete with bicycle lanes, signage and even flashing crossing signals (Santa Monica has incorporated all of these measures on Montana, at right).

Beverly Hills we are still marking crosswalks in the old ‘transverse’ style with ordinary paint. These crosswalks are not only less-visible to motorists; they fade with use too. Faded crosswalks? Can that really pass safety muster? It’s as if our transportation officials cared little for our safety. No wonder state collision figures show that we are one of the most dangerous little cities in California!

Our Problem: Zero Official Interest in Street Safety

Santa Monica Boulevard road conditionsWe at Better Bike simply haven’t been able to get our transportation folks to consider safety upgrades for bike facilities or crosswalks. But it’s not for lack of trying; we’ve repeatedly communicated our concerns to transportation officials. Yet key intersections and corridors (like Santa Monica at left) remain hazardous to walk or to bike.

Our streets can be made safer if the private-sector steps in, however. Curb extensions make crossing streets quicker and safer in the business triangle. State-of-the-art continental crosswalk markings (aka zebra crosswalks) better safeguard pedestrians from speeding or careless motorists there. And traffic control innovations like pedestrian scrambles (where all motor traffic is momentarily halted) heretofore unknown to Beverly Hills find favor there. In fact, outside of the privately-funded improvements for the business triangle, our neighborhoods see no complete streets TLC at all.

Curb extensions diagram via FHWA

Diagram courtesy FWHA’s best practices guide.

For contrast look at these two intersections. The one on the left is Beverly Boulevard at Santa Monica, which languishes from inattention. On the right, the privately bankrolled business triangle feels safer to walk.

Beverly and triangle intersections compared

Crosswalk across Beverly Boulevard (at SM) needs a bit of TLC compared to the triangle’s upgraded streetscape. Zebra stripes, painted curbs and a teaspoon of maintenance make all the difference for pedestrian safey.

Surely our transportation planner knows better than to leave our streets and crosswalks unimproved in this day and age. The information is out there, after all. We know that the zebra crosswalk, for example, is twice as visible to motorists at a distance, and thats both day and night according to an FHWA study. Where motorists zip through the intersection of Beverly and Santa Monica boulevards as if there were no crosswalk at all, the zebra might remind them that people do walk in Beverly Hills. Zebra crosswalks are that much more visible than are ordinary transverse-striped crosswalks when placed mid-block too.

West Hollywood has striped several crosswalks with rainbows (a thematic gesture) to raise awareness of crossing pedestrians. Santa Monica likewise is putting zebra crosswalks all over town (a nice complement to their new bike lanes, right). Los Angeles started with fifty zebra crosswalks two years ago and now the city is aiming for twenty thousand.  That’s because they do important safety work. At only $10k installed, after all, they’re a bargain compared to the damage arising from a single vehicle-pedestrian collision.

Our transportation officials Susan Healey Keene, Community Development Director, and Aaron Kunz, our Deputy Director for Transportation, need only visit nearby cities to see these innovations in place. And it won’t even take them out of their way: they live in Santa Monica and West Hollywood, respectively, so they’ve seen multimodal mobility planning up close. They just don’t do it here. As riders and pedestrians we can read about the virtues of multimodal mobility in our city’s plans; we just can’t experience at home.

These upgrades, by the way, are often funded by Measure R, the 2008 voter-approved transportation tax. That’s a pot of free money for safety. So why isn’t Beverly Hills using it to improve our streets?

One Solution: Adopt a Complete Streets Policy

What Beverly Hills lacks (in addition to a comprehensive mobility vision) is a policy that specifies how our streets can be made safe and accessible. Complete streets, recall, mandates that all means of public conveyance should not only be designed for safety but also to allow everyone to access them. So what does complete streets look like when implemented? Pretty much what we see in more advanced cities. Consider this intersection organized for equitable access and striped for safer transit:

Complete streets intersection

An example ‘complete streets’ intersection: bicycle lane, shaded crosswalks, and well-marked pavement.

It has the key elements that make this intersection safer to navigate. Note that the rider-on-a-bicycle is not considered a vehicle for planning purposes; instead the non-motorized road user is accommodated with a class II bicycle lane – a facility that acknowledges riders need protections that motorists in steel boxes don’t. Often that means a separate lane for non-motor travel.

Planning Commission Gateway field trip

Even our Planning Commissioners on a field visit to Wilshire & Santa Monica boulevards can’t make it all the way across on the white hand signal.

When it comes to adopting a complete streets policy, unfortunately, each state and city is on its own. California did its part with a 2008 complete streets law; but localities are a mixed-bunch today. And Beverly Hills itself has taken no step forward. How far behind the state-of-the-art are we? Consider the sorry state of two key intersections: Wilshire-Santa Monica and Beverly-Olympic. These are not only hazardous for riders to navigate; they’re not very safe for motorists or pedestrians too.

Chattanooga Steps Up

While Washington has yet to OK a national complete streets policy, cities like Chattanooga pick up the slack by adopting their own complete streets policy. There, City Council is set for a second reading of its complete streets ordinance intended to foster a “safe, reliable, efficient, integrated and connected multimodal transportation system that will promote access, mobility and health for all users, and will ensure that the safety and convenience of all users of the transportation system are accommodated.”

That’s a mouthful. But the thrust of the new policy is that appropriate steps to make streets safe need to be taken throughout the planning, programming, design, construction and operation phases of any road project. But the reach of the city’s law is even greater than that:

The Transportation Department, the Department of Public Works, the Department of Economic & Community Development, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, and other relevant departments, agencies, or committees will review and modify current city standards, including but not limited to subdivision regulations, zoning codes and ordinances, to ensure that they effectively implement Complete Streets principles; and such groups shall incorporate Complete Streets principles into all future planning documents, manuals, design standards, checklists, decision – trees, rules, regulations, programs, neighborhood redevelopment projects, and other appropriate endeavors.

Moreover, the ordinance directs the city to “foster partnerships” with jurisdictions at every level to “develop facilities and accommodations that further the City’s Complete Streets policy.” It directs transportation officials to identify “current and potential future sources of funding” for complete street improvements. And this well-thought out legislation also mandates the development of performance measures and the publication of a “periodic report” to Council showing the city’s progress. Bravo!

Policy is key, of course, but standards matter too. The new Chattanooga ordinance takes the step that we’d like to see every transportation-planning jurisdiction embrace: the rejection of the outmoded AASHTO design manual in favor of the NAACTO guide when formalizing design and construction standards.

Broad Street, downtown Chattanooga. Ready for the complete streets treatment!

Broad Street, downtown Chattanooga after the complete streets treatment!

The new policy should greatly improve a major corridor like Broad Street downtown, which connects key destinations but today is little more than a motor vehicle thoroughfare. Add complete streets (visualized at right) and turn folks loose with the city’s bike share program, Bike Chattanooga, and you’ve got the recipe for a two-wheeled urban renaissance.

The city is banking on it. And that makes us proud; we knew Chattanooga back when it was something of a cultural backwater. No more a backwater: it’s all growed up! Now with 1 gigabit broadband, bike share, online ride-safe tips and soon a complete streets policy, this formerly-provincial city has upped its competitive game. Not bad for the 4th largest city in Tennessee! How long before the ‘Nooga becomes its own brand?

Time for a Mobility Coordinator in Beverly Hills

Beverly Hills has taken none of those steps. It’s time for us to up our game. Thankfully good models for safe streets policymaking are out there…if only our policymakers would embrace the effort. Here is what complete streets could look like for Beverly Drive, by the way:

This complete street allows for a bike lane. Reverse-angle parking increases cyclist safety too.

This complete street allows for a bike lane by removing a traffic lane and reverse-angling the street parking. That increases cyclist safety by eliminating the blind spot.

Even short of adopting a complete streets ordinance, our city can take a crucial step to make streets welcoming and safe to walkers and riders: we could create a position for a non-motor mobility coordinator (as Los Angeles has done). A generic ‘transportation planner’ position doesn’t cut it; we need a specialist, someone versed in complete streets principles, bike-friendly facilities and finding the funding for them. In the past we’ve simply looked to an intern to do that important work. That won’t cut it anymore for Beverly Hills, however; we’re one of the most dangerous little cities in California.

