The first Beverly Hills complete streets process community workshop was held on Monday, March 12th, to kick off the drafting of the city’s complete streets plan. This is the first step in the creation of a complete streets plan. More workshops and city meetings will follow, but this event suggested that Beverly Hills is ready for complete streets. Here’s my recap.
John Lower, Associate Vice President of Iteris, the consultant to the city that secured the complete streets project, opened with an overview of complete streets principles: improved street accessibility regardless of age or ability; infrastructure upgrades to improve safety and efficiency for all users; and the opportunity to employ new technologies to improve mobility safety and efficiency. Technology is playing a key role in this process because mobility options like bikeshare and Bird scooters are becoming popular and City Hall is warming to autonomous vehicles (perhaps for a citywide taxi system as championed by Councilmember John Mirisch).
Mr. Lower’s PowerPoint presentation was somewhat dry; it was also light on vision. Which is unfortunate because a complete streets planning process encourages people to imagine what urban mobility could look like: high-visibility and/or protected bicycle lanes, world-class crosswalks, road diets to calm traffic, and policies to encourage active modes of mobility over auto use. Complete streets principles are best illustrated with before and after imagery, but Mr. Lower’s presentation was heavy on schematics and tables that are difficult to read in a large room. It was a presentation shackled to today when what we want stakeholders to do is to image tomorrow.
Still, Mr. Lower only had to set the stage for the main event: the roundtable breakout groups. (For more information on complete streets see the consultants December PowerPoint.)
Lydia Kenselaar, a planner with an Iteris subcontractor, Alta Planning, then took the mic to suggest participants identify values and goals that should guide the planning process. She then suggested strategies to inform the draft complete streets plan. But she was asking us to imagine tomorrow’s ways of moving about the city without visual cues. And if one doesn’t know about the variety of measures that contribute to a complete street, one can only recall places like Europe (and Santa Monica!) to inform some recommendations. My table did draw on examples elsewhere and no one referenced the content of Mr. Lower’s PowerPoint presentation.
Each roundtable included 6-8 participants and was facilitated by a consultant’s staffer. Around the tables hovered city staffers, Traffic and Parking commissioners and, notably, public safety representatives. Also attending were councilmembers Bob Wunderlich and John Mirisch (both multimodal mobility supporters). My table was fairly representative of the entire room of about forty stakeholders: aged about fifty, on average.
The breakout tables were charged with identifying guiding values and goals in about 45 minutes. The exercise would feel familiar to those who have perhaps participated in the drafting of local plans: the urge to participate; round table with a poster to mark-up; some spirited conversation and a group member ultimately chosen to present the table’s ideas to the room. Then other tables follow suit, followed by a wrap-up statement. Everyone goes home and feels good about the process.
My table showed some collective interest to move beyond auto-era problems and into a future where mobility is safe, efficient and (for lack of a better term) ‘modern.’ As one of my tablemates said, “We want people to feel good about how they pass through the city.” That seemed to sum up the spirit at the table.
I’m not sure if my table was representative, but over the next 45 minutes my tablemates Melody, Kathy, Tom, Giada, Susan and (Traffic commissioner Pam Hendry) talked only briefly about goals. Issued included:
- Crosswalks are dangerous (“I need to wear a reflective vest to feel safe”);
- Few areas feel safe to ride a bicycle so we can’t reduce our car use;
- Motorized bicycles present a safety issue to pedestrians;
- Inaccurate maps and Waze-like apps prompt drivers to make unlawful turns; and,
- Hotel black cars and limos hog meters south of Wilshire and disabled residents can’t park.
We then moved quickly on to fixes. Recommendations made at my table included:
- Busy commercial streets need a bicycle lane and better to place it between the curb and parked cars;
- Create pedestrian-only streets or areas safe and enjoyable to walk;
- Schools should be connected by bike routes to encourage bike-to-school;
- Relocate 720 Metro bus service from North to South Santa Monica Blvd;
- “De-prioritize vehicular traffic” on Beverly Drive and and add a bicycle lane;
- Protect bicycle paths: paint is not sufficient (“in Europe they are raised to a different level from the street”);
- Designate priority bike routes for a citywide bicycle network (like Berkeley) perhaps Charleville, Gregory and Carmelita;
- Create a ‘flyover’ to allow riders and pedestrians to rise above busy, problem intersections like Wilshire-Santa Monica.
