SM Boulevard Blue-Ribbon #2 [recap]

The public outreach process for the reconstruction of Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills continued with the second of three meetings of the blue-ribbon committee on December 10th. After a presentation from consultant Psomas, committee members continued our discussion about project design alternatives and which of them should be recommended to City Council in late January. Could the committee support bicycle lanes for Santa Monica Boulevard to enhance regional connectivity and rider safety? Here’s our recap.

Recall that the blue-ribbon committee was formed by City Council this fall to make recommendations to Council concerning the appropriate design for tomorrow’s Santa Monica Boulevard. Among the project’s goals (read more in our project profile):

  • Consider ‘complete streets’ to enhance safety and promote other modes
  • Respect the character and protect green space
  • Maintain access to the business triangle
  • Minimize construction impacts
  • Maintain vehicular flow

But the first meeting of the blue-ribbon committee in November suggested that not all committee members value alternative transportation or see Santa Monica Boulevard as a multimodal mobility corridor. So bicycle lanes remain a tough sell for committee members who may view cycling only as a recreation activity. For reference here are the options on the table:

Santa Monica conceptual design optionsCommittee Chair Barry Pressman earlier had polled committee members in his effort to prioritize traffic flow over every other project consideration. In a committee ballot, complete streets did indeed fall down the list of priorities. And in this meeting, Chair Pressman moved to eliminate bicycle lanes altogether from consideration. Again he suggested a straw poll: Should the committee even continue to consider bicycle lanes as an option?

Spoiler: after a discussion about the safety and cost aspects of adding lanes, and hearing much support for lanes from members of the public, all but five committee members chose not to consider adding bicycle lanes to the boulevard. But the good news is that five committee members did want to study lanes and succeeded in keeping the option on the table. Let’s take a closer look at how it unfolded!

December Meeting Highlights

Psomas’s Jeffrey Chess, who is marshaling process coordination and document production, introduced the priorities that were reordered by the committee at the first meeting: 1) maintain vehicular flow, 2) preserve character, and 3) maintain access to the triangle. But Chess noted that three of the priorities – traffic flow, corridor character, and construction mitigation – we largely beyond the committee’s purview anyway. Flow won’t be affected (traffic lanes will continue to be two lanes in each direction); character won’t appreciably change as the project is scoped as curb-to-curb construction; and mitigation will be considered in more detail by the Traffic and Parking Commission (two commissioners sit on this committee as well).

But Psomas did need direction on the options that were before the committee: 1) to add a median (landscaped or not); 2) whether or not to incorporate bicycle lanes; and 3) whether to include any other ‘enhancements’ like turn lanes and bus cutouts and the like. Should complete streets treatments be incorporated into the project?* Here Psomas wanted to focus on the key decision: Should the city widen the boulevard beyond today’s curb-to-curb width? And beyond that, if grass is needed to expand, would the committee see a landscaped 11’ median as a suitable tradeoff if it nets additional greened space on the corridor?**

Bicycle lanes emerged as the central concern. Iteris Consultant Michael Meyer discussed the boulevard profile and how it would change if lanes were incorporated (an additional 6’ at most of grass needed along a certain segment). Meyer also noted that riders already use the boulevard and would likely use it more after reconstruction, and would enjoy the entire right lane. The state vehicular code allows it, he said, and a new law to require three feet of room to pass (in a lane that would be 12’ wide) would in effect slow traffic to the rider’s speed. He added that bicycle lanes actually reduce the ‘friction’ among road users and might facilitate traffic flow. (In response to a committee question, Meyer said that cyclists are not obligated to meet any speed minimum.)

But the state law’s allowance of the full lane was news to most committee members. Yet even after being informed that cyclists can legally slow traffic by riding in the traffic lane, committee members still expressed concern that bicycle lanes would slow traffic. Committee members also asked about project costs (unknown with precision as cost will be dictated by project particulars) and opportunities to expand into the south-side right-of-way in lieu of the north side (the narrow right-of-way and privately owned land on the south edge make it impractical).