Santa Monica Blvd Lanes Off the Table?

On Tuesday, Beverly Hills City Council will receive a Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction update at its 2:30 pm study session. The Council will likely focus on project cost and the key question of whether to expand the boulevard. Unfortunately the surprise reveal of near-doubled project costs distracted attention from issues like road safety, so at present bicycle lanes appear to be off the table. Let’s briefly review the project and look at what’s up for Council consideration on April 1st.

You’ll remember that the state turned over Santa Monica Boulevard to the city about ten years ago along with a small pot of money for repairs. But this key Westside corridor was never repaired by Beverly Hills; today it is pockmarked with potholes and punctuated by hazardous storm grates. It needs major TLC, and this project will reconstruct it from the macadam down to the plumbing. That costs real money: the cost is now projected to approach $35 million (with a 25% cushion for cost overruns). That’s up from just $17 million a month ago.

A ‘Blue-Ribbon Committee’ was appointed and charged by City Council to advise on project options and mitigation. Options included a landscaped median, class II bicycle lanes, and features such as bus shelters. Our committee got an earful: fifty stakeholders appeared and 150 comments were submitted through our fourth (and final) meeting.  Overwhelmingly the public supported the inclusion of bicycle lanes. (Full disclosure: Better Bike was appointed, and represented multimodal mobility interests on the committee.)

The committee in fact recommended to council that the boulevard be expanded to facilitate the reconstruction and to stripe 5-foot bicycle lanes. (Read the committee recap.) The committee’s recommendation was then presented to Council on March 8th, where we saw a majority of the members of the public who spoke then also favor lanes. (Our own letter of support was somehow left out of the Council’s meeting packet, however – an omission not yet explained.)

While the meeting saw neighborhood NIMBYs turn out and threaten elected officials with ballot box pain, the overall message to Council from the public was to design tomorrow’s corridor to safely serve our city and region in our post-auto era. But a majority of the Council seemed either opposed to widening the blacktop, or else hostile to the prospect of bicycle lanes (or both). Only former Mayor John Mirisch spoke about multimodal mobility; current Mayor Lili Bosse largely reserved comment.

Yet the outcome of the March 8th meeting was uncertain: staff was softly reprimanded for how the project has been handled; and key decisions about the boulevard were deferred in light of the news of the ballooning costs.

At this Tuesday’s meeting (agenda) City Council will again have an opportunity to shape the project. But not on the menu, according to the staff report, is a bike lane option:

City Council action on the two major components of conceptual design, the width of the roadway and whether or not to include landscaped medians, is required in order for the Psomas team to proceed with project design and will be a determining factor in recommendations for construction mitigation, scheduling plan, and determining the level of environmental review for the project. – Staff Report

Both the median and the lanes options were recommended by the Blue-Ribbon Committee, but what’s become of the bicycle lanes? It’s not like City Council ever came to a definitive decision; the issue of bicycle lanes was simply left hanging amid all of the hand-wringing about escalating costs.

But the staff report’s dismissal of the lanes option is no surprise to us: bike advocates should expect to get sandbagged by Beverly Hills city officials. They don’t see fit to mention, much less endorse, complete streets, for one thing. Even our project consultant, Psomas, drank the cool-aid and recommended against striping lanes. And they certainly have exhibited no regard for rider safety.

Project Cost Dominates the Discussion

Looking back at the March 8th meeting, the news about escalating costs was a monkey wrench tossed in by staff just hours before Council convened. As a dozen bike advocates waited to address Council about lanes, we learned that anticipated costs had ballooned. That pushed action on project options off the table.

How do costs double from $17 million to $35 million? The new staff report helpfully details the rise:

The initial project budget estimate prepared by City staff in 2006 was $12.0 million. During the FY2013/14 Capital Improvement Program budget process, staff reviewed construction costs and updated the estimate to $16.2 million, noting the need for a comprehensive cost analysis early in the design process. As part of the City Council review of the FY 2012/13 year-end budget surplus discussed in December 2013, an additional $1.0 million was allocated recognizing continuing escalation of construction costs for a total revised budget of $17.2 million….

But a near-doubling?

The revised FY 2013/14 construction cost estimate…was developed without the testing of sub-surface conditions that have revealed significant degradation of the roadway and sub-surface, requiring significant excavation and reconstruction of the entire Boulevard.

Psomas has completed a comprehensive evaluation of the roadway condition and has developed project budget estimates for two scenarios ranging between $31 and $34 million.

Last fall, city staff was questioned by Blue-Ribbon committee members who were concerned about projected (and unanticipated) costs. Both Community Development Director Susan Healy Keene and consultant Psomas defended the $17 million estimate, but they also seemed a bit fuzzy when pressed on the details. Today it’s clear that they had good reason to hedge.

Moreover, the estimate “did not include or underestimated several necessary components of construction costs, including temporary traffic control, landscaping, and traffic signal modification,” according to the staff report. We’re no engineers, but shouldn’t such costs have been included in projections provided to the Blue-Ribbon Committee and Council?

As our city struggles to meet unfunded pension liabilities there isn’t much appetite for big-budget projects. Two recent public parking garage projects went way over budget and we now have to cover a $15 million parking fund deficit – money that will come right out of the general fund. We wonder: the $17 million projection strategically omit key costs to gain Council support?

“Recommended Change in Project Scope”

With costs doubling, transportation officials now retreat from recommending we rebuild the entire corridor. Instead the staff recommendation is that we treat this corridor as any ordinary roads project: rebuild only the eastern segment of Santa Monica Boulevard and defer reconstruction of the Moreno-to-Wilshire segment until some time later. The diminished project would “bring the overall project budget to a manageable magnitude” (as the staff report says).

In that plan, the “total preliminary cost” decreases by $5.2 million to $29 million. But we would only push that $5 million tab down the road (so to speak) to a time when costs will likely rise.

The upshot? Riders would live with a pothole-pocked corridor west of Wilshire for the foreseeable future. The particularly hazardous Wilshire-Santa Monica intersection would also forgo improvement…for several long years!

Possible Changes in Project Funding

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the “changed” scope of the project is that our city may tap new sources of funding to bankroll it. The staff report notes for example that deferring the Moreno-to-Wilshire segment would not only defer the expense but “provide the City additional time to accumulate funding sources (e.g., gas tax, Measure R) to contribute towards the projects.” (Note the plural.)

Most other jurisdictions would have brought state and federal money into a project of this size from the get-go. But City of Beverly Hills chose to go it alone in order to free ourselves of state and federal requirements concerning, say, multimodal transportation and contract terms. Why accept the strings if you don’t have to?

Now we appear to be rethinking the decision. And perhaps in line with the new thinking, the city in March asked the Federal Highway Administration about how we might accommodate bicycle lanes on the corridor. A March 19th letter to FHWA from Mayor John Mirisch (an bicycle lane supporter) asked:

The City Council is considering alternate configurations of the roadway, including bicycle lane options, and would like FHWA input on the following questions: 1. Do striped bicycle lanes improve safety? 2. Do striped bicycle lanes impede the flow of traffic? 3. Do striped bicycle lanes impact turns to/from side streets? 4. Are striped bicycle lanes preferable to wide curb lanes? 5. Are 11 foot vehicle travel lanes as safe as 12 foot lanes? 6. Do 11 foot vehicle travel lanes reduce the capacity of the roadway in comparison to 12 foot lanes? 7. Is there a minimum number of daily or peak period bicycle riders necessary to justify bicycle lanes? – Mayor John Mirisch

The Division Administrator from FHWA replied that the agency “applauds efforts to find ways to accommodate all road users.” Then the agency added pointedly:

We also recommend that you work with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and to help find the most appropriate solutions for Santa Monica Boulevard. As you probably know, Caltrans has embraced a statewide Complete Streets policy and they have revised their Highway Design Manual and other policy documents to better address the needs of all road users. – FHWA

Of course, our transportation planner (singular) and our consultants (plural) should have been heeding complete streets policy guidance from the get-go. After all, we reminded them of it when the request-for-proposal was first drafted. Then again, they could have consulted the comments from many riders who attended the Blue-Ribbon process – good ideas that never even saw the light of day. Heck, we’ll put in a plug for our own city’s plans, which recommend that we plan for multimodal mobility. Complete streets should be easy!

