Santa Monica Boulevard Reconstruction

Tomorrow’s Not-So-Visionary Santa Monica Boulevard

North Santa Monica Boulevard is one of the busiest crosstown corridors on the Westside. Not only is it a key transit route (four Metro bus lines serve it) but it is also the city’s designated truck route. And of course about 50,000 vehicles traverse it on an average weekday. Regardless of travel mode, this road gets us where we’re going.

Santa Monica Boulevard looking east to WilshireBut this Beverly Hills segment of North Santa Monica Boulevard has long favored motorists over every other road user. Bus riders will find no shelter here; pedestrians cross at their own peril; and a bicycle rider will find no bicycle lane or even a single share-the-road sign to make passage more safe.

Indeed North Santa Monica Boulevard is perfectly representative of the 20th century’s misplaced mobility priorities: to facilitate vehicular travel no matter the impact on non-motor road users. Sadly, crash data for this corridor reflect our collective lack of concern, according to an LA Times analysis of pedestrian injuries and deaths.

1977 bicycle master plan map with parks

Our 1977 Bicycle Master Plan shows schools and parks linked by bike lanes, paths and routes.

Yet North Santa Monica Boulevard remains a key non-motor mobility corridor, and it should be afforded a design to make it safer to walk and ride. Riders know that it is an element of the region’s ‘backbone’ bicycle network, after all, and perhaps to the surprise of Beverly Hills folks it is identified as a bike route in our city’s 1977 Bicycle Master Plan. (Yes, the plan dates from the disco era!)

So in this era of carbon-consciousness, as state and federal policies have evolved over the past decade to encourage non-motor mobility, the City of Beverly Hills still discounts the welfare of bicycle riders. Not surprisingly, the rate of injuries citywide continues to rise year-after-year. Yet no city official asks why? Our Traffic and Parking Commission simply looks the other way.

Yes, localities surrounding Beverly Hills have taken action by updating their bicycle plans and making key streets ‘complete’ (that is, safe for all road users). But not Beverly Hills. Why not make the North Santa Monica Boulevard corridor the demonstration project for a safe, complete street?

About the Santa Monica Boulevard Reconstruction Project

Santa Monica blvd project thumbnail mapThis $8M $12 $16 $35 $29 million project will thoroughly reconstruct the boulevard between West Hollywood and Century City Wilshire Boulevard from drainage to blacktop. Tomorrow’s corridor will retain the four travel lanes (accommodating 55,000 cars on average daily according to traffic counts) that exist today. In fact, very little on the corridor will change, unfortunately.

Today we are about 50% into the second of the three project phases (design) and next comes engineering then finally construction. Want to read more? Find all of the city’s project documents in our library. Call it a public service; the city’s own project page is not very informative despite cutting consultant Psomas a fat $2 million check for project outreach and design.

Beverly Hills Gets It Wrong

To make this corridor safe for all who would use it, tomorrow’s North Santa Monica Boulevard should reflect the principles of ‘complete streets.’ A street is ‘complete’ when its safe for all road users. Often it includes continental-style crosswalks (more visibility for pedestrians) and intersections engineered for safe cycling too. Most important, the complete street would separate travel modes so that those riding a bicycle need not mix with motor traffic.

Despite a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake tomorrow’s corridor for safety, City Council recently decided to reconstruct North Santa Monica Boulevard much as it exists today: without bicycle lanes or improved intersections. It’s no aberration: Beverly Hills transportation officials routinely overlook safety in designing our streets and have worked long and hard to keep bicycle lanes off this boulevard in particular.

For example, back in 2010 we first asked about putting bicycle lanes on North Santa Monica. Deputy Director for Transportation Aaron Kunz urged us to think about alternate routes, making clear that the politics of the bicycle lane is a poison pill for City Hall. Then shortly before this project was put out for bid (in April of 2012) a key contract document – the draft request-for-proposal – conveniently omitted any mention of ‘complete streets’ in its guidance to bidders. (It was subsequently revised after we made the omission an issue.)

When the city’s appointed ‘Santa Monica Blue Ribbon’ Committee discussed the issue in late 2013, city staff and consultants suggested it include 16-foot wide right lanes but, inexplicably, city staff would not endorse striping a bicycle lane. After the Blue Ribbon finally did recommend that addition to City Council in early 2014, the committee’s advice was simply buried. Bicycle lanes were spurned by City Council. That bicycle lanes recommendation? It was never mentioned again in Council chambers as far as we can tell. (Read the Blue Ribbon Committee documents below.)