Other questions: whether widening would put cars closer to the sidewalk near the churches (no; a bike lane would be an additional traffic buffer); whether bicycle lanes would complicate emergency vehicle access (no, actually allow for additional room for vehicles); the opportunity of syncing traffic signals (they were just upgraded); and if the bicycle lane would impede right turns (no). Committee members also asked about the availability of data for collisions in or near the bicycle lane (“there will be safety problems”) and whether studies have compared traffic flow with and without bicycle lanes (“with a bicycle lane I move to the left, I drive slower”).

Safety matters. And data matters. In fact, in the first meeting we asked about collision data for the corridor, but to date none has been forthcoming from the city. So your Better Bike representative spoke up here to say that the BHPD collision data for 2012 shows that riders are overrepresented in injury collisions as reported to police citywide. Though we’re only a half-percent (or less) of road traffic, we account for as much as 15% of those collision injuries. (We might have misstated it: the figure for 2012 is closer to 10%.) That data is provided to the Traffic and Parking Commission every month, but neither the commission as a whole, nor the two T&P Commission representatives on this committee, Andy Licht and Lester Friedman, mentioned the disproportionate danger presented by vehicles to those who ride a bicycle in the city.

Many of their questions have already been answered as bicycle lanes have been a part of mobility planning in California for decades. Perhaps committee members haven’t observed existing bicycle lanes in operation in surrounding cities?

Nevertheless, the choice before the committee is whether to recommend no bicycle lane or path; to recommend a Class II (on-street) bicycle lane in one or both directions; or perhaps to recommend a class III bicycle path in Beverly Gardens Park. That could be in lieu of an on-street lane. “Could that be a shared pathway?” asked a committee member. “It is feasible,” said Meyer. A shared bike-ped path like the one adjacent to the Orange Line was workable. “But not west of Wilshire – there’s only space for an 8’ sidewalk there. Maybe between Doheny and Crescent. But we’ll still see hardcore cyclists on the street.”

Public Comment

Turnout was pretty good considering that the city has done little to promote these meetings beyond a one-time mailer. (Neither of our two newspapers have prefaced this process effort with a mention in the news pages, and the city has placed no advertisements….though both the Courier and the Weekly have printed our letters.) On balance, active transportation supporters greatly outnumbered those in opposition to bicycle lanes, for example. Here’s what they said:

  • “I’m a 32 year resident and physician and I drive and ride. As a Medicare card carrier, I know we lose peripheral vision. We need more light. Older people have difficulty with driving. And there are dangers associated with speeding on SM. The simple answer is to slow traffic or erect barriers because cycling is not going away. Santa Monica Boulevard was always used by cyclists and they will take over the [traffic] lane if there’s not a bike lane. They’ll still be on the road, so not adding [facilities for] active transportation will be a mistake.”
  • “My take: a bicycle path on Santa Monica Boulevard is a terrible idea. Put money into curbs, roadway drainable. Eliminate the bike path [option]. Riding a bike on Santa Monica Boulevard is like riding on the 405 freeway – it’s a bad idea.”
  • “I’m an attorney and I specialize in bike accidents. I’m also a LACBC board member. I’ll make myself accessible to the committee. First, bike lanes reduce accidents. A bike lane would make Santa Monica Boulevard safer. Second, federal funds may be available through five federal organizations. So let’s put money into bike lanes.”
  • “I’m in the real estate business and I belong to a 16-member cycling organization. A bike lane is very helpful: it lets traffic flow and doesn’t slow it down. Without one we have to come into the street here in Beverly Hills. And second it decreases accidents and deaths. Without bike lanes, drivers don’t have the patience….”
  • “I received calls from my neighbors once every 10 years when there’s a plan to cut into the park. [Potholes on] Santa Monica Boulevard should be dealt with right now by Public Works. But the park is hot-button. It’s also an economic concern. What does it cost for each of these design elements? And it’s a [right turn] safety issue: the last thing we want is a bike lane.”
  • “This looks like a grand design imposed on our little community without regard. I like bicycles and I like the environmental benefits and support it. And I feel that we should make accommodations for it. But staff is leading this committee into a conclusion…. According to them it’s ‘the bicycle committee.’”
  • “As a League-certified instructor I urge you to think of improvements to Beverly Hills. This is a chance for you to think about what the future will look like; and that future will have a lot of bikes in it! Improve Santa Monica Boulevard for the next 20-30 years. Slow traffic. Consider including bike paths. It’s a [safety] rule [of thumb]: separate bicyclists from automobiles.”
  • “I’m a 10-year resident. Los Angeles is getting denser. And we’re moving people between big cities. I bike, walk and drive this corridor. Bike lanes would improve throughput. Let’s focus on the future [of active transportation]. Embrace the future.”
  • “We’re not taking into consideration the cost of bike-car collisions. If they are .5% of the traffic but 15% of the collisions [as we noted to the committee] then putting bicycles on Santa Monica Boulevard is as logical as putting them on runways at LAX. We have to give [cyclists] other places to ride, like velodromes!”