More Conceptual Design Options

Design principles and cost aren’t the only uncertainties. More design alternatives than ever are in play in the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction process. In a sort-of rebuke of the efforts of the Blue-Ribbon Committee members, staff has now expanded the menu of alternatives to include choices that our committee was never shown. These include middle-range boulevard widths of 63 and 64 feet with even narrower median turn lanes than before.Because it is difficult to make sense of the alternatives as presented in the staff report, we’ve put them on a single annotated matrix for your convenience:

Boulevard profiles as presented in the staff report

Boulevard profiles as presented in the staff report (reorganized by Better Bike)

Note that ‘improved’ 63 and 64 foot profiles are new, and they use a 10-foot median/turning lane which liberates additional space at the curb for a sharable right lane. For example, the 63-foot profile gains a half-foot in the curb lane (15.5 feet) while the 64-foot profile gains (16-foot) curb lanes sufficiently wide to safely share, says our consultant.

They are more economical with the blacktop when compared to profiles provided to the Blue-Ribbon Committee in January:

Profiles from January

Profile alternatives as presented to the Blue-Ribbon committee in January

But none illustrates a bicycle lane. The other sticking point for riders: the FHWA recommends against a curb lane as wide as 16 feet because it could actually accommodate two passenger vehicles side-by-side – a sure invitation to an impatient Beverly Hills driver to hug the curb to pass slow traffic in order to turn right. And wouldn’t that put riders in danger. Besides, why make a lane 16 feet wide but not stripe a bicycle lane there?

The 64-foot middle-ground option may be the charm, however: to councilmembers who are reluctant to expand beyond today’s max of 63-feet it may be the palatable option. Indeed the focus of the Tuesday discussion may well turn on the merits of the 63-foot versus 64-foot profiles. Will they be willing to nibble even a foot of parkland in order to preserve the future opportunity to stripe bicycle lanes? Or is that even a foot too far to ensure rider safety? A letter from the Beverly Hills North Homeowners Association mailed to Beverly Hills households suggests that even a single foot is too much to ask for rider safety.

Next Step

The City Council meets on Tuesday afternoon at 2:30 pm in chambers to discuss the future of the corridor. Will Council give the go-ahead on a project with a reduced scope? Will they replicate the corridor we have today at a 60-foot width; standardize the boulevard at 63 feet; or go for the 64 foot width to preserve bicycle lanes? Will our city tap federal or state money for reconstruction? Will any staffer even speak up on behalf of complete streets? Tune in to Tuesday afternoon’s City Council study session to find out. We simply can’t know.

There is one question that we’d like answered: where do our public safety departments stand on bicycle lanes? In January, BHPD’s Sgt. Mader was inaccurately quoted in a project memo as advising against bicycle lanes. (The statement was recalled by at least one councilmember in the March 8th meeting.) But when asked, he conceded that his statement was only his perception and not the department’s position. And in any case, he said, it didn’t apply to project alternatives under discussion.

Beverly Gardens Park marked for trimming

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

We welcome your attendance on Tuesday and especially your comments to Council (use our contacts cheat sheet). Our policymakers need to be reminded that officials have a responsibility to plan for the safety of all road users. Motorists’ sense of entitlement to the blacktop endangers the safety of both riders and walkers every day and their reliance on single-occupancy vehicle travel undermines our quality of life.

Finish the Ride: Turning Tragedy into Triumph

Finish the Ride group photo“Turning tragedy into triumph” may sound a bit corny. It’s the stuff of self-help: the philosophy that synthesizes spirituality and psychology ostensibly to motivate. But self-help is not about action; inaction fuels the prolific generation of books, seminars and slogans. That’s what makes Damian Kevitt’s Finish the Ride campaign actually uplifting. It’s not just talk; he’s turned his debilitating hit-and-run crash into a movement to highlight the problem.

We’d heard of the Finish the Ride campaign [flyer] well before we met the man. The story is indeed memorable: an everyday rider out on a local ride with his wife is struck, dragged onto the freeway, and subsequently left to die by a fleeting motorist. One year later he’s been fitted with a prosthetic leg; he’s completed physical therapy; and has organized is ready to climb back into the saddle to – what else – “finish the ride.”

There was no way that I was going to have that accident and not get back on my bicycle. – Damian Kevitt

We may have heard about the campaign, but we were unprepared to meet the man himself. On March 4th a few of us were waiting with bicycle helmets in hand to depart for City Hall. That day, Beverly Hills City Council would meet to consider adding bicycle lanes to Santa Monica Boulevard. He strode up to our table with a big smile and a stack of flyers. “I’m Damian Kevitt, with Finish the Ride.” We thought for a moment: where did we hear that name? Just as the bell rang we looked down to his calf and saw one very high-tech prosthesis. “Of course! Welcome to Beverly Hills!”


Damian Kevitt in rehab: getting back to basics!

In our book, you are royalty if you not only survive a near-fatal hit-and-run, but then go on to work tirelessly to put an end the epidemic. Indeed there seems no end to the road-borne carnage in Southern California (as Ted Rogers documents daily on BikingInLA).

Looking back, we should have at least bought him a cup of coffee! Because here’s a guy who came to our town on his mission to improve rider safety. In the next few hours, by contrast, Beverly Hills councilmembers would brush aside rider safety and opt not to include bicycle lanes on tomorrow’s Santa Monica corridor (despite overwhelming public support). Safe transit is simply not on the Beverly Hills City Council’s agenda.

The irony that sticks with us is that Damian’s one-man campaign would turn the tragedy of hit-and-run into triumph for all riders while our cowardly councimembers dismiss our safety from the comfort of plush chairs. When they hit the boulevard, of course, they are protected by big sedans. Why worry?

Beverly Hills City Council may have given us little to cheer, but we can celebrate Damian and the Challenged Athletes Foundation by joining his Sunday morning Griffith Park ride on April 27th. Co-sponsored by the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, the event features three rides (6, 12 and 23-miles) for all skill levels. Download the flyer and come prepared to celebrate!

You can also do your part by making a donation or volunteering or even sponsoring the event. And of course spread the word! And keep up with Damian via Twitter or Facebook. We’ll see you there!Damian Kevitt triumphs!

BH Traffic Report for 2013: Little Progress on Road Safety

Traffic report thumbnailWhen we learned that Office of Traffic Safety ranked Beverly Hills worst among small cities for bike and pedestrian safety, we wanted to deep-dive the data* to understand how our city could do more to make streets safe. After digging into collision and enforcement data we come to the conclusion that city officials aren’t even trying to improve our low standing. The 36 bike-involved collision injuries reported to police last year even exceeds our 5-year annual average.  Shouldn’t we be making progress in reducing the harm?

The Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) findings that we’re among the most dangerous small cities in the state for walkers and pedestrians. That should be a wake-up call to civic leaders. But evidently it’s not; our Traffic and Parking Commission seems to look the other way as the crash injuries pile up and enforcement efforts nosedive after summer peaks.

It can’t be simply ignorance. Our transportation officials know that OTS publishes year-end reports and fact sheets every year (including the most recent fact sheet for 2011) and even provides a handy, searchable database to put city’s figures into statewide context.So there is no shortage of data. Yet we make scant headway in reducing injuries and make not even a gesture toward improving our ignominious statewide ranking.

The good news is that fatalities are comparatively rare in Beverly Hills. Congested streets and short blocks mean lower prevailing speeds, and speed is the greatest contributor to traffic fatalities. But even moderate speed can injure, and our relatively high number of collision injuries – especially bike-involved collision injuries – should indicate a public safety problem.

Though Beverly fancies itself as “committed to being the safest city in America City” (according to our mission statement), City Council priorities suggest otherwise. There is make no mention of road safety in our city’s mission, for example, and nowhere is the reduction of road-borne harm mentioned as a priority. In Beverly Hills, ‘safest city’ means only crime prevention & investigation and fire response.

