Beverly Hills City Council Disses Road Safety, Slaps Riders in Santa Monica Boulevard Session
A split Beverly Hills City Council last night dismissed the safety concerns of over two hundred riders (and twenty who showed up in person) to blithely wave off any prospect for class II bicycle lanes on tomorrow’s Santa Monica Boulevard. Those of us who hoped that the corridor would close the regional backbone network gap, or perhaps illustrate the current thinking in complete streets principles, will be sorely disappointed. Living up to our reputation for insularity and parochial thinking, a majority on our City Council last night affirmed our city’s disregard for connectivity and road safety by ruling out bike lanes.
Despite strong institutional support from our neighboring cities and endorsements from UCLA’s department of transportation and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, three of our five councilmembers put an end to bike lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard. The larger project will come back to Council on April 1st to discuss the ballooning projected costs, but consider the lanes dead, dead, dead.
There clearly wasn’t sentiment on the Council to move forward with bike lanes for the corridor. The three clear ‘no’
votes statements preclude including them. [Clarification: Council deferred action on the item to April 1st to resolve questions about the cost and public safety implications of the project, but in their statements clearly dismissed the prospect of striping a bike lane on the corridor.]
One councilmember, Dr. Julian Gold, essentially filibustered during his segment of the discussion with his litany of rhetorical “questions” which he helpfully labeled for us a “laundry list” (as if the point would escape us). Count him out.
Councilmember Nancy Krasne rehearsed her own naive assumptions about riders’ needs, and she nursed her misconceptions about road safety and bike facilities. Here we can’t blame her: evidently our own transportation officials and consultants made absolutely no effort to reach Council with the news that complete streets is the future. Still, her part of the discussion clouded the issue rather than crystallized it. Count her out.
Even the Blue-Ribbon Committee process and products came in for a drubbing by councilmember Willie Brien, who actually appointed three committee members (of 15 todal, including yours truly). The former Mayor couldn’t help but return to old business to settle the score. “I believed at the outset that the committee should have had councilmembers on it,” he said (recalling his vote last fall to reserve control over project design to City Hall officials). Kindly he added just after dismissing the committee’s recommendations: “I do appreciate the committee’s work.”
Indeed Dr. Brien restated his flat-out opposition to boulevard expansion, which is a precondition for adding lanes. “I said from the beginning I would not support the widening of Santa Monica Boulevard – I said that five years ago – and I haven’t changed my mind.” That’s notwithstanding the 250 public comments by a large margin in favor of lanes; the 50+ folks who turned out to call for them; and even the Blue-Ribbon’s own recommendations to include them. “If you want to look for bike lanes, look to Carmelita,” he added. Count him out.
For his part, Dr. Gold called bike lanes for Santa Monica Boulevard a potential “bridge to nowhere.”
That is a reference to neighbor cities’ existing lanes which today don’t reach our city boundary. But it’s also a term used by northside lane opponents in the Blue-Ribbon meetings. Coordinated messaging perhaps?
Until those lanes meet our boundary, Dr. Gold said, “the rest of the discussions about bike lanes are moot.” But this is a red herring: both LA and WeHo have assured the committee, and City Hall too, that they will meet our lanes. Indeed both cities (unlike Beverly Hills) are busy working on mobility plans and implementation programs.
But City Council had these assurances long before Dr. Gold expressed his concern at this meeting. This one of his fusillade of “questions,” evidently orchestrated to bog down this process, seemed particularly disingenuous.
Crocodile Tears or a Real Concern for Road Safety?
The unfunny irony is that two of these three councilmembers who turned their back on multimodal mobility have the gall to say that they embrace cycling. They cry crocodile tears over the risks that riders bear when riding Beverly Hills streets even as they fail to lift a finger to reduce risk on a corridor like Santa Monica. “I worry about the safety of the bikers,” Dr. Brien said. But he evidenced no genuine concern for safety in his remarks.
Dr. Gold never even expressed a fig leaf of concern, though. It simply didn’t merit a remark. “I’d like a better understanding of widening versus not widening on the costs,” he said as he opened his remarks. And speaking of costs, what about the damage that riders do? “I understand the three feet [for safety] rule [sic], but what happens when a biker swerves and hits you?” Finally someone states the concern on everybody’s mind: How do we keep those reckless riders from running into the cars, then encouraging those motorists to flee the scene, and then finally checking themselves into the hospital for, say, a broken pelvis? Oh the costs to society of these bikers!