But regional transportation advocates, neighboring city officials, and bicycle lane supporters from across the region urged City Council to include bicycle lanes in the final corridor design. Yet the city resisted. In early 2015, a few advocates stepped forward with a proposal we called the ‘Beverly Hills Greenway’ to meet neighborhood critics’ concerns about losing parkland while expanding the curb-to-curb width incrementally to accommodate bicycle lanes. The Greenway would have not only remade the boulevard at a uniform width; it would have actually added additional green space along most of its length. How? By adding a foot here while taking a couple from there for bicycle lanes. Here’s the profile schematic:

Beverly Hills Greenway profile

© Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition

While the Greenway proposal, developed with the support of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, was a no-net-loss-of-parkland concept, City Council evidently couldn’t abide it. Forget that it would have maintained the current vehicular volume and kept bicyclists out of the vehicular traffic flow (per the requirements of California’s new safe-passing law); above all it would have reflected the latest policy guidance from state and federal departments of transportation.

Regardless of merit, in July of 2015 City Council (as we predicted) simply sidestepped the Greenway proposal. Oh, city staff found a couple of feet to expand the boulevard but Council caved in to local NIMBYs – and longtime staff advice – to simply nix the bicycle lanes even though the boulevard would be wide enough to include them. (Scroll down for our meeting recaps and city staff reports.)

So despite a near $30 million price tag for the current reconstruction program, tomorrow’s North Santa Monica Boulevard will look much like it does today but with new asphalt. It will not include landscaped medians, sidewalks or bus shelters or any other features that would distinguish this signature boulevard. Here are the city’s visualizations:

Santa Monica Blvd before and after views (west of Canon)

Santa Monica Blvd before and after views (east of Canon Drive)

Just like North Santa Monica Boulevard today: no sidewalks, no medians, few crosswalks, and, of course, no bicycle lanes even though the 16-ft wide right-hand lane would accommodate them. That’s how we roll in Beverly Hills!

Really? Thirty million bucks to rebuilt the crappy corridor we have today? Riders aren’t the only losers here; all road users lose and city residents lose too. Because for decades to come we’ll live with a boulevard no better engineered for safety than then one we have today, and no more distinguished.

The Safety Campaign Continues

While City Council effectively brought to an end to bicycle lanes on North Santa Monica Boulevard, it didn’t end our campaign for a safer corridor. We’re pressing the city to make passage safe for riders during the long construction phase beginning in the spring. In fact, we have repeatedly urged our Traffic and Parking Commission to take rider needs into account in construction mitigation measures. But we’ve found no city partner. There exists zero interest among commissioners to incorporate the mitigation measures we’ve recommended. Despite months of trying we’ve found no success.

So what’s new, right? For years our former City Manager, Jeff Kolin, stonewalled progress. Community Development department director Susan Healey Keene and her deputy, the Director for Transportation, Aaron Kunz, each have let us down. City Hall has given us the runaround whenever we’ve asked about street safety, and now they’re giving us the short shrift when we demand protection during construction.

Looking ahead we can anticipate what to expect once reconstruction does begin. This past January, construction commenced on the Four Seasons project on Santa Monica Boulevard (west of Wilshire). Without so much as a thought about rider safety on this segment, Beverly Hills allowed the contractor to simply bound travel lanes with K-rail (below). The south-side sidewalk is impassible on a bicycle and there is nowhere to run if you’re headed west.

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

Here’s the view from the saddle: North Santa Monica Boulevard (west of Wilshire) during construction offers no refuge for riders from speeding drivers.

Of course they forgot about hanging share-the-road or may-use-full-lane signage so we’ll depend on drivers’ familiarity with the state vehicle code to ensure we can ride safely on the corridor:

Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except…when reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes) that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge… (CVC Sec. 21202)

The section is worth reading in its entirely, but the key here is “substandard width lane.” The lanes on this segment are indeed ‘substandard’ (“too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane,” according to the code) so when you ride it be sure to use the entire right lane. Do not keep to the right edge!

Where rider-friendly construction mitigation is concerned, there is no need to invent the wheel. Our officials and consultant Psomas can refer to an entire chapter on construction zone safety in the state’s Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Yet none of those recommended measures make an appearance in any of the Psomas construction mitigation materials. Heck, not even the word ‘safety’ makes a single appearance!

Better Bike’s Santa Monica Boulevard Project Library

Here you will find the relevant project documents and supporting material that you won’t find anywhere on the city’s own project page. We begin with our meeting recaps – the most detailed summations of proceedings you will find – and continue on to our posts about the process. We then post contact documents, staff reports, Blue Ribbon Committee minutes & memos, mitigation materials and finally some policy and history context for this project. Happy reading!

