Santa Monica Boulevard Expansion Must Be On the Table

Since we’ve first talked about bi-directional Class II bike lanes for the Santa Monica Boulevard corridor, City of Beverly Hills officials have said that widening the boulevard for any purpose (including bike lanes) was a no-go proposition. Former Mayor Jimmy Delshad put a fine point on it in City Council in mid-2010 when he said, “We’re not widening the boulevard!” That was just after he said, “All options are on the table.” All options were clearly not on the table.

Bike Backbone map missing Beverly Hills pieceAnybody who’s taken a bike to the corridor knows that its not only unpleasant, but it’s unsafe too. It’s the black hole where existing on-boulevard bike lanes in West Hollywood and Century City disappear. Our city has a responsibility to make this public roadway accessible to all road users, cyclists included.

And we can by making make sure that bike lanes are part of the city’s reconstruction of the boulevard by 2013. After all, the city already owns much of the right-of-way that is necessary (a total of 85 feet, 25 feet wider than today’s 60-foot boulevard pavement) and much of that extra width lay on the north side of the existing roadway, which is presently underutilized.

So why not take a foot or two as necessary to put bi-directional bike lanes on the boulevard?

“We can’t widen the boulevard”

Whenever we raise the issue of bike lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard, the response from the city is invariably, “No, no, no, we can’t widen the boulevard.” Well, why not? “The community doesn’t want to,” we’re told, usually with a vague allusion to the prospect of a community rising up in arms. That puts shudders through elected policymakers. And that puts pressure on career city department officials.

Yet I haven’t spoken to any resident in Beverly Hills (cyclist or otherwise) who’s been asked for his opinion. Nobody called my home to ask what I thought. There’s been no public process to determine community sentiment. Who’s been asked and who’s saying ‘No’?

We asked a Transportation official about the nature of that opposition to widening the boulevard, and it turns out that it’s not clear who would object, or what they would object to exactly. The last time the issue came up was some years ago in discussion about a third traffic lane for the corridor, he said. A third traffic lane? Who wouldn’t object to adding yet another lane for car traffic?

Beverly Hills freeway map 1958
The Beverly Hills Freeway that could have been. Easy-on, easy off!

Indeed our city was once involved in opposing a so-called Beverly Hills Freeway that would have followed the Santa Monica corridor (unceremoniously known then as State Route 2). If constructed, it would have cleaved in half many Westside neighborhoods, and our community’s opposition killed it. Reviving the freeway proposal is not what we’re talking about when we mention bike lanes.

The question of widening the boulevard incrementally for lanes has never been posed to the people, in fact. And it can’t be that a handful of residents in our city of 30,000 can dictate the connectivity opportunities for a million people in this part of the region, can it?

For the city at large, perhaps expanding the pavement by a foot or two may be a perfectly acceptable trade-off to afford cyclists safe transit via bi-directional bike lanes on the boulevard. That’s a transportation policy issue that needs to be discussed. Shutting down the discussion with a reflexive “We’re not widening the boulevard!” won’t solve our mobility problems.

It’s About Equity in Access for Multi-Modal Mobility

The city has a responsibility to accommodate all road users regardless of mode choice. That’s the intent of universal access provisions in California’s Complete Streets principles and policy guidance. It’s also federal policy. Shouldn’t it be city policy too? We think so. We see it as a matter of professional responsibility on the part of transportation planners and the obligation of elected officials in Beverly Hills to make our public roads accessible for multi-modal travel.

Santa Monica expansion profile diagram thumbnail
Click for full boulevard profile

Now, our Transportation division could continue on as it has been, raising reflexive opposition to a perfectly sound and just proposal to make this corridor work for all road users, or it could support active transportation uses by framing the discussion as a matter of equity to both city residents and policymakers.

This is not asking Transportation officials to step way outside the box. Our city already owns sufficient right-of-way to put lanes in tomorrow. It needn’t conduct an environmental impact report because it’s not diminishing traffic flow nor acquiring land nor changing a land use designation. We already have in pocket what we need to give cyclists an opportunity for safe transit. It’s worth pointing out, too, that the corridor is largely without sidewalks too – a legacy of the state’s perspective on the boulevard as a through-route called SR-2.

Santa Monica Boulevard right-of-way strip
Right-of-way currently owned by the city at present benefits nobody.

