SM Boulevard Blue-Ribbon #3 [recap]

West Hollywood's long-range planner, Melissa Antol
West Hollywood’s long-range planner, Melissa Antol, addresses the Blue-Ribbon committee.

With the last of three Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee meetings now behind us, we can recap our work to date, take stock of the public outreach process, and finally look ahead to the next step for this 15-member Council-appointed body. And we will start with the last, because the next step will look much like the past steps. January 22nd we’ll continue our deliberation on width, features and boulevard enhancements. And still on the table – spoiler alert – bicycle lanes! Don’t count ’em out yet.

Recall that the Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee was created by Beverly Hills City Council to review and evaluate options for tomorrow’s boulevard. We’ll be making recommendations to Council concerning features and enhancements to be included when Santa Monica is reconstructed in 2015. The public outreach process was to conclude this week, but so many questions remained unanswered (among them questions of cost, boulevard expansion and bicycle lanes) that the committee voted to simply continue the meeting.

The good side of continuing the meeting: more opportunity to talk about features that could make for a better boulevard. (Scroll down to the public comments.) The bad: no talk about what tomorrow’s boulevard should actually look like.

panorama view
The committee holds forth in the City Hall’s Municipal Gallery (photos by Kory Klem).

Indeed this committee has it’s work cut out for it, yet we’re going into our fourth meeting with precious little decided. Three meetings on now, the only only design feature supported unambiguously by the committee is some sort of a median. But even that issue was muddied…once public safety folks came into the picture. Is a median feasible? Yes, they say, with some caveats: narrower is better; landscaped may be OK some areas but impede emergency vehicles in others. Until we nail down those particulars, though, we can’t make any specific median recommendations.

Then there’s the Class II (on-street) bicycle lanes: should we include them? This question too is unresolved. In fact, three meetings on our little jury is still out as to whether we should recommend expanding the blacktop from its current 60-63 foot width to a uniform 66 feet or so to accommodate the lanes. That’s a political decision that the Council will have to make, but it was the committee’s charge to help them get there.

Not only haven’t we found agreement on the safety aspects or even the utility of bicycle lanes, we’ve yet to crack multimodal mobility as a planning matter. We’ll look to a continuation of this meeting until January 22nd to begin to answer those questions.

Is the Process the Problem?

What’s holding us up? Maybe it’s the process. The Blue-Ribbon Committee process was vaguely-structured from the beginning. The agenda is light on action items. That leaves the Chair, Dr. Barry Pressman, the task of nailing down the committee on decisive answers to some of the above questions. But we’re still grappling with the basics.

And our consultant Psomas has played a less-than-directive role in the committee’s discussions. Instead Sean Vargas and Michael Meyer frame the issues and responded to our inquiries. (Our city staff have played almost no role in this process. It’s not clear they have the mobility know-how, and besides that’s what the consultant contracted to do.)

On the bright side, the discussions have brought some good arguments to the foreground. We’ve heard from more than 40 public speakers and received over 150 written public comments. Speakers praised bike lanes for Santa Monica Boulevard by nearly two-to-one with only 10 saying ‘no’ to the lanes. Written comments were even more decidedly in favor of bicycle lanes: between the 1st and third meetings, about 90% explicitly supported bicycle lanes, according to the city’s interpretation and tally.

And bicycle lanes, for example, are still on the table (as is every other enhancement except the no-change option, which we have rejected).

But overwhelming sentiment is not the same as persuasion. Persuasion is where the rubber meets the road in politics. And it’s not clear that the committee on balance has been swayed. Heck, it’s not even evident that the extensive verbal and written comments substantively inform the committee’s deliberation.

Need proof? There remains much speculation across the committee about the value or effectiveness of lanes even about aspects of the issue that have already been addressed. Call it the public participation paradox: No amount of public input will convince an official or representative who has already put a stake in the ground. More good reasoning might even tap in the stake. Folks who don’t want bicycle lanes on Santa Monica mostly say they want to see riders ride somewhere else, but none can agree where.

Though bicycle lanes have dominated the discussion across the three meetings (to the consternation of some committee members), the committee has bogged down in other questions too. Should right-turn radii be large to avoid slowing traffic? (Engineering standards will dictate.) How to redesign the Beverly Blvd. intersection? (Ditto.) Use bus turnouts to keep traffic flowing? (Metro doesn’t like them.) And on the matter of bicycle lanes, does a lane improve or impede vehicle flow? (Avoids impeding flow where lanes are ‘substandard’ width by taking riders out of the traffic flow.) Does the lane reduce accidents? (It may reduce the risk of injuries by 30% or much more for all road users, studies and anecdotal evidence suggest.)

New ‘Recommended’ Expanded Boulevard Alternative Also Sows Confusion

Then there was an unexpected surprise: the city unveiled a ‘recommended’ design alternative that would expand the blacktop to a total curb-to-curb with of 66-feet (sufficient for a 16-foot-wide right lane to separate riders) but then not stripe a bicycle lane there. Both pro- and anti-lane camps found something to dislike.