Meeting Recaps

Our other Santa Monica Boulevard Reconstruction project-related posts

Contract Documents

City Staff Reports and Presentations

Blue Ribbon Committee Documents

Construction Mitigation Documents (not one mentions ‘safety’)

Plans and Policy Context

Contact Your City Officials

More About the Boulevard’s History

Santa Monica Boulevard conditionsLet’s understand how Santa Monica Boulevard moved Angelenos over the past century. Most recently it was State Highway 2. Long before Beverly Hills took control of it in 2005, however, the corridor had languished under the state’s DOT. Quick patches sufficed for maintenance and potholes proliferated. City stewardship has proven no better: potholes and storm grates pose regular collision hazards for those who ride.

Prior to its ignominy as a bike-unfriendly Hwy 2, Santa Monica Boulevard was known as the terminal segment of the famous Route 66 that once linked Chicago to Santa Monica. All that remains of that old road in Beverly Hills are a few commemorative signs, but there is a movement afoot to memorialize that history.

Pacific Electric at Beverly Hills Station #2

Pacific Electric station at Beverly Hills circa 1925.

The Pacific Electric’s Western Division once ran streetcars down the future boulevard. In fact, our city thrived as the junction of two lines that together anchored Beverly Hills into a regional Southern California rail network.

The first station occupied the northwest corner of Crescent & Little Santa Monica, across from City Hall. Once post office construction commenced, the station was moved a block west, to between Beverly and Canon, as seen here from Santa Monica North looking southwest.

These streetcars moved two million passengers annually through Beverly Hills before passenger service was stopped in the early 1950s!

Los Angeles Pacific Baloon Route map smallLong before Route 66 and the PE, the Los Angeles Pacific, a predecessor rail corporation, ran a ‘balloon’ excursion train (“four double tracks to the Pacific Ocean”) through what was then called ‘Morocco Junction’ (as depicted in the map to the right). It is known today as Beverly Hills.

But Santa Monica Boulevard today betrays none of that distinguished history. We see a multimodal boulevard as our “once in a lifetime” opportunity to honor its rich transportation history. Remember, multimodal mobility is not just an historical footnote for this corridor; it can be our future too.

Recent Posts

Traffic Citations Reach Record Lows in Beverly Hills in 2016

In my last post I charted police department collision injury data to show the extent to which collision injuries continue to mount in Beverly Hills. From 2008 (when the department made data available) though last year, police report that 3,805 people have been injured on city streets in collisions. Most concerning, the data show that the most protected travelers, auto occupants, suffered record-high injuries – so many that it pushed the overall injury totals to record highs too. In this post I crunch police data for citations to show that enforcement of traffic laws has withered on the vine.

All Major Traffic Enforcement Trends Show a Steep Decline Since 2008

For your consideration here are the enforcement trends from 2008 through 2016. I plugged nine years of Beverly Hills Police Department data (download the reports) into a spreadsheet and generated some charts to visualize the trends. When 2017 data becomes available in February I will follow up with a year-end analysis of that data too.

The number of overall signed citations has plummeted since 2008. Last year officers issued half as many citations for speed, stop-sign, signal, pedestrian and cell-phone violations than they did in 2008. Indeed they issued the fewest tickets for those offenses in total during 2016 than at any time since the police began to report the data to the Traffic and Parking Commission. This chart makes it clear.

Chart: Signed citations by category 2008-2016All citation categories are clearly trending downward. Cell phone citations in particular show a marked decline since BHPD began ticketing in 2009 after the state imposed a ban the year prior.

Chart: Cell phone citations 2009-2016I presume that as grants for targeted cell phone enforcement diminished so did the department’s efforts. That’s often the way it works: grants fund enforcement campaigns but, once the money runs out, so does the enforcement.  The result: inconsistent enforcement priorities and, as we see, very few citations for cell phone use in recent years. (See note #1 below.)

From the peak year (2011) the number of cell phone citations issued annually decreased by about 85%. In recent years the number of citations decreased by about 20% on average every year even from relatively low levels. The takeaway: where officers had once written nearly 100 tickets each day, today they write only 12 or so on any given day. Yet diminished interest in enforcement coincides with what seems to be an increased prevalence of handheld phone use (my anecdotal observation finds).

Moreover, the drop in citations comes as US DOT has issued warnings about injuries and fatalities that result from distracted driving. The overall trend downward is set to continue into 2017: year-to-date data (though October) show that citations are down  another 15% from last year.

Red-Light Runners Can Violate the Law With Impunity

Citations for cell phone violations is among the most steep and consistent declines among all categories. Yet one one key traffic enforcement category rivals it: the collapse in citations for running red lights. Between 2008 and 2016 citations for running a red light dropped by a whopping 83%. Eighty-three percent!