Moreover, the strip of city-owned right-of-way land is not actually part of the Beverly Gardens park. And casual observation suggests that it’s underutilized in its present form (right). This is the factual basis upon which any discussion about the corridor’s redesign should proceed, not an anticipated ‘No’ from the community. Our community is above blind NIMBY. We merely have to be shown what’s possible.

Santa Monica Boulevard southside profile diagram
Diagram of south side travel lanes & bike path. (Adapted from Alta's LA Design handbook.)

Our Transportation folks need to lead the city’s residents and policymakers because they know what’s possible; they attend the transportation conferences. They they can bring forward a vision to reassure whatever opposition may arise because, after all, bike lane is not the same as a Beverly Hills Freeway. Transportation folks have the tools to show the corridor as a multi-modal facility of tomorrow instead of the depressing through-route that carries 50,000 cars per day that it is today. Where are the mock ups of such a vision to get that discussion started?

With a properly-framed discussion of what we would want to see for this key corridor, bolstered by illustrations to bring it to live, we can begin to talk about how to get there. Not a reflexive ‘No!’ but a consideration of opportunity with an eye on the future, not the past or present.

All It Takes is a Bit of Imagination

Santa Monica Blvd pavement irregularitiesApplying our collective imagination to this most ugly part of our city is the challenge. Understandably, people have a difficult time envisioning change. We’ve looked at a broken-down, auto-dominated Santa Monica Boulevard for so long we don’t even see it for what it is today – one of the region’s busiest mass transit corridors. We don’t see the people that walk along it or the cyclists that bike it. Certainly we don’t hear from those who lament it.

In fact, we’ve looked at a traffic-choked Santa Monica Boulevard for so long we’ve completely forgotten about what is possible here.

Paris boulevard view
Courtesy besopha via Flickr

Consider the potential for grand boulevards to lend  character to American cities. Think back to the late-1800s when ‘City Beautiful’ advocates saw that grand, axial urban spaces could lift the spirit. They saw urban boulevards a civilizing, positive influence on the urban dweller who then daily suffered the debilitating social and physical conditions of the industrial city. The City Beautiful movement sought to remake the city as a grand arena for transportation and human habitation.

Today it’s different in Beverly Hills. We live in a post-industrial present that’s progressed beyond the dehumanizing predations of industrial-era production. Yet  one could argue that our generic bank buildings and helter-skelter planning characteristic of ad-hoc urbanism reflects our late-twentieth century economy of capitalism & consumption. While it’s not factories, street grime, and Dickensian paupers that we struggle with daily in Beverly Hills, our business triangle is so spirit-crushingly banal that it begs out for some City Beautiful love!

Why can’t it happen here? City officials and residents alike see the merits of City Beautiful when visiting Fifth Avenue in New York or the grand boulevards in Paris. They are the best that cities can offer: an urban experience that has always been characterized by mobility but can also be uplifting and gratifying at the same time. These are spaces of transportation but also places of habitation.

Let’s start by applying some of that kind of imagination to Santa Monica Boulevard. We have an opportunity to re-imagine the corridor to suggest how we want to live tomorrow, not how we must live today, bound to the aesthetic shackles of a traffic-choked artery that’s not seen no love for a long time.

Annenberg Center anchoring Santa Monica Boulevard map
Annenberg Center anchors Santa Monica Boulevard

Our city leaders see the  Annenberg Center lending cultural cachet to our town. In that spirit, let’s make the Center an anchor for an adjacent corridor of pride. The Annenberg already boasts a fine pedestrian landscape design welcoming to pedestrians. Let’s extend that down the corridor. Since mobility must be the priority for Santa Monica Boulevard (whether mass transit or human-powered walking and cycling), let’s view active transportation as an integral part of the corridor. That is the essence of Complete Streets principles, so let’s embrace them in the reconstruction of the boulevard and plan accordingly.

Transportation folks have a role to play here to show us what can be. Policymakers have a responsibility to look ahead to address the mobility challenges. And residents have a duty to embrace the future Santa Monica Boulevard as an active transportation corridor and not stand in the way of good proposals.

We love Baron Hausmann’s nineteenth-century remake of the French capitol. He bequeathed a grand Paris of axial spaces that accommodates cars, pedestrians, and today more than ever, cyclists. We can do that here too in our own way with the Santa Monica Boulevard corridor. If we frame the discussion properly. If we apply some imagination. If we have the courage to think differently when different thinking is clearly called for.