Beverly Hills: Bad-Faith Bike Planning?

Bicycle Master Plan coverWhen our City Council in January of 2010 simply re-adopted our 1977 6-page bike plan without any kind of review, without conducting any new study or even attaching a legible map, we had from Beverly Hills officials an indication of their lack of commitment to cyclist safety. When the ad-hoc Bike Plan Update Committee was formed that Spring, it was acknowledgment that our plan, already decades out-of-date, was indeed insufficient. But was that step a signal to hope? Or another step to forestall demands for better cyclist safety?

With a new committee focused on updating the paltry bike plan, we looked at it as a sign of progress being made in our campaign for safer streets. We wanted to believe that the new committee was a first step toward a better plan, and that the committee’s Bike Route Pilot program for which four candidate routes were selected last November was a tangible step toward on-street facilities that would recognize cyclists as legitimate road users. The Pilot routes will be heard by City Council on March 5th.

It seems that our hope is misplaced: last week my household was notified that South Beverly Drive, one of four possible bike routes identified by the committee under the Pilot program, will be repaved and re-striped just days before City Council even reviews any options. This is no surprise; indeed it’s par for the course in Beverly Hills, where true public engagement may the stuff of General Plan fiction:

Strive to engage all segments of the community in planning decisions, including residents, local businesses, special interest groups, and special needs groups such as the elderly, youth, working parents, and low- income residents. Maintain and enhance the City’s current public involvement processes to assure transparency and enable the public to be well-informed. (Land Use Goal LU 16.11)

But ‘engagement’ in practice is little more than what we learned about in planning school: pro-forma public ‘outreach’ as in, “We’ll let you know when it’s your time to speak up.” That’s a message that I’ve heard consistently from Transportation – whether concerning the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction project or general street improvements for cyclists or any other concession to road safety for cyclists in our city that has none.

Heck, the way that the Traffic & Parking Commission’s Bike Plan Update Committee has gone about ‘engaging’ the bike community stands as a case-in-point, as we’ve recapped earlier.

Am I being rash? On one hand, the decision by Transportation to move forward on South Beverly Drive before receiving direction from City Council about any possible bike-friendly options might simply be putting the cart before the horse. Transportation engineer Juan Martinez assures me that striping is as easy to undo as it is to do. If the South Beverly corridor is identified for some kind of improvement, he said, “We just go out there at night and sandblast off the stripes.” Simple enough.

South Beverly Drive looking toward MontageOn the other hand, the decision to contract this project out at all at this point suggests either that Transportation is not coordinating possible bike improvements with the broader transportation engineering process, or that officials simply don’t anticipate that City Council will direct the division to change anything at all along this bike-popular pedestrian-designated commercial district.

South Beverly is one of the most heavily traveled streets by cyclists in our city, yet one that’s sufficiently hazardous that most folks bike the sidewalks (illegally). Consider the challenges to the cyclist: heavy traffic and impatient drivers; pull-in parking that obscures sightlines and endangers road-bound cyclists; and in & out traffic from the busy parking garage on the 200 block that creates a hazardous condition for north- and south-bound cyclists.

When City Council hears about the Pilot program at the March 5th meeting, will our representatives consider any of these concerns? It’s not likely that they can: there’s no indication to date that Transportation notes them in the detail that cyclists have enumerated them in four meetings with the committee.

The larger problem is one of planning: it seems that Transportation is not coordinating bike improvements with the city’s broader streets program. The Sunset Boulevard intersection improvement initiative for example includes no bike facilities, though we’d been talking with Transportation throughout that outreach process about bike improvements. Moreover, we’ve highlighted the dangerous state of our intersections, yet expected traffic mitigations for Wilshire & Santa Monica (including street widening) include no bike lane, signage or signaling to make that treacherous juncture safe for non-motorists.

This is a missed opportunity. Shouldn’t planning for safe streets for all road users as recognized in federal and state policy be an integral part of the street engineering process? Yes is should. But to date, the city has doggedly kept separate the Bike Plan Update process from any other improvements like the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction, which is the single best opportunity we have to demonstrate a commitment to both cyclist safety and to regional connectivity.

Encouraging alternatives to motoring and enhancing regional connectivity are city goals. We say as much in our General Plan’s transit goal (CIR 2) which calls for “development of a safe, comprehensive, and integrated transit system that serves as an essential component of a multi-modal mobility system within the City.” Specifically:

Create or collaborate on an interconnected transportation system that allows a shift in travel from private passenger vehicles to alternative modes, including public transit, ride sharing, car-sharing, bicycling, and walking. Before funding transportation improvements that increase vehicle miles traveled, consider alternatives such as increasing public transit or improving bicycle or pedestrian travel routes. (CIR 2.10 Interconnected Transit System)

But then again, our Beverly Hills Bicycle Master Plan says a lot of nice things about safe streets for cycling too:

As a relatively compact Community with a broad range of community facilities and services in relatively close proximity to a large proportion of the residents, Beverly Hills offers a unique opportunity to develop a bikeway system which can serve both transportation and recreation needs, that is, a system that is both suitable for Sunday afternoon family bicycle riding, as well as one that connects residential areas with parks, schools, shops, or places of employment, thus providing an alternative means of transportation to the bus or private auto. (Bicycle Master Plan Re-adopted 2010).

Trouble is, we don’t walk that walk. And the pro-forma process under the Bike Plan Update Committee has been neither consistent with city objectives nor even, I believe, a good-faith effort to become consistent.

The tip-off regarding the city’s objectives in creating a bike plan at all comes in the Bike Master Plan itself:

The [Bike Master Plan] is intended to fulfill the requirements for funding pursuant to SB 821, which states that the jurisdiction will have an adopted bikeways plan. (Bicycle Master Plan p. 340)

Call it the ‘meta’ of bike plans: the objective is not to create facilities that would keep our streets safe or even to actually plan for such facilities. Rather it’s to show federal and state authorities that we have a plan in place. Talk about pro-forma!

It’s about the money? Well, no. It can’t just be about the money because Beverly Hills leaves available money on the table instead of spending it on bike projects. For example, Metro administers the Transportation Development Act funding program (aka Article 3), which allocates to cities annually funds for the planning and construction of bicycle and pedestrian facilities. (That includes engineering, construction and reconstruction, and even the retrofitting of streets with bicycle and pedestrian facilities like safe-crossing improvements, parking & racks, and even details like bike-friendly drainage grates.)

But Beverly Hills has not claimed $14,529 in Transportation Development Act funds in FY 2011, and the current year’s $17,466 also remains unspent – leaving over $31,000 in an account ready to be forfeited. (See the ledger.) These are improvements that we’ve been asking for, and that would specifically benefit Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction. Indeed cyclists will have to navigate dangerous grates on that corridor even though funds sit in an account today waiting to be spent on such a purpose. Other cities snap these funds up.

Moreover, Beverly Hills has elected to fund the boulevard reconstruction out-of-pocket (i.e. with no federal funds) presumably because such funds come with strings. Indeed, one non-city transport expert I consulted was shocked that the city didn’t go to the feds for money. But again, we go it alone. Cyclists pay the price every day.

What does all this mean for the city’s ‘Bike Plan Update’ process? We’ll know more when we take the temperature of City Council in early March, when the discussion about the city’s bike plan efforts to date gets underway. Will Council give direction to Transportation to finally take street safety seriously? Or will we simply get more of the same pro-forma ‘engagement’ as suggested by the South Beverly Paving notice?