Political Accountability Takes a Holiday in Beverly Hills

Scale of justiceThe usual mechanism for holding officials accountable in a representative democracy is the ballot: if we don’t like how we’re served by our representatives, we can simply “vote the bums out.” But what happens when elections come around and nobody steps up to challenge incumbents? Beverly Hills should be holding a municipal election this March for two Council seats, but the only two candidates to step forward are incumbents. So we simply cancelled the election. Here the practice of governing falls short of theories about governance, and political accountability for unsafe streets takes a holiday.

The ballot box is a powerful lever for affecting the priorities of elected officials. Here in Beverly Hills, our opportunity comes every odd year. Terms for our five-member City Council are staggered; two seats come open in March election and three in 2017. Because office of the Mayor is a ceremonial office, each council elections is our key opportunity to shape the direction we want the city to take. In large part that’s because the ballot we cast affects how the city is managed.

Beverly Hills org chartIn Beverly Hills, City Council appoints a city manager, the technocrat who manages departments, conducts and supervises hiring, and implements programs among other responsibilities. According to the organization chart, the city manager takes direction from councilmembers and manages the staff. But one thing left off the chart is the need to manage staff inertia – the  preference not to act. That’s often chalked up to risk aversion, which is a characteristic of local governments.

Also left off the city’s organization chart is the city manager who doesn’t take direction well. Here in Beverly Hills, we’ve seen friction emerge between City Council and City Manager Jeff Kolin over the management of the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction process, as well as the enduring vacancies on the Beverly Hills Police Department. Mr. Kolin announced his retirement come January.

And not a moment too soon. Beverly Hills City Hall is defined by inertia; it’s where good ideas die on the vine for want of City Manager leadership or staff concern. In our five years advocating on behalf of safe streets and multimodal mobility, we’ve seen remarkably little action on that agenda from our officials beyond the empty rhetoric of plans and press releases. Little of substance reflects the city’s stated policy objectives in the Sustainable City Plan and the General Plan’s circulation element such as reducing congestion, slowing the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, and yes, encouraging cycling. Even rhetoric went missing: the city manager is rumored to be a cyclist himself but seems remarkably reticent when it comes to speaking up for safer streets. In fact, we can’t ever recall him uttering a word about making Beverly Hills bike-friendly.

Come 2015, however, we expected the opportunity to nudge our city in the right direction mobility-wise: we were to go to the polls to choose two councilmembers and to work with a new city manager. If only it were so! When no challenger stepped forward to contest a Council seat, our election was canceled (as many have been across Los Angeles County) as no challenger filed the required number of signatures necessary to run.

Because Councilmembers Lili Bosse and Dr. Julian Gold were simply appointed to four-year terms by City Council, missed an opportunity to hold City Hall accountable. And we missed an opportunity to reflect on recent changes in how our city operates. City Council strengthened the hand of insiders, for example, by reducing the size of city commissions to narrow the gate for new, incoming ‘team players.’ City Council raised the limits on contributions, too, in our small city too vulnerable to influence-buying.

Moreover, City Hall has ‘liberalized’ planning regulations; weakened our preservation standards; and reassigned some zoning decisions to an administrative process behind closed doors from quasi-judicial hearings as in the past.

If many of us didn’t pay attention to these policies as they percolated though the governing process, with a canceled election we don’t have any means of giving our collective thumbs-up or thumbs-down at the polls. Ballot box accountability is particularly important because few residents pay attention to what our commissions are doing, according to our quick look at commission meetings:

Commission meeting attendance montage

Commission business in Beverly Hills don’t pull in the stakeholders.

Then again, few pay attention to the polls. The city’s turnout is remarkably anemic. Just 22% of those registered actually voted in the municipal election of 2013, marking a long-term overall slide in voter interest:

Beverly Hills turnout 1950-2013 chart

In the 2013 election, for example turnout was fewer than 5,000 votes in a city of 38,000 residents (22%). One of the three contested city council seats that election was secured with just 2,540 votes (merely 7 more than the runner-up).

In fact, it takes fewer than three thousand votes to secure a City Council seat in our city of 38,000 residents, which means opportunity for those who are involved, and organized, like north-side homeowners, to gain disproportionate influence and use a heavy hand on the tiller of the ship of state.