That’s bad news for pedestrians and those who ride a bicycle on city streets. As our BHPD’s 2013 year-end traffic report  shows, nearly every week a bicycle rider in Beverly Hills files an injury report with the police. Rider injuries comprise 9% of all traffic injuries yet bicycles make up far less than 1% of all means of conveyance. Indeed one of the challenges to safe riding on Beverly Hills streets is that there are relatively few riders.

The disproportionately large representation of riders among those who are injured suggest we need to take action to make our streets safer. If riders have a tenfold (or more) chance of being injured than do motorists, for example, wouldn’t that suggest deploying lane markings and signage? Or perhaps posting a ride-safe webpage? Or making everybody aware that riders have a right to the road? Beverly Hills fails riders on all of these counts.

Nobody using our roads gets off easy. Year-end 2013 traffic data show that collision injuries serious enough to report to police average more than one every day in Beverly Hills. Three injured cyclists every month have to summon the police. And  five or more pedestrians a month dial 911. And we’re just a 5.7 square mile city! We simply must not be not doing enough to ensure that our city’s safety priority extends to the street. At least that’s the story the data tell.

Every month the police department provides a monthly traffic report to our Traffic and Parking Commission. It is advisory to the council “in all matters which relate to parking and traffic,” according to the municipal code. The traffic report would seem to be an important input, and every month the commission receives an in-person brief from the department too. Per the code the commission should:

Advise and counsel with the transportation/engineering official and the police chief as to ways and means to improve general traffic conditions in the city; [and] prepare and coordinate with the planning commission, and recommend to the council for adoption, a comprehensive long range plan relating to transportation, traffic, and off street and on street parking in the city.

But the commission is generally incurious about the collision figures cited in the report. Rarely does it inquire about, say, the elevated and consistent rate of injury; discussion about the report overall is usually cursory, aside from a question about citation numbers; and never do commissioners offer guidance to the department about enforcement. That guidance is needed.

Let’s Take a Closer Look at Beverly Hills Traffic Data

The monthly traffic report provides a wealth of information about injuries including a breakdown by collision type (bike, ped, auto). The report also tallies hits-and-run (one is reported every other day in Beverly Hills) and conveys a wealth of data about offenses cited. This is crucial to oversight. Though the monthly report is year-to-date in format, the focus is often on only that month’s data.

Looking at the year-end data for 2013, we can see that auto collision injuries outnumber injuries from bike-involved collisions:

Traffic report 2013 collision snapshotNow there are far fewer riders on the road than drivers, although we can’t say how many fewer with precision (that data is not collected). What’s clear is that riders are  injured disproportionately more frequently relative to our presence on the road than are drivers. We’re much more likely – ten times more likely – to suffer harm relative to our fewer numbers on the street.

Collision injuries across all kinds of accidents are sustained much more often than they should be, of course. But what’s evident even from the tables is how much the figures vary month to month. Especially rider injuries: they varied from 1 to 6 per month (sixfold spread). Even auto collision injuries varied nearly as widely.

When we look at the yearly figures in a graph we see no obvious seasonal pattern nor any evident relationship to length of solar day.

Collision injuries 2013We squint to see a late-summer downturn but neither collision type suggests a holiday dip. What is evident from the trendline is an over-the-year increase in auto collision injuries. Shouldn’t both auto and bike-involved collision injuries be on the decline?

Citations over the year are another matter, however, and enforcement does show some clear trends in 2013 – notably a clear and consistent peak in mid-year across all citation categories.

Traffic report 2013 citations snapshotUnlike collisions, enforcement is the product of policy; it will vary with program implementation. And it can be influenced by changing political priorities, incentives, and manpower. For example, there is a pronounced mid-year peak in citations, which is even more evident in a graph of the data. Looked at another way, there is a pronounced taper at the beginning and end of the years. Could it be that motorists are simply violating the law less often?

Citation trends 2013 So what does this suggest? Well, we see that speed violation citations show greater variability; and many more speeding tickets are issued during the summer months. Is that because tourists are easy pickings? Or is our city more concerned about tourist safety during summer months? We can’t know. We do know that we’re going after speeders more than other offenders. And that comports with anecdotal observations (traffic officers hide along our long northside streets waiting to nab a downhill racer). Likely speeding is a  revenue-generating offense.

But what’s more disturbing about this data is that signal violators are not more of a priority. Anecdotally again, we see at every light change in Beverly Hills 1-3 drivers running the red light. And that trend seems to be getting worse; indeed there’s a sense of impunity to it… as if they won’t be caught.

The data suggest they should be confident: the police are simply not cracking down on red-light violators! That’s especially worrisome for riders because we suffer much more greatly in the event of a broadside. (We think it’s likely that this plays a part in pedestrian injuries too.)

Another class of citation shows an even more pronounced pattern of decline: hand-held cell phone ban citations. What started as a beginning-year priority dissipated and then sharply fell off after September.

Cell phone citations 2013That’s no accident so to speak: it reflects a sharply diminished law enforcement priority over the past few years.

Cell phone citations 2008-2013From the chart it appears that the BHPD lost interest in issuing them. That’s unfortunate: we need to enforce the cell phone and texting ban. Especially given the danger to riders posed by distracted drivers. This is where the the longitudinal perspective is so valuable. Trends become apparent and  enforcement priorities come into focus like no snapshot can suggest.


(Why the decline in enforcement? Don’t texting drivers present every bit the danger that they did in 2011 – the peak of citations in Beverly Hills? We bet it has to do with state funding for enforcement actions. We’ve got an outstanding request to OTS to find out whether Beverly Hills has applied for the available grant funds.)

The 5-year picture is also key to understanding that enforcement in Beverly Hills of all kinds of offenses has been on the wane. Look at the trends: every citation category except pedestrian violations (jaywalking) is on the decline. And why the sharp drop in 2012?

Citation trends 2008-2013 graphThe decline in citations is evident across signed citations in general. Both patrol and traffic divisions have been laying off the enforcement it seems.

Signed citations 2008-2013 graph

However, the one class of citation that has not decreased in frequency is the kind issued at red-light camera-controlled intersections. Our city licenses enforcement to the private Redflex Traffic Systems (Scottsdale, Arizona) which operates six red light cameras in the city. And they are prolific generators of citations – 16,469 this year alone. That’s just under our 5-year average of 17,318 annual red light citations, so there’s been no diminution there over time.

Red light citations 2008-2013 graphIndeed these automated ticket-writers are very consistent: there is no holiday or seasonal slack-off in ticket-writing, though an August slump suggests that fewer motorists may be running those red lights. But if drivers can’t stay out of the Reflex crosshairs (even though they know there’s a good chance of getting nabbed), doesn’t that suggest that actual traffic violations hold steady year-round? Just so happens that only the automated cop-on-the-beat keeps the enforcement mojo year-round, and year-over-year.

Now have a look at the 5-year collision injury trends. They have not declined in accord with state and federal figures that reflect collision safety gains. And pedestrians actually seem to have it worse.

All collisions 2008-2013 graphOne can’t help but think that more effective enforcement would depress the frequency of collision injuries in Beverly Hills. That should be apparent too to our Traffic and Parking Commission, which is charged to advise policymakers on traffic issues. But unfortunately the BHPD doesn’t provide year-over-year analyses nor ever create a graph for the commissioners. (Nor does a transportation staffer take up that slack.) Without illustrating these figures for the commission, how could they grasp the trends?

For its part, the police department doesn’t trumpet traffic safety. News releases (when issued) note the occasional crime and celebrity (“Assault Investigation Involving Celebrity Kanye West”) but reveal nothing about the department’s traffic safety priorities. Like the city’s vision statement, the department’s idea of ‘safe city’ seems to bracket out road safety. It simply doesn’t appear to be a focus:

We work collaboratively to fulfill our paramount duty: the protection of life and property, the prevention and detection of crime, the apprehension and prosecution of criminals and the relentless pursuit of justice.

But not the reduction of avoidable harm on the roads, evidently.

Our Take-Away

We plugged the department’s monthly data into a spreadsheet to show how trends unfold within the year and across the years. If our commission had this kind of picture, we think,  our commissioners could begin to recommend enforcement priorities to suit safety needs.

After all, the funding is there. The California Office of Traffic Safety distributed $86 million in grants to localities with nearly $1.8 million of that (2%) going for ped & bike safety programs. Not peanuts but no comparison to the 50% of funding that went for alcohol-impaired driving  enforcement.

