The Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee meets for a fourth and final time this week to discuss design options and enhancements for the future corridor. From the committee dais (and from the sidelines) we’ve argued that complete streets treatments and class II bicycle lanes should be part of this project. But the committee has been more interested in vehicular traffic flow than a rider’s safety. This Wednesday the committee will vote on the lanes. Here’s what to expect.
In three Santa Monica Boulevard meetings the Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee has touched on issues ranging from the specific (corner radii and pavement material) to the general (boulevard width and bicycle lanes). But we have not found resolution on any of the central project questions, like whether to include bicycle lanes, landscaped medians, bus turnouts and most significant, whether to expand the boulevard.
With City Council soon expecting design recommendation(s) city staff is now nudging our Blue-Ribbon Committee to make some decisions. To hasten action, a memo to the Blue-Ribbon Committee provides a ‘voting matrix’ to guide our work when the committee meets on Wednesday, January 22nd at 6pm in City Hall:
Note is that bicycle lanes is one of the ‘enhancement options.’ And that option is contingent on expanding the blacktop (to a proposed 66 feet), which has been a sticking point for some on the committee. Leaving the expansion question on the back-burner for the moment, let’s focus on what the memo says about bicycle lanes.
We Really Are Second-Class Road Users
The memo briefly summarizes several studies to conclude that class II bicycle lanes generally are found to increase road safety for riders. “Studies related to bicycle lanes were reviewed…most focus on the effect of the lanes on safety for both bicyclists and motorists and conclude that bicycle lanes improve safety.”
As for the committee’s concern about vehicular flow (the #1 priority), the memo affirms the value of separating cycling from motoring traffic:
In our opinion, bicycle lanes should not impede the flow of traffic in adjacent lanes. On the contrary, by removing bicycles from the travel lanes and providing them with a designated lane, vehicles are able to pass bicyclists with little delay and they are more likely to stay in their lane rather straying into the adjacent lane and negatively impacting traffic flow in that adjacent lane.
So far so good: on both safety and efficiency grounds, bicycle lanes appear to be the right choice. But then Psomas throws a curve ball:
We recommend a Shared Roadway (No Bikeway Designation) as described in the Caltrans Highway Design Manual.
Here Psomas recommends that the city reconstruct Santa Monica Boulevard principally for motorists. Despite the Council’s explicit identification of complete streets as a project priority – albeit one downgraded later by this committee – the message to riders is that we can go on hugging the curb. This project as recommended won’t do anything for us.
Keep in mind that we’re at least five years into the new multimodal mobility era (at least as marked by our state’s passage of the Complete Streets Act in 2008). Complete streets principles say that we should revisit our plans and remake our roadways so that they’re accessible to all road users — including those who choose to ride a bicycle. But should Council move ahead with this Psomas recommendation – no lanes – those who bike will be affirmed as second-class road users in Beverly Hills.
And what do riders in and around Beverly Hills think about that prospect? Public speakers have favored separate class II bicycle lanes by 3:1 over lane opponents. Of 150+ written comments to the Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee, 90% run in favor of bicycle lanes. But public input has evidently not figured into the consultant’s recommendation nor influenced the Blue Ribbon Committee to date.
Forget Our Safety Needs: Let No Motorist Be Inconvenienced!
Like Blue Ribbon Committee members, our consultant is plenty concerned with traffic flow. In fact, Psomas recommends that the boulevard be expanded to 66′ wide in order to facilitate it. That way, 16-foot curbside lanes will get riders out of the way of impatient motorists. The memo explains:
With the proposed 16’ wide curb lane and most bicyclists located 3’ from the curb (assuming a 2’ gutter), there will be 12’ in which a vehicle can pass a bicyclist…leaving 3’ of clearance. There would be few vehicles that could not move to the inside 10’ of the lane and leave 3’ of clearance when passing a bicyclist in the 16’ lane.
Here’s the diagram:
And here’s what that would look like from the rider’s perspective (as pictured by memo exhibit 1):
Except for the new blacktop, the street trees and the new median with landscaping, this rendering shows conditions no better than that faced by riders today. In fact, riders are the only road users who lose out in this scenario. Every other constituency gets what they want in the pictured amenities.
