SM Blvd Blue-Ribbon #4 [recap]

Blue-ribbon committee meetingBy a vote of 9-2 last night, the Beverly Hills Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee will recommend to City Council that tomorrow’s corridor should include a striped class II bicycle lane. In a fourth meeting marked by comity and good humor, resident appointees agreed that separating riders from motor traffic would facilitate flow and create safer conditions for those who choose to ride.

The Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee was tasked in this fourth meeting with deliberating on six decisions. And in successive votes, all within thirty minutes, the committee chose to incrementally expand the blacktop to 66’ and include both a landscaped median and bicycle lanes. We choose not to recommend curbside trees and bus turnouts. We split on bus shelters.

Boulevard Expansion

Clearly the sticking point for this committee was the politically-charged issue of whether the city should expand Santa Monica to 66 feet curb-to-curb. Today the boulevard varies from 60’ to 63’ (with an irregular curb). Supporters saw in expansion the added width necessary to accommodate all of the proposed design ‘enhancements,’ including a median and bicycle lanes. But opponents saw a land grab at the expense of Beverly Gardens Park – an “encroachment” in their view.

“Widening effectively destroys the park,” said committee member and planning commissioner Craig Corman. “That’s very distasteful to most residents and politically it’s difficult.” Committee member and former mayor Ed Brown agreed. And committee member (and Rec & Parks Chair) Robert Anderson was also opposed to widening. “Though I’m OK with bicyclists,” he said, “and it is very dangerous on Santa Monica Boulevard – you take your life in your hands – I want to keep the roadway the same width.”

Anderson also said that riders could take one of the other crosstown streets (Carmelita is often mentioned). Riders may not stop at signs but the police aren’t enforcing anyway, he said.

The discussion then focused on safety, but from different perspectives. Corman thought that widening Santa Monica Boulevard to put bike traffic “side-by-side” with motor traffic “means traffic problems –it’s a safety issue for cyclists [because] you’re encouraging them [there], but you wouldn’t put a bike lane on the 405 freeway.” He added, “It’s effectively adding a third lane of traffic.”

Corman then suggested that the city acquire by eminent domain parcels 12 & 13 on the south side of Santa Monica (near Doheny) in order to create an off-street bike route for that eastern segment. It could then transition to an on-street lane on South Santa Monica from Crescent to the western city boundary at Moreno. “Widen the #1 lane and make #2 a bike lane,” he said. Reducing vehicular traffic from two to one would probably be a non-starter, though. And as Brown said, parking on both sides of the street make liberating additional width for a bike lane impractical.

With few options to North Santa Monica practical for bike travel (Carmelita has its detractors) the discussion turned on how to accommodate riders on Santa Monica North, and a wider boulevard seemed the only clear answer.

Committee Barry Bernstein spoke up first. “I’m for widening – it’s a safer route for bicyclists and they’ll ride there whether lanes exist or not. West Hollywood already has the lanes, and it’s practical going west [from WeHo] if we have them too.” About park impact Bernstein added, “I love Beverly Gardens Park and I walk it. But in 40 years I haven’t seen that many people [using it]. So if we can give safety to the bicyclists….”

Former Mayor Brown changed his mind. “I think we should give the maximum space we can and maybe cut into the park. If cyclists are going on that street there will be safer if there is more room. I want to move traffic, and [more] bicyclists are coming. They have the right and we have to give them the maximum space.” He added that additional room for turning motorists might improve flow too.

Chair Pressman agreed. “I’m for widening to 66 feet. At 60’ wide we’ve only repaved the boulevard. We can easily afford the additional 6 feet if we’re also enhancing [with landscaping] the median….This is an opportunity to change the nature of the boulevard…to turn blight into a major plus. It’s an historic opportunity to do something different.”

But safety was also paramount. Chair Pressman had requested data concerning the safety effect of separate bicycle lanes. Studies were provided both by the consultants and by LACBC’s Eric Bruins, who corresponded with Pressman between meetings and communicated relevant findings in a fact sheet for the committee. One finding was that on-street bike lanes reduce ‘friction’ and facilitate traffic flow (a project priority for this committee) even as lanes also reduced bike-involved collision injuries.  Safety was increased for all road users, Eric said.