For her part, Nancy Krasne was all about the public welfare. Or so she said. “I have to think of the safety of the cyclists first,” she assured the crowd in Council chambers. Then she offered another take on the rationale she communicated to us before the meeting. “It’s so dangerous on Santa Monica Boulevard but I couldn’t forgive myself for approving a bike lane there that would put riders in danger.”
Nancy Krasne might have been the swing vote on the Council. With two multimodal mobility supporters on one side of the dais and two likely ‘no’ votes on the other, she could have delivered the Council’s approval of the Blue-Ribbon recommendations. But it was not to be.
“I don’t like being maneuvered by a consultant,” she said (signaling displeasure with the design options before Council). Then the curtain came down: “Taking away parkland is just wrong.” With that statement, any vote to support bike lanes was headed for defeat. But it wasn’t just the swing vote: the project at this point is plagued. Unexplained ballooning costs riled the Council and critics and bad feelings prevailed in the chamber.
What’s behind the swing ‘no’ vote? Here councilmember Krasne offered a window into her thinking. As if channeling Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, she asked why we needed lanes at all on this corridor. “Because West Hollywood and Los Angeles put bike lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard?” The potential regional connection mattered little. “They didn’t ask us, and that was a mistake.” We’re not playing ball, she suggested. Nobody puts baby in a corner! But then there was a quid-pro-quo: “When Los Angeles allows us to purchase the orange grove property, then I’ll really consider this.” That’s thinking about “the safety of the cyclists”!
She continued to flesh out her opposition. People need to learn how to ride a bicycle, she said. (Forget that our city chooses not to even create a ride-safe webpage to school us.) Riders need to get licensed, she said. (Forget that there is no longer a licensing program in California anywhere.) Riders can simply find another place to ride, she said. (Forget that northside homeowners have vetoed any other route on the northside.
Then there was this reasoning: bike lanes create blind spots. “I don’t want them beside me where I can’t see them,” she said. But she did give her OK for cyclists to take the lane, which is the kind of support you want to take to court when the Beverly Hills police erroneously writes you a ticket for taking the lane.
Mayor John Mirisch was more concerned with road safety. It must be a priority, he said, echoing his past support for bike facilities and complete streets. Studies show the bike lane does improve safety, he noted and called it “common sense.”
He even raised the possibility of a painted green bike lane in the city’s future. To which Deputy Director for Transportation Aaron Kunz replied, “The challenges include filming” – a reference to the City of LA’s backtrack on its painted Spring Street lane downtown. But our mayor is is a veteran of the production side of the film industry, and he swatted away that concern. “That’s a little far-fetched.” (Music to the ears of high-visibility lane proponents.)
The Mayor has seen what the future of mobility looks like in Northern Europe and he subscribes to the “safety in numbers” thesis. “Certain people say [a class II bike lane] is less safe, that it may attract more bikes, but that’s not a bad thing,” he said. “It’s safer for them, and if it encourages them to use their bikes more, that’s good.”
Also supporting multimodal mobility (if only implicitly) was Vice-Mayor Lili Bosse, who in this meeting effectively ran defense for lane proponents. He called into question some critics’ complaints by, for example, asking about the difference between the proposed boulevard expansion plan before them and the one from a decade ago. The latter would have added a third traffic lane, staff said, which then engendered northside opposition that lives on today.
Vice-Mayor Bosse also wanted to clarify the “confusion” as to whether expansion, a median and striped bike lanes would hamper emergency response. Police and fire officials told the Blue-Ribbon committee they these improvements wouldn’t impede access. Yet critics still beat that drum. She asked that it be clarified on April 1st.
Vice-Mayor Bosse also revisited the “bridge to nowhere” claim. She asked, Have neighbor cities committed to meeting our new lanes with extensions to their existing lanes? (Yes they did.) Always one for details, she then drilled down to a short quote in the Council packet that has Police Department Sargent Mader on record as opposing bike lanes. That was a turn that blind-sided lane proponents. Critics called it an official department statement of opposition to bike lanes. But we asked Sgt. Mader in meeting #4 about it, and he replied that he personally would advise against striping a bike lane given the boulevard’s current profile. Current profile is a 12.5 foot right lane, which couldn’t legally accommodate a striped lane anyway.