Why isn’t there any progress on reducing the incidence of collisions in Beverly Hills? We have the data. The money is available. And our civic leaders say the right things about making our city “the safest city in America.” Why can’t we extend our public safety concerns to embrace road safety so that we may begin to address the nearly 500 collision injuries that occur annually in our 5.7 square mile city?

*Latest data available via state databases including SWITRS and FARS. One of the impediments to reporting timely traffic figures is the state’s very lagging collection and dissemination. Typically the SWITRS database is two years behind in tabulating injuries, for example.

Beverly Hills: The Most Dangerous Little City in California

To read the Beverly Hills vision statement is to get a sense of the high regard in which civic leaders hold our city. “Beverly Hills offers the highest quality of life achievable,” we are assured. Our “world-class community” is known for “leading edge” thinking and “innovative” government. Those “alluring and distinctive hotels, retail stores, restaurants, and entertainment” make us exceptional. But Beverly Hills is exceptional in another way too: we’re the most dangerous little city in California.

At least the most dangerous small city according to the state’s Office of Traffic Safety. Its collision rankings comparison tool draws on CHP Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System (SWITRS) data. The tool was designed with a noble purpose in mind:

The OTS Rankings were developed so that individual cities could compare their city’s traffic safety statistics to those of other cities with similar-sized populations. Cities could use these comparisons to see what areas they may have problems in and which they were doing well in.

So let’s go ahead and see how Beverly Hills ranks as a ‘safe city.’ That’s another of our city’s vision statement bullet points: “Beverly Hills is committed to being the safest city in America.”

A few clicks shows that between 2007 and 2011 Beverly Hills has ranked either 1st or 2nd among comparable cities (under 50,000 population) in the category of ‘total fatal and injury’ collisions. Depending on how you look at it, we’re either riding high among the worst-performing cities with regard to road safety, or we’ve fallen to the bottom of the heap relative to cities that do care about curbing collision injuries.

We’ve put the OTS tables clickable gallery. Scroll down or simply click this table to open a simple animated presentation. Below you’ll see that the most recent (2011) data puts our city’s claims of ‘safest city’ in an unflattering light. (Scroll to the bottom of the post for the methodology).

OTS small-city collision rankings (animated) Pedestrians Have It Really Bad

Breaking it down by collision type, for pedestrian collision injuries we were consistently among the worst three (out of almost one hundred). Always the over-achiever, Beverly Hills took first place dishonors in two of the five years. That puts us near the top one percent of cities that also take little or no care to prevent pedestrian injuries and/or fatalities.

With regard to older pedestrians (65+) we rank marginally better. Beverly Hills only places in the worst five among cities of fewer than 50,000 population. If you’re a senior, remember as you use one of our faded crosswalks or cross a poorly-signed alleys that statistically you’d be safer walking any one of 95 other small California cities.

What about children? We hear civic leaders talk about the welfare of our kids often. We love to see Scouts in Council chambers. But the reality is that we’re not keeping them safe when they cross our streets. Across the 5-year period we typically edge out two-thirds of all other comparable cities when it comes to collision injuries. Except for 2008 when we fell into the bottom (better) half, we tend to nibble at the top quartile of most dangerous cities in which to walk as a kid.

Bicycle Riders Have it Almost as Bad

Those of us who ride a bicycle fare little better than pedestrians. We’re not the #1 most dangerous small city for a bicycle rider, but we’re close to it. From 2007 to 2011 for example, bike-involved collision injuries put us among the top-5 worst cities in each of 3 years of the 5-year period for which we have data. One year (2007) we ‘slipped’ to 6th and in a true outlier we fell to 22nd place (2009). But we’re always in the top quartile of small cities for bike injuries, baby!

We’re also in the top (i.e., worst) quartile for under-15 bike-involved collision injuries, sadly. While we do seem marginally better able to keep children who ride bikes out of the police reports, is it because so relatively few children ride a bicycle in Beverly Hills? Or because those very few children are injured at a disproportionately high rate? We don’t know. Waht we do know is that the #1 reason cited by parents who won’t let their children ride a bicycle in Beverly Hills is that it is unsafe.

What About that ‘Safest City in America’?

It’s one thing to create a bullet point that brags about keeping us safe in Beverly Hills, but it’s another to take the steps to actually make us safe. And where road safety is concerned, our city has simply failed us. All of us: walkers, riders and even drivers.

Keep our poor road safety record in mind when you talk to a member of the City Council or address the Traffic and Parking Commission. Ask why we’re doing such a bad job of keeping our walkers and riders safe. And if you bump into our City Manager, Jeff Kolin, evidently a cyclist, ask him why we’re not asking more from our transportation staffers in the Community Development Department (which is tasked with transportation planning). And ask him why he’s not more sensitive to rider safety needs in particular.

* From the OTS comparison tool methodology: Victim and collision rankings are based on rates of victims killed and injured or fatal and injury collisions per “1,000 daily-vehicle-miles-of-travel” (Caltrans data) and per “1,000 average population” (Department of Finance data) figures. This more accurately ensures proper weighting and comparisons when populations and daily vehicle miles traveled vary.

Transportation Equity on the Agenda

An Agenda for Equity brief coverWhen multimodal mobility advocates call on City Hall to enforce traffic laws and to embrace complete streets (including bike lanes and other facilities), we’re pushing a transportation equity agenda. Researchers at USC have picked up on the grassroots fervor in a new policy brief titled, An Agenda for Equity: A Framework for Building a Just Transportation System in Los Angeles County (2014). The brief, published by the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE), sketches out an argument for making our most significant public space accessible to all users.

In An Agenda for Equity, USC researchers Manuel Pastor, Vanessa Carter and Madeline Wander provide some political and demographic context for the cumulative negative effects of auto-centered transportation policies, but doesn’t dwell on it. “This policy brief is not one of our usual efforts in which analysts..offer tons of nerdy, detailed data.” Instead this brief is a “general framework” for making better transportation policies going forward. Policy decisions that are based on equity as a value and not only interest groups or, gasp, the money.

Most importantly they identify opportunities and suggest some policy levers through which better decisions can be made in the future. “What we do hope An Agenda for Equity can do is to provide a framework to support what we see as big possibilities for the region.” That framework is normative. Socially, they call attention to the legacy of economic and social disadvantage in certain communities that they see as a product of auto-centric thinking. In their view, progressive transportation policies can be a means to achieve greater equity in wealth, employment and housing – arguably the social issues of our time.

This thinking has deep scholarly roots: resistance to postwar suburbanization in the 1960s once inspired the planning field’s most impassioned pleas for change. During Johnson’s Model Cities program, for example, academics led the charge to resist steamrolling local communities. Practitioners responded, too, with an ‘advocacy planning’ approach that would advance the interests of communities in the face of powerful actors in the planning process. Scholarly concerns about justice in the urban context have in recent years come back to the foreground. Is the time right for viewing urban problems though a mobility lens?

Equity: A Framework for Prescription

Public policy is in large part the process of allocating resources. And policy is formulated by looking through a specific lens. The authors here are out front in labeling that lens transportation equity:

In our view, transportation equity means: Equitable access to quality, affordable transportation options and so employment, services, amenities, and cultural destinations; shared distribution of the benefits and burdens of transportation systems and investments, such as jobs and pollution, respectively; and partnership in the planning process that results in shared decision-making and more equitable outcomes for disadvantaged communities while strengthening the entire region.

Their thrust is transportation but their concern is process. The message: “people matter” but no one matters more than anyone else.

Our policymakers have lost sight of equity when it comes to transportation policy, and that has marginalized both non-motorists and those disproportionately harmed by our nation’s support for motor-friendly infrastructure and incentives. Of course the particulars are well-known to many of us who agitate for change.

But PERE’s overall scope on the issues is somewhat more expansive than that usually employed by bike advocates. We define the problem in terms of road safety and equitable access to streets. And that can (and should) include federal policies and public investment. But in general we bracket out social concerns. When we rhetorically construct ‘equity’ around issues of physical mobility, we leave housing and wealth disparities – and indeed social mobility – largely on the sidelines.*

Not to simplify inordinately, however. Many bike advocates are all-around supporters of the progressive cause (if not champions on specific social issues). Some organizations, too, put social equity at the center of their mobility advocacy. For example, LACBC’s Operation Firefly limns this boundary by targeting economically-disadvantaged communities for safe-riding programs. But PERE moves these concerns to the foreground.