Dr. Pressman said getting behind a wider boulevard would not be “for the cyclists” but would be a prudent decision for road safety. “We have to make it appropriate for [riders] because they will be there – and they’re there already,” he said. “I came in [to this process] thinking, How can we have cyclists on this boulevard? But the law says than can be here and if the boulevard is wider they’ll be safer.”

Mr. Brown agreed. “I will change my vote to go with widening.”

Committee member Lillian Raffel said, “I agree with Chair Pressman – I’ve walked this park for 40 years, on a daily basis, but most people don’t use it.” She added, “I have to drive Santa Monica and [today] people have to get out of the way of of the bicyclists. In order to facilitate traffic, I think, we have to widen the boulevard.”

Opponents weighed in. “My inclination is against widening – it’s not fair, it’s breaking faith with the residents who live there,” committee member Aronberg said. “And the wider the street the more noise there is.”

Member Kathy Reims said that the aesthetic and practical objectives of the project could be achieved without widening the boulevard. “Is it necessary?” she asked. Chair Pressman replied that the committee’s priority was traffic flow. “If cyclists are out there riding the boulevard it will be tight.” But Kathy was concerned about the process. She also observed what she thought was a “clear deference to the bike lane” proposal. “It’s implied that it has to be done,” she said. Moreover, would 66’ be hard-and-fast? “What if in 40 more years we’re saying we need to take however many more feet?”

Weighing heavily on the committee’s decision was Psomas’s recommendation to rebuild the corridor at the 66’ width for practical reasons: money and time. It would be more cost-effective (and take less time) to work wider and finish wider, Psomas said, than to work within a narrower corridor or later have to return to a post-construction 60’ curb-to-curb width. Cost-savings and mitigation benefits argued for a wider corridor, they said.

And that may have tipped the balance: the final vote was 7-4 in favor of expansion. Yays: Anderson, Bernstein, Brown, Eliot, Pressman, Raffel, and Wolfe. Nays: Aronberg, Corman, Licht and Reims.

Bicycle Lanes

Throughout the first three meetings, the on-street bicycle lanes design option (or ‘enhancement’ if you like) dominated the committee’s attention. And at times it was contentious. But in meeting #4 the issue yielded to the boulevard expansion decision. And  once that decision was made, the vote to approve class II lanes went quickly.

Chair Pressman played a key role in framing the issue by focusing on regional connectivity. “I don’t believe that Beverly Hills can be a city unto itself,” he said. He referred to the support offered by both Los Angeles and West Hollywood and in particular their offers to meet our lanes at the city boundaries if we build them. Speaking hypothetically, he asked, “Now we have a boulevard, it’s wider, so do we stripe it?”

But Dr. Pressman hedged. Some on the committee worried that if we striped our lanes but those cities might not close the gaps, that we’d have our own ‘bridge to nowhere.’ Dr. Pressman wondered too. “Show me the money,” he said, and suggested that we wait for those cities to stripe the last few blocks in the gap on their side of the boundary. “I recommend we delay [striping].”

Rec & Parks Chair Anderson agreed: “Hold off.” But Bernstein disagreed: “If we stripe it, it’s incentive for [those cities]. If we stripe to our boundaries, we’ll be putting up ‘the money’ (so to speak).

Then consensus emerged and in five minutes it was decided. Mr. Brown said “Stripe it now – they’ll charge more later.” (Oddly, Psomas’s Sean Vargas said it wouldn’t make a cost difference.) Traffic & Parking Chair Andy Licht too weighed in on the side of a bike lane. “I was opposed to widening, but if we’re making it wider….” Then Mr. Anderson changed his mind. “I’ll go along with striping.” And Kathy Reims agreed.

Planning commissioner Corman applauded the turnout by bike lane advocates but raised a caveat: not many who spoke or wrote in were residents. He also noted that striped lanes won’t temper motorist misbehavior. But still he gave the nod to striping lanes.

Pressman said, “I’m speaking against myself here, but an American Journal of Public Health study found that bicycle lanes on a major street with no parked cars had half the risk [of injury]. And eventually we’ll stripe these [anyway].” Still he voted against immediate action.

