Breaking News: Worst of SM Blvd. Gets a Touch-up

Santa Monica Boulevard pavement irregularitiesThough Beverly Hills Dept. of Public Works has been adamant over the past year about NOT fixing Santa Monica Boulevard until fully reconstructed (sometime in 2015), the corridor got some much-needed care when a crew came out today to lay down some new blacktop. Regular riders remember how the hazards compromise travel for them while offering motorists a nice ride (at right). Finally cyclists may enjoy this segment too. And it’s gratifying to see something finally happen here after hearing no, no, no to our pleas for help. Perhaps it comes just in time to prevent a car-bike collision, but not too soon for the pileup just last week on this spot after a westbound driver braked hard upon approaching a  cyclist.

Just In Time or a Week Too Late?

Now, maybe it’s just coincidence, but it seems like the resulting collision may have spurred todays impromptu semi-reconstruction. In that event, the hard-braking driver not only sought to frighted the cyclist but also, for good measure evidently, also leaned on the horn. That put the cyclist in a very dangerous situation. Yet while the cyclist did escape harm, the two motorists behind weren’t so lucky: after the crash at least one was left waiting for a tow. Of course the hard-braking driver had already taken off.

Chalk it up to that hostile leading driver or inattentive motorists behind, this insufferable roadway had claimed another score: two more vehicles seriously damaged because Public Works had chosen not to maintain it properly.

We’ve highlighted the dangers of this corridor in part because our city has taken little interest in cyclist safety. The Traffic & Parking Commission has not been particularly concerned; commissioners declined to recommend safety measures for our busiest streets in town. The reasoning? As one said, any improvement would “offer cyclists a false sense of security” and even open the city to liability. Moreover, their deliberations took scant note of existing collision data that illustrates the safety problem.

We like to remind city officials that they have a responsibility to ensure safe transit for cyclists in all cases – even where such safety measures are not taken. Indeed this collision could have been avoided if only Public Works had earlier addressed the horrendous irregularities and potholes that long forced westbound cyclists deep into the travel lane. (For the record, the law says ride to the right only when ‘practicable.’ Only an inexperienced or intimidated cyclist would ride to the right given these pavement irregularities. Hazards like this one are license for cyclists to ride well into the travel lane and control it.)

Next up: the eastbound stretch approaching the ‘pork chop’ triangle at Doheney. That too is a stretch of crappy pavement that drives cyclists deep into the lane. We won’t hold our breath for that stretch to be repaired.

Bike Route Pilot Late Meeting Notice is Par for the Course

Traffic & Parking Aug. 4th, 2011Were you seeking official notice for tomorrow’s Traffic & Parking Commission Bike Route Pilot meeting but couldn’t find it? You’re not alone: it simply wasn’t posted online. Not on the Bike Plan Committee’s documents page; nor on the Commission’s agenda page; and not even listed on the city’s web calendar. This meeting seems to have disappeared into a black hole like much of the public input given to Transportation to date.

Until advised of the oversight this morning, a member of the public couldn’t find out anything at all about the meeting being held by the Traffic & Parking Commission tomorrow night. The city says that notice was posted on the cork boards that are the officially-designated posting locations, and we’ll take officials at their word. But not to post it anywhere on the city’s website?

Traffic & Parking Commission Pilot Agenda 2012-5-9

Better late than never?

Looking at the agenda that was belatedly posted today at 11 am, we can see that the agenda is marked ‘revised’ and dated today. The revised version adds several agenda items evidently not on the original agenda. (Which we didn’t see because we don’t go to corkboards to keep up with city business in the Internet era.) Those added items are:

  • Bicycle Ad Hoc Committee Comments
  • Traffic & Parking Commission Discussion
  • Recommendation (“Staff proposes that the Traffic & Parking Commission recommend up to five Pilot Bicycle Routes for City Council Consideration”).

Now, if those items were added only today, what was the purpose of the meeting to begin with? The only items on that pre-revised agenda were 1) staff and consultant presentations and 2) public comments. These comprised the agenda of both the Pilot public meetings on April 11th and April 25th. Commission discussion and recommendation evidently weren’t on the agenda!

Two problems related to the posting ‘oversight’ come to mind from our perspective. First, there exists a general disregard for public input throughout this bike planning process; and second, there is exhibited a clear contempt for public participation on the part of the Public Works Department.

