Westside Cities COG Board Meeting

Better Bike Beverly Hills was in the house at today’s Westside Cities Council of Governments (COG) meeting in Culver City to comment on agenda item 5b: Bicycle Safety Awareness Program. (See the staff report.) Ron Durgin of Sustainable Streets (and a certified licensed instructor) and I took advantage of the offer from the host city representative that we take “a minute” at the mic before discussion on the item. Ron spoke about safety and I urged the COG to include the cycling community in the formulation of any bike-related program.

The item concerned the COG’s recent announcement of a safety program for the six local governments that constitute the COG. That a bike issue was on the agenda at all was a bit of a surprise but not a shock. After all, Better Bike has been in contact with the COG’s Executive Director, Maria Rychlicki, since last Summer and we’ve appeared at several committee meetings to urge COG action.

The Westside COG’s Sustainability committee had last Fall generated a draft workplan that for the first time touched on the importance of cycling to sustainability. In that workplan, explicit reference was made to the coordination of “infrastructure” (presumably lanes and such). But the COG didn’t appear particularly inclined toward immediate action.

What <i>was</i> a surprise was a narrowed scoping around safety awareness. In retrospect, the safety theme had first come up a couple of months ago in a talk with the Deputy at Transportation for Beverly Hills, Aaron Kunz, who is a representative to the COG. It breezed by me then, but now I surmise that discussion was proceeding about how to reshape COG action around awareness, not tangible improvements.

The thrust of today’s Bicycle Safety Awareness Program discussion suggested that ‘infrastructure’ has taken on an elastic meaning. “Safety is part of infrastructure,” the Director said.”Safety and awareness are the foundations upon which infrastructure [coordination] would take place.”

To my ears, this represents a serious reassessment (i.e. narrowing) of scope, because when the focus is placed solely on safety awareness, the focus is necessarily <i>off</i> the kind of improvements that actually make road travel safer. Bike lanes, markings, and signage, on the other hand, are more of a heavy lift for member cities. But safety is a lighter lift with a message that plays well.

Yet this change in theme should be cause for concern. We do need safer streets in addition to an evolved awareness among cyclists, motorists, officials, and law enforcement. And we need such improvements post-haste, and coordinated beyond city limits.

Today’s discussion by the COG board was their first step down the bike/ped road (so to speak) and more will become clear next month, when we’ll know more from the Transportation (April 11th) and Sustainability (April 13th) committee meetings where the safety proposal will be further discussed.

In fact, Santa Monica Councilman Kevin McKeown even earlier this week floated a trial balloon by email to a limited subset of the bike community. He was feeling out support for a safety campaign to, say, prohibit sidewalk riding uniformly through the member cities. It didn’t fly, though; cyclists evidently don’t feel we alone need to be the object of a safety awareness program. (Perhaps he can share with us some of the other ideas that he collected?)

For now, though, we’re guessing why the focus has shifted exclusively to safety. My hunch is that there is pushback from member cities which aren’t on board with a harder focus, so the COG is inching toward a more modest, message-heavy initiative. Indeed COG’s staff side seems determined to lock down a safety awareness program and lock out a broader, more ambitious agenda for supra-city, sub-regional bike planning.

Our challenge: to influence the scope of the COG’s bike-related work now while the framework is still fluid. We’ll want to marshal comments for the COG board before the May 19th meeting, which will be an important meeting for all interested cyclists to attend.

It is worth mentioning that we have at least three pro-bike representatives on the Westside COG: Councilman McKeown from Santa Monica, which has conspicuously taken the lead on sustainability by putting real resources into programs to reduce the city’s carbon footprint. (Beverly Hills, by contrast, still has a draft sustainability plan from 2009). From the Councilman’s good introduction to the larger bike issue, it’s clear he gets the nuance.

Bill Rosendahl, Councilman from Los Angeles, is another solid supporter. Rosendahl championed the Mandeville Canyon crime to move bike planning forward in that city. (He even mentioned that crime again today.) And he made a very forceful case for COG action today. And then there’s Abbe Land, who is our supporter in West Hollywood.

We don’t hear much from our Beverly Hills representatives at the COG, though.

While we can’t say that bike issues are heating up at the COG, we can say that at least they are bubbling up. That’s a far cry from last summer, when neither the Transportation committee nor the Sustainability committee had any time for bikes, despite their shared focus on sustainable transportation!