Beverly Hills: Falling Down on Execution [editorial]

Beverly Hills Website early 2012
Beverly Hills says only Flash-based web browsers are welcome.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” That tireless slogan is often uttered by policy pushers when they want to elevate political expedience above effectiveness. It’s the heads-up to recalibrate and ratchet down constituent expectations. Of course we can’t expect perfection; but too often we don’t even get the ‘good.’ For the past six months we’ve waited for Beverly Hills to refresh the city website. It’s been in the pipeline but it simply never materialized. Until now.

Like many initiatives that Beverly Hills undertakes, whether ‘smart city’ or ‘green city’ or bike planning, our rhetoric suggests ambition but founders on execution. Our purported bicycle program for example has been years in the making. But like the city’s website refresh, somewhere it ran aground. What began in early 2010 as an update to our outdated 1970s-era Bicycle Master Plan devolved the next year into a much more limited ‘Pilot program‘ to only identify bike routes and bike-friendly improvements. Shortly thereafter, restrictions were slapped on the program that precluded road diets or removal of street parking or other good practices that achieve more accessible streets and discourage motoring. We see it in neighboring cities but not here.

Then even the limited Pilot program was watered-down. Only three of five routes recommended by our Traffic & Parking Commission to Council, which then rubber stamped only two of them. Of those two, Crescent Drive was truncated and the other, Burton Way (the easiest of the candidate routes) was tossed in later in the process by our Transportation staffers. They were eager to show some progress, no doubt.

For cyclists who ply our streets, though, the proof is in the pudding. Will Pilot measures make any difference in terms of safety or convenience? Will they encourage any additional would-be cyclists to get out that dusty ride and shift a local trip from car to bicycle? Not likely: Beverly Hills will remain the adversary’s territory where hostile drivers dominate car-choked streets because we’ve simply fallen down on planning and implementing safe and complete streets.

When cyclists began participating in the Pilot process, it was with hope that we would find a way to coexist with motor traffic on our city’s narrow streets. We believed that with state-recommended improvements to streets and intersections, we could make bike travel safer and more welcoming. We believed we were participating in a good-faith effort. On the city side, however, the process seemed engineered to produce few improvements.

That slow march of bike planning is paralleled here in Beverly Hills by our city’s faltering efforts to simply update the website. Before pushing the button on this story, we were looking at the old website. That was just a few days ago. It was a tired design implemented in 2008 – that’s five years without an update – even as time-to-refresh on the Internet gets shorter and shorter. In style and function it recalled the glory days of the Internet circa 1999. (See it for yourself on the Wayback Machine’s index.)

Why so long? Last year I took a personalized tour of the Information Technology department deep in the bowels of the library building. So I know it’s not for want of technology. Server tower after server tower hummed. I heard about 99.9% ‘uptime.’ But I didn’t sense any urgency.

City’s Online Presence Lags Its Peers

Many cities see in their online presence the public face of City Hall. And a portal for transactional business. And a communications gateway that shapes community attitudes regarding policy initiatives. Not for nothing do cities keep their homepages interesting and attractive to web visitors by updating regularly and using it to provide near real-time updates on city news.

Not so Beverly Hills. Progress on the refresh was so slow that we were first told the Spring; then Summer; and as Summer turned into Fall, we were still waiting.

A key concern is that any bike-friendly programming that we do will be hampered by the same handicapped implementation that we see today on the city’s new website. This ‘Beta’ release presents the visitor with empty pages, incomplete pages, place-holder text, and links that point nowhere. It’s not like there hasn’t been a chance to test these links! Consider it an indication of what to expect from city initiatives in general. We’ve seen it with our orphaned Beverly Hills iPhone app (as we’ve noted). Indeed the city has been impervious to pleas to be more open with stakeholders and to make site improvements for greater usability. But nothing changed. Is it a product of baked-in resistance?

What does this suggest for improved streets made to be more bike-friendly here in Beverly Hills? It suggests we’ll have a really slow rollout of half-baked measures that exists in some form of ‘Beta’ release for a really long time. Now, it would be one thing if we did let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If we delayed implementation of street safety measures, say, because we wanted to get it just right. Or if we lagged behind but suddenly sprang forth with imaginative approaches to policy problems. If only our transportation planners and policymakers had something truly innovative up their sleeve.

But we don’t lead with innovations. We never have and we likely won’t ever. In fact, the good planning that serves Beverly Hills well today actually dates back nearly one hundred years to our founding. We’ve got great planning ‘bones’ as they say, but it’s been a long time since we complemented our winding streets, alleys, and walkable districts with new planning concepts. Like bike accommodations!

If our city’s new website provided information that we stakeholders need to participate in local government, then we’ll know that we’ve been annexed to some other municipality like West Hollywood. Perhaps then cyclists in and around Beverly Hills could expect safer streets for road users and find, as if handed down from the heavens, the specific treatments that make cycling more safe and enjoyable too.