Recently we wondered aloud whether the riders who showed up to the Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee meetings hadn’t made too good a case for Class II bicycle lanes on that corridor. The 15-member committee was formed to receive public input, and did we get an ear full! (Better Bike sits on the committee.) While bicycle lanes were never the easy choice, supporters managed to make this design process principally about the bicycle lanes option. We expected to continue that discussion into tonight’s meeting. But then a few days ago the committee received a surprise ‘recommended’ design from city officials that would kill off the lanes option. We thought, Would the establishment stop at nothing to keep bicycle lanes off of Santa Monica Boulevard?
The politics of bicycle lanes for Santa Monica Boulevard has always been tough. To include them when the corridor is reconstructed in 2014 would require expanding the blacktop by about 5 feet (principally by nibbling at the linear park to the north). But there is an establishment faction in Beverly Hills who wants to make bicycle lanes as an option go away at all costs. For them the public comments have been a thorn: we heard that a separate lane not only feels safer it is safer for riders; that it improves efficiency because riders when removed from the flow don’t slow motor traffic; and not least the lanes allow turning motorists an opportunity to merge right, out of the flow of traffic, when slowing to turn. (Update: scroll to the bottom for an illustration of how public comments favor lanes.) With many good reasons to incorporate bicycle lanes into tomorrow’s corridor, one-third of this 15-member committee was unwilling to take the bicycle lanes option off the table.
So what could the forces of opposition do but try and spike the ball? We saw that early on in meeting #1 when committee Chair Pressman asserted the “chair’s prerogative” to elevate his own priority (vehicular traffic flow) above other project objectives. When he couldn’t ram it though, though, he called for a straw poll. Predictably, the complete streets objective (formerly priority #2) was bumped down to last place. Score one for the chair, but at least bicycle lanes remained under consideration.
Then in meeting #2 the Chair tried to sweep away the bicycle lanes option entirely by calling for another hasty straw poll. But he failed to convince the committee; five members wanted to continue to study the lanes option. Why? Because it makes sense, and because speakers like ‘Father Tom’ (representing Church of the Good Shepherd) could enumerate practical benefits. For his church, he said, they would offer a buffer for church-goers from speeding traffic. Lanes also would allow emergency vehicle greater access, he added.
Also influencing the committee’s thinking was the fact that the state’s vehicular code allows riders to use the full width of the lane when it is not wide enough to share. (Read more about the state law in our laws section.) With 12-foot travel lanes on the drawing board, motorists on tomorrow’s Santa Monica Boulevard would likely see slowdowns as riders take that entire right lane for safety. That would certainly strike at one of the project’s objectives: maintain vehicular flow.
Coming out of meeting #2 it was clear that we would continue to study the bicycle lanes option with consultants returning with more information about safety and cost. At some point, in this third meeting or sometime afterward, the Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee would make a recommendation to City Council.
Blind-Sided by the ‘Memo’
The key question framing the committee’s work to date was whether we would recommend expanding the blacktop. All of the boulevard design options we’d been considering since November depended on how we answered this one. For bicycle lanes, for example, expansion by only 5 or 6 feet would allow room for lanes and a wide, landscaped median. See the profiles:
But the committee a few days before tonight’s meeting received a surprise in our packet of meeting materials: a memo from the consultant Psomas with a design already recommended. And that design finds no place for a bicycle lane at all. It’s a strange turn of events for several reasons.
First, it gets out in front of the work of the committee. The Blue-Ribbon Committee’s job is to take public input, review the supporting material, make inquires and ultimately to make a recommendation to City Council. The committee is not there to simply rubber-stamp a design recommendation from the consultant – particularly one dropped at the last minute.
Second, the consultant’s recommendation moots the question of whether or not to expand the blacktop. That was not only the key question framing the committee’s work. It’s a major political fault line, of course, but we were told time and again how we viewed the question would determine what our design options could be. The consultant’s recommendation short-circuits that discussion by calling for expansion to a total of 66 feet.