There was also support for bicycle lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard from the office of Assemblyman Richard Bloom, who sent senior field representative Josh Kurpies to indicate his support for active transportation. “Consider that bike lanes are important: they are safer and they are more effective,” Mr. Kurpies said. “To get from east to west in Beverly Hills today, there is not that [regional] link. I hope you’ll include them as that link.” Of the consultant’s design alternative matrix he added, “I didn’t see an option for incentivizing public transportation.”

Perhaps the most influential comment came from the pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, which sits just adjacent to Santa Monica Boulevard. In the past, the church has strongly opposed any changes to the park for transportation purposes. But ‘Father Tom’ Welbert suggested his church was beginning to think differently:

My assessment of giving up 6 feet of parkway in favor of a bike lane? That would provide an additional barrier for pedestrians. And it would provide extra space for emergency vehicles. Every Sunday we have two or two-and-a-half thousand to our five masses. And 4-5 times every year we have an emergency [medical] call. They block the whole traffic lane. A bike lane would allow more space to provide those services.


The Straw Poll: A ‘Maybe’ on Bicycle Lanes?

Public comment closed, the deliberations began. “To move us along, I’d like to get to a vote: do you prefer or oppose bike lanes?” Chair Pressman asked. His tone suggested that the Chair seemed to want to box-out bicycle lanes from committee consideration. But not everyone was ready for a vote. “Are we even prepared to vote on this?” asked committee member Licht. “I had asked for a study….”

“I suggest a different approach,” committee member Ed Brown chimed in. “Its not ‘for’ or ‘against’ the lanes; it’s about what are our highest priorities. On lanes, maybe it’s yes or maybe it’s no.” But the Chair replied, “I want to get a vote – a discussion.” Another committee member said, “Just ask, ‘Bike lanes or no?’”

“I’m working up to that” said Chair Pressman with a laugh. “Bike lanes is a tough one. We do need data, but put that aside. Any feeling that you do or don’t want bike lanes?” (At this point we asked the Chair if we’re eliminating options from committee consideration. Pressman said ‘no.’)

“If you need more information we can bring it back to you,” said consultant Meyer, but the Chair pressed on. “Let’s get back to the vote: bike lanes east-west in both directions?” Pressman called for a vote. The committee sided against consideration of bicycle lanes by a vote of 9-5. (Both Traffic and Parking Commission members Licht and Friedman voted not to consider bicycle lanes.)

Then the Chair asked about bike paths. “If we recommend paths without lanes they’re more recreational,” Pressman said. “Commuter cyclists are still on the boulevard. We’re not excluding them – we’re just not giving them their own area. What about bike paths?”

“But that is a park project!” said a committee member. “I don’t think it’s in our purview.” But Chair Pressman persisted: “Bike paths instead of bike lanes?” (It received no support.)