A Pro-Equity Agenda for Change

Among the prescriptions offered by the authors is that we need to create a more tightly-integrated mobility and growth program. That builds on long-standing calls for the greater integration of transportation considerations into land use planning. For example, the grassroots have realized that we can’t simply build an urban environment only for motorists; it’s not only inefficient, it’s impossible. At the vanguard of change these days we’re seeing new bike parking policies implemented; higher density and reduced parking minimums along transportation corridors (particularly around Los Angeles); and even dispensing with parking spaces altogether for some permitted developments. In this sense the authors are following, not leading, the charge.

But academics are useful for nothing if not generating bullet-pointed observations and prescriptions. These authors identify six challenges to the pro-equity agenda:

  1. Follow the money to understand how it affects agency and policymaker choices
  2. Encourage ‘authentic participation’ to give people a seat at the charrette table
  3. Measure progress and demand accountability
  4. Capacity, capacity, capacity
  5. Make business a partner
  6. Translating words into action

Let’s take these point-by-point very briefly, starting with challenge #1. Among the most potentially transformative steps forward in recent years was the approval of Los Angeles County voters of Measure R, which upped the sales tax for 30 years to fund transit improvements. It passed overwhelmingly (even in Beverly Hills where 65% of voters gave it the nod in 2008). And nothing creates an opportunity for change like tens of billions of dollars to spend.

But our policymakers couldn’t resist the temptation to reach for more by subsequently proposing to squeeze that three decades of work into ten years and then just a few years after R passed come back to the ballot box for more decades of funding. Yes, accountability matters, and without finished projects to show for the obligation voters seemed in no mood to tax themselves again.

Perhaps the diminution of trust in policymakers suggests challenge #3. Over the last decade, a people’s movement has coalesced to monitor policymaker pay-to-play. What can reassure us? “Measurement matters because it clarifies communities’ expectations,” the authors say, “gives government agencies and their staff defined goals, and creates a clear-cut system for tracking and accountability.” For advocates of progressive mobility, the task is to prod policymakers to think big about density and mobility. But for others, a decidedly parochial anti-growth agenda reigns. They need to be reassured.

As for challenge #5, business is already behind transportation investment. But what kind of investment? Roads and bridges, sure; historic under-investment in infrastructure is acknowledged to impede our economic recovery. But will the private-sector see a percentage in advocating for bike facilities? The ‘bike-friendly business district’ concept holds promise, but is slow to gain traction and may hold no appeal for establishment business interests. Yet the authors remain optimistic:

We face a formative era that could fundamentally shift how Angelenos relate to and move through the region.There will be challenges, of course – finding regional consensus, implementing what we mean by equity, keeping hard fought coalitions together, among other things – but the way ahead looks promising. With a vision for just growth as the lodestar and transportation equity as one of the pillars, Los Angeles may live up to the rumors that we are forging a new path ahead for America.

To get us started, the authors offer ‘recommendations from the field’ presumably drawn from talking to advocates. In brief they are:

  1. Integrate Transportation Equity and Just Growth Agendas
  2. Know Together, Grow Together
  3. Moving from Circles of Learning to Circles of Action
  4. Fund Grassroots Base Building
  5. Invest in Community-led Planning Expertise
  6. Look to the Bay Area (yeah, we know…)

We’ll let you read the report to get the gist. We’re optimistic too about the potential for the grassroots to reshape mobility in our region. Our policymakers may not get behind an Los Angeles Airport accessed directly by transit, but they will inevitably roll with the non-motor mobility movement rather than get rolled by it. That’s not enlightenment; that’s self-preservation.

But our optimism rests in our fellow advocates and especially the riders who claim their share of blacktop. We see it as a ‘use it or lose it’ proposition: just like a driver will crowd us to the curb if we let him, by staking our claim boldly, and in accord with the law, we can begin to take back the streets. The authors more successfully embrace that spirit in their KCET post than articulate it in this policy brief, however.

This Brief and Two Bucks Gets a Rider a Cup of Coffee

As for challenges 2, 4 and 6, they disappoint precisely because we’ve all been here before. How many plans, papers and policy reports have called for building capacity and creating collaborative planning processes? Too many. This brief is only the latest university-community initiative to outline big problems and prescribe tentative steps toward a solution.

And in the company of past university-community initiatives it might not even read as the most urgent to policymakers. USC’s (now defunct) Southern California Studies Center published a multi-part atlas titled Sprawl Hits the Wall in 2001 that diced-and-sliced the demographic, economic and even theoretical issues. And it foretold disaster. But have you ever heard of it? Was it hailed in any policy debates? The center even published an accompanying ‘action plan’ titled, After Sprawl.  It primed the pump for thinking about sprawl in new ways, but did it affect the trajectory of auto-oriented growth?

Nor is the USC Program for Environmental & Regional Equity the first well-spoken suitor to come calling with an explicit promise for a better region. Back in 1925 the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce commissioned the landscape architecture firm of Olmsted Brothers and Harland Bartholomew planners to think big about the future of the region. The resulting plan, Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region, patterned mobility upon the historic contours of the natural setting to tie together mountains, beaches and recreation facilities. At its heart was a system of ‘parkways’ and parks to connect city and country:

Olmsted and Bartholomew's Park and Playgrounds mapIn a death-knell that killed the quest for a better future for nearlythe next century, the Chamber famously shelved that plan. Why? The economy tanked and then the federal government assumed a greater responsibility for the region. In contrast to the Olmsted/Bartholomew vision, for example, the Army Corps engineering the landscape for production. It concretized the river to create along its banks not opportunities for recreation but sites for industry. The only ‘parkway’ ever constructed was the Arroyo Seco, and as recently as ten years ago, park advocates had to battle it out with a industrial park developer over the cornfields site (near downtown).

Of that Parks, Playgrounds effort, by the way, all that remains is the Los Angeles Major Traffic Street Plan (1924). It did in fact imprint a pro-motor bias on our City of Angels for the next near-century. Behold the map; it looks awfully familiar even if it has since been overlaid with a freeway system, doesn’t it?

Olmsted's Major Street Traffic Plan (1924)That’s why optimism is hard to summon. No city in history has been the subject of so many grand plans and yet been disappointed in the face of dashed expectations. Will this one be any different? We note that humorously, and presumably without irony, An Agenda for Equity itself summons the bugaboo of university-community initiatives everywhere: the challenge of translating talk to action (#6).

Yet a Rider Can Hope

Yes there’s the promise, and there is of course the need, for transportation equity. We need it in South Los Angeles; we need it in the northeast San Fernando Valley; and we need it in the Northeast and beyond. But we also need it in Tarzana, Hancock Park and Westwood. And we need transportation equity here in Beverly Hills too.

Our small town of 35,000 averages about 400 collision injuries every year – at least those reported to the police department. (Presumably more go unreported.) And nearly 10% of them on average are bicycle riders. Since fewer than 1% of road users use a bicycle, riders are over-represented among the injured by  ten times or more when compared to our actual presence on the road.

Yet our policymakers here have done nothing to mitigate collision injuries. Red-light running is rampant and traffic enforcement is negligible (as our year-end traffic report summary shows). Our transportation officials take scant notice. And if you’re involved in a bike collision, better make sure that the cops take down your story and follow-up to ensure it’s correct in the report. Why? Because here car-culture prevails among policymakers and the cops. If anywhere there was a need for a transportation equity agenda, it is here in Beverly Hills.

So we welcome An Agenda for Equity: A Framework for Building a Just Transportation System in Los Angeles County from the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE). We’ll be watching to see if it has any juice here in the Southland, where a constellation of auto-industry interests and parochial backyard concerns collaborate to keep our region as one inhospitable to those who would bike.