The failure to post advance notice for public meetings has characterized this bike planning effort since the very beginning, for instance. Notices routinely came as late as 5 pm the day before each meeting, which gave us little time to get the word out to other cyclists. Requests for earlier notice were disregarded, and pleas to hold bike meetings later, in the evening when more folks could attend, were summarily dispatched with a succinct, “We’ll see.” (It never happened. Read more about our take.)‘‘‘

Traffic & Parking Commission Regular Meeting

Garage commemorative plaque

A city so proud of parking that we put a plaque on it!

Better Bike dropped in on the Traffic & Parking Commission last week for an update on how the city will promote the upcoming Bike Routes Pilot meetings this month (meeting first next Wednesday and then on April 25th). While we couldn’t stay long enough for the bike update (often it’s pushed to the end of the meeting) we did learn a thing or two about bike collisions: four bicycle injury collisions have been reported in January, with four more following in February, according to Commission Chair Julie Steinberg. That’s too much for our comfort.

Attending a Traffic & Parking Commission meeting can try the patience, but sometimes little gems come of it. Like the revelation that the city pays upwards of 20% of our total parking meter take to companies that process meter point-of-purchase charges. Twenty percent! Or that the long-promised handicapped placard crackdown hasn’t happened yet. After nearly three years of talking about it. And, of course, the $40 million, 10-year parking operations deficit we’re bailing out with General Fund monies.

Then there’s bike safety. Bike-involved collisions evidently happen all the time in Beverly Hills. But nobody really knows to what extent because we simply don’t track them. We learn about them only anecdotally. The Chair herself in this meeting was speaking from anecdotal knowledge when she asked the police department for additional insight into collision prevalence. Could the department return with information about these incidents?

Commissioner Alan Grushcow, an ad-hoc Bike Plan Update Committee member, said that there is an ongoing bicycle process underway and that relevant collision data would be of interest to the committee.  “Can we have that information earlier next time,” he asked, “so that we can integrate it into the Commission’s process?” That’s a great question!

What’s surprising is that bike-involved collisions came up at all. This is a commission more focused on traffic flow and parking permits than street safety (in our experience). Indeed we’ve been attending these meetings pretty regularly for 18 months and can’t remember the last time this commission addressed bike collisions head-on as it were.

Santa Monica Boulevard pavement irregularitiesNor has the Transportation division of Public Works shown any inclination to address known intersection hazards or even fixing the serious pavement irregularities on Santa Monica Boulevard (right) that force cyclists deep into the vehicular travel lane. And we’ve asked. But cyclists, we’re told, will have to wait until late in 2014 for the fix.

In response to the data inquiry, Aaron Kunz, Deputy Director for Transportation, said that his division is working on it. What’s more, he said that it’s a joint effort across several departments. Really? Does that mean that reported bike collisions will inform Transportation decision-making in the future? Or that commissioners will regularly hear about incidents at commission meetings? For that matter, why hasn’t the Police Department made road injury collisions (never say ‘accident’!) part of their regular report at every meeting?

More Timely Collision Data is Needed

Today we’re simply getting the data too late to make useful decisions at the circumstances or contributing causes become clear. Now, we know that good data exists because the California Highway Patrol makes it available via their SWITRS database. It’s very detailed data, including intersection and some causal factors. Indeed one can simply generate automated reports via the website. But this very useful information is just not available in anything close to real-time. SWITRS hasn’t yet compiled injury data for 2011.

Having collision data in hand would be a very positive step forward for diagnosing safety problems. For example, which of our many poorly-designed intersections contribute most to bike collisions? How often does factors like excessive speed or even rider carelessness contribute to a collision? We need to know today where these collisions are occurring, why, and how frequently. SWITRS is very valuable as an historical record but it doesn’t do much for us in real-time.

Better Bike has requested more recent data but we were told by the PD that the data isn’t automatically aggregated. To search for a ‘bike involved’ collision in the first quarter of 2012, for example, means asking the PD to manually pull it from the BHPD records database. While that’s not too complicated, we also understand that cops have other things to do.

A Reporting Pipeline is Needed Too

It’s one thing to collect and even package the data. It’s another thing to make it available.  What we need is something approximating real-time data if we are to know the extent of injury and fatality collisions and what they say about safety on our streets. Think of it as an extension of the police blotter: today I can find out about a petty crime or burglary because the PD reports it to the media. The local outlets run it, often organized by neighborhood. But there are no reported injury or even fatality crash data. Why not?

We need a reporting pipeline! That data is already collected. If we can aggregate it and then make it available to the public, we might well have a new tool to understand safety deficiencies. We hope that’s what Aaron is referring to when he said that multiple departments are working on it.

The Traffic & Parking Commission is in a unique position to play an advisory role by, for example, suggesting a policy change that might required automated reporting of collision data, much like the police blotter. Imagine a Twitter feed that simply broadcasts recent collisions with the key factors included.