We hope staff can clear that point up for Council in April, even though lane opponents would likely continue to sow “confusion” about the department’s stance.
Councilmember Bosse didn’t get too far out on the bike lane question itself because it was abundantly clear that a split Council had already tanked the recommendation. Instead she focused her questions on the shortcomings of the process. In the process she affirmed for us that she’s one diligent councilmember.
There Exists Plenty of Cause for Council Complaint
Councilmembers raised no shortage of red herrings tonight, but some concerns were warranted. City Council learned just yesterday, for example, that the cost estimate for the project has mysteriously increased from $17 million to $35 million. That’s double what the consultants told the Blue-Ribbon committee just last month. The surprise revelation not only negatively framed this discussion, it emboldened project critics who from the beginning questioned fuzzy Community Development Department cost estimates. Staff played right into their hands and that criticism carried over into this Council discussion.
Staff support to City Council has been abysmal throughout this process. The Blue-Ribbon committee process at the beginning seemed pro-forma. (Eventually it improved.)
Tonight project consultant Psomas was kept on the defensive as critics on and off the dais questioned its recommendation to expand the boulevard. “How do these lane widths add up?” Councilmember Brien asked. It took three go-arounds before he got his answer. Council also wondered why process documentation seemed to be rife with contradictory facts and assertions. “Where is our transportation staff to counter this misinformation?” councilmember Julian Gold wanted to know. For all of the hullabaloo about the process, bicycle lanes nevertheless dominated this discussion just as it had in the Blue-Ribbon committee.
We know the lanes concept tanked; with that spoiler out of the way, let’s get on to the public comments!
Haters Gonna Hate
The ballooning estimate put critics in a sour mood, and they were few but vocal. Given four or five minutes at the mic (“representatives” of civic organizations, like homeowners associations, were entitled to the additional time, the Mayor said) these northside usual suspects lined up to hate on Santa Monica Boulevard expansion and bike lanes.
Council chamber fixture Thomas White (Municipal League – a homeowners organization) railed against the recommendation with a list of coordinated complaints about the process itself: insufficient notification (indeed every household in the city was notified), too few mics (everyone at committee meetings got to speak, by his own account), and poor meeting stewardship (alone in this complaint we think; Chair Pressman did a fine job with a thankless task).
Marilyn Gallup (homeowner association rep) is another usual suspect. She took issue with the way riders (“tons of them”) seemingly take over Santa Monica Boulevard. Riding as many as five abreast “like a posse,” as she said; that somehow suggested to her that a 3-foot bike lane would mean nothing to cyclists. (Never mind that bike lanes are a 5-foot minimum. Why quibble over an additional
66% two-thirds in width?) Plus, the corridor is already “so impacted” by traffic that the Council shouldn’t even think of putting a bike lane there, she said.
Leadoff batter(er) in this hater inning was heavy-hitter NIMBY Robert Tanenbaum, Former Mayor and Beverly Hills North Homeowner Association President. He’s captain of the dyspeptic no-to-everything bench, it seems. This slugger swung for the fences (as he did at Blue-Ribbon meeting #3) with a free-association litany of grievances about the Blue-Ribbon process. He also railed against project costs and, it seemed to us, anything and everything.
In no particular order, Tanenbaum lambasted staff for “misstated material facts” (he’s a former attorney turned pulp-fiction legal-genre author, you know) and questioned project graphics that made the corridor look like “the slums of Beverly Hills.” (Don’t go hating on Beverly Hills, people!) He might not have liked the before pictures, but the consultant’s post-reconstruction visualizations curried no favor with him either. He facetiously called those pictures a bike lane “nirvana.” Catch the full show beginning at about 2:12 on the videotape, as they used to say.
Some bike lane opponents took a more nuanced tack against widening the boulevard. Their arguments were some version of I support cycling but put the lane anywhere else. Restating the previously-mentioned “impacted boulevard” argument, Beverly Hills North Homeowner Association Vice President Victor Bardak said that including bike lanes on Santa Monica would create a “dangerous situation” because traffic there is already bumper-to-bumper. “Bike lanes are great – they’re environmentally sound,” just put them somewhere else, he said.
