BH Small Business Task Force: Not Asking the Obvious Questions

How to Generate Additional Foot Traffic?

South Beverly corner in need of beautification

South Beverly corner begs for beautification!

One barrier to increased foot traffic, the Task Force acknowledged, is the “lack of pedestrian ambiance and experience” characteristic of outlying districts. Areas like South Beverly simply don’t see the city’s love. While the Triangle has benefited from fancy tree grates, new furniture, a new hotel with a city-provided gardens (and yes, even a few bike racks), on South Beverly the only improvement we’ve seen is ADA-compliant curb ramps. And that’s because the city had to install them.

DIY beautification on South Beverly

Local shops haul out their own decorations to make South Beverly attractive.

The only new street furniture there is often-unsightly outdoor dining barricades, and each restaurant chooses a different style. Worse, by encroaching into our relatively narrow sidewalks they inhibit circulation (and raise a question about Americans With Disabilities Act compliance).

And that’s not all: look more closely and you will see trees rooted in hastily-poured asphalt with electrical outlets strapped to their trunks in an unsightly fashion (pictured at the top of the post). One high-profile restaurant took beautification into its own hands by hauling out flower pots to camouflage an unsightly tree (right).

The entire South Beverly corridor is an aesthetic improvement opportunity waiting to be seized…but we didn’t need a task force to tell us that. We suggest that the most obvious low-hanging fruit to pick given the many bicycles already locked to lampposts and meter poles on South Beverly is to attract more of the cyclists who already like to shop locally. Why not give us a reason to make South Beverly our destination by bike?

Task Force Finding Example: Bike Racks

The Task Force generated a commendable 21 recommendations across five policy areas. Only two are of interest to cyclists: “enhancing the street level experience for pedestrians and patrons” and “marketing programs that emphasize ‘buy local.'” These were identified as ‘experience’ and ‘local preference’ initiatives, respectively.

Golden Triangle rack with decal

The city applied a decal to make these sharp racks more recognizable.

To its credit, the Task Force identified public art/bike racks for South Beverly at Charleville (a recommendation under ‘pedestrian ambiance and experience’). It follows on the Triangle’s earlier beautification effort which included rather expensive (if hard to spot) stainless racks.

Yet demand for bike racks today is already considerable up and down the corridor as we’ve pointed out; in targeting only one intersection for an art rack ‘pilot,’ the Task Force passes up an opportunity to accommodate and encourage all cyclists who would make South Beverly their destination – particularly the southern-most shops that really need the business. By isolating one intersection, the Task Force overlooked the opportunity to make the entire South Beverly district a thematic whole. (That’s the purpose of an art rack, after all.)

Long Beach art bike rack example.

Art racks make accommodating cyclists fun, says City of Long Beach.

Now, pragmatically, art racks tap the city’s river of public arts-dedicated funding. It could bring distinctive racks to an area that has not a single rack. If that gets racks on the ground sooner rather than later, let’s try the pilot and roll it out more broadly. But it’s not clear what the ‘pilot’ will test. Rack use? Retailer approval or disapproval? Why not roll it out more widely now?

The cycling community has been very vocal about the need for bike racks throughout the commercial districts of the city. In four meetings with the city’s Bike Plan Update Committee and transportation officials, we’ve consistently pointed out that bike racks are a transportation enhancement no different than a public parking space. If the goal is to attract foot traffic, bike racks encourage would-be cyclists to visit shops that they might not have visited otherwise. Just as we provide parking for motorists, we should accommodate those who choose to bike. Policymakers seem to recognize a car parking deficit, but not a bike parking one.

Task Force Finding: Buy Local

Cyclists have been out front in arguing that bike facilities like racks and bike lanes are not only a transportation enhancement but an economic development tool as well. From New York to Portland, cities are installing bike lanes and ‘corrals’ of bike racks to make cycling both convenient and attractive. And it’s working: studies are beginning to highlight the positive association between the presence of bike facilities and a fatter bottom line for local retailers. These revitalized small retail districts thrive on foot traffic that arrives on two wheels. Some studies highlight the larger contribution to the overall economy made by cyclists, while still others suggest how modest steps can lead to a significant uptick in cycling for utility transportation.

For too long, cyclists have been under-recognized as an economic force (not to mention political constituency). But it’s a movement that’s growing today. Only Beverly Hills among Westside cities (and indeed many cities across the Southland) fails to recognize the coming wave of everyday ‘utility cyclists’ who will change how we transport ourselves.

When the Task Force recognized the value of ‘buy local’ to the retailing bottom line, it failed to recognize that cyclists are the most ardent ‘buy local’ enthusiasts. So while the Task Force recommended that the city ramp up the use of “exclusive offers” to induce BH businesses and residents to shop locally, and even suggested that city purchasing prioritize local vendors, it didn’t recognize that the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition already has in place an extensive small business discount program (county-wide) to encourage people to bike. Just show up with a helmet and receive a discount from a participating retailer. If we’re talking ‘exclusive’ offers, what class of shopper in Beverly Hills today is more exclusive than those who arrive by bike?

Simply extending economic inducements like financial incentives, grants, and loans are not a means to sustainable ends. The small retailers that enjoy deeply discounted rents on Crescent today will be in no position tomorrow to pay anywhere near market rents.