When breakout tables convened for the summation the top recommendations by table were
Table 1: Improve the quality-of-life, implement measures with a positive environmental impact, and reduce auto traffic though transit use.
Table 2: Reduce pass-through traffic & neighborhood spillover, improve pedestrian safety, and address driver aggression.
Table 3: Improve safety, improve the quality-of-life, and install bike lanes & facilities to make mobility more efficient.
Table 4: Improve safety & reduce collisions, improve quality-of-life (restore a ‘village’ atmosphere), and make on-street mobility improvements.
Table 5: Improve safety, better the environment by reducing auto traffic (via ‘active mobility amenities’), invest in ‘smart’ technology lighting & signals.
Table 6: Improve safety via protected bicycle lanes, calm traffic, and create more pedestrian areas incl. South Beverly. (Note: I was not a very active participant at my table #6 and these recommendations were suggested solely by my tablemates.)
Other suggestions included: make the business triangle pedestrian-only (which recalls one City Council candidate’s call to close Rodeo Drive to vehicles); separate pedestrians from traffic at the busiest intersections using flyovers; make city data public (which I suggested along with table #4); and implement a ‘vision zero’ program to reduce traffic crashes by improving the design of streets. There was something for everyone unless you are an Auto Club booster!
City Transportation deputy director Aaron Kunz brought the proceedings to a close quickly by commenting on the “great turnout” and noting the timeline for the complete streets plan process. It should conclude with a draft plan by early fall and be in the hands of City Council for a final vote by October. Of course it’s a long way from this workshop to a final plan. In the meantime there will be more workshops, online survey responses, monthly Traffic and Parking Commission meetings for additional public comments (first Thursdays), and one or more City Council meetings.
Was it worth attending? This kind of pro-forma community input event (‘workshop’) suffers from familiar shortcomings: an informational presentation that is not so informative; too little time to really talk in depth about the issues; table facilitators who may not be very experienced; and a volume of public input can seem overwhelming unless a wrap-up facilitator can properly organize it into a coherent framework. Without an experienced facilitator the tables produce a laundry list of proposals that may or may not survive the event. But in the end we have no choice to attend – and to press our electeds and officials through other channels too so that our streets become safe and more accessible (i.e., ‘complete’).
There were a few things I took away from this workshop that I didn’t expect that suggest Beverly Hills may have turned the corner on mobility.
Most astonishing was the sense that Beverly Hills has collectively turned the chapter on auto-era mobility. Nobody suggested the city should expand a road or otherwise seek to make driving more convenient. Nobody spoke up for drivers period. No bike advocate needed to lead the discussion to focus on measures that support active mobility because the room was already there.
Safety was the prevailing value. Of the six tables presenting, five cited safety as a top value or put safety at the center of the short-list of recommendations. That is truly remarkable considering that city officials never mention the increasing toll of crashes or suggest the need for a policy to address what residents have long complained about: feeling unsafe on city streets.
No business owner showed up to defend curbside parking or call for an expansion of curb parking. Yet that is what’s on City Council’s April 10th agenda: a plea from South Santa Monica businesses to expand curbside parking on the street once Santa Monica Boulevard construction is complete. No champion spoke up tonight for a proposal that would short-circuit the complete streets process by changing the function of that street in advance of a plan (which is supported by city staff).
NIMBYs stayed home. The not-in-my-backyard crowd has long exerted undue influence over city policymaking. That was evidenced in caricature fashion when northside residents turned out two years ago to try to tank SM Blvd bicycle lanes. Though recommended by the federal and state DOTs for improved safety for riders, and though championed by 100+ pro-lane speakers at City Council, those naysayers nearly carried the day. None showed up tonight.
Perhaps most significantly, there was no sense that complete streets is a zero-sum endeavor. New mobility measures need not come at the cost of any particular road user (for example motorists). Instead there seemed to be acknowledgement that mobility could be both safer and more efficient.
The zero-sum argument (drivers vs. everyone else) has been trotted out again and again across the Southland to stymie efforts to improve street safety but tonight it carried no weight in this first complete streets community workshop.
The the next workshop I’m hoping that we’ll have more bike-minded attendees. Not too many showed up (notwithstanding the number of recommendations for pro-bike infrastructure). Witness the City Hall bike parking area. We need to see a few more bikes here next time!