Joe Safir helpfully called out the “risk of litigation” connected to a bike lane. Evidently he’s not aware that the state DOT approval of the class II bike lane protects local governments from liability for implementing facilities that pass the state’s muster. (Psomas never mentioned liability and neither did our city attorney pipe up to disabuse Council of the misinformation.)
Dr. Aronberg (who served with your Better Bike representative on the Blue-Ribbon Committee) imputed opposition to lanes from churches along SM Blvd (as a few others did). Those representatives remained unnamed, however, and no representative addressed Council in person or in correspondence. Why not? “The churches have been tactful and diplomatic,” Aronberg said, overlooking the appearance before our committee by Church of the Good Shepherd Reverend Wilbers. He explicitly supported both boulevard expansion and bike lanes for everyone’s safety.
Miles Berman took a broad shot at bike lanes. In lieu of, say, picayune gripes like how bike lanes create a blind spot for motorists (really!), he questioned the “need to protect cyclists when there isn’t any evidence [of harm].” He continued, “Creating a space for them will only bring more bicycles – and create more interactions with cars – and [generate] more accidents.” You can’t fault Mr. Berman entirely: neither our staff nor our consultant ever mentioned to Council the incidence of bike-involved injury collisions in Beverly Hills.
Supporters Gonna Support
Holding the line against nay-saying NIMBYs was BH-resident bike attorney Jim Pocras, who’s handled over 500 bike cases. “I’m offended: our consultants spent hundreds of hours so we can have people come up here and say [of the recommendations] ‘Ignore it – it’s garbage.’ I spoke at three Blue-Ribbon meetings, I gave studies, and it’s clear that bike lanes reduce accidents.” (Not that any council member gestured to his experience with safety and litigation.) Referring to the Human Relations Commission’s effort to get road users to play nice, he added, “They said ‘Civil City.’ There’s bicycles & vehicles – so why shouldn’t [riders] have a bike lane?”
Resident Bennett Ross reiterated the state’s 3-foot safe passing law and argued (as others did) that riders will be there, sharing the blacktop and possibly taking the right lane on this boulevard, so why not “provide a space for them to ride”? As for bemoaning the sacrifice of a 3-6 foot strip of park at the curb, he said, “Not a lot of people use it – it’s rare to see more residents than homeless people. The green space is in our backyards.”
Other residents stepping up to the mic included: Attorney Jennifer Hughes, who asked for “points for brevity” as she supported lanes in remarks 1/15th as long as Mr. Tanenbaum’s; marketing maven and walking advocate Ellen Lutwak, who issued an impassioned plea as she held up her arm, saying, “This scar is from a bike accident”; and tech guy Kory Klem who’s been glued to the Blue-Ribbon process from the start. Tonight he punctured a critic’s claim that a gamed process produced an early Blue-Ribbon Committee “straw poll” that went against bike lanes. Thanks for keeping the haters honest, Kory.
The home-field home run in our opinion was scored by Danielle Salomon. She attended Blue-Ribbon meeting #3 with her tween daughter, Nina, who practically begged sympathy from the committee (but succeeded in wringing only rudeness from an audience NIMBY). This meeting went late for Nina, so tonight Danielle took her place.
I’m a resident, homeowner and I live north of Santa Monica. I fully support the recommendations of the Blue-Ribbon Committee. I was there, but here I heard objections. And I’m confused about where that’s coming from. Psomas cited five studies, and we see from Marin County and New York City that bike lanes are safer. What are the objections? I want to see the evidence that Santa Monica is unsafe to ride [with lanes].
Addressing the claim from Councilmember Krasne that bike lanes create “blind spots” for motorists, Danielle had her retort:
The bike lane is not a blind spot; it’s a lane. If [as a motorist] you’re passing a bicycle, if you need to merge into that lane, then look over your shoulder. The bike lane is not a blind spot.
For good measure, Danielle said, “The future is bike lanes, complete streets and Ciclavia” as she advised Council to “think about what the future of transportation will look like over the next several decades.” Bravo!
Back-benchers from out-of-town were familiar faces too. The venerable Kent Strumpell recommended Council “prepare your city for the future.” Yes, he supports the Blue-Ribbon recommendations. “Nobody wants to give up park space, but 3 feet is a small price to pay for safety.” And funnyman Wes High talked seriously about his work with LA Bike Trains, which arranges for safe, cross-town rides. He himself rides Santa Monica Boulevard regularly between Santa Monica and Silver Lake, and “countless times people have passed me within inches,” he said.