12 foot versus 16 foot lanes
aside traffic, but might invite a passing car to squeeze by.

But diehard opponents no more like “park incursion” (as they call it) today without a bicycle lane than they did a decade ago when the city talked about putting in a whole new travel lane. In one important way that conflict set the table for today’s bicycle lane discussion, and subtracting bicycle lanes from the mix isn’t especially mollifying.

Member of the public Robert K. Tanenbaum called it “re-litigating” an argument already settled. But he wasn’t living in the last. “You will be hearing from our Association on this,” Tanenbaum promised. “We had a mayor running for re-election [then], and running in favor of [expansion], and it was a focal-point issue in the election.” As if to make his political threat more clear, he added, “We haven’t met on it but we will.”

(Mr. Tanenbaum is eager to shut down discussion on the expansion option, but he is a proponent of town-hall open-type discussions when the issues suit him. Like public pension reform, say. And he also recognizes that we’re in a different era – a perspective he seems not to apply to mobility issues. He was all for open debate when speaking to Rudy Cole on BHTV last August:

Give the people a choice…We need to have open forums where we have the kind of transparency and open discussion that deals with what these issue are, how they impact our residents, and how they impact our future….We’re no longer the small community that we were…. The only way we can make intelligent choices is to have as much information as we can. – R. Tanenbaum 8/16/2012

Riders, too, can’t find common cause in an expanded blacktop without the benefit of a bicycle lane. As LACBC Policy Director Eric Bruins reminded the committee, Federal guidelines advise against it. Any lane wide enough for two cars to share will invite sharing it. And if we know anything from our time in Beverly Hills, many a driver will take advantage as a shortcut to the next turn when traffic backs up.

We questioned why a professional transportation consultant would recommend expanding the right lane to 16-feet but then not stripe it for separate cyclist travel. The answer: the Wilshire-Beverly intersection is a challenge to stripe properly. (No kidding! It is dangerous especially without a lane.) And also the hotel projects at the western end don’t leave much room for a lane, Psomas said. That’s because the city let the applicants maximize their buildable area without a proper transportation land dedication.*

The Public Sees and Winning Issue in Bicycle Lanes

What does the wider public say? Twenty-five speakers addressed the committee and 18 explicitly supported bicycle lanes. (Six said ‘no’ to the lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard.)

  • Barbara Linder: “This renovation will be the most cost-effective and efficient change to show that we’re ready to joining the rest of the world – we could take a leadership role in greening Los Angeles on this very visible thoroughfare.”
  • Ben Neiro: “I work as a courier and I’m on my bike all day. ‘d like to see us have an opportunity to create a big bicycle backbone, but you guys are fumbling the ball. Sixteen foot lanes but not include a bicycle lane? It could be a game-changer for the Westside.”
  • Eric Bruins: “We’re working with the Westside Council of Governments on bike-sharing, and we [in the COG] have identified Santa Monica as a top-5 corridor for bike-friendly amenities….Bicycle lanes present a 30% collision reduction factor it’s also about perceived safety – it’s clarity and it’s predictability [for motorists and riders].
  • Grace K. “Bike lanes may make it more safe, but I have my concerns. I’m not in favor of lanes. My question is, what is our city’s liability for the lanes?”
  • Joshua Paggett: “I bike to BH to church several times a week but it is tough getting here by bicycle. I’m in favor [of lanes]. I direct a film festival on urban planning, and multimodal transportation projects generate an overwhelmingly positive response.”
  • Scott Epstein: “Folks say our #1 priority is safety, but then act like what they’re recommending is safe for cyclists. People will bike and will do so in larger numbers…Grasp this golden opportunity and everybody wins.”
  • David Feuer: “A separated cycle track will make you and your family feel more comfortable, but if it’s not in your proposals I’d endorse a bicycle lane. Every cyclist on the road is not some else who’s clogging your traffic lane or competing for parking.”
  • Melissa Antol: “I work for West Hollywood as their long-range mobility planning manager. My job is to make sure we provide a balanced transportation network….It’s not about moving traffic but about moving people….We’re looking to make a connection with you, if you want to learn more.”
  • Jennifer Hughes: “I’ve lived and worked here for 13 years. I’m a recreational rider and I live a mile from work but I’m terrified to ride it…I feel much safer with a lane. And as a driver I feel safer with a bike lane too.”
  • Phil Brown: “As for bike lanes, complete streets is neighborhood scale: 15 mph. That’s not a 40mph major street that is Santa Monica Boulevard. To mix a family-attracting bike lane in that situation is unsafe.”
  • David Eichman: “In West Hollywood we’re working to improve conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists. I urge you to reconsider: Beverly Hills is a missing link. [Lanes] would be great for those who use Santa Monica as a commuter route…Think of the future: reconsider putting bike lanes on the boulevard.”
  • Danielle Salmon: I wholeheartedly support bike lanes. I’m a bike commuter. I’ve been hit by a car; my friends have been hit. Now UCLA gives incentives to bike-commute, and it makes sense. Why not? It’ a workout. I’m alive and refreshed, not tired and frustrated. From a public health perspective, everything cycling is a positive.” (At which point she was rudely interrupted by a committee member – a fine welcome from the committee.)
  • Nina Salmon: “My name is Nina and this is my mom. I want to say we need bike lanes on Santa Monica because I know people who have been hit…..”
  • Bennett Ross: “It’s short-sighted to NOT do bike lanes. It’s state of the art; WeHo and LA did have taken the lead [on SM] and we look like Luddites….[that’s] not in keeping with the kind of city that we want to be.”
  • Victor Bardek: “I’m the VP of the Beverly Hills North Homeowner’s Association. SM Blvd is heavily traveled – 50k vehicles a day – and daily I see frustrated drivers back up there, making abrupt right turns. You’re adding another layer of problem – drivers, joggers, and now bikers. If motorists slow down for them [in a lane] it will create more accidents. I believe in a bike lane [just] put it on Carmelita.”
  • Jim Pokras, Attorney: “Bike lanes reduce accidents and lead to a 30% reduction in injuries and a 50% reduction in fatalities. For safety, for common sense, how will you vote against it?”
  • Cal Oremer: “I’d like to patronize businesses here in Beverly Hills but I don’t feel comfortable doing so on a bicycle. I don’t feel safe when the lanes come to an end [in West LA].”
  • Victor: “I want to thank the city for the Crescent bike lanes and Burton Way [lanes] pilot [program]. Lanes would be great for regional connectivity for this street – and to make it safe for commuters and receationalists [sic].”
  • William Brenner: “[No on lanes.] Beverly Hills separated itself from LA to have its own unique identity. We have to do what’s safe for Beverly Hills.”
  • Joe Safir:”I’m a longtime resident. There’s a reason why there are no bicycle lanes on freeways: safety. Arterials are intended to increase traffic flow. If we need lanes, don’t stripe [them in the] traffic lanes; set up a 5-foot parallel alley to accommodate bikers more safely.”