A couple of weeks ago, it would have been unthinkable for the consultant to make that politically-sensitive recommendation like that. But yet we have it. Why? Because an expanded 66-foot wide corridor would allow for a 16-foot right-hand travel lane instead of a 12-foot lane. Here’s the contrast according to the consultant’s visualization:
What’s the value of a 16-foot travel lane? The lane is wide enough to be considered a ‘shared roadway’ even with no ‘bikeway designation’ under Caltrans guidelines. That means that we can’t simply take the lane if we feel conditions warrant it. When would that be an issue? Consider the bus or truck that simply rides the middle of that wide lane: 16 feet of lane minus 10 feet or so for the vehicle leaves six feet to be split on either side. Fro the rider, that means three feet minus the 1 foot for the drainage pan at the curb, leaving two feet or so for travel. Not such a good deal, right?
The memo also helpfully points out that motorists don’t have to give any berth:
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) publication “Geometric Design of Highways and Streets” (the Green Book), in the chapter devoted to Design Guidelines for Bicycle Facilities it states that lane width of 15 feet or less (to face of curb with a 2’ gutter) require most vehicles to be driven at least part way into the next lane to pass a bicyclist. – Psomas memo 1/8/2014
The obvious question is, Why expand the boulevard for a 16-foot right-hand lane and not include a bicycle lane? For that we have no rational explanation. That’s why we didn’t really anticipate this option being put on the table. What sense would it make?
One other thing: the consultant’s memo puts a thumb on the scale against bicycle lanes by including (in a section about emergency vehicle access) an opinion from our own BHPD: “Sergeant Mader suggested not striping bike lanes.” But we get no context for his opinion, nor an indication of whether that’s a department position.*
What to make of a memo from the consultant that gets out front of the Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee with its own recommended option – one that improbably calls for a wider boulevard? We can’t know about the politics behind this move, but evidently there is a Beverly Hills establishment for whom bicycle lanes are the bete noir. But they couldn’t simply dismiss out of hand riders safety concerns. We highlighted how under the law we can to take the whole right-hand lane if we feel conditions warrant it. Then the opponents tack had to change.
Where previously expanding the boulevard was simply not an option, it’s now presented as a ‘recommended alternative’ if only because it keeps bicycle lanes out of the boulevard’s redesign.
The all-out opposition to bicycle lanes may be a mystery, but what is less of a mystery is the mechanics behind this memo. It certainly seems like our Community Development Department worked with our consultant Psomas to cook up for the committee a rubber-stampable ‘no lanes’ option just in the nick of time. That is, before the committee’s continued debate about bicycle lanes at tonight’s meeting. With Sgt. Mader’s thumb on the scale against the lanes, too, it sure seems like an attempt at short-circuiting the committee deliberations.
It all smells like a cynical attempt at goading the committee into an option, any option, that would not include bicycle lanes. The real disappointment is not that it’s out of the ordinary for Beverly Hills; indeed it is in character. It’s that the officials charged with ensuring our safety on our roads are so willing to disregard the improvements that will make us feel safe and be safe.
If you can attend tonight’s meeting we will welcome your support. Read the agenda and come prepared to ask why the city and the consultant wanted to throw a monkey wrench into the committee’s work. Beverly Hills City Hall 455 N Rexford Drive. In the municipal gallery at 6pm.
*According to Deputy Director for Transportation Aaron Kunz, Sgt. Mader will clarify his comment at tonight’s meeting. “The Police Department’s position is that they can support bicycle lanes but only if the street is widened,” Kunz says. Well since the consultant’s recommendation is to widen it, why not include the lanes, right?
Update: City officials released all public comments submitted from December 10th through today, January 8th, along with a handy tally of stated design options preferences. Looks like we road safety advocates have succeeded in focusing attention on the need for safe conveyance for bicycle riders. Behold!