Santa Monica Leads, Beverly Hills Hardly Follows

Santa Monica continues to be a regional leader when it comes to supporting multimodal mobility and enhancing street safety. It has installed many miles of bicycle lanes (included protected bikeways) and has emerged as a municipal leader with development policies crafted to put a lid on new vehicle trips downtown. Not least, City Hall is working with the community advocates to bring Vision Zero principles to bear on the transportation planning process. What about Beverly Hills?

Where is Beverly Hills?

Our city plans say the right things about multimodal mobility and greenhouse gas emissions. The General Plan Circulation Element (2010) includes policy goals that would make streets safer for those who walk and ride. Our Sustainable City Plan (2009) encourages our shift from vehicle travel to other modes for public health. But it is all shelfware! Our city lags far behind regional neighobrs when it comes to proactive measures that get these things done.

Take for example the Beverly Hills complete streets plan process. Underway for 18 months, it ran aground this summer despite two consultants and $150k spent. The draft plan presented to the community was a simple menu of policy goals and slate of ambiguous measures with no clear timetable for implementation.

In fact the document appeared intended only to win Metro’s approval for future grants. That draft plan was simply rubber-stamped by our Traffic & Parking Commission. (Currently the draft plan is in turnaround after City Councilmember Bob Wunderlich tapped the brakes. It should come back to the commission in November.)

Then just last week the Beverly Hills Planning Commission considered a change to the means used by our city to analyze traffic impacts during environmental reviews. The state requires all localities to move from the outmoded level-of-service (LOS) framework to the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) mode of analysis. That applies to any project not exempt from CEQA review and a locality can choose to embrace it for all projects undergoing review even outside of CEQA.

However our planning commissioners doubled-down on the old method. Under CEQA we are required by law to use VMT because it gives a fair shake in the analysis to all modes. But in every instance other than CEQA we will continue to apply the old LOS method. It is the classic means of measuring driver inconvenience rather than a way to gauge overall mobility impacts. (Watch my comments to the commission.)

It’s not just traffic analysis. Many will remember a long and hard-won campaign to stripe bicycle lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard. It was an uphill battle against city transportation staff that never did support those lanes. Recently we went to the mat again to force the city to fix the poorly-striped westbound Santa Monica segment west of Wilshire Boulevard. (Read our memo.)

Beverly Hills continues to take retrograde steps on mobility while the rest of the region moves ahead because city transportation officials simply can’t wrap their minds around multimodal mobility. It’s still all about the car for Community Development Director Susan Healy Keene; Deputy Director for Transportation Aaron Kunz; and even transportation planner Martha Eros. Their collective lack of imagination is our greatest hurdle.

Even our elected leaders are calling for change but where the proverbial rubber meets the road — plans, policies and programs — even city councilmembers can’t gain traction with the staff in place today.

Santa Monica: What Leadership Looks Like

In Santa Monica elected leaders and city staff are on the same page with community advocates where it comes to reducing vehicle miles and making streets safe for those who choose not to drive. City Hall works with Santa Monica Spoke to promote pro-bike city events (imagine!) and the city’s Land Use and Circulation Element takes the brave step of limiting new downtown car trips to zero over the coming years.

Wilshire Safety Study bannerThis spring Santa Monica kicked-off a ‘Wilshire Safety Study’ to make that problematic corridor more safe for those who choose not to drive. It began with a community meeting in June to “listen to the needs of the local community and [suggest] design solutions that keep everyone safe.” And it was organized like a real planning session.

The most recent workshop was held on October 17th at the Santa Monica Civic auditorium on Main Street. And In fact the October Wilshire Boulevard workshop was organized as a special Planning Commission meeting (where any tangible transportation-development policies should originate). There is also an interactive map where issues can be flagged.

Santa Monica interactive planning mapThe study will conclude in February 2020 with the development of short and long term options to improve traffic safety on Wilshire Boulevard. “We need your help to identify issues on Santa Monica’s roadways,” the city tells participants. “This is your opportunity to provide your expertise on the streets you walk, bike, take transit, and/or drive everyday.”

Just IMAGINE a Beverly Hills transportation official uttering those words in earnest!

Why can Santa Monica approach mobility and street safety so constructively when Beverly Hills remains stuck in the past with 20th century thinking? Perhaps it is some combination of imagination, ambition and innovation — three terms we won’t ever hear mentioned in the same breath as the phrase “Beverly Hills transportation.”

Public Communication is Key

For Santa Monica, the Wilshire effort is part of a broader effort to define desirable outcomes and put in place the necessary performance measures to guarantee that the city gets there. That has already included an Office of Civic Wellbeing (really!) to create a framework and an Office of Performance Management to track progress. What in Beverly Hills compares?

Coming in November is an all-day Wellbeing Summit where the community gets its say. What should living in Santa Monica be like in the future? You may not get a real voice in the future of Beverly Hills but you can have your say along with our neighbors to the West. (Register here).

Santa Monica is all about encouraging its residents to “get engaged and stay informed” (as the city’s slogan goes). To that end residents routinely hear from City Hall via a regular email newsletter and a daily City of Santa Monica news blog. The city’s nationally-known City Manager, Rick Cole, posts there regularly on issues like climate change and civic well-being.

When do Beverly Hills residents ever hear from our own city manager? Do you even know his name?

Beverly Hills may be a customer-service driven city with a staff responsive to resident complaints, but that is all about assuming a reactive posture. And indeed that is exactly the city’s problem when it comes to mobility and street safety.

  • If we fix a street it is because our transportation staff has been embarrassed into making an improvement;
  • If we plan for multimodal it’s because Metro has required we have on the books a certified complete streets plan;
  • If we reform our transportation policies (like shifting impact analysis from LOS to vehicle miles traveled) it’s because Sacramento has forced our hand;
  • If on occasion we summon our collective imagination to envision 21st century mobility principles it’s only because the community brought the idea to City Hall.

Where is our Office of Civic Wellbeing? Where is our Wilshire Safety Study? Where is the single occasion when our transportation officials dared to step out of their collective defensive crouch in order to proactively recommend any measure to make our streets safe for those who walk or ride?