Regardless of how we perceived the Bike Plan Update Committee’s Pilot process, however, in the end the two commissioners who oversaw it came out strongly for cyclist-friendly safety improvements. They even advised their fellow reluctant commissioners that our city already stands out as a do-nothing “black hole for bike planning” as blogger Ted Rogers often puts it. They cautioned that to fail to send these five proposed routes on with an endorsement would be to risk falling even further behind.
“I believe that we should recommend as may routes to Council as possible,” said Commissioner and committee Chair Levine. “I’m definitely for it,” added Commissioner Grushcow. “It is a win-win for the community.” He added:
It is 2012 and bikes are part of the discussion. Every single community is putting together studies – the City of Los Angeles has been for years now. We can’t avoid it. There is concern, support, even fear, but it has to be addressed because it’s on the table in every community. It is not about ‘the bikers’ or the drivers but it is about everybody, and we have to get along. We have to define a spine or a core – something we can look at and study….
Commissioner Levine said that sidestepping improvements may put the city at a competitive disadvantage relative to other cities that do welcome cyclists (something we’ve been telling the Bike Plan Update Committee for the past year). It turns out that they were listening after all!
If the commissioners sitting on the Bike Plan Update Committee were engaged after all, what accounts for shaping a process that at every turn seemed to discount the value of participation? That’s an easy call: Beverly Hills Public Works. The Transportation division that managed the Pilot process is an arm of Public Works, which is a big department in a small town and one that doesn’t much care for public participation.
#1: Communication is Key
The record suggests that Public Works doesn’t much care for public participation. The Public Works Commission, for example, continued to generate image-based agenda PDFs invisible to search engines long after we first raised concerns. (Fully 80% of the 2011 agendas that we reviewed were formatted in a way that precluded indexing by search engines.) The Public Works Commission has also yet to post any minutes from its 2012 meetings. And the last posted PW meeting audio dates to mid-2010. (We had a look because the department’s fiscal year 2011-12 stated goal was to post 100% of minutes and audio – a goal not met.)
Even today, the Pilot program website is a jumble of old and new documents with no narrative to explain them. Effective communications is Planning 101! Then again, the Public Works department’s workplan said that providing informational materials to the public was an objective, but the lobby brochure carousel in its building is always as bare as a birch tree in a northeast winter. Can’t some staffer find some paper to jam into this lonely display?
None of this suggests department-side interest, and we participants fully appreciated the Public Works department’s lack of commitment. Not surprisingly, participation by cyclists had waned across the five meetings held as fewer bothered to show up.
#2: Identify the Goals
The best indication of the lack of commitment to the Pilot process is the department’s failure to ever communicate the Pilot program’s goal(s). We in the bike community cited road safety as our key objective throughout meetings with the ad-hoc Bike Plan Update committee. Yet safety appears nowhere in Traffic & Parking Commission or Bike Plan Update Committee materials as a statement of purpose. Search for “safety” and ye shall not find. If the city shared the cycling community’s goal for safer streets, you wouldn’t know it. But then again, no other goal was mentioned by Transportation officials either. So what’s the purpose of the program again?
#3: Analyze Current Conditions
The Traffic & Parking Commission deliberated on five proposed Pilot routes without any data whatsoever indicating which corridors cyclists prefer today. That’s because our city has conducted no bike count. While we see cyclists pass by on Charleville every day (as the Commission Chair recognized), and we see their bikes locked to meters all up and down South Beverly (as the staff note), we haven’t yet measured the prevalence of cyclists on city streets. Without hard data, anecdotal (i.e., gut) arguments ruled the meeting and the split commission rejected these two key routes.
We learned in planning school that traffic counts precede traffic plans. Is creating a bike route system any different? If our own planners don’t want to do it, why not hire Better Bike to conduct a bike count according to LACBC protocol?
#4: Public Health and Welfare is the Planner’s Job
We carefully plan and construct roads in order to provide road users safe travel. That’s transportation engineering. But somehow cyclists don’t figure into that mission. If we did, transportation planners would scrutinize corridors and intersections for improvements. We do that by looking at bike-involved collision data but our planners evidently never asked for the data. Indeed, safety played no role in our meetings with city officials nor was any substantive part of the Commission’s deliberations. Shouldn’t it have?
Better Bike has obtained and analyzed bike-involved injury and fatality collisions data for 2006-2010 from the California Highway Patrol via its Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System database. We’ve even gained the most recent data for injuries through 2011. Why can we do it but not the planners or the consultants that have guided the Pilot process? Here’s an idea: hire Better Bike as a mobility consultant and we’ll tell you exactly where are the problem areas. (But then again, we’ve already indicated a few and the city has chosen not to make improvements.)
The conclusion that we draw is that our Transportation division of Public Works is not an office with a planning function. We’ve been critical throughout about missteps and oversights, sure, but in retrospect we wonder if we might have applied the wrong standard here. Transportation is foremost a division of Public Works that exists to fulfill the contracting function, it appears. Public Works paves roads and Transportation officials makes sure that the contract is let and executed properly. Is it too much to ask for this division to undertake a real planning exercise? If that’s the case, then we’ve been heading down the wrong road for too long with this Pilot program.
The next step is City Council in late June. There we can use our data to refocus our argument and perhaps persuade Beverly Hills elected policymakers that the split decision on the Pilot recommendation delivered by a split Traffic & Parking Commission is actually a disservice to cyclists once all of the actual evidence is brought to the table. We can argue that innovations being implemented elsewhere have a place on our streets too. And we can remind policymakers that circular logic and counter-intuitive claims have no place in a real planning process.
Update: As if any more indication were needed that Transportation staff simply can’t get this process right, I was forwarded a staff report for the May 9th meeting today by a third party, a week after the meeting. It contains material provided to the commission but not released publicly, including safety data and public comments – material we could have used to better discuss this Pilot in commission.
Evidently none of it was posted online or otherwise distributed, though it was bundled with the pre-‘revised’ agenda (which itself was never posted online). Neither the staff report nor either the pre- or post-revision agendas is posted to the committee’s document page.