Chart: Signal Violations 2008-2016So steep has been the decline that citations in the category dropped by half from 2011 to 2012 and then again by half the following year. To put that in perspective, officers in 2008 issued five red-light tickets every day but last year such citations averaged not even a single ticket per day despite the outrageous prevalence of drivers running red lights.

Arguably the reason why we have high-and-rising collision injuries overall is because we see lax enforcement of traffic laws. But divers who run red lights – especially when speed is excessive – present a clear-and-present danger to all road users. But they seem to be injuring other drivers more than ever as my chart of auto-occupant injuries shows.

Chart: Auto-occupant injuries 2008-2016It seems clear that these trends are connected: fewer signal violators nabbed probably means more injurious collisions at signaled intersections where speeds are greater. And that means more injuries among our best-protected road users. That should trouble both our police and our Traffic and Parking commissioners but they appear untroubled.

Patrol Officers Issue Fewer Citations

Both patrol officers and traffic division officers write tickets. As I understand it, the traffic division is charged with enforcement of the traffic laws while the patrol division is simply out on patrol looking for law-breakers. What I don’t understand is why patrol officers are finding fewer traffic law-breakers than ever before.

This chart shows the annual tally of citations issued by patrol officers (exclusive of traffic division citations) since 2008. The overall tally has fallen by 55% between 2008 and 2016.

Chart: Signed patrol and traffic citations 2008-2016Not only did officers on patrol last year issue fewer than half the tickets they did in 2008; the year-over-year declines can be quite steep too. Last year patrol officers wrote one-third fewer tickets than they did in 2015, for example, which amounts to just six tickets a day for any offense. So in a city of 40,000 people that swells to more than double that on any weekday our officers can find only six violations? How many of those were issued for signal violations? Probably zero.

The chart not only shows the absolute decline in patrol tickets; it also shows clearly the relative decline: that is, the proportion of patrol-issued citations out of all signed citations. Patrol citations is a shrinking proportion.

What is the impact of so few patrol citations? I expect that drivers can brazenly run red lights without the fear of getting pulled over. Even when a black-and-white police cruiser sits waiting at the same stoplight these drivers are rarely if ever pulled over. (Indeed several times I have watched as drivers blow through a red signal but the police cruiser right there in front of me at the scene gives no chase.) What’s more, not once in 15 years here have I seen a driver ever pulled over for running a red light. The slight chance that it might happen looks ever more slight today.

Traffic Division Numbers are  Up

Here is the good news: the traffic division has issued more citations in recent years than a few years ago, but it’s not translating into higher numbers across enforcement categories. It’s hard to draw definitive conclusions about the traffic division numbers, though. There are citations for violations outside of the categories broken out in the BHPD monthly report; indeed the monthly tally for traffic division citations adds up to many more than are broken out across the major traffic offenses like signal, pedestrian, speed, and right-of-way violations.

Despite the late increase in traffic division enforcement, I can’t recall targeted campaign to catch those who run red lights. Not to say it hasn’t happened, but I don’t recall a press release announcing one, and I’ve never seen such a campaign in action. Not even on South Beverly! The area is a designated pedestrian district yet crosswalks there feel very hazardous. (And they are! This year a pedestrian lost his or her life there.)

The question is why we don’t we more targeted enforcement campaigns. Or do they exist and we simply don’t know they’re happening? Occasionally we see them, as we did after a Rexford Drive resident complained to the Courier about right-of-way violations near Beverly Vista. Soon after, there were motor cops on the; corner looking for violators.

But what about red-light stings at intersections where the most serious injuries probably occur? We just don’t see the targeted enforcement for that violation.

Instead our police department outsources red-light enforcement to automated cameras. Easy! This year red light cameras are on track to issue a near-record number of citations at the relatively few intersections where they do operate. Last year our robocops issued eighty-two times as many signal violation tickets as did human officers. (Read more about red light cameras in note #2 below.)

What about that the later surge in traffic division citations? Years 2015 and 2016? I think there’s a story there. For years BHPD offered various excuses for lax traffic enforcement: officers were injured or out sick; the ranks were depleted by retirements; officers were on diplomatic duty; and tough hiring standards allowed few officer candidates to make the cut. All were dubious but maybe there is merit to them. Perhaps putting those challenges behind has allowed the department to get back to work and hopefully the numbers will continue to rise. But be that as it may, the overall trend is clear: in 2016 the traffic division’s officers issued just one-third as many tickets as they did in 2008. And year-to-date data suggest that 2017 will show another decline.

