Santa Monica Boulevard Update

Santa-Monica-Boulevard-hazard-8If you have been eagerly awaiting a City Council decision on Santa Monica Boulevard bicycle lanes, you may be disappointed (or perhaps heartened) to know that no decision is forthcoming soon. The item originally scheduled for last Tuesday is now rescheduled for this coming Tuesday’s study session and only provides information to Council about an upcoming traffic mitigation study. The next decision will wait until September.

So, is this extended delay good news or bad news? Time will tell. But there is no question that the timeline has indeed slipped. Council was to already have decided a conceptual design by now, with consultants working away on the engineering. (Read more about the project here.) In fact, we concluded the public input process back in January through the Santa Monica Boulevard Blue Ribbon Committee (a body created by Council) and we had expected by March to know whether bicycle lanes, say, were on offer for tomorrow’s corridor.

Bike Backbone map missing Beverly Hills piece(In the perfect world, of course, bicycle lanes would complete the regional backbone network in which Beverly Hills is a missing link, at right.)

Oh, best laid plans! As it happened, the Santa Monica Boulevard Blue Ribbon Committee did meet over four sessions concluding in January and heard from many riders that we need those bicycle lanes. In fact, the Blue Ribbon voted to both incrementally expand the corridor and to stripe class II bicycle lanes. Unfortunately the Council didn’t seem to agree, and, as problematic, the scope of the project seems to have narrowed with concerns rising about the cost. A better corridor may be out of our grasp…for decades.

So How Did We Get to This Impasse?

The Council’s discussion about the design of the boulevard was tripped up by alarming cost estimates and renewed concerns about staff management of the project. And that provided an opportunity for a small but vocal segment of the community (almost entirely located within the handful of blocks north of the corridor) to speak out against bicycle lanes at the March meeting.

Aggrieved by the Blue Ribbon outcome and enraged by the cost blowup, folks like those who are aligned with the loosely-organized Beverly Hills North Residents Association set out to mischaracterize the Blue Ribbon process and assert without evidence that state-approved class II bicycle lanes are dangerous. Yes, all the old canards came out: lanes are a hazard to riders; they create blind spots for drivers; and among the silliest of arguments, that bicycle lanes inhibit emergency vehicle access. It was all part of a cynical smokescreen and we transportation advocates called them out for it. Then just recently, a so-called Municipal League official fired his own broadside in an association newsletter.

Santa Monica Boulevard gardens trim line
Wouldn’t you trade a few feet of ragged grass for boulevard bicycle lanes?

But these folks are accustomed to having their way whatever the merit of their claims. They work not by the light of reason but by threats and efforts to intimidate that are lobbed from the shadows.

Here’s a suggestion of how detached from reality are the opponents claims: even though our consultants have steadfastly recommended against striping lanes, NIMBYS continue to call the consultants a stalking horse for the pro-bike community.

The crux of their argument: An incrementally-wider boulevard would sacrifice the historic park. Just how much wider would we need it in order to enhance multimodal mobility, precisely as our city’s plans commend us to do? Just a couple of feet on average. Today the city’s 1.8 mile segment varies between 60-63 feet and our consultants say regularizing it at 64 feet would accommodate lanes.

More, it’s difficult to take seriously the pro-preservation hyperbole. For decades the north curb face has been a mess of broken asphalt, dead grass and utility detritus. Our city has lived with irregular, blocked sidewalks and unsightly bus stops. Not to be snarky, but if we could live with those conditions for a generation, certainly we can live with a new bicycle lane too.

Besides, ‘preservation!’ is a cri de coeur that should fall flat in a city which has not cared much for it to date. Indeed when Council recently considered landmark status for the park, councilmember Krasne’s only question was, “Will this keep us from widening the boulevard?”

Next Step: Liaison Committee

Coming to Council on July 1st in study session is a simple information item: staff will, with agreement from Council, proceed to evaluate traffic mitigation options before considering design alternatives later. Here’s the meat of the staff report:

Staff report excerpt: next stepsCity Council sometimes creates liaison committees in order to work with commissions on difficult questions in a more manageable setting. For this project, Council created a Santa Monica Boulevard liaison committee that will seat Mayor Bosse and councilman Willie Brien (to date the most vocal opponent of boulevard expansion on the Council). We’ll be attending in late August or early September to keep you apprized. It’s a public meeting, so only two elected members of the Council can sit on it under the state’s Brown Act, but anyone can attend.

Whether or not the current pause in the discussion is good news depends on your perspective. Did bicycle lanes have a better chance of getting the Council’s nod early, before costs blew up and northside folks reached for the torches? Will the Loma Vista tragedies prompt a broader discussion about street safety in Beverly Hills? Would a couple more months to lower the temperature allow cooler heads to prevail? We’ll know more when we get to the liaison meeting.

In the meantime, consider the next six weeks or so your summer vacation. It’s been perfect weather for a ride on a cool breeze. But then it’s back to school, folks; not the classroom kind but the organizing kind. We’ll have to work again to enlighten our elected representatives about the real, not distorted, merits of state-approved bicycle lanes.