We already knew that Psomas has put a thumb on the scale against bicycle lanes. That was clear leading up to meeting #3 (read our recap) in which our consultant recommended against a striped class II lane. Indeed the memo erroneously and gratuitously quoted BHPD’s Sgt. Mader as opposing a striped bicycle lane. Why would an officer oppose a traffic control device shown to improve the safety of riders? We wondered too and asked him at that meeting. There he clarified his position: no lane should be striped without expanding the boulevard, he said, which makes sense because it’s simply not possible at the current boulevard width.
Decisions Must Be Made!
With this memo, Psomas looks to lock in the ‘no lanes’ recommendation rather than have a committee discussion about traffic safety, traffic controls, the federal guidance that argues against 16-foot wide travel lanes and, not least, the guidance promulgated under our state’s Complete Streets Act. Yet at this Wednesday’s meeting, our Blue Ribbon Committee will be tasked with several decisions. Most don’t concern us, but two definitely do: 1) whether to expand the boulevard to 66 feet; and 2) whether or not to not stripe a class II bicycle lane.
How might the committee proceed? The bicycle lane decision is easy to predict: despite the obvious safety and efficiency benefits of a separate lane, and the outpouring of public support for it, riders will find no support among committee members.
Why? Some committee members regard cycling as a recreational pursuit; they appear to view a bicycle lane as an amenity rather than a traffic control device. Indeed the bicycle lane is often confused with a Class I bike path despite the clarity of the state’s Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (not mentioned to date except by yours truly from Better Bike).
Other committee members simply seem to have no affection for two-wheeled travelers. Or perhaps they care not about road safety. Whichever, the committee has not really discussed the safety value of bicycle lanes, and we don’t expect a robust discussion in meeting #4 either. We’ll put the odds of a committee recommendation for lanes at < 10%.
Whether the committee will recommend boulevard expansion is more difficult to predict. Arguing against expansion are irascible change-averse residents like Beverly Hills North Homeowner Association representative Robert Tanenbaum, who claims people “don’t want to re-litigate” the expansion issue. For them, a long-ago proposal to add a third travel lane remains reason enough to oppose any measures that will improve safety today.
But weighing in favor of expansion is the palpable disgust among some committee members at the thought of having to brake for bicycle riders. Under the law, riders would be entitled to use the whole right-hand lane were it built to 12-foot width.* According to the Psomas recommendation, better to make that lane wide enough to share. (But still stripe no bike lane.) Psomas has also suggested that a wider blacktop might facilitate the reconstruction. We predict the odds of a recommended expansion at about 50% mostly because committee members don’t want to be inconvenienced.
Is it Worth My Time to Attend?
The eagle-eyed among us will notice that there is no agenda for Wednesday’s meeting The agenda for meeting #4 is posted to the city’s project page. Note that there is no ‘public comment’ item; that’s because the committee doesn’t want to take any more in-person public input. (But we’ll see if that holds when homeowner association types start to speak up at the meeting.)
Even if you may not have your say, we believe that it’s worthwhile to attend. For one thing, it’s an opportunity to see local democracy (of a kind) in action. And then there’s the intrigue: despite the public support for bicycle lanes, how summarily will the committee dispatch that particular option? The brief discussion is sure to illuminate how some committee members feel about those of us who ride a bicycle. Inquiring minds will want to know. Can’t make it? Of course we’ll report back.
Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee meeting #4 meets Wednesday, January 22nd at 6pm in the Beverly Hills City Hall Municipal Gallery (2nd floor).
Got a comment to make? You can still contact the committee with your input. Simply use the webform or email your comments directly to SMBLVD@beverlyhills.org. We always welcome a copy of your comments using our own contact form.
*State law allows riders the full use of a right-hand lane if it is not wide enough to share. Moreover, a new safe-passing law takes effect in September that affords riders three feet when a motorist passes. That law, AB 1371, requires motorists to “slow to a speed that is reasonable and prudent.” For committee members who don’t want to be encumbered, this might be reason enough to OK expansion.