Santa Monica Boulevard Tour #1 Recap

SM Blvd tour: Michael Meyer from Iteris
Iteris planner Michael Meyer leads the Santa Monica reconstruction project tour.

Members of the Santa Monica Boulevard ‘blue-ribbon’ committee this past Wednesday joined city staffers Aaron Kunz (Deputy Director of Transportation), Susan Healey Keene (Director of Community Development) and project consultants Michael Meyers for a mobile tour of the corridor. With the introductory meeting of the committee behind us, the tour provided a up-close look at the issues and opportunities presented by a ground-up reconstruction. Here’s our tour recap.

Santa Monica Boulevard pavement irregularitiesA capacity group of about 17 tour-takers saw first-hand last Wednesday how the formerly state-managed Santa Monica Boulevard blacktop has deteriorated since Caltrans turned it over to Beverly Hills nearly a decade ago. For bicycle riders in particular it’s been a pain in the arse: potholes, tire-trapping storm drains and hazardous intersections all conspire to make this crosstown corridor a deathtrap.

A ground-up reconstruction of Santa Monica Boulevard beginning in late 2014 promises to visually remake this eyesore, but to what extent will ‘complete streets’ improvements and bike-friendly improvements like bicycle lanes make traveling safer for all road users? Reconstruction presents a once-a-century opportunity to make these long-overdue improvements (just like our plans say we should). Chief among them are continental-style crosswalks and, of course, Class II bicycle lanes – the latter to plug the existing gap between lanes in Century City and West Hollywood.

Today’s tour was an opportunity for the appointed ‘blue-ribbon’ committee to take a look at project conditions. (Full disclosure: Better Bike has been appointed by councilmember Lili Bosse and informally represents the interests of riders on the committee.) Here’s the tour route:Santa Monica Blvd project tour: the itinerary

First Stop: Eastern Gateway

Santa Monica Blvd pork chop island
This island facilitated the red car crossover from the south side to the center median of Santa Monica Boulevard at Doheny.

Our tour embarked from City Hall in an ersatz trolley car bound for the city’s eastern gateway (at Doheny Drive).

That we rode a fake trolley added an ironic grace note to this tour: the corridor was famously plied by the Pacific Electric’s legendary ‘red cars’ for decades. Reminders still exist. Near Doheny we can see where the rails crossed the eastbound lanes. And in the center of the boulevard stands an island that allowed them to transition to a median alignment into Hollywood.

That triangular island (aka the ‘pork chop’), like the adjacent fenced-off land on the boulevard’s south side, is privately-owned. Though the city has half-heartedly negotiated a purchase, it won’t come in time for this project. The boulevard will simply be reconstructed around it, according to Aaron Kunz, Deputy Director of Transportation.

But the land leftover from the old rail line offers great potential. Recently our City Council talked about a linear park (or ‘greenbelt’) for the western gateway; it would run along Santa Monica Boulevard’s south side  Here at the eastern gateway near Doheny, likewise, grassland on the south side could be a bookend for the linear park. Here’s what we think a greenbelt with a Class II lanes incorporated into it could look like.

Visualization of a bike lane and active transportation corridor on Santa Monica Boulevard
A bike lane and active transportation corridor is a perfect tribute to the Pacific Electric line!

Second Stop: Palm Drive

SM Blvd tour: Beverly and Palm
Tour-takers getting an earful of frustrated speeders at Beverly Boulevard & Palm.

The tour then proceeded west toward the Beverly Boulevard/Palm intersection. Standing at the corner, the tour group could feel road-borne hostility as it emanated from impatient motorists. (From inside the tour trolley we had a taste of what it feels like to ride: drivers buzzed close-by and honked at the trolley.) This stretch of the corridor feels more like the (once-planned) Beverly Hills Freeway than a two-lane corridor adjacent to Beverly Gardens Park.

SM Blvd tour: Beverly Gardens Park is very wide
Beverly Gardens Park already includes designated boulevard right-of-way under that grass!

This stop also illustrated just how wide is Beverly Gardens Park, and how little of the grass would actually be needed in order to incorporate dual Class II bicycle lanes on the corridor. In fact, this grassland has not necessarily been shown the love over the years. Storm drains were paved over; sidewalks were never added; and ugly utility cabinets randomly punctuated the park.