Our own talking points were succinct:

  • The public clearly supports it
  • Bicycle lanes are safer
  • Federal guidelines advise against 16-foot lanes
  • Lanes are efficient: they remove bicycles from the vehicular travel lanes

The final vote was 9-2 in favor of recommending striped class II bicycle lanes if the boulevard is to be expanded. Yays: Anderson, Aronberg, Bernstein, Brown, Corman, Eliot, Licht, , Reims and Wolfe. Nays: Pressman and Raffel.

Landscaped Medians, North-Side Trees & Bus Shelters

The landscaped median was always clearly favored; the only hang-up was emergency vehicle access. So this meeting opened with public safety heavyweights from the BHPD and BHFD representing the departments. Their position: a landscaped median if designed properly would not impede emergency vehicle access. Despite some concern from committee members, their bottom line was that emergency vehicles will find the quickest way to get where they’re going, and that medians shouldn’t negatively affect response times.

That effectively put to rest the question of whether a planted median between center turn lanes is workable. The committee found that the aesthetic benefits and the additional greenspace outweighed the concerns. The vote to recommend a landscaped median was unanimous.

North-side trees were a different matter. Trees were introduced to the committee prior to the 4th meeting with a packet of diagrams showing a site plan for nearly 200 trees planted just off the north curb:

Santa Monica trees site planUnlike the median, the committee had concerns about the trees, including cost and what effect our recommendation might have on current park planning efforts. Did the committee had enough information to make a solid recommendation? We decided that we did not. And Mr. Anderson thought that it was a matter for his Rec & Parks Commission to decide anyway. Ms. Raffel agreed: “Is it our job to say? They’ll have their own ideas.”

Mr. Corman wondered if curbside trees presented a safety issue. “I’ve seen cars take down lampposts on Santa Monica Boulevard,” he said, and trees were a more formidable, immovable object. “But we shouldn’t exclude trees,” Dr. Aronberg said. Member Jeff Wolfe then clarified that a vote not to recommend was not a vote to exclude trees from a final design. The committee then unanimously voted not to recommend the trees.

SM Blvd tour: bus stop bench

Bus shelters provoked more discussion. Today there are no shelters on the boulevard, which is served by four bus lines. In some places, the best that we do for transit riders is a bench, pad and sign (at right).

Yet many employees arrive by bus and the committee as a whole indicated support for mass transit.

But some members were unsure about whether shelters were advisable or even necessary. Dr. Pressman was practical. “We’re trying to make this a complete street,” he said. “I recommend we suggest modern, no-ad shelters with electronic [arrival] information.” (That was one of the very few times ‘complete streets’ was mentioned by any committee member…other than yours truly.)

Then Mr. Bernstein staked out his ideological terrain. “I’m a humane person and I think we should provide shelters.” But Mr. Anderson said “it would detract from the park” and said that Rec & Parks Commission should handle the issue anyway. Ms. Raffel worried about homeless people colonizing them (in fairness as happens on occasion with another park facility). Ms. Reims protested that she’s humane but doesn’t support bus shelters.

The final vote on bus shelters: a split committee 5-5 (with 1 abstention). Yays: Bernstein Eliot, Licht Pressman & Wolfe. Nays: Anderson, Aronberg, Brown, Corman, and Reims Abstaining: Raffel. With that vote the meeting was adjourned.

Our Take

Unlike earlier meetings, tonight the bicycle lane issue didn’t dominate the discussion. Once we recommended to expand Santa Monica Boulevard, concerns about rider safety and traffic flow guided the discussion. And despite our trepidation going into the Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee process, the committee in the end came to consensus about the city’s obligation to ensure the safety of bicycle riders.

For a city that’s taken only halting steps to become bike-friendly, the committee’s elevation of road safety in the context of a $16 million road project is a milestone. Where consternation from some committee members and the public had earlier framed bicycle lanes as a ‘giveaway’ to cyclists, tonight the committee acknowledged bicycle riders as a fact of life and recommended an appropriate engineering solution to a transportation problem.

Most gratifying was that we saw early opponents of boulevard expansion and bike lanes come around to a new perspective.

Politics are a challenge. City officials generally fear  expansion talk for the backlash it might generate. It’s like a third rail of Beverly Hills politics. But is it really? In the end, neither of our local newspapers editorialized against expansion. And few members of the public even came out to our meetings to oppose it. In fact, those committee members who grumbled most simply didn’t attend tonight.