I welcome any insight as to why signed citations vary so much year-to-year when law-breaking does not take a breather.

Fewer Hit-and-Runs is the Only Real Bright Spot

I want to close my analysis of Beverly Hills Police Department data on a positive note: hit-and-run collisions are on a clear downward trend. Here the trend is going in the proper direction!

Chart: Hits-and-run 2008-2016Hopefully 2015 was an anomaly and we will see the decline continue, from last year’s  27% drop from the year prior to this year’s anticipated further drop of 15%. Where a hit-and-run once occurred every day on average in 2008, today we’re seeing three per week. Better!

But how can police drive down that number even more? That’s not so clear. For one thing, we simply see too many collisions in Beverly Hills. We don’t even know how many because injury data doesn’t capture non-injury collisions (of course). So the tally of total collisions is unknown as is the magnitude of the problem. Not surprisingly, if we don’t have the data then we can’t see what fraction of collisions found perpetrators running off afterward.

In light of the limited data and the nature of the crime, perhaps the best strategy is a campaign to emphasize our individual responsibility to other road users and to society as a whole. The hitch: many people who pass through Beverly Hills are not residents. I’d wager that those who do flee a collision most likely don’t live here. Anyway, the challenge is not only to reach them but to persuade them.

My Recommendations

The Traffic and Parking commission and the Beverly Hills Police Department must coordinate on a response. Traffic and Parking Commission is the only oversight body we have when it comes to traffic. It must be a part of the solution. And the department must step up in more than a symbolic way: we need officials to coordinate on a plan or program to reduce collisions, injuries and deaths on Beverly Hills streets.

The monthly traffic report should provide context and analysis. Interested commissioners want to see trends rather than struggle to find patterns in a matrix of monthly figures. Generating at-a-glance charts for key indicators is a no-brainer!

Put a trained transportation planner or staff analyst on the job. Let officers collect the data but somebody outside the department should work it. The commissioners will be able to more readily engage with the analyst if she is staff-side. Save the higher-level coordination for the monthly report or perhaps regular meetings between Traffic and Parking liaisons and police brass.

Ensure that any officer who delivers the monthly traffic report is able to answer questions. Can the department representative say something substantive about injury totals and trends? Where are the collision hotspots? Today we hear BHPD answer about department operations but there no context of insight provided to go with the monthly report’s data.

Identify data categories that would help our understanding but that are not currently included in the report. We can start with total collision figures and collision locations. These should be systematically reported. Unlike other departments, Beverly Hills publishes no crime or crash data for public consumption (aside from the occasional management report that never reaches residents). A public-facing department would be a positive change.

We all need to be comfortable talking about numbers. Law enforcement is data-drive; if the commission (and the public) are to keep an eye on it we need basic numeracy. Comfort with numbers is necessary to understand trends, distinguish patterns from anomalies, and, most important, frame pertinent questions for the department.

The city needs the department at the table. It’s one thing to crunch the data and talk anecdotally in commission about problems. We need law enforcement solutions. But we’ve heard too many pro-forma monthly reports that wastes everybody’s time. If the department can make a priority of coordinating with the commission on real traffic problems, then we would be getting somewhere.

Lastly, this commission should be cognizant of its capacity, and responsibility, to oversee general traffic conditions. To date that has largely been mission deferred. We have as well-equipped a commission as ever and a new Chair is coming in January. Let’s call it a new start!

In sum I’m cautiously optimistic that things will change. Our commissioners are asking more questions than before and the monthly traffic report format may evolve into something more useful. All to the good. If my charts and the elementary analysis behind them suggest the opportunities for action, then my effort to generate them will have been worth it.


Notes

Note #1. Cell phone citations appeared in 2009 the year after California banned the use of handheld cell phones. Over the first three years, the department issued nearly 3,000 tickets every year for the violation. That was more than for any other other violation. Soon, though, BHPD enforcement priorities evidently shifted. Ever since, the data show, there was a marked and persistent decline in law enforcement interest. The drop is representative of a continuing overall decline in traffic enforcement under the new Police Chief (at least as represented by citations) who took office in March of 2016.

Note #2. The decline in red-light citations (and the diminished enforcement priority it reflects) is only half of the story. The other is the city’s growing use of automated red-light cameras to catch scofflaws. After a brief hiatus in 2015, when Beverly Hills transitioned from a corrupt vendor to our current automated camera vendor, Xerox, today automated red-light camera citations are back on the upswing: year-to-date data for 2017 show the total may surpass twenty thousand (!) which is a 7-year high. If so many drivers choose to run a red light where they are guaranteed to get a ticket, how might they drive at intersections without any camera?

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