Multi-Modal Mobility? We Talk the Talk, Don’t Walk the Walk

Complete Streets Univeral Access sign copyright Mark ElliotSeveral years ago, Congress amended the United States Code to highlight the importance of multi-modal transportation. For the first time, walking and cycling was brought to the foreground as legitimate transportation options (not just for recreation) and pedestrians and cyclists were recognized as key transportation constituencies. Then the state of California  mandated that active transportation concerns be integrated into local plans. But there is a world of difference between these guidelines and the actual inclusion of such policies in local plans and innovations in constructed projects.

Complete Streets logoBeverly Hills adopted our updated General Plan in January of 2010, nearly two years after the US Code was amended to recognize cyclists and pedestrians as legitimate road users, and after the State of California’s legislature had passed the Complete Streets Act (AB 1358 – 2008) to ensure that that local governments integrate multi-modal transportation policies into their plans. Yet one will search without success for concrete signs in our plans that the new philosophy of active transportation has been embraced, and even fewer examples of actual improvements.

Now, our General Plan does tip its hat to the importance of walking and cycling. It notes that active transportation can reduce congestion, fuel consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions – indeed ameliorate the effects of all manner of chronic auto dependency. But our General Plan makes no mention of complete streets principles as a package or philosophy; and it mandates no implementation of specific policies or improvements to help us reach our auto-alternatives goals.

It seems that universal access to public roads by all users regardless of age and ability will have to wait. But until when?

Review: The General Plan

Why would our city adopt a General Plan without ensuring that it reflected the latest thinking on mobility alternatives like Complete Streets? Some review:

A General Plan is required of all local governments by the State of California. Simply put, the state has an interest in how localities grow, and mandating that they actually plan for growth would ensure that policymakers at the local level are keeping an eye on conditions and planning accordingly.

The General Plan does double duty: It provides a framework for development based on current data, observed trends, projected change, and even anticipated change; and it provides policy guidance to residents, business owners, city staff and community leaders on a host of physical, economic, and social issues.

Questions include: Is growth expected and how should we proceed to accommodate it? Is our housing affordable and accessible, or do we need to adjust our policy? Is our employment base reasonably balanced, or do we need to make some land use policy adjustments to attract a different mix of jobs?

The General Plan exists to sketch out our agreed-upon policy goals to achieve the kind of community that we want to be. It is aspirational in that it stands as a “meaningful guide for the future” (as our plan says) while providing “policies and implementation programs to guide decisions over the next five-years.” (General Plan forward, page ii.) These are not necessarily difficult planning issues, but they do raise thorny political questions, and the General Plan helps to show the way despite political turbulence. It has real work to do!

Beverly Hills General Plan

South Beverly Drive CongestionFor transportation, we need to ask if we encourage multiple modes of mobility or if we merely support policies that continue to favor auto travel.

The good news is that our plans generally get the vision right. The General Plan expresses a theme of “living lightly” to reduce our city’s environmental footprint. “Thoughtfully-planned development,” it says, will help encourage cycling and walking and thus reduce fuel consumption, congestion, and emissions (General Plan, Introduction p. 7).

More to the point, the Plan envisions a bikeway system to serve transportation needs that would connect schools and parks, commercial nodes and employment areas, and offer a safe pathway to and from the Business Triangle. It would also  integrate our network into the system of current neighboring bike lanes and proposed routes in nearby cities. The Plan even anticipates intersection signaling and signage that promote walking and cycling (Open Space Element p. 26).

Our Plan further calls for “multi-modal districts and interconnected transportation systems” to encourage that shift from cars to alternative modes like bicycling and walking. It even takes the daring step of arguing that transportation funding should  consider bicycle and pedestrian improvements ahead of those that increase vehicle miles (Circulation Element p. 117).

These proposals are not only eye-popping for Beverly Hills; they are totally unfamiliar to an advocacy community that watches for any sign of ‘alt consciousness’ on the Westside. Instead, though, we see our city march steadily toward a future of publicly-funded parking garages on every block. Our bike plan was re-adopted in 2010 without so much as an update of 1970s maps. What gives?

Well, we seem not to take notice of good ideas. Other cities moved well-ahead of us by implementing improvements to streets and intersections. Today they facilitate walking and cycling. Our city’s improvements, in contrast, were focused exclusively on our business triangle.

FHWA logoThen there are higher-level federal and state prescriptions. Our General Plan Update came a few months before the Federal Highways Administration (FHWA) published policy guidance, titled Policy Statement on Bicycle and Pedestrian Accommodation Regulations and Recommendations. That document identified safety improvements for pedestrians and bicyclists that need be incorporated into federally-funded projects. Together with a US Code amendment [US Code Title 23 pdf] that clearly recognized our right to access, it represented a thunderclap of transportation change in Washington because the federal appropriations process drives so much local transportation planning and construction.

In December of 2010, the State of California’s amended its policy guidance for localities. General Plan Guidelines [pdf] issued by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) now mandated that General Plans included complete streets principles in local plans. Like the federal legislation, the objective is to encourage multi-modal mobility and promised that in time transportation projects will by routine take into account the needs of all road users.

While this legislation came after our own update, the good ideas were already out there to be implemented locally. We chose not to take notice. When will we seize the initiative?

Can Beverly Hills Rise to the Sustainable Mobility Challenge?

Our small roads are already overburdened during rush hours. Our intersections chronically fail according to level-of-service standards (or come close to failing). And we’re belatedly undertaking pedestrian improvements beyond the business triangle. We have undertaken no pro-bike improvements. (Fear regarding personal safety is the #1 reason people cite for not riding.)

Yet one of the two “overarching objectives” of our Circulation Element is to move cars “into, out of, or through the city as expeditiously as possible.” Note the focus on moving cars, not people. The other overarching objective is neighborhood preservation and enhancement – two objectives are not easily reconciled.

It’s time Beverly Hills to stand behind our General Plan’s support for alternative forms of transportation and bike route system. Indeed we can rise to the sustainable city challenge if we reform how we approach planning for mobility.

Fortunately, our own General Plan Circulation Element [pdf] itself offers a blueprint. It envisions the development of an “integrated, complete, and safe bicycle system” as a viable option to auto travel based around a Bicycle Master Plan. That policy document would identify opportunities to build upon the goals & policies set out in the General Plan. And these already read as straight out of an alternative transportation advocate’s wish-list! They include:

  • Innovative bikeway treatments that avoid motorist-bicyclist conflict;
  • Bikeway facilities like short-and long- term bicycle parking at primary transit stations
  • Requirements for new development projects to provide bicycle racks, personal lockers, showers, and other bicycle- support facilities.
  • Requirements for new development projects on existing and potential bicycle routes to facilitate bicycle and pedestrian access to and through the project;
  • Innovative programs to encourage bicycle use, such as a bicycle rental program (Circulation Element Goals & Policies sec. 8).

curb cutBetter Bike we’ve been advocating these plans and programs for the past year. Let’s move forward on them. We’re reminded recently by some new all-access curb cuts in the South Beverly corridor. Let’s bring such improvements to all our crossings. Let’s make our streets safer for cyclists too.

Santa Monica has incorporated their General Plan goals into their Land Use & Circulation Element. Los Angeles has moved ahead too to bring new bike lanes and routes to that behemoth city. We can do it here. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s in accord with federal and state policy guidance too.