City Releases Draft SM Blvd. Reconstruction RFP

The city has released the draft Santa Monica Boulevard Reconstruction project request for proposals (RFP) for City Council review. The RPF will be reviewed by City Council tomorrow, on April 17th, prior to direction to Transportation and solicitation of bids for the conceptual design part of this $12 million project. How the city presents the project to bidders reflects what the city expects to see at project end, so we may know more about corridor bike lanes very soon.

Reconstruction of Santa Monica Boulevard will start in 2013 with work expected to conclude late in 2014. As we look forward to new options for moving about town and the region, including walking, cycling, transit, and perhaps a real bus rapid transit line on Wilshire on day, much will depend on how we plan for mobility. Our plans say the right things, but will our policymakers make the right decisions in order to anticipate demand for alternative forms of transportation? Will the city seize the opportunity or simply give us more of what we have today?

As the staff report to Council makes clear, “core reconstruction” will include a down-to-gravel rearrangement of utilities, new “enhancements” like transit-related improvements and landscaped median, and landscaped city gateways. Also mentioned is ‘consideration’ of bike lanes. Phase I will culminate in a conceptual design for the new boulevard followed by phase II plans & cost estimates and ultimately Phase III work.

Here we’re interested in bike lanes and transit-related enhancements because over the long term they will either encourage, or hinder, non-auto use of the corridor. We parse the language of the draft RFP and a few key points to anticipate what the final conceptual design for the reconstructed corridor might be. Your comments are welcome! Better yet, send them to City Council too!

To Widen or Not to Widen?

The first aspect of of the RFP that draws our attention is the staff report’s note that the city owns an additional 20 feet of right-of-way beyond the curb face – ample room to totally re-imagine the boulevard for auto, transit, and active transportation uses. Then comes the cold shower: “City Council direction to date has been that no widening of the roadway will occur beyond the existing curb face.” As our former Mayor said when we petitioned for bike lanes, “All options are on the table.” In the next breath he added, “We’re not widening the boulevard!” (We cycling advocates have our work cut out for us.)

The problem here is two-fold: the boulevard is not of consistent width today, so it’s not clear what ‘widening’ means exactly; and the opposition to widening is imputed to community opposition though it’s not clear that the community would be opposed to, say, taking an additional foot to add bike lanes on the more narrow parts of the alignment.

One need not have the city’s engineering study in hand to see that the curb-to-curb right-of-way width is not consistent through the corridor. It is noticeably wider at the eastern end, particularly where it splits to accommodate the so-called ‘pork chop’ (at Doheney) that once allowed the Pacific Electric streetcar to transition from south-side tracks to the center median in West Hollywood. There is no uniform curb-to-curb to maintain.

Second, the boulevard even at its minimum width is nearly wide enough to accommodate dual Class II lanes if we narrow travel lanes according to Caltrans minimums. Yet city transportation officials are very quick to discount even an incremental expansion. The reason: the south side offers only two feet of city-owned right-of-way, and the city’s ‘temporary’ (now not temporary) parking structures sidle up to the boulevard with just a few additional feet of setback. So the opportunity for expansion comes on the north side’s historic Beverly Gardens park (some of which is simply wasted on utility boxes).

Besides, if room is so limited, why is the city is pondering the addition of a median? If bi-directional bike lanes can’t be fitted to this ‘backbone’ bike route, wouldn’t a landscaped median be a non-starter too?

More to the point, the RFP goes out of its way to wave away the opportunities presented by even incremental expansion. On page 4 the RFP states: “Current City Council direction is that the roadway will not be expanded” (reiterated in the staff report). Then there’s this too: “Although it is assumed that the roadway is not anticipated to be widened…..” ‘Assumed‘ without any public debate at all? Were that not sufficient, that same page puts a fine point on it: “The project team shall plan to present their final recommendations to the Council by the end of 2012 with no changes anticipated to the existing roadway width.” Done.

The Bike Lanes Message: Not Really

Now, the city has instructed its RFP bidders to include bike lanes in their proposals as an optional ‘enhancement.’ And we’ve worked hard to persuade city officials not to box out bike lanes for this corridor entirely, so it’s good to see lanes at least referenced. But it is not difficult to see that the city angling not to include lanes. Why not ask the engineer-bidders to figure out how to do it? The message here is coded:

Graphics should show in detail the constrains of the existing curb faces and also show the amount of additional roadway (if any) that would be required to have a bicycle lane in each direction.