For those of us who chafe at the city’s inaction on street safety, and who feel frustrated that our calls to make Beverly Hills bike-friendly falls on officials’ deaf ears, we can only lament the missed opportunity at the polls to hold City Council accountable. Instead of a campaign season that might have tested candidates’ commitment to multimodal mobility –  as our plans urge, by the way – we’ll instead wait for our next chance in 2017 to put our own hands on the tiller.

*And maybe it was overdue, as it is surprising to learn how little backing is necessary in order to gain a toehold in local government. In 2013, the three winning candidates spent an average of less than $20 per vote to run a campaign. (Councilmember Willie Brien was the big spender: he broke the bank at $25 spent per voter.) Clearly it doesn’t take very much to keep the wheels of governance turning in Beverly Hills, which is good news to the lobbyists and ‘influencers’ who ply City Hall corridors.

Santa Monica Greenway Passes Council

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Thanks to a big push from sister bike org Santa Monica Spoke, that city’s Michigan Avenue Neighborhood Greenway (aka MANGo) passed City Council unanimously last week. This neighborhood was long-ago bisected by the 10 Freeway, and by way of too-little, too-late amends, the city’s now calming traffic and improving connectivity though to the Civic Center & beach. Good for residents, great for riders. Congrats Spoke!

Complete Bike Book by Chris Sidwells

Sidwells Complete Bike BookChris Sidwells delivers on his promise in the Complete Bike Book: almost nothing escapes this professional rider’s purview. From the most fundamental questions (“Why cycle?”) to the literal nuts and bolts of bike maintenance, this all-around guide has it covered. In an era when the printed book seems antiquated, or in search of ever-more specialized niches, Complete Bike reminds us of the value that well-illustrated handbooks still can offer!

The Complete Bike Book should find place on any beginning cyclist’s shelf. Yes, in the Internet era it is a throwback to the all-in-one handbooks of yesteryear (like Eugene Sloan’s Complete Book of Bicycle Maintenance), but there is no substitute for plentiful pictures and diagrams that handbook demystify the ins and outs of cycling. And it’s not only for the beginner; the experienced cyclist will find it a refresher course – particularly in the maintenance arena.

But the value here is for the newbie. Back in my day, bikes came in two general flavors: ‘road’ bikes and street bikes. The road bike came in many flavors but were mostly variations on the triangular, butted-tube steel frame which varied in spec between racing and touring configurations. The mass-market street bike (the kind in any garage) found an enormous market, peaking in the 1970s, and ever since on the decline in the face of a fragmented market of specialty biked.

Sidwells Complete Bike Book inside

Sidwells offers an overview of bike types that will be very helpful to the new purchaser bewildered by the avalanche of new bike types (to say nothing of brands and accessories). Familiar with the Audax or the Randonneur? Know the difference between a BMX and a trials bike? If not, then Sidwells has a book for you!

Bicycling’s Complete Book of Road Cycling

Bicycling Magazine's Complete Book of Road Cycling coverBicycling’s Complete Book of Road Cycling delivers what it promises: a broad overview of issues related to road cycling from health & safety to road handling to racing and endurance tips. As an edited volume of short chapters, it’s shorthand in style. So rather than a collection of ideas organized as a narrative, the reader will instead find bullet lists and quick takes – which sacrifices a bit of depth to breadth but it makes for a good introduction to the many facets of cycling nevertheless.

The about-town riders will probably skip the sections like Riding Stronger and Longer and Fueling Your Engine and instead turn to The Basics and Safety in Traffic. The former section addresses positioning and bike maintenance, which are important in avoiding injury. And injury-free cycling is key to enjoyment. There, basic recommendations about bike fit and handlebar grip are worth a skim too since most of us learned the basics when we were six or seven years old.

Maintenance, however, is more important than you would think: many cycling collisions are solo spills. Maybe we’ve failed to check our brakes or quick-release skewers, say, and we can’t control the bike (or a wheel falls off). From time to time we do have to pay attention, if only because we’re sharing the road with motorists – not riding a country lane – and we need to be in control at all times.

For example, I enjoy pumping uphill on San Vicente toward Brentwood. It is great for getting up my heart rate up. But when a misadjusted pedal unexpectedly releases the shoe cleat, it brings the fun to an end. It can even send an unwary rider down (that’s speaking from experience!) because a leg akimbo at speed can be quite destabilizing.