*Bike advocates tend to frame our own action agenda in implicit opposition to motor-mobility interests – namely the Auto Club – and their legislative agenda(s), which sometimes has them opposing sensible road safety laws like California’s safe-passing law AB 1371. (As if road safety was zero-sum!) Moreover, some bike advocates (especially self-proclaimed activists) tend to identify as a community in explicit contrast to motorists. While the binary (us-versus-them) approach is generally repudiated by the greater mobility advocacy community, life is breathed into it by policymakers who continue to have riders to battle with armored motorists.An Agenda for Equity brief back cover

A Hovenring for Beverly Hills!

Hovenring illustrationThe Netherlands has created what may be the most spectacular bike facility ever: the Hovenring. This lighted, suspended parallel interchange facility hovers atop a roadway interchange but does much more: by literally and figuratively elevating bike travel above car travel, the Hovenring completely inverts the American approach to transportation and makes rider safety paramount. Could the Hovenring be appropriate to move riders safely through the awful Santa Monica and Wilshire intersection in Beverly Hills?

Northern Europe enjoys a well-deserved reputation for bike-friendly streets. Protected bicycle lanes and bike signals seem de rigeur in every major city in Denmark and the country is rolling out protected  inter-city bike highways. Are riders finally enjoying some parity when it comes to transportation infrastructure investment? Let the Hovenring in the Netherlands answer this question!

Hovenring overviewUnlike every other piece of mobility infrastructure we’ve seen, the Hovenring (‘hovering ring’) demonstrates a total commitment to safer cycling in the Netherlands. The roundabout safely separates bike traffic from the junction of a busy motorway and a collector street below. The Hovenring also puts the state’s imprimatur on non-motor mobility; here  it’s as legitimate a form of transportation as any other.

How to use the Hovenring? Like any conventional roundabout: approach, yield to oncoming traffic from the left, then circle counterclockwise and exit. But unlike other bike-friendly roundabouts this one does so with considerable imagination. Yet the Hovenring is not alone in literally (and figuratively) elevating riders above the motor traffic. Behold UK architect Lord Norman Foster’s proposal for London bicycle infrastructure: The Sky Cycle:

Sky Cycle by Norman FosterThe Sky Cycle would  accommodate 12,000 cyclists per hour on  cycleways elevated above existing railway lines. Riders would enter and exist via via 200 entrance points, according to Cycling Weekly, which wasn’t impressed. The publication lambasts Sky Cycle for failing to address the “dysfunctionality, screwed priorities and inhuman scale” of the London urban environment.” Copenhagenize dismisses the megaproject out of hand. Arch Daily says, “It will never work.”

We’re sympathetic; we believe it is far better to incorporate multiple modes of transportation into our existing circulation system. But is it simply pie-in-the-sky? Consider that urban planners have long embraced the elevated walkway (Los Angeles has a few skyways) and Foster has an excellent track record planting his fanciful designs in cities across the world. If it doesn’t come first to London it may well surface in Dubai (where they would do well to air-condition the system).

Even if the Sky Cycle is never realized as a standalone system in the UK or elsewhere, it baits our imagination concerning what is possible. Yes, it’s an aspirational proposal but it is one upon which we can draw for inspiration.

A Flyover for Beverly Hills?

We look at the Sky Cycle and marvel at the Hovenring. We can’t help but wonder, can’t such innovations be deployed here in Southern California? Why not start our real multimodal mobility planning efforts at the worst intersection on the Westside – Wilshire at Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills – where our city officials haven’t lifted a finger to improve the experience for riders. Indeed here’s what road users negotiate today:

Wilshire-Santa Monica intersection

The complex juncture of North Santa Monica, South Santa Monica and Wilshire boulevards tests the patience of rider and driver alike!

We’ve called it an intersection that simply fails because riders are put squarely in harm’s way on approach from any direction. As the Brits would say, this intersection is “not fit for purpose.” Consider:

  • Wilshire riders face a long slog across both North and South Santa Monica boulevards (it’s a particular challenge for slower riders to make the light heading westbound, which is slightly uphill)
  • North Santa Monica eastbound riders are squeezed between the #2 lane and the turn lane (which also doubles as a bus stop). No bike lane or even dotted lane markings guide us, and no bike box gives us a head start. And,
  • North Santa Monica westbound riders must negotiate dual right turn lanes  at Wilshire, which sow confusion because most riders are unsure where to wait safely for the green light to continue straight.

The westbound rider who hugs the right-hand curb to the right of the dual lanes finds it impossible to cross because motorists turn right at high speeds on both the solid green and the green arrow. So the rider waiting for the solid green is trapped as cars zip past. On bike count day we saw rider after rider start across but then get hemmed-in by those turning vehicles. Forced to turn right, riders then circled back to try again. Frustrated riders anticipated the green arrow by dashing as the last of the cross-traffic passed. It was madness. Don’t our transportation officials see it? You bet. Heck, we’ve told ‘em.

It is nearly as dangerous to wait in the #2 lane. This lane allows traffic to continue straight and to turn right and would seem to be recommended. But pity the rider who waits in the #2  lane for the solid green: she’s strafed by moving traffic turning right at speed even from her lane behind her. So as she waits for the solid green to proceed, drivers  eager to make the turn risk her life and limb to squeeze by. Beverly Hills has chosen to do nothing to address this hazard.

How Do We Do It?

Tunnel concept via ThinkBike's Richard ter Avest

The tunnel concept provides cyclists with a down under solution to road conflict.

First we turned to the Danes. What would they do to improve this intersection? Architect Richard ter Avest, who was in town to attend the LACBC’s ThinkBike conference a few years ago, practically sighed. It’s a mess, he said. He proposed separating the grades by elevating the vehicular traffic or tunneling for bikeways. But elevating the roadway is an expensive proposition and tunneling has its own detractors (for safety reasons).

We needed another approach. The flyover? We’ve talked before about the opportunity to use a flyover for bike traffic at this intersection as part of the Gateway overlay zone discussion. We get to thinking: perhaps the Hovenring offers a model for grade-separating the modes? So here’s our conceptual illustration what a Beverly Hills Hovenring:

Wilshire-Santa Monica hovenring

The Beverly Hills Hovenring

What recommends a Hovenring at this intersection in particular? Santa Monica and Wilshire boulevards are both among the busiest Westside thoroughfares (a combined near-100k vehicles on average daily). This intersection is among the worst, too, for congestion (with a level of service grade of ‘F’). With more development on the horizon, and without successfully shifting more traffic to other modes (as it says we should in our city plans), we’ll see rider safety  further compromised. We need either a full-on rethinking of how we handle surface traffic here or….

Wilshire-Santa Monice hovenring visualizationWe need to start thinking big. Hovenring big. Sky Way big. And there’s a good argument for it: city leaders want to make a big statement here at our western Gateway.

In fact, we’ve heard it time and again our policymakers debate development here and call for a signature project for this intersection. What better statement to make than a Hovenring? It’s a win-win: an attention getter that gets motorists out of riders’ way.

More on the Hovenring

The Hovenring is a dedicated bike facility in the major southern city of Eindhoven (off the E25 autoroute to Utrecht and Amsterdam). From the Hovenring site:

The bridge comprises a 70-metre high pylon, 24 steel cables and a circular bridge deck and is made out of circa 1.000 tons of steel. The cables are attached to the inner side of the bridge deck, right where the bridge deck connects to the circular, concrete counter weight. This way, torsion within the 72-metre diameter bridge deck is prevented.

Opened in 2012, the Hovenring has already placed in the Dutch Design Award contest and secured a spread in National Geographic for designer ipv delft. But the Hovenring is more than an eye-catcher; it’s a statement about taking responsibility for road users. We need some of that here in Beverly Hills. Why not start with building our own Hovenring?

Hovenring design

Hovenring design. All facility images courtesy designer ipv delft.

Another Metro/Caltrans I-405 #FAIL: SM Blvd

I-405 crossings montage

All of the I-405 crossings north of National are hazardous to our health.