Again, the key is increased foot traffic, not motor traffic. Today, our shopping dollars flee  Beverly Hills for a variety of reasons. Maybe it’s inconvenient to park the car. Residents may perceive a scarcity of everyday goods and services. And other cities are just sometimes more pleasant to visit. Santa Monica and West Hollywood work hard to make their cities better places, and their vacancy rates and asking prices reflect that effort. Not coincidentally, those are cities that actively discourage motoring by slowing traffic speeds and limiting free parking opportunities in their central business districts.

Why does Beverly Hills so tightly adhere to an auto-centric paradigm that these other cities are turning away from? And what does that suggest for the future of small retailing districts that can’t depend on major hotels or Rodeo Drive for bleed-over foot traffic?

What is Missing From the Task Force Findings

The Task Force’s findings is notable for not considering the potential positive contribution of cycling to retail foot traffic. Why? It’s not as if our plans don’t explicitly mention the importance of active transportation. The General Plan (2010) envisions a bicycle route network that will shift travel from cars to bikes. Our Sustainability Plan (2009) suggests that we “walk and ride a bicycle whenever possible Organize errands to avoid multiple trips” as but one “simple thing that you can do to encourage a more livable city.” It continues:

“…if neighborhoods are pedestrian friendly and if services are close by, people will walk more. If there are safe bicycle routes and if secure bicycle parking is available then people will bicycle more.”

But active transportation advocates weren’t at the Task Force table. For months the Southeast BH Revitalization Task Force has met to figure out how to support small businesses there, but no cyclist was at that table either. Yet we’ve been saying for years that the more people who walk and bike in Beverly Hills, that many more people make local shops their destination. We see evidence up and down South Beverly ever day; even today, a dozen bikes were locked up on the 200 block alone (with not a bike rack in sight). We could double that with bike-friendly facilities there. Forget replacing Ficus with Palm trees, as recommended by the Task Force. That’s fool’s errand. Give people who like to bike an excuse to stop and shop.

The Task Force also recommends the creation of a ‘parking strategic plan’ and the development of a parking demand model. Incredibly, it recommends even more capital investment in our public parking facilities. This is not the most cost-effective investment for our city, nor even a prudent one. As it is, our Parking Authority will need $5 million every year just to begin to break even, according to a recent staff report, simply because revenues don’t come near to covering our costs. In the next ten years we’re looking at $25 million simply to accommodate motorists.

We can plan all we want for public-private partnerships and valets, but the truth is that these programs are of dubious value today. We have an in-lieu parking program that can’t begin to find sufficient space for our shoppers who arrive by car. And come evening, valets create additional friction on our main retail streets because they slow traffic with double-parkers. Some valets are simply ill-placed and create a safety hazard. We need to think outside that box.

Active Transportation is One Answer, and Probably the Best Answer

Just as expanding roads induces new traffic, creating additional parking opportunities only encourages the wrong mode choice for today and tomorrow. Our plans say as much. So it’s time to revisit the auto-centric paradigm that seems to preclude imaginative approaches to problem-solving.

There are no shortage of examples up the Western seaboard, and in cities like Denver, Chicago, New York (and even the Southeast) where policymakers recognize that economic development depends on foot traffic, not motor traffic. So they’re rolling out the goodies to attract us: bike lanes, bike boxes, signage, bike racks and many other improvements that say, You are welcome here.

Locally, we need only look to Santa Monica and West Hollywood (and even Los Angeles) to see the economic benefits of encouraging people to ride and shop locally. The data suggest as much, and we believe that their policymakers agree.

Cyclists have been in the forefront of advocating for on-street facilities like bike lanes and bike racks in order to create the vital commercial districts and sustainable local commerce that we value. The successful districts that attract us elsewhere have many physical characteristics in common with our own low-rise commercial areas: smaller shops, eclectic retailers, and nearby amenities like coffee shops. We crave authenticity and eschew chain stores; we want convenience and we shop where we’re welcome. And our business helps to create thriving micro-districts that would be the envy of Beverly Hills policymakers.

Why can’t it happen here? If we’re identifying barriers, let’s talk about safety and convenience. “Dangerous streets” is the number one complaint we hear from would-be cyclists in Beverly Hills. We never tire of noting that not one on-street bike facility makes riding safer here. And there’s not been a single new rack installed in any retail district in years. We have about as many public parking structures as bike racks (not including a few at the schools) – isn’t that incredible? Though we have a weekday population that swells with workers at medium- and large-sized firms, there is no program to provide racks for their employees if they choose to ride. Incredible!

Our plans talk the talk but our policymakers don’t walk the walk. And that is where this Task Force got it wrong. We’re a city cemented in the auto era with a Transportation department wedded to Macadam and too much parking. We depend on problem-solvers like a task force to think outside the box. That hasn’t happened with these findings.

While it will surely be a challenge for our policymakers to acknowledge that increased foot traffic can indeed arrive by bike, we certainly won’t engage that challenge if we exclude from the scope and spirit of our problem-solving mechanism the lowest-hanging fruit that already seems to be ripening elsewhere for the small business community.