Healthy Eating Active Living: The Prescription for Beverly Hills?

Healthy Eating Active Living campaign logoThis week the Beverly Hills City Council will resolve to support the Healthy Eating, Active Living Cities campaign from the League of California Cities & California Center for Public Health Advocacy. And why not? We all want to eat better and be more active. The program recommends changes in how cities develop land, how we provide for human mobility, and how we can encourage individuals to make better lifestyle choices. But Council tipping its hat to the campaign is one thing; taking the initiative to create  policies and programs that encourage healthy eating and active living is something else entirely. Can Beverly Hills city leaders take that crucial second step?

At Better Bike we’re fully on board with the Healthy Eating, Active Living Cities campaign. We think that our city has to take a new approach to land use decision-making if we are to reduce our reliance on the automobile. We believe that new means of multimodal mobility will also benefit our city by giving residents more choice about how to travel. And we know that streets that are friendly to pedestrians and cyclists can only encourage more walking and biking. (Read more about our campaign.) These are all principles stated in our city plans, by the way, though rarely illustrated in our policy decisions.

In our nearly two years of cycling advocacy, City Hall has not adopted a single policy to encourage active transportation: the city has instituted no summer recreation program to bring the joy of cycling to today’s children; it has made no improvement to intersections and boulevards that today put cyclists in harm’s way; and it has yet to take a single step toward creating streets that are accessible to all road users (regardless of age or ability, as state law requires). We even continue to pass up easy opportunities to make intersections safer for cyclists.

In our post-auto era, mobility must be viewed as the capacity to move people, not vehicles of course, but Beverly Hills hasn’t taken the hint. We’re still planning like it’s the 1970s. (Not for nothing, but our official bike plan dates to 1977.)

Healthy Eating, Active Living Is The Cure for What Ails Us

We’ll say this much for the Healthy Eating, Active Living Cities campaign: it says it plain. In order to address the health and safety challenges faces by may city dwellers today, we can do immeasurable good by simply helping people eat better and make wise mobility choices, and that means choosing to walk or bike instead of to drive.

For City Hall this should be a no-brainer; health costs decrease when people are less sedentary. Given the incidence of chronic disease, improving current (negative) public health trends must begin with physical activity. (See the guidelines for Adults 2008 fact sheet from HHS.) The campaign, for example, encourages activity breaks and stresses the value of taking the stairs instead of the elevator. But why not extend this to mobility too?

The Healthy Eating, Active Living Cities campaign should find a receptive audience among our City Council members, all of whom recognize the need, very likely, and two of whom as physicians certainly recognize the value. And indeed it does: the city’s resolution to join the campaign as a signatory will fly though Council this week. (It is modeled on the campaign’s model resolution for cities.)

With Beverly Hills poised to join the 100 municipalities that have signed-on, let’s consider what more we can do from a land use perspective to make our city more conducive to healthy living. The campaign offers some straightforward prescriptions:

  • Tweaks to the general plan’s language to explicitly support such principles and make clear these objectives in policy goals;
  • Amendments to the zoning code to make sure development is accessible to transit and to reward those who might choose not to drive with incentives like convenient bike parking;
  • New plans that specifically address pedestrians’ and cyclists’ needs like ped and bike master plans;
  • Investments in ‘healthy infrastructure’ like safer crosswalks, on-street bike lanes and facilities that fully separate the travel modes to increase safety; and most important,
  • A new approach to street engineering that reflects the California Complete Streets law and its support for roads provide accessible to all road users regardless of age or abilities.

But that vision is too often absent in Beverly Hills. When we had the opportunity to incorporate Complete Streets language into our updated general plan (in 2010), we chose not to include it.

A Job Half-Done

Yet according to our city’s Healthy Eating, Active Living resolution, Beverly Hills already has in place all of the required policies and programs! We have parks and landscaped environments and recreation classes and a farmers market (where we distribute health information, it says). We close our streets for the marathon and the occasional bike race (the former under some duress and the latter to exploit the promotional opportunity. And the resolution notes that we have an employee wellness plan and encourage those folks to use the stairs instead of the elevator. (Just try and find the stairs to City Hall’s 2nd floor.

