Ride the Westside on Santa Monica Boulevard and you’ll know that something’s missing when you pass through Beverly Hills. Somehow the dedicated on-street bicycle lanes that deliver riders to our city from east and west disappear completely at our city’s gateways. With this corridor undergoing a down-to-the-gravel reconstruction by 2015, what potential will it hold for bicycle lanes in order to fix this missing link?
Come next Tuesday, Beverly Hills City Council will decide how to manage this important project. At the top of the Council’s 2:30pm study session agenda next week is this key question: What kind of oversight body should manage the critical first phase of reconstruction? Phase I involves project preparation and public outreach, so how Council answers this process-related question may well influence the decision later in the fall as to whether coming generations of cyclists will ever enjoy a Class II bicycle lane on Santa Monica Boulevard. (Update: read our editorial on the options discussed here.)
The specific question asked of Council next week: Should we manage this project through our regular Traffic and Parking Commission (T&P)? Or through the less-visible City Council-T&P liaison committee? Should the city form a new ‘multi-commission’ committee or, most provocatively, should Council create a public steering committee to throw open the doors to a wider variety of perspectives?
It’s all right here in the staff report. It may read as a bit wonky, but it matters because whichever of the above options the Council chooses will affect the process that will determine the final design. And once the design is established, all of the decisions that affect rider safety will have been made. Either we’ll either have our bicycle lanes or we won’t. After that we might well opine about the landscaping.
As the staff report notes, the key fork in the design process is whether the city will take the additional foot or three of grass from Beverly Gardens Park necessary to fit in bike lanes in both directions:
…the team considered the existing conditions alongside two major alternatives; 1) maintain the existing curb-to-curb width and 2) alter the existing curb-to-curb width (narrow or widen).
‘Existing conditions’ means simply replicating the arrangement we have: no bicycle lanes at all. Maintaining the curb width (which in reality varies considerably today) would constrain our ability to implement both eastbound and westbound on-boulevard lanes but might accommodate some kind of single lane. And expanding past the curbs would keep every option on the table. That’s the fork in the road.
Let’s turn for a moment to the “goals and considerations” for the renewed Santa Monica corridor. Per the staff report they are:
- Rehabilitate the physical infrastructure along the corridor, including pavement, drainage, sewer and water lines, and street lighting.
- Consider a “Complete Streets” policy to enhance safety and promote transit and non- motorized modes (bicycling and walking).
- Respect the character of the corridor, including preservation of green space.
- Maintain access to the Beverly Hills Business Triangle
- Minimize construction impacts on businesses and residents
- Maintain vehicular flow along the corridor
Moreover, the staff report notes, “City Council directed staff and the project team to simultaneously consider the principles of ‘Complete’ or ‘livable’ streets concurrent with the mandate that the character of the corridor be respected. That’s a crucial inclusion (see the alternatives matrix).*
Because goal #2 supports on-boulevard bicycle lanes and none of the other goals or considerations precludes it, were we to take them off the table it would mean that policymakers simply want to avoid any political heat over even incrementally moving past the curbs. Because if you’ve followed the issue to date you’ll recall that there is additional right-of-way beyond today’s curbs that’s already designated for blacktop. Absolutely no changes to our city plans would be necessary.
Moreover, any design that “maintains the character of the corridor” has to acknowledge the fact that we’ve lived with an eyesore for nearly a decade since we assumed control of it from Caltrans. Maintaining that character would produce a thoroughfare that has more in common with Venice Boulevard in Palms, say, than a signature corridor here. Bicycle lanes, improved marked crosswalks, and a better pedestrian experience, in our opinion, would all represent an improvement over the “character” of Santa Monica Boulevard today.
What’s At Stake on Tuesday?
We noted that the fork in the road is the decision about whether to widen the boulevard by a few feet to accommodate bicycle lanes in both directions. While that’s true, on Tuesday Council will also see a variety of alternatives that will be considered by the body charged with overseeing the public process. They include:
Consult the handy matrix included with the report if you want to see how each of these alternatives measures up against the project goals and considerations. But here’s the rub: only one of the six alternatives here gives the city what it wants – a boulevard with turn lanes, a landscaped median and “character preservation” in the greenspace – while giving us the eastbound and westbound lanes that we need. That would be the wider of the alternatives:
An alternative scenario that need not widen the boulevard but would need to eliminate turn lanes (or place one bicycle lane off-street) :
Now in the past, transportation staff has proposed an alternative that offers a different alternative: routing the westbound lane (only) on Carmelita. More recently staff has talked about routing the eastbound lane (only) as a ‘bike route’ (i.e., no discrete lane) though the triangle on South Santa Monica blvd. Both present problems: homeowners don’t like the Carmelita route; and routing crosstown cyclists safely through the triangle suggests a Class II lane that would eliminate some parking.
Will the public have a voice in sorting the alternatives and making a choice that will distinguish Beverly Hills for decades to come? Or will a commission simply rubber-stamp the most politically-insensitive design alternative? That’s where this wonky question comes into play. At Tuesday’s study session, Council will decide what kind of structure will conduct the public process which will, in turn, feed into the choice of design. So let’s review those options again:
- Traffic & Parking Commission would put the process into the hands of the commissioners that on the whole have shown little interest in the needs of riders (this is the “staff recommendation”);
- City Council/Traffic & Parking Commission Liaison Committee would put the process in the lap of a small committee composed of two councilmembers and two T&P commissioners;
- Multi-Commission Committee would draw upon the several commissions that have purview over some dimension of the boulevard and would put into this new body’s hands the outreach process; and,
- Public Steering Committee would put the process in the hands of Council-appointed committee members – an approach that emulates the mechanism used by West Hollywood to craft bike-relevant policies under that city’s mobility plan.
Read the staff report. Look over our own editorial reviewing the options. Whichever of these strikes a chord with you as a rider, do take this opportunity to emphasize to City Council your interest in safe travel across Santa Monica Boulevard and indicate your support for one or more of the public process options above. (You need not be a resident. All comments and constructive input valued.)
How to participate: show up in Council chambers on Tuesday at 2:30 pm promptly (this is item #1) and/or email the Council at email@example.com. Or call the Council at 310- 285-1013. And last, you can indicate your preference to Better Bike and we’ll bring announce it in Chambers on Tuesday. (If you do email Council please CC Better Bike.) You can also consult our city contacting cheat sheet.
We’ll be posting our own editorial on the options over the weekend, but don’t you wait for us. Let Council know how you see things. Tuesday’s decision will likely affect the choice that’s made for the boulevard and in turn shape how cyclists for generations will cross town. Your voice matters!
*Give credit where it’s due: We called out the initial request-for-proposals issued to bidders because it said nothing about complete streets. Council then provided direction to explicitly include that proviso. As a result, the bids that came back each recognized complete streets in some form. We’ll be reviewing those proposals shortly.