Even better, let’s create a BHPD API so that create a machine-readable API so that the collision data is searchable via a website. That takes the feed idea one step further: a site like Better Bike could create a web widget to allow our readers to specify an intersection, a neighborhood, or a date range to receive near real-time, constantly updated collision data. So if I take a spill at Wilshire & Santa Monica, simply by plugging my query into a Better Bike search box I can know if there have been any other incidents there. Shouldn’t Transportation have access to that kind of specific data too?

Today, a collision data API is pie-in-the-sky for Beverly Hills. In many cities, though, that kind of data is finding open arms among the stakeholder community wherein ordinary folks working on caffeine and charity find new uses for city data. Turn on that data ‘fire hose,’ they say, and we’ll find a way to use the flow. New York, San Francisco, and other big cities are leading the charge to release city data, and Beverly Hills, as a ‘smart city’ with a ‘smart city committee’ could join them.

That can happen with the Traffic & Parking Commission‘s help. We’ve put these ideas to the BHPD informally, but we need the Commission to play a more active role in connecting us with tools that we need to keep ourselves safe.

Traffic & Parking Commission: A New Mandate?

But today our Traffic & Parking Commission is tasked primarily with parking issues. Shouldn’t we be focusing more directly on safety? We have an epidemic of blatant red-light running on Wilshire, for example, and we know from police updates that collisions result. Not infrequently we see the broken plastic on the ground. But where is the data and the enforcement? An active commission could request it.

The Chair’s interest in bicycle-involved collisions is perhaps a good sign. Let’s rechristen this body as the new Beverly Hills ‘Mobility and Safety Commission.’ Isn’t that the problem that needs to be addressed anyway?

Those Community Bike Meetings….

We attended this Traffic & Parking Commission meeting because we wanted to know how the city will promote these public meetings. Will it be underwhelming like the Bike Plan Update Committee’s efforts to date? Notice for those meetings came literally the day before, which doesn’t encourage participation. Would these meetings be different?

We couldn’t stay late to hear the bike update so we went to the city’s on-demand multimedia page where meeting audio is typically posted. But it turns out that this commission hasn’t posted meeting audio since April of 2011. That’s a year ago. Almost alone among city commissions, the T&P Commission leaves stakeholders to wonder what’s been accomplished at their meetings. (Public Works, parent department of Transportation, is just as bad.)

Public Works Department information kiosk

Not too much information for the public from Public Works…

What we do know is that the city has mailed out postcards (above) to residents. But Better Bike is headquartered on one of the identified Pilot bike routes [< pdf map] yet we’ve not received one. It looks like we won’t be noticed for the Wednesday meeting until late Monday? That doesn’t encourage participation either, does it?

But it does fit with the Public Works philosophy when it comes to public communication: the less the better. When we went to Public Works to pick up a few cars, we noticed that the info kiosk (at right) was pretty bare. Is this all the public needs to know about, say, the capital improvement projects underway in our city?

We at Better Bike will be walking flyers to local businesses and bike shops to generate some interest in these Pilot bike routes [pdf] community meetings. Want a stack to distribute around town? Let us know.

Time for a Culture Change in Beverly Hills Transportation

David Guftavson

David Gustavson, Director of Public Works

Speaking with Beverly Hills officials, one would think that laying down a few bike racks is akin to a capital improvement project. Just this morning, Transportation (a division of Public Works) suggested that cyclists might have to wait until the next fiscal year (starting in July) for a single new bike rack. This makes absolutely no sense: racks are a couple of hundred dollars apiece. We know where they are needed. Cities already have guidelines for placement. And Beverly Hills has $30,000 in Metro Transportation Development Act Article 3 funds available for the asking to pay for them. Why are we getting the runaround from Public Works?

I’m beginning to wonder if it’s simply a cultural disconnect: that our Public Works and Transportation officials are so beholden to 20th century auto-centric principles that they’re unable to view bike racks and other bike improvements as anything but an extra-curricular recreational amenity like a hitching post, rather than view cycling as one answer to our 21st century transportation problems.

Yet these folks have no trouble recognizing a car parking deficit. The city will always build another garage (a 2nd one is coming to South Beverly) or simply mandate that project applicants create even more off-street parking at significant expense (as exemplified by the proposed gateway overlay zone).

But here we’re talking about $200 bike racks. That’s petty cash, relatively speaking. It’s representative of a larger cultural problem: while cities work to reduce congestion and increase energy efficiency by shifting travelers to non-motor modes (like cycling and walking), Beverly Hills has not made a single tangible improvement to encourage cycling here. Even as our streets are demonstrably unsafe for cyclists.