The question is not, How can we do it? The RFP makes clear we want to know How we can’t do it. And why are bike lanes (and even sidewalks) optional, according to the RFP? As we’ve maintained since early 2010, bike lanes should be part of the core project.

Indeed, in several places the RFP refers to median and the transit improvements but makes no similar mention of bike lanes (much less any kind of other improvement like ‘bike boxes’ or dedicated signals for our dangerous intersections. This tells the bidder that dual Class II on-boulevard lanes are really not under serious consideration. Bidders only need prepare an exhibit showing why it’s hard to do.

Bike Lane Alternatives

In lieu of dual bike lanes, the RFP suggests one alternative might be sharrows (shared-lane markings). But sharrows are no substitute for a dedicated space for cycling on a heavy-duty corridor once identified as a freeway route (the RFP helpfully recalls) wher speeds routinely meet and exceed 50 mph. Wouldn’t sharrows simply mix cyclists in with the traffic just as happens today? Yes. The sharrow is simply not a safe option and it shouldn’t be identified as one.

Lurking in the background is the city’s preferred option of putting a westbound lane on Carmelita, a relatively sleepy street north of the boulevard. Why? Because it is easy. Yet cycling advocates have already noted the problem: Carmelita is not only a roundabout way of crossing town, it is studded with stop signs too. (That is the reason why motorists don’t take it – it’s not convenient.) Even the city’s own feasibility study consultant found that westbound re-entry onto SM boulevard is problematic (the intersection is uncontrolled).

The Transportation division of Public Works has talked about Carmelita as the preferred westbound route for so long, it’s not surprising that the RFP downplays the better option – a westbound boulevard bike lane. What’s really surprising the a larger omission: the RFP makes not reference whatsoever to Complete Streets road design.

Complete Street Principles Go Missing from the RFP

Curb bulbout in the triangle
Our business triangle has already embraced selected Complete Streets design principles. What about our main corridors?

A ‘complete street’ is a street designed to enable safe access for all users regardless of age or ability. And an accessible street is one that facilitates mobility for drivers, transit users, pedestrians, and bicyclists alike. It may include frequent crossing opportunities, safety-enhancing engineering like curb extensions and median islands, safety signage and audible signals, and traffic-slowing narrow travel lanes. Of course it could well include bike lanes.

‘Complete Streets’ is the policy framework behind equity in road access (FAQ). Here in California, legislators passed a complete streets law in 2009 mandating local governments to begin including in General Plans and other planning documents the language and substance of complete streets principles. (Read more about implementation in California.) Cities here had through January of 2011 to comply, but Beverly Hills handily updated our General Plan in January of 2010 – beating the deadline. As a result, we have no Complete Streets language. But that doesn’t mean we can’t embrace the principles for all major projects going forward.

A bike box
The bike box is a reserved space for cyclists that facilitates left turns or an advance start ahead of motorists.

For Santa Monica Boulevard, Complete Streets treatments should include bike lanes, high-visibility pavement markings for pedestrians and cyclists in all intersections, bike boxes (left) and bicycle priority signals at particularly busy intersections (like Santa Monica and Wilshire), and of course audible signals throughout the corridor.

But from the RFP it seems like we’ve simply chosen not to embrace Complete Streets principles. We’ve not provided bidders any guidance in this regard. Will the City of Beverly Hills include for Santa Monica Boulevard the Complete Street principles that will keep people safe – and indeed that today mark our business triangle – or will we refashion this corridor much in the same way as it is today: the once-proposed freeway that came into being albeit without the state freeway designation?

Remember, City Council has an opportunity to comment on the RFP tomorrow, Tuesday. Let’s hope they do the right thing and provide guidance to Transportation that our city is not served by a presumption of ‘no’ when what we need is a pathway to ‘yes’ for SM Blvd. bike lanes.

[Update: City Council will review this RFP in Study Session at 2 pm in Council chambers. Note that the current document is dated April 17th; the annotated document referenced here is an earlier draft. The only difference is a reference to providing improvements to all transit stops – not just the Rapids, which is a positive change; reference to an outstanding RFP for the Wilshire Whittier gateway; and specifics including a meeting with bidders scheduled for May 10th at 2 pm. If it’s public, we’ll be there.]