The straw poll was the only concrete action taken by this committee, but it’s not clear where it left us with regard to the bicycle lanes option. Support garnered five votes (among 14 members) to continue to study the bicycle lanes option, which is not insignificant. And the Chair’s effort to close out that option met with resistance. So clearly there is concern among members that traffic flow and safety would suffer without a dedicated bicycle lane. Yet expanding the boulevard gives some members pause. (And perhaps some see any kind of facility as a “giveaway” to those who ride.) At the same time, a proposal to create a bike path or shared-use bike-ped path in lieu of the on-street bicycle lanes option also found no favor.

Perhaps more discussion is in order? The collision data that Better Bike had requested in November (for example) hasn’t been provided to the committee and may not be. And written comments from the public (submitted via the city’s inferior comment web form) are delivered too late – at the start of the committee meeting — to even read them. (Not surprisingly, there was no reference made to the written comments at all.)

The committee will next meet on Wednesday, January 8th supposedly to develop recommendations (at least according to the city’s Santa Monica Boulevard project page). But it’s not clear if we’ll receive the supporting materials we need to make a rational choice (safety studies, cost figures). Some on the committee seemed to think that making recommendations at the next meeting would be premature.


Our Takeaway

We would have like to see a more formal design process (like a charrette) to help committee members visualize how project options would affect the look, feel and function of tomorrow’s boulevard. That’s helpful for example in evaluating the tradeoffs involved if we don’t expand the boulevard. At the least, an illustrated view of bicycle lanes with a landscaped median might go some distance to alleviating concerns about the nominal loss of park space. (Consultants called it a “net positive” for green space.)

West Hollywood mobility planning workshopBy contrast, West Hollywood conducted full-on design workshops as part of their mobility plan update (at right). Our own city commissions get robust support from staff. Not so much for this committee. Though public input is supposedly valued, city staff don’t really facilitate incorporating it into our working process very well. For example, the Planning Commission requires public comments a full 11 days in advance so that commissioners can read and digest them. Here we’re provided written comments too late to incorporate them into our discussion.

Still we remain hopeful that our fellow committee members will benefit from a discussion about the benefits of active transportation and the importance of planning for multimodal mobility.

As we informed the committee, our existing city plans already call for such measures. Our Sustainable City Plan (2009) for example envisions an energy-efficient community where residents can “walk and ride a bicycle whenever possible.” Among the plan’s policy goals:

Reduce traffic congestion while improving the pedestrian experience on roadways and encourage alternative forms of travel, especially to parks.

Our General Plan is the guiding policy document for the city. The Circulation Element within the General Plan envisions a future where driving is not the only safe means of mobility:

Achieving a balanced transportation and land use pattern requires cohesive transportation and land use planning. Functional traffic patterns can only be achieved in connection with well planned development where alternatives to the driving are realistic options (taking public transportation, bicycling, and walking).

The Circulation Element identifies this policy objective:

Require new development projects on existing and potential bicycle routes to facilitate bicycle and pedestrian access to and through the project, through designated pathways. (Cir 8.8)

And of course our state vehicular code allows any rider to take the whole right-hand lane when it is deemed ‘substandard’ in width (about 14’ in practice). If the Chair’s #1 concern is preserve or enhance traffic flow, then committee members would do well to consider how mixing bicycles and vehicular traffic not only compromises rider safety but also slows down traffic. Bicycle lanes emerge as the best option. Indeed Class II bicycle lanes for Santa Monica Boulevard would be a good step in the direction that we all seem to say we want for our city going forward!

 *The city enjoys total control over the design of the corridor beyond ADA requirements and Caltrans standards because we are accepting no state or federal money for this $16 million project. So complete streets treatments is entirely an option.

**Why the push to take bicycle lanes off the table? Today’s boulevard is not quite wide enough to include both a median and dual Class II lanes. Should the committee recommend that a median be included in the project design, bicycle lanes would require 3-5 feet of blacktop beyond today’s curb, land appears to be part of Beverly Gardens Park but is designated today for corridor right-of-way. The additional land needed was staked off on a boulevard tour in November.