Now, Bicycling’s Complete Book of Road Cycling book is not a bible by any means. But the best bicycling guide is the one that you’ve read, and this guide succinctly covers the nuts-and-bolts, including rules of the road, bike handling, and a prudent approach to road riding. Available for about $10 from Amazon, you can’t find cheaper advice on keeping safe in the saddle along with all of the other tips on offer. It’s a worthy gift for a new rider or the rider returning to the road after a hiatus.

Eugene Sloan Complete Book of Bicycling Cyclist BibleFor a bible I recommend the out-of-print Eugene Sloan’s Complete Book of Cycling (1988), a wonderfully-written book I fondly remember picking up in New York back when I was riding a cast-iron Atala around the Central Park circuit. The page edges are smudged with Phil Woods grease even today. It’s carried me though basic fixes to my current ride, a 1988 Scapin.

Currently in print is Sloan’s Sloane’s true-to-the-title Complete Book of Bicycling: The Cyclist’s Bible (25th Anniversary Edition) which covers much of the same ground in a newer package. Highly recommended. Every cyclists should have it.

What to Do in a Collision? Bob Mionske Tells All

Mionske-coverBike attorney Bob Mionske is out there working for the safety and protection of all cyclists. He’s the author of the book Bicycling and the Law [see our review] and a prolific poster over at his own site, covering all aspects of cycling safety and preparation. The site is a must-read for anybody taking to our mean streets on a human-powered contraption with one or more wheels.

One of the most valuable resources on his site is Bob’s 3-part ‘Road Rights: How to Handle Bike-Car Accidents.’ As any rider knows, dealing with an unfortunate road incident is not an ‘if’ but a ‘when.’ Dealing with the aftermath of a collision is key to recovering for your injuries. From ride preparation to post-collision strategy, he succinctly highlights the tactics that will help keep us safe, often pulling material from  his book (which goes into considerable detail about the rules and responsibilities of road riding). The series, subtitled “I Was In A Collision—What Should I Do?,” tells you what to expect, and what you need to know.

A most important tip if you’re a motorist as well as a cyclist: fall back on your auto coverage for uninsured/underinsured motorists. It might save you in the event of a car-bike collision.

Mastering Cycling by John Howard

mastering cyclng book coverMastering Cycling by John Howard is a useful overview of cycling that offers a user-friendly tour though all the key areas from bike fit to post-ride stretch. In between are helpful chapters on nutrition and workout variation so that we aging cyclists can keep up that bone density. ‘Aging cyclists’? Yep – this is one of the few cycling books to look at the sport and recreation from the ‘experienced’ rider’s perspective.Perhaps it should be titled ‘Masters’ Cycling.’ His is a no-nonsense guide who focuses on sharing the hard-won wisdom that helps him enjoy cycling for fun, fitness and health as we get older. And Howard himself knows of what he speaks: he’s not only a distinguished figure in the sport, including time served as athlete, coach, and two-wheeled speed-record holder; he’s a bit long in the tooth and grey too.

The virtue of Mastering Cycling is that Howard knows you don’t have time to waste on floral elaborations about the joys of cycling because. He knows that we know how great a pursuit it is. He knows we can’t share in a play-by-play recap of his great race, so instead he provides plenty of sidebar visits with everyday cyclists like you and me. He’s so conscious of time that he includes a chapter on making time to bike in middle-age and beyond.

Even experienced cyclists will learn something about how different foods affect our rides, say, or how we can change-up our cycling habits to build our bones. Who knew that road cycling is associated with less bone density than mountain biking or weight-bearing pursuits like running?

Readers interested in learning about how the sport that we love poses new challenges as we get older are well advised to pick up Mastering Cycling. It’s an informative, easy read just loaded with insight and understanding.

Never too Mature to Bike!

The Dutch and other Europeans may have no difficulty getting folks of all ages to bike. After all, street there are bike-friendly: segregated bike lanes, calmed traffic, dedicated signaling, and perhaps most important, a culture that gives cyclists parity with motorists. And often even more privileged accommodations on the public roads. We could do more, much more, so it’s good to see AARP on board with a recent mailer.AARP Healthy Habit mailerFormerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, AARP is the big gorilla of mature-folks advocacy. They’re big players in insurance too, marketing United Healthcare Medicare-Plus plans under the AARP label. So it’s heartening to see them so prominently place a picture of a mature cyclist on their recent mailer with the tagline, ‘Add a healthy habit this month.’