Consensus is as Elusive as an Oily Cat

Chair Pressman asked for a straw poll to learn how the committee was feeling about bicycle lanes, medians and the rest, but he had hardly gotten his thought out before committee member Russ Levi said, “We’ve spent a lot of time on bike lanes, so let’s get on to other issues.” Member Howard Fisher seconded with some irritation. “Are we going to keep re-voting on the bike issue?” Pressman said he wanted some kind of ‘fair’ vote on the alternatives. “It’s not going to be fair,” Fisher barked. “We’ve had no real discussion about bike lanes.”

Though the committee said OK to a few minutes of discussion on the lanes, the members were difficult to corral on any issue. Member Kathy Reims was interested in learning about the cost of landscaping. She wasn’t sure, however, that our city needed to follow any other city’s mobility example. Another member thought expanding the blacktop “unfair” to churchgoers and Robert Anderson thought riders should simply ride on any other street. Of cyclists, he said, “None of the people yield and they don’t ride single-file.”

(For the record, the Complete Streets Act (2008) compels California localities to enact policies and plans to make streets safe for all road users. And cyclists must stop and yield but don’t have to ride single-file on any street that is not wide enough to share, as you can read on our ‘laws’ page. As for the churchgoers, the Good Shepherd pastor appeared at the prior meeting and supported both expansion and bicycle lanes.)

Member Lillian Raffel for her part was interested in talking about the new recommended alternative. But the discussion did not get very far. So Chair Pressman looked for some bottom lines for a direction ahead:

Speaking as a member of the committee, the councilmembers I’ve talked to have said to seriously consider bike lanes, but we can’t do it without widening. We need to decide as a group whether to support that. We’ve been told it will be easier to reconstruct it [if it’s made wider]. Why widen it without bike lanes? I’d like data: will lanes impede or improve traffic flow? That will help me make up my mind. To have the option is OK, but I want to know if Los Angeles and West Hollywood will commit [to extending their lanes]. I wouldn’t want to preclude lanes [on SM], but I don’t want a bridge to nowhere. I ride my bike a lot for recreation, but on Santa Monica it scares me. If we can connect to [other lanes] we should. But our #1 goal is traffic flow. – Dr. Barry Pressman, Chair

Where to go from here? “We have recommendations that we could make,” member Jeff Wolfe said. “But what would be we voting on?”  Pressman framed it as a one-two decision: whether to widen and if so, whether to stripe a lane. But he wants to see studies and know the other cities’ plans.

The Chair suggested we adjourn to January 22nd. Then we will have a final discussion about bus turnouts and shelters; bicycle lanes; and those damn medians. Should they be landscaped or not? “Tonight we got no answers at all.”

Stay tuned!

*The hotel project on the western end of Santa Monica indeed does not leave much room for a lane because the city didn’t require a dedication for one. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to hold the line on the gateway project across Santa Monica: city planning staff appeared willing to give that away without any concrete set-aside for mobility purposes, leaving riders with no chance of bicycle lanes at all. Thankfully Council stepped in to halt the Gateway project zoning change last October!

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