That’s precisely how we like to do it in Beverly Hills: We pass a resolution, call what we’re already doing just fine (say for the purpose of singing on to a campaign), and then pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. But it’s not a job well done; here it’s a job half-done. Look at the resolution: beyond our parks, none of our 9 enumerated ‘land use’ accomplishments addresses the campaign’s thrust for real land use and transportation reform. That is, we haven’t done the heavy lifting of changing how we do things.

Sure, our plans talk the talk; arguably they satisfy many of the campaign’s roadmap for healthier general plans principles. Our General Plan (the overarching statement that guides policy-making) and Sustainability Plan of 2009, for example, say nice things about multimodal mobility. But that’s it: only talk.

What Can We Do to Make it a Job Well-Done?

We can create a real bike plan; integrate mobility considerations into all of our policy-making a-la Complete Streets; and we could create those safer streets for those who choose to walk or ride. Let’s take these in turn.

Our bike plan is way out of date with no immediate prospect of an update. We need to move on this sooner rather than later. Our Bike Plan Update Committee should be coordinating with every other relevant commission to ensure that active mobility considerations are part of our policymaking process. We’re not doing that today.

We must integrate mobility into future development, particularly at the city’s Western Gateway, where we have the chance to make it a demonstration project for pedestrian and bicycle mobility. But we’re sidestepping that opportunity to instead head down the same figurative road as we have before. We will ask applicants to over-provide off-street parking; we’ll choose not to prioritize access for cyclists on this key corridor; and we’ll likely replicate some of the same development mistakes that we made when we permitted the hotel and condo project across Wilshire (the Hilton project) with only 5-foot setbacks and 5-foot sidewalks.

Beverly Hills bike route network map (proposed)

The bike route network that could encourage a greater use of bicycles for in-town travel.

And of course, we could finally create the bike route network that was envisioned in our 1977-era bike plan. Today, some Beverly Hills local streets give over about 75% of the public right-of-way to motor traffic. How did we come to so disregard the value of human mobility in our city? Well, we’re simply not planning properly. That insufficient, cursory bike plan was astonishingly re-adopted by City Council as recently as 2010 – making it our official bike plan complete with original (and illegible) maps. We’ve been meeting with city officials on a Bike Route Pilot Program to create some pro-bike improvements, but it’s been too little (if not too late). We’ll know more about the city’s true commitment after public outreach begins in a couple of weeks, but we’re concerned that the effort has proceeded with less than good faith.

Indeed we reflexively continue the same transportation, parking, and land use policies that no longer serve us well. We’ve got legendary congestion clogging our roads; and no fewer than 19 public parking garages require our support. Our $40 million, ten-year parking authority deficit suggests that we can’t continue to build our way out of demand for free or low-cost parking. (In January, City Council forked over $5 million from our general fund simply to cover that bill – a shift of money that undermines the services that we can otherwise offer.)

Indeed, returning public space to pedestrians and cyclists will prove a long-term challenge in Beverly Hills. But our Mayor has acknowledged the need. And our transportation professionals are charged with protecting community safety and welfare. Now we’ve certainly got our work cut out for us by this Healthy Eating, Active Living Cities campaign. Sign-on is the first step; what’s the next step?

We will need to summon the political will to look beyond the automobile if we’re going to escape this negative cycle. The Healthy Eating, Active Living Cities campaign is a step in that direction. It provides some guidelines for better plan language [pdf] and case studies to which we can refer. We can also look to Santa Monica and Long Beach to see how it’s done right: both cities have placed a big bet on human-powered mobility and they are now doubling-down on that bet with even more miles of bike lane, more bike racks, and even economic development programs to increase commercial foot traffic without increasing vehicular demand.

(The real incentive for sign-on is reflected in the campaign’s sweetner: “All California cities which adopt policies encouraging physical activity and good nutrition are eligible to be a Healthy Eating Active Living City and upon review and approval, become eligible for public relations and marketing resources including use of the HEAL Cities logo.”)