Well, it’s never too late to straddle a bike. Older folks have a unique set of concerns, as cyclist-author John Howard highlights in his comprehensive general guide for the mature cyclist,’ Mastering Cycling.’ (Read our review.) But older bones need not dissuade the would-be cyclist from taking to the road.

Consider how much more safe urban communities would be if we moved elderly motorists onto three-wheeled trikes, say. Or merely succeeded in moving some of today’s auto traffic in a city like Los Angeles to bikes. That could open up new opportunities for a city like Beverly Hills, which is tailor-made for local bike trips but where even hearty high-schoolers complain that our roads are too choked with vehicles to feel good about riding.

AARP is the leading policy advocacy organization for the over-50 set, so its imprimatur is important if we are to rethink cycling for fitness (‘add a healthy habit’) and general transportation too.

Incidentally, AARP’s name change came about a few years ago because it was keen to expand its reach and increase its political clout. (Because only emergency personnel retire at 50, it was time to re-brand and lose the ‘retired’ appeal. In the States, anyway, retirement is a thing of the past, and the retired folks constituency will thin over time.) The re-christened AARP organization can be a major proponent of mature cycling, so it is heartening to see them on board with a pro-bike monthly mailer. Now to reach some of the non-White, non-affluent older folks….

NY Times links

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The New York Times last weekend published not one but two bike-related articles in the new Review section. Russell Shorto muses about the bike as a culture-transforming means of transportation in the Netherlands. From policies to everyday behaviors, he finds that accommodations came relatively swiftly and pervasively. For Angelenos, who seem to bear no resemblance at all to the Dutch, this could be an inaugural lesson in how to be European. A few pages later,  Maile Meloy talks about the seminal role of her childhood bike in her development as a write. Is the Times softening up on bikes & infrastructure?

Subway to Sea: 50 Years of Rail Planning

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Metro backbone route map 1961The ‘Subway to the Sea’ promises to bring a station right to the heart of Beverly Hills at Wilshire & Beverly. That would be the first time since our burgh has been served by rail since the early 1950s.

In fact, following the dismantling of the Pacific Electric light rail line that coursed through our city (stopping near the old post office) a succession of regional transit agencies (antecedents of Metro) have envisioned passenger travel both below and above Wilshire. In the case of helicopter-lifted buses, far above Wilshire!

Metro archive’s Primary Sources blog covers the metaphorical terrain in  50 Years of Rail Planning with very interesting backstory on the political and practical struggles to bring a grand rail plan back from the dead.  One has to wonder whether rail will ever again come to Beverly Hills given the failure of so many grand plans….

It’s All About the Bike

Robert Penn’s purchase of the ultimate midlife-crisis toy, a custom bicycle built around a bespoke frame, is the premise for his joy-filled ‘It’s All About the Bike,’ a journey though the history, characters, and innovations that have produced what we know as the modern bicycle. This story is above all an expression of his own joy of cycling, one that will be shared by readers inclined toward two-wheel transportation. Penn’s passion is well-captured in this early passage: “I found a rhythm in the spinning pedals. Rhythm is happiness. A myriad of concerns – about the bike, about this book – dissipated completely. This is the beauty of cycling – the rhythm puts serious activity in the brain to sleep: it … Continue reading

Bicycling & the Law Review (Part 2)

In his cogent review of the legal history of cycling, Bicycling and the Law: Your Rights as a Cyclist, Bob Mionske reminds us cities have a long history as chaotic crucibles for competing vehicles and devices. But cyclists have been under-prepared to negotiate the scrum  of walkers, horsemen, and horse carriages (on rail and otherwise) that competed for priority on the roads. Add electric railcars and motor carriages to the mix, and well you’ve got the potential for carnage! It was always so on American roads and it’s only marginally better today. Our roads are more orderly, our laws more refined, yet vehicles are larger and travel faster than ever. But we’re often unprepared for the situations and  conditions we … Continue reading