SM Blvd tour: 3-feet staked
Stakes illustrate the width necessary to provide every rider with a margin of safety through Class II bicycle lanes.

Project consultants helpfully staked off the three feet necessary for a margin-of-safety for riders that could make all of the difference (left). It might mean the difference between an anxiety-provoking journey at the bumper of a car versus some peace of mind while afforded a dedicated piece of the blacktop. Drivers benefit too when those who ride a bicycle have their own place on the street!

SM Blvd tour: poorly maintained markings
Poor intersection maintenance compromises walker and rider safety.

Beverly Hills has ignored not only riders’ needs. Witness how poorly we’ve maintained our intersections. This one at Beverly Boulevard and Palm shows the neglect: fading paint, not thermoplastic as in other cities, is the rule; and still we adhere to outdated designs long after other cities have begun to roll out safer, ‘continental-style’ zebra crosswalks.

Third Stop: Park Way

SM Blvd tour: bus stop benchOf course it’s not just riders and walkers who have been forgotten by the city. SM Blvd tour: bus stop without bench or padTransit riders also fare badly in Beverly Hills. At Canon Drive the committee could witness the disregard firsthand: for the lucky, bus stops boast a bare bench and a concrete pad. For the less-fortunate there is only a sign (at right).

From the treatment, you would think that mass transit in Beverly Hills is an afterthought. It is not. We depend on mass transit to shuttle workers in and residents out without adding unnecessarily to auto congestion. Bevery Hills bus lines map from MetroIndeed our city is served by a dozen bus lines. And no fewer than four of them traverse Santa Monica Boulevard. For too long, though, transit riders have been the poor cousins to those who choose to drive, while bicycle riders are simply orphans to our transportation officials. Hopefully this committee will see the importance of making our corridor welcoming to all users – including those who ride a bicycle.

Fourth Stop: Presbyterian & Good Shepherd Churches

SM Blvd tour: sidewalk at curb
Irregular conditions near the business triangle.

This stop illustrated some of the structural problems on this corridor: broken or nonexistent curbs, the now-you-see-it-now-it’s-gone sidewalk, and substandard handicapped ramps at the crosswalk. The chaos only highlights the advantage of a total reconstruction: planners can finally ‘rationalize’ (as planners say) these irregular features and bring our poor handicap-accessible facilities up to snuff.

Those who would oppose losing any grass at all should consider how institutional and other uses already intrude into the Beverly Gardens Park experience. (Council has even discussed putting a seasonal ice rink here!) That three-feet wide bicycle lane can easily find a home here. Indeed how narrow a 3-foot ‘take’ really is was well-illustrated by consultant Michael Meyer’s yardstick:

SM Blvd tour: 3-feet yardstick
Planner Michael Meyer’s yardstick shows just how narrow is three feet!

Also at this stop, Mr. Meyer pointed out the available space for open/green space in the center of the boulevard. (Click to animate)

SM Blvd median without landscapingTo our consultant’s credit he suggested that a landscaped median (fully 11 feet wide) could redress any potential loss of grass. We think that’s a great exchange for safety.

Wrapping Up

The tour’s final leg took the trolley to the western gateway where Santa Monica Boulevard South (aka ‘Little SM’) branches off to enter the business triangle. The tour passed through the perilous Wilshire Boulevard intersection. Given sky-high traffic volume and poor design, it is among our region’s very worst junctures. The city has simply resisted improving it even temporarily.

We didn’t stay for that part of the tour, though. Better Bike is well acquainted with the area because we bike it often. Moreover, we’ve appeared before our Planning Commission to urge that a bike and ped path be included as part of any future policy or project for the western gateway. So with the sun hanging low in the fall sky it was time to get back to the city’s only rack corral near the library, grab the bike and head home.

We can’t say that this tour was high-value but rather it gave us an opportunity to listen to committee members ask about the project. One could think that only motorists, churchgoers, joggers and tourists are stakeholders; we heard not a word about the needs of those who ride a bicycle on Santa Monica. Should the committee want a close-up view of that experience, we are happy to lead committee members on a PM rush-hour bike tour. Just ask!

Tomorrow, Sunday, at 1pm the ersatz trolley again departs. (More information here.) Show up and voice your concerns about how we can find that three feet of grass necessary to safeguard those who choose to traverse Santa Monica by bicycle – and who will ride it for generations to come.