Gosh, could these agencies make it any more difficult for a rider to cross the 405? We’ve written about the gantlet that is eastbound & westbound Wilshire. And just highlighted the Sepulveda trench designed to bust a nut. Now this: faded or scraped former turn markings in the #2 lane that create uncertainty for westbound Santa Monica Boulevard riders and motorists alike. Aren’t our construction managers hip to the spirit of Deputy Directive DD-64-R1?People who choose to ride a bicycle for transportation, recreation or pleasure shouldn’t have to navigate hazardous intersections at the I-405. This $1+ billion mega expansion project are supposed to have safety features built into it to during the construction phase that make traversing an intersection like Santa Monica at Sepulveda no particular problem for the rider. It’s a matter of policy: 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,” according to Deputy Directive DD-64-R1.

The deputy directive goes on to underscore how safety is not only a desired end but the means too, and that it needs to be a consideration from design through execution:

Addressing the safety and mobility needs of bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users in all projects, regardless of funding, is implicit in [Complete Streets] objectives. Bicycle, pedestrian, and transit travel is facilitated by creating “complete streets” beginning early in system planning and continuing through project delivery and maintenance and operations. – DD-64-R1

Moreover the DOT says, it is that agency’s responsibility to “ensure projects are planned, designed, constructed, operated, and maintained consistent with project type and funding program to provide for the safety and mobility needs of all users with legal access to a transportation facility.” And there’s even a point of accountability. The Deputy Director of Maintenance and Operations is to “implement current design standards that meet the needs of bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users in design, construction and maintenance work zones, encroachment permit work, and in system operations.”

Though Metro oversees work on the I-405 project, Caltrans has a role to play too. DD-64-R1 doesn’t simply get tossed out the window, does it?

Uncertainty for Riders at Santa Monica and Cotner Westbound

There may be little ambiguity in the Caltrans deputy directive about rider safety, but there is certainly not much in evidence at the Santa Monica Boulevard-Cotner intersection to  suggest that even a thought was given to facilitating rider access here. Indeed every westbound rider is prey to the dreaded ‘right-hand hook’ from lane #3.

Here’s what riders and motorists see approaching the juncture of Santa Monica Boulevard and Cotner (at the northbound on-ramp):

Santa Monica-405 scraped markingsAdjacent to the turn lane, lane #3 (at left, above) ostensibly continues straight. But for a long time it was a turn lane too. But we can see that the dual arrow has been scraped away. Not even fully scraped away. The road user could mistake it for the usual (for Caltrans) wear-and-tear. Where the old double-arrow made explicit the choice to either continue on or to turn, without it traffic control is now ambiguous. Are turns from the #3 lane allowed, or are they prohibited? No sign prohibits a right turn from that lane. And the persistence of memory might even encourage it.

Consider the broader context too. From Sepulveda to Cotner there exist several challenges facing riders:

  • No lane marking guides riders  safely though the Sepulveda intersection after existing the class II bicycle lane;
  • Riders enter a hasty merge situation at Pontius with no guidance, no room and no separate facility for protection;
  • The turn lane for Pontius creates an ill-advised and indeed illegal merge opportunity, which forces riders keeping right in the #3 lane between traffic there and illegal mergers entering from the right; and,
  • Approaching Cotner, riders continuing westbound are vulnerable to right-turning drivers from the #3 lane – which no marking allows (so no indication to the rider) but no sign prohibits.

Here’s what the situation between Cotner and Sepulveda looks like from above:

Santa Monica from Cotner to Pontius aerialAnd here’s the Cotner on-ramp turn. Not one but three lanes feed into the on-ramp:

Santa Monica at Cotner on-ramp turn aerialUnlike the situation shown in these Google aerials, this intersection is often gridlocked thankfully. Riders have to serpentine between cars and skitter across the lanes to find a way through to Sawtelle, but at least the traffic is mostly stationary. But not always: when traffic actually moves the danger increases. Sharply. Because motorists hastily speed-up to make the light at Cotner and the ramp turn. And with three lanes feeding the on-ramp, many westbound drivers take advantage of lane #3 to turn because it’s a wider arc; it facilitates more turning vehicles. The problem: riders are surprised by a right-turning driver because no pavement marking alerts us to a possible turn, but no sign prohibits that turn. The explicit indication – that old dual arrow – has been scraped away. We are simply set up for a right-hand-hook.

Why are riders are an afterthought here? Caltrans Deputy Directive DD64-R1 says otherwise. It directs responsibility for our safety to construction managers and the Deputy Director of Maintenance and Operations in particular. They are charted with respecting the needs of all road users. But words on paper do nothing for us in the Santa Monica-Cotner crush.

We’ve put it out to Caltrans, Metro and City of Los Angeles. We’ll update when we hear back.

Metro/Caltrans Fails Riders at I-405/Wilshire

In the ongoing saga of hazardous I-405 construction impacts we’d like to file this gem for your consideration: a poorly-filled trench running alongside Sepulveda that seems tailor-made to bust a rear rack. That’s what happened to us anyway: we lost our load of groceries as this sharp-edged beastie knocked us out of the saddle. We did keep our balance but sacrificed a prized quart of Bay Cities pasta sauce. It could have been worse: with a bottom fully 2-3 inches lower than the boulevard surface we could have lost a rim or a nut. We’ll let you know when Metro/Caltrans fills this one properly. Sepulveda trench at I-405

Not on the Agenda: Real Help for Beverly Hills Small Businesses

Let’s follow up on our previous post about our lagging bicycle rack program with a look at our city’s Small Business Task Force. Intended to brainstorm assistance to the city’s less-glossy business districts, strips dominated by small retailers, the Task Force was from opening meeting to final report was dominated by the city’s big business interests and, behind them, the Chamber of Commerce. Not on the agenda: tangible steps like encouraging cycling to boost the small-business bottom line. The Small Business Task Force was was created in mid-2011 by then-Mayor Barry Brucker to identify barriers to attracting and retaining small businesses in Beverly Hills. The Task Force defines a small business as “one that is independently owned and operated, is … Continue reading

Where are the Bicycle Racks? [Updated]

One year ago, in November of 2012, the Beverly Hills City Council approved a program to place bicycle racks on sidewalks and city parks. A year ago, last February, Council chose a custom design and this past summer we took delivery of the racks. Since August the racks have sat in a warehouse. No new rack has hit a Beverly Hills sidewalk in a decade. Yet Santa Monica installs 200 racks each year. In the coming months that city will install another 250 more. What’s the holdup in Beverly Hills? Why are riders still waiting for bicycle parking? Bicycle racks provide a convenient and secure place for a riders to park, which is no different from what we would expect when … Continue reading

We Need More Public Input into the SM Blvd Process


We bicycle riders must be doing something right when we show up en masse at the Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee meeting to argue for bicycle lanes. At both meeting #1 and meeting #2 we outnumbered folks who showed up to speak against bike lanes. Now, as we move toward the third meeting on January 8th, is it merely coincidence that the city is calling for more public input into the boulevard redesign process? Perhaps bike lane advocates have been too successful in pressing our sensible case for road safety? We’re tempted to call it a sign that we’ve succeeded in making discussion of tomorrow’s Santa Monica Boulevard all about road safety. For example, members of the public who have … Continue reading

Santa Monica Boulevard Public Comment Form #Fail

To allow residents a voice in the reconstruction of Santa Monica Boulevard (in 2015) City Council took several steps. It made sure that news of this significant project reached every household via postal mailing; it budgeted $2 million for a consultant to inform the public and receive input about design choices; and Council established a ‘blue-ribbon committee’ of residents to oversee the whole process. But in a fumble characteristic of our city’s outreach the web form designed to collect feedback fails at that task. How difficult can it be to create and post a brief but effective web questionnaire? Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction is a $16 million project with citywide significance because the design choices we make today will shape how … Continue reading

A Dozen Reasons to Support Bicycle Lanes for Santa Monica Boulevard

Beverly Hills will reconstruct Santa Monica Boulevard in 2015. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to include bicycle lanes on a corridor that long turned its back on non-motorists. Rider safety is a best reason to support bicycle lanes, but there are many others too. Here we offer a dozen more reasons as the Blue-Ribbon Committee kicks-off deliberations about the appropriate design for tomorrow’s Santa Monica boulevard. Imagine riders having to dodge potholes and storm grates; having impatient motorists following to closely; waiting for the collision impact as riders negotiate for space on a street used by 50,000 cars every day on average. These problems and others diminish the enthusiasm of riders who would travel one of our city’s most important … Continue reading