PTA Hosts BH Community Forum on Bike-Friendly Streets

Eric Bruins, Policy Director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, presents best practices in bike-friendly street infrastructure.

Horace Mann on Wednesday evening hosted a PTA-organized forum intended to jump start a community conversation about making city streets near our schools safer and more bike-friendly for children and parents. The forum was organized by current Horace Mann PTA president Jeffrey Grijalva and past President Howard Goldstein and moderated by Horace Mann parent Jeffrey Courion, who is an advocate for building community the old-fashioned way: by walking our streets and running errands by bicycle.

Cycling lends itself to generating community, Courion said in opening the forum. “I bicycle in Beverly Hills and people stop to chat. We have a village feeling…. a sense of community where people park their bikes and share tea and coffee.” Indeed our city is well-suited to local trips by bicycle: it is compact, relatively flat, and with multiple small commercial districts it offers a foundation for building local economies without increasing auto congestion. Yet Courion laments that our city is not taking the steps to raise public awareness and install infrastructure to make streets safe.

The need for streets to safely accommodate active transportation is clear from the health perspective: health authorities find that children in our region are less active and suffer higher rates of obesity than ever. That mirrors the national trend. Cycling presents a golden opportunity to get our kids active again. Moreover, one of the easiest ways to reduce AM/PM congestion is to encourage our kids (and parents) to ride to school in lieu of driving. That incorporates physical activity into the day of many children, or course. Plus, Courion noted that schools are centers of community. He called cycling “a great community-building tool” and urged the 25 attending parents and officials to build on our village feel by cycling.

The Need for Multimodal Mobility

Planning for multimodal mobility (jargon for numerous transportation options) is the key precisely because cycling is often overlooked as an option for shorter trips. There are no bike-friendly streets in Beverly Hills, nor do bike-aware signage or bicycle racks encourage cycling. Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) Executive Director Jennifer Klausner said that our city must provide such encouragements. “We’re seeing more and more cities are developing bicycle plans and filtering ideas about safety and bikability into their general plans,” she said, “and we’re seeing infrastructure rolled out at a rate like I have not seen in my lifetime. We’re happy that you want to be part of that too.”

LACBC Policy Director Eric Bruins (pictured above) got down to basics with “bike planning 101.” Cycling is not only about recreation and transportation, he said, but about the environment and health. He reminded us that Los Angeles County spends $12 billion every year to address “entirely preventable” obesity-related illnesses. “Barriers to walking and biking are literally making us sick,” he said. Bruins concurred with Klausner: “The land use here really supports walking and biking,” he said. “If we make the streets reflect that we’ll have more people walking and biking to a greater degree.”

City of Beverly Hills policy documents like our green-city Beverly Hills Sustainable City Plan (2009) call for expanding multimodal mobility options. It even suggests that residents and visitors walk and ride a bicycle whenever possible. Included among the “Simple Things That You Can Do to Encourage a more Livable City,” for example, is to organize errands to avoid multiple trips. Reduced traffic congestion is identified as a key goal of the sustainability plan (which is available nowhere on our city’s website). “It is important to encourage development that limits or reduces energy consumption, construction waste, air pollution and the amount of time people spend in vehicles.”

Beverly Hills may regard itself as a ‘green city,’ but few of the goals of the plan have been reached, and the city seems to keep this plan under lock and key. Before the city’s website redesign, only the draft plan was posted. Yet the bicycle may be our key to environmentally-sustainable local transportation!

We Need Well-Engineered, Complete Streets for Safe Bicycle Travel

Councilman John Mirisch is a supporter of a bike- and pedestrian-friendly Beverly Hills. As the elected official taking the lead on revitalizing the Southeast area  – a part of the city for which no bike routes are currently proposed – he called putting bike racks throughout the city an obvious first step. “it’s not expensive, it’s something that we can do right away, and it suggests to people that this is a bike-friendly city,” he said. “Even entering the city, we could have signs that say, ‘Welcome to Beverly Hills – we share the road with cyclists.’”

The Councilman was the only elected representative who attended this community form. Mr. Mirisch supported the Pilot Bike Route program when it came before Council; and he’s called for complete streets treatment as part of the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction. He has also recognized the need for safe streets for the Southeast area (including around Horace Mann). “Pedestrian-friendliness and bike-friendliness are stated goals of the Southeast task force,” he said, adding that Robertson Blvd. might undergo a ‘road diet’ (a concept also presented by Bruins) in order to calm traffic. “We’re looking at all options.”

Next Steps Toward Bike-Friendly Streets??

Transportation planner Martha Eros presented an update on the city’s  efforts to introduce the first-ever bike improvements in Beverly Hills. (By way of background, last month City Council approved a Pilot Program to experiment with pavement markings along two selected routes, Crescent and Burton Way – only two of five candidate routes and an inauspicious beginning of a bike route network for the city as called for in our 1977 Bicycle Master Plan.) Martha also described the city’s coming bicycle rack program, which will include some new racks in commercial areas and sidewalk racks upon request by business owners – a program long in the making. (View her presentation.)

Give and take after the remarks suggested how far we are from our sustainability plan’s goal of real multimodal mobility in Beverly Hills. Parents and school officials questioned whether the Pilot’s program of improvements is sufficient to address road safety, for example. Parents see that our streets are congested and that cyclists remain unprotected. They are understandably reluctant to send kids to school by bike. Most obviously, equity in access for all road users (as prescribed by Safe Routes to School) is simply not to be found in Beverly Hills because our streets are not engineered for safety.

The federal government and the State of California offers grants to improve intersections near schools, and to undertake programming to encourage safe cycling, but our district (or city) has never seriously campaigned for funding.

How pressing is the need? Horace Mann Principal Steven Kessler recalled his long tenure at the school and how so many campus bicycle racks were once filled to capacity. He noted that 80% of students then could run a mile without stopping to walk. Today, however, the few racks that do remain largely go unused as parents choose to drive. But the impact of that choice is clear, he said: today 80% of his students can’t run that mile; instead they need to walk it.

We need greater popular interest and greater political will to tackle the challenge. And we need city transportation officials to be more sensitive to the goals of healthy communities, environmental sustainability, and safe transit.

Some wondered whether Beverly Hills Unified couldn’t take a leading role in pressing for changes to our streets – as well as raising public awareness and pressing motorists to share the road with cyclists. Principal Kessler is a clear supporter of Safe Streets improvements, but is he the exception in Beverly Hills Unified? To date, few school officials have not indicated any interest in making cycling to school a safe option. Today, no bicycle lanes connect our schools; few racks grace them; and cycling is not part of any phys ed or mobility education program. Our High School principal, himself a former phys ed teacher, has not been responsive to our outreach.

At Better Bike we’ve highlighted how the schools are perhaps our last opportunity to realize healthy communities in the face of policymaker inaction. This forum marks the beginning of what is likely to be an ongoing community-wide conversation about the schools’ role in making our streets safe for cycling. That discussion is long overdue in Beverly Hills!