Samuel Spencer talked about what we don’t hear very often: the price riders have to pay for safe passage on two wheels. The toll is roughly 20% in additional time and energy to get from Westwood to Beverly Hills, he said. “I looked up google’s recommended bicycle route from Westwood to here, and compared to [riding] Santa Monica it will cost me one-half of an extra mile. That’s a 20% penalty because I choose not to ride Santa Monica Boulevard.”
Institutional support came from Jeff Jacobberger, former chair of the Mid City West Neighborhood Council (which also supports a bike lane ). He is current chair of the appointed Los Angeles Bicycle Advisory Committee. “Thanks for the bike lane on Burton Way – I feel very safe there,” he told Council, and added that’s all riders want that kind of facility on Santa Monica Boulevard too.
UCLA DOT representative Michael King expressed his department’s support, pointing out to a skeptical Dr. Gold that it wasn’t his own opinion he was offering. Unlike some crazy bike anarchist packing the Beverly Hills meeting, as we imagine Gold thought, he was instead communicating his executive director’s determination. Zing!
Lastly, outgoing Public Works commissioner Stephen Weinglass talked about riding around Beverly Hills and how he chooses for safe bike travel. And some he wouldn’t take, he said, including Santa Monica. But it was OK with him: he’ll simply avoid it.
But then Weinglass asked about the city’s return on bike investments. “I ride Burton Way; what is the return on that bike lane?” Huh? Well for one thing, we just don’t know; how would we even measure it? And for another, we’re not asking for ROI for crosswalks, limit lines and double-yellow stripes. So why bike lanes?
The short answer is that we don’t hope for much return. We have no faith in our own transportation division’s bike count figures in any case. And as we said when the lanes were installed under the Pilot bike route program, Burton was already wide enough to safely share with vehicles anyway. Adding a lane seemed a way for the city to claim an easy win rather than materially affect rider safety.
It’s worth noting that even the modesty of the Pilot program hasn’t stopped councilman Gold from questioning when the Pilot will end (implying that the existing lanes could be ripped out with its demise). Let’s rip out sidewalks too.
Who’s Missing in Action?
But there are a few other civic-minded folks who couldn’t make it tonight. Two members of our Traffic and Parking Commission sat on the Blue-Ribbon; neither came tonight to support the committee’s recommendations, and one of them didn’t even bother to attend the final (4th) committee meeting. The former Rec and Parks chairman Robert Anderson, who sat on the Blue-Ribbon too, didn’t attend or evidently comment (although he supported bike lanes). And neither did the new Rec and Parks chairman. This is the commission that would have the most stake in “losing parkland,” as critics say, but where were they?
Also not attending was either of the two Traffic and Parking commissioners who sit on our bike plan update committee. Evidently they didn’t provide written comments either. Contacted but not available were our school board superintendent, who is a cyclist; and the Health and Safety Chair, who otherwise supports our efforts.
Most conspicuously missing from the entire debate over the past four years we’ve tracked it is City Manager Jeff Kolin. We’d be well-off if we had a dollar for every city staffer who said by way of some kind of assurance, “He’s a cyclist!” But his efforts to date plus two bucks will buy a cup of coffee. Mr. Kolin has been missing in action.
Recall that our Council had included an update of our 1977 Bicycle Master Plan and citywide bike paths as ‘B’ priority items in the fiscal year 2012-13 priorities:
Where is the accomplishment on this priority? There isn’t any; it’s been four years since the bike plan committee even talked about updating that plan. And there’s been no movement to expand our few segments of bike routes. If the embarrassing bike rack installation program is any indication, that plan update will be long in coming.
We can’t help think that our City Manager the cyclist is not even trying. Or perhaps he’s obstructing. One never knows: despite the good efforts of the Sunshine Task Force, City Hall too often is a black box still.
[Update: Not only did Councilmember Krasne interrupt our two-minute statement to Council, but our letter of support for bike lanes never even made it into the Council's meeting packet. So much for public participation. But we thank Ted Rogers of BikinginLA for his open letter to Council and his follow-up swat how that Council has turned its back.]