So where does the fear of backlash come from? A decade or more ago, significant opposition greeted a proposal to add a third vehicle lane. That’s not something we’d support then or now. But we’re still living with the fallout, and it has hampered mobility planning. Tonight, however, another vehicle lane was not on the committee’s plate.

Bicycle lanes, too, were viewed with considerable suspicion at the outset of this process. Numerous committee members spoke against them, and in fact some suggested that riders should simply ride somewhere else. An earlier straw poll found only minority support for considering bicycle lanes. But no committee member told us to get lost tonight. And by a big majority the committee is recommending class II lanes (if we expand the boulevard).

Blue-ribbon committee

From left to right: Ed Brown, Mark Elliot, Charles Aronberg, Jeffrey Wolfe, Barry Pressman, Robert Anderson, Barry Bernstein, Lillian Raffel and Craig Corman. Not pictured: Howard Fisher, Lester Friedman, Russ Levi, Andy Licht, Kathy Reims, and Marc Saleh. Photo courtesy The Courier.

The committee’s work bodes well for making Beverly Hills generally more bike-friendly. And that’s a step that want to see our city take as it enters it’s second century (2014 is our centennial year). But how to proceed on that goal? In our next post we’ll suggest some next steps to build on this committee’s support for rider safety and regional connectivity. In the meantime let’s celebrate; this is a big win for transportation advocates and for Beverly Hills too.

Thanks Go To….

There is a long list of folks who helped get us this far. We’d like to thank the 45 speakers who spoke before the committee and the over 150 members of the public who took the time to write in. We value public participation and we tip our hat to City Council for creating the Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee process.

We’d especially like to thank the bike lane supporters. They outnumbered the opponents by 3 to 1 in spoken remarks and 9 to 1 in written comments. We’ll be taking your thoughts to City Council in February!

Eric, David and Catherine

Eric, David and Catherine ready for a cold ride home!

And of course we’d like to acknowledge the stalwarts who attended one or more meetings: Danielle Salomon and her 11-year old daughter Nina – who made the biggest impression on us among all of the speakers; longtime advocate (and library bike corral donor) Barbara Linder; attorney and early Better Bike reader Jennifer Hughes; local business owner and LACBC board member Greg Laemmle, who with his wife Nancy Tishkoff Laemmle often work behind the scenes to promote cycling; walk-bike champion Ellen Lutwak; two-wheeled troublemakers Wes High, Joel Krajewsky, Eric Weinstein, Katherine, and David (pictured); Mel Raab and Kevin Burton, two riders who know their way around a reasoned argument; and anti-gridlock advocate David Murphy.

In particular we want to thank Kory Klem (@koryklem) for his organizing expertise and Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition policy director Eric Bruins for biking over in a three-piece suit to talk about safety studies, and LACBC communications director Carol Feucht for getting the word out. On that note we’ll thank bloggers Rick Risemberg (@bicyclefixation) and Ted Rogers (@bikinginLA) and Streetsblog (@streetsblogla) too.

Institutionally, we thank Father Tom at Church of the Good Shepherd for getting behind bike lanes early; West Hollywood’s long-range planner Melissa Antol and WeHo Transportation Commissioners Lindsey Horvath & David Eichman for promoting regional connectivity; and Josh Kurpies from Assemblyman Bloom’s office for turning out to plug multimodal mobility.

The committee might have brushed aside our best arguments for bicycle lanes, but when local officials and boldface names got behind it the committee noticed. Read our letter to West Hollywood thanking City Council for their city’s support.

And not least we’d like to thank Vice-mayor Lili Bosse for appointing a bike representative to the committee. Without a voice, rider needs and street safety simply would not have been considered. Thanks go to our Council too. Were no Blue-Ribbon Committee formed (by a vote of 3-2, it’s worth noting), our commissions would have handled this largely out of the view of the general public. (Our commissions receive very few visitors.)

Now, I know we’re overlooking somebody, so do accept our apologies. We’ll see you in February when City Council hears the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction project issue. Until then, stay tuned for the next chapter in the slow march to bike-friendly streets in Beverly Hills!