Somehow, providing an everyday piece of transportation-related hardware like a bike rack is mired in a process better suited for building a parking structure: conduct a study, go to policymakers for authorization and funding, and then let a contract. (No wonder why we have no new bike racks in town.) Since we’ve been talking to Transportation about some new racks, cities like Los Angeles and Santa Monica have installed thousands of new racks on sidewalks across the region. Beverly Hills? Zero.

Why not just put a few racks down already? Don’t we in the cycling community have to wonder why no improvements have been made? We’ve been bending the ears of city officials for so long that we’re entitled to a bit of frustration. And when a Transportation official says, unbidden, “In no way are we trying to delay anything…” that should be a heads-up to ask exactly what’s behind the delay if not intent to delay?

It’s the Culture of Transportation in Beverly Hills that Needs to Change

There is a need for a change in the culture of transportation – and the culture of Transportation (the division of Public Works). That was highlighted recently in a series of meetings with the bike community.

Over four meetings with Transportation staff, we asked for racks in commercial districts and pointed to existing programs in other cities where racks are successfully deployed as a parking solution and by request. In our most recent meeting, we were presented with a PowerPoint presentation highlighting possible locations at parks and schools – not the commercial districts where need is evident today. Worse, the presentations suggested  where racks weren’t needed (a question nobody asked).

Staff also seemed ready to reinvent a wheel that’s now rolling in other cities. They have established rack placement standards already. Why not simply pull their guidelines off the web, or ask their staff for guidance? There also exists rack-on-request programs right in our own region that we can copy. But rather than follow prevailing practices, we’re rolling our own. Go figure. (Read our recap for the full story.)

More than a program in development, it’s our outmoded principles behind our policies that show a need for a new way of thinking about transportation in Beverly Hills. Namely, that bike racks and facilities are measures that address a transportation problem that we have today – congestion. Why not encourage a shift to non-motor travel and view bike racks and such in that light?

Santa Monica rack request screenFor example, other cities install bike racks on city sidewalks upon request for free as a gift to local businesses. Santa Monica (right) and Los Angeles make it as easy as filling in a web form. That’s because bike racks encourage bike use which can bring new shoppers (a value-add for local businesses) who wouldn’t even bother to park here because it’s a hassle. Look around at all the storefront vacancies in Beverly Hills and ask whether the answer might not be a few $200 racks.

That’s why it’s puzzling that Transportation wants to force those businesses to share the cost of a bike rack, even though that rack is installed on public property, in the public right-of-way, and would continue to belong to the public long after that shop owner has moved on. Why would they pay for a city bike rack? Why should they? Although this aspect of the proposed rack-on-request program was criticized by cyclists, a month later it remains part of the presentation as City Council prepares to receive it shortly.

A change in culture is already anticipated by the text of our policy documents. Our General Plan, for example, hits all the right policy notes with the following goals:

Accommodate a balanced mix of land uses and encourage development to be located and designed to enable residents access by walking, bicycling, or taking public transit to jobs, shopping, entertainment, services, and recreation, thereby reducing automobile use, energy consumption, air pollution, and greenhouse gases. (Land Use goal 14, ‘City Form’)

 

Promote the health of residents by developing streetscapes, bikeways, accessible parklands that encourage pedestrian activity, and requiring that development be located and designed to promote walking and bike riding as alternatives to automobile use. (Land Use goal 16.7, ‘Public Health’)

And this rather pertinent policy goal really hits the nail on the head:

Create or collaborate on an interconnected transportation system that allows a shift in travel from private passenger vehicles to alternative modes, including public transit, ride sharing, car-sharing, bicycling, and walking. Before funding transportation improvements that increase vehicle miles traveled, consider alternatives such as increasing public transit or improving bicycle or pedestrian travel routes. (Circulation goal 2.10, ‘Interconnected Transit System’)

Yet our Transportation planners sill only want to move metal; vehicular throughput is our chief circulation concern. And it is vehicle-related impacts that preoccupy our aptly-named Traffic and Parking Commission, not advance planning for that multi-modal mobility network. Indeed in the 18 months that it’s been meeting, our in-aptly named Bike Plan Update Committee, which is composed of three T&P Commissioners, has made no effort to update our 1977 bike plan.

But you wouldn’t recognize that kind of blinkered perspective on vehicular circulation from the Transportation division’s raison d’etre:

“The Transportation Department is committed to providing a safe, pleasant environment for living, conducting commerce and traveling while promoting residential quality of life and economic strength in our community.”