We Need More Public Input into the SM Blvd Process

announcement-in-weekly-smWe bicycle riders must be doing something right when we show up en masse at the Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee meeting to argue for bicycle lanes. At both meeting #1 and meeting #2 we outnumbered folks who showed up to speak against bike lanes. Now, as we move toward the third meeting on January 8th, is it merely coincidence that the city is calling for more public input into the boulevard redesign process? Perhaps bike lane advocates have been too successful in pressing our sensible case for road safety?

We’re tempted to call it a sign that we’ve succeeded in making discussion of tomorrow’s Santa Monica Boulevard all about road safety. For example, members of the public who have spoken at Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee meetings (and in their written comments to the committee) on balance have overwhelmingly favored including bicycle lanes on the corridor when it is reconstructed in 2014. That design choice is consonant with state and federal policy direction known as ‘complete streets’ that aims to make roadways safe for all of us no matter whether we choose to drive, walk or ride a bicycle.

To date our city has not done much to call public attention to the need for safe transit for riders, though; nor has city outreach called attention to the work of the committee in general. But the City Council has done its part: last fall it voted to create this committee in order to receive input and make recommendations to Council. (Only councilmember Willie Brien voted to keep the design process wholly within the city’s commission structure.) Indeed at Council insistence the city sent a mailer to every household and business. A good start!

But going into the third (and possibly final) meeting on January 8th, we observe that city officials haven’t exactly promoted the public design process for this key corridor. Unlike Planning Commission notices that are published in our two daily newspapers, for example, none have been placed for this process. Until just a few days ago, there wasn’t even a formal press announcement. (The city finally posted a press release on Christmas Eve.)

There are additional signs that City Hall hasn’t put oomph behind this process. The city’s bare-bones project description page hardly befits a $16 million project (contrast it to our own project page). The city’s page archives none of the key project materials that we committee members need for an informed discussion and set of recommendations. (Better Bike is represented on the committee.) And the city’s misguided public input form is still posted despite our calling officials attention to its inadequacy.

Most problematic? Written comments from the public are provided to committee members at the meeting (not before) which is too late to read them – much less to digest them – prior to our discussion. We’ll have more to say about the blue-ribbon process later, but suffice to say it feels pretty pro-forma to this point.

But then Beverly Hills has really never been in the community outreach business. Our city’s communication tools set no gold standard: the city’s website needed an update the day it went live in 2012 and the city’s In Focus Newsletter is more fluff than substance. (Evidently it’s no longer a part of our outreach anyway: the last posted issue is March 2012.) While we have a new City Council that is clearly more committed to public outreach, it seems like our City Manager Jeff Kolin hasn’t established that expectation of city departments.

Media Coverage is Lacking Too

We can’t only blame City Hall for any public lack of interest in the Santa Monica Boulevard design process. Our two local papers haven’t even covered the first two committee meetings as news. In fact, the first mention we can find in the hyper local media comes in the Courier on November 22nd (that’s after the 1st committee meeting):

Announcement in courier Nov. 22ndBetter late than never, perhaps. To date, no news article in either the Weekly or the Courier has described the committee’s work.

Letters to the Editor Do the Hard Work

What little press discussion about the Santa Monica design process has come via letters to the editors. An exchange in the Courier was sparked by Daniel Fink’s letter in that same  November 22nd issue:

Letter to Courier Nov. 22nd

William Brenner piped up in a following Courier issue on December 6th:

Letter to Courier Dec. 6thAnd we responded to Brenner in the Courier on December 12th:

My letter to Courier Dec. 13th

Reaching out to the Weekly, we sought to stoke interest in the policy implications of including facilities for safe travel on the corridor. It published two of our letters (issues 739 and 741): My letter to weekly issue 739My letter to weekly issue 741

Bike Lanes Advocacy Shapes the Debate

Weekly's announcement Jan 2ndThe Weekly didn’t run an announcement about the Santa Monica Boulevard public process until this week (right) – that’s after two committee meetings have already been held. So it is interesting that the upcoming committee meeting is announced at this time.

Could the proponents of bicycle lanes have been having an outsized impact on the corridor design discussion? Consider that nearly all speakers to the committee had something to say about including bike lanes in the reconstruction. And that written comments addressed lanes more than any other design issue. And that letters to the editor focused on no aspect of the project more than bicycle lanes. It seems like those who have spoken up in favor of lanes have shaped the debate.

We would like to see our weeklies evaluate our bid for bicycle lanes as well as address the claims raised by opponents of bicycle lanes: that lanes will slow traffic; and impede right turns; and interfere with emergency vehicles. (All are without merit.) These notions have no basis in the experience of other cities, and they have been rebutted by our own project consultants.

Moreover, we’d like to see our two weeklies speak up in any fashion about the most significant public works project on the boards in Beverly Hills in recent memory. And that’s not using a cost metric, by the way. By cost that honor would go to our $30 million public parking garage under the Annenberg Center. The Santa Monica Boulevard corridor design will have the greater impact.

Most importantly, we’d like to see our weeklies or indeed any city agency discuss road safety.

If city policymakers and officials did talk about safety in any meaningful way, they would note that those of us who choose to ride a bicycle take significant risks just to travel in Beverly Hills. We have presented to the committee the disproportionate injuries that riders face: we are over-represented citywide among collision injuries. Though we only represent a half-percent (or less) of all road traffic, we account for 10% of the collision injuries reported to BHPD in 2012. (We hopefully will have corridor-specific collision injury data from the city in time for the next meeting on January 8th.)

And if policymakers wanted to talk about what our plans say about mobility, why we’d point out that the Sustainable City Plan recommends that we all ride a bicycle more often. It reduces road congestion and improves health, the plan says. In fact, both our Bicycle Master Plan and our General Plan Circulation Element call for facilities that would make bike travel safer.

The Takeaway

Safety and policy alone should be enough to justify to the committee the inclusion of bicycle lanes on one of our most busy crosstown corridors.* But little time has been spent on safety or the intent behind our plans. Even our own Traffic and Parking Commission seems incurious about the prevalence of bike-involved collision injuries (much less how to reduce them).

Regardless, we’ve shaping the debate. Let’s hope that this committee in its third meeting on January 8th will take seriously our safety concerns (and maybe our city plans too) and not summarily dispatch bicycle lanes from consideration. After all, separating bike traffic from motor traffic is the most prudent way to ensure the safety of tomorrow’s riders on Santa Monica Boulevard.

*Nearly 50,000 vehicles daily on average traverse it, and riders have to negotiate potholes and the like as we share the right lane.