What We Can Do Today About Santa Monica Boulevard

Santa Monica Boulevard pavementBeverly Hills City Council may have punted on Santa Monica Boulevard, but they can’t turn their back on street safety entirely. Consider what confronts road users every day on this corridor: pavement hazards and intersections seemingly engineered to fail riders. While councilmembers continue to discuss reconstruction cost, let’s talk safety. There’s much we can do to make this corridor better today: repair that blacktop and intersections like Santa Monica-Beverly Blvd and Santa Monica/Wilshire more safely accessible to riders.

When the city took control of our section of the corridor from Caltrans nearly a decade ago, we received a small pot of gold to make repairs. But those funds (and monies since added) have moldered while the boulevard deteriorated. Indeed it’s been years since the city talked RFP. Even after selecting a consultant, we’ve dithered on the reconstruction project – and also deferred any improvements.

Wrench in the street

Debris like busted pliers await crosstown riders.

In the meantime the safety of road users hangs in the balance. Riding Santa Monica on a bicycle is an exercise in fright. That’s why so many riders addressed City Council begging for a class II bicycle lane there. We must swerve to avoid storm drains, potholes, pavement heaves and all kinds of debris (yes, even broken slip-jaw pliers) as impatient motorists squeeze by us. That’s why hundreds of riders contacted the Blue Ribbon Committee and Council with written comments.

Yet city inaction has only allowed the boulevard to deteriorate. In fact, the last director of Public Works simply said the city would make no repairs prior to reconstruction. Better Bike has spoken many times with Aaron Kunz, Deputy Director for Transportation, about Santa Monica Boulevard hazards (most recently a week ago) but it’s clear no action is forthcoming.

How wrong that is! The city could undertake an interim repair program, and we could start today. We’ve got open contracts for ongoing street maintenance for example; and we’re in the midst of budget planning for next fiscal year, so we could sweeten the pot right now for major repairs.

But what will it take for the city to make that effort? Here is one indication: despite residents’ safety concerns up in hilly Trousdale, the city addressed traffic hazards there only after two police officers were killed in successive crashes. Then, after the fact, City Manager Jeff Kolin snapped into action by calling a hasty meeting of the (somnambulent) Traffic and Parking Commission. And Council embraced a ‘vision zero’ program where the objective is zero <em>construction-related</em>  deaths. (We can’t recall another example of a building construction death anyway.)

What we need, however, is a <em>zero collision death</em> policy to encourage our transportation officials to look at the state of our roads and to create mobility policies that will keep us safe. For example, the city notched a pedestrian death just a couple of months ago. Indeed this death, and the prospect of serious injuries, hardly encourages our policymakers take notice of road conditions <em>seemingly designed to harm.</em>

Santa Monica Boulevard is a good example. Last year, City Council heard a harrowing story from Paul Livingston, who was hit from behind near City Hall and the driver fled. He spent weeks in a coma and rehabilitated his shattered hip, but it was business as usual for the city. Even the police closed the case with a cursory investigation until riders crowded into Council chambers urging a real investigation. Finally the driver was identified and charged – a case that’s ongoing years later.

Yet this past March, three of five councilmembers dissed bike lanes as possibly unsafe, even as a score of riders showed up to urge them. City Council may yet deprive bicycle riders of class II lanes on Santa Monica, but we should still press them for whatever the city can do to make Santa Monica Boulevard safer today.

Let’s Start With Santa Monica Boulevard: Fix the Blacktop!

First we can fix the blacktop. Riders are reminded every day that Santa Monica Boulevard is simply not fit for purpose. Broken asphalt, potholes, and moguls hit us right in the bum, and even worse are the grates, cracks, and pavement grooves that threaten to dismount the rider.  We urge our transportation officials Susan Healey Keene, Aaron and transportation planner Martha Eros to take a look.

We walked the southern side of the street from Crescent Drive to Doheney. Here’s what we saw. (These images (and more) will be included in an upcoming safety advisory to City Hall.)

Santa Monica Boulevard hazards

Beverly Hills municipal code instructs riders to ride “as near the curb as possible” (section 5-5-8) but doesn’t take into account the busted blacktop we find there.

Santa Monica Boulevard hazards

Potholes (‘irregularities’ in the parlance) best measured with a yardstick will unsettle cargo and perhaps bust a spoke. Those in shadow await the rider with an unwelcome surprise.

Santa Monica Boulevard hazards

Deep grooves are just perfect for snagging a tire to topple a rider.

Santa Monica Boulevard hazards

Pavement heaves like this wouldn’t be tolerated anywhere else in our city, yet here they remain an obstacle for riders. Often they are obscured by shadow or camouflaged by debris (the city never sweeps this segment of Santa Monica Boulevard).

Santa Monica Boulevard hazards

Storm drains like this one not only reflect the outright dysfunction of the drainage system (a key reason for reconstructing the corridor) but show just how far the condition of the boulevard has deteriorated.

Santa Monica Boulevard hazards

This closeup reminds us how easily one of these storm drains can pinch a street tire and topple a rider. It is representative of unsafe grates all along the corridor.

That’s but a few of the hazards on just one-quarter of the Santa Monica Boulevard curb lane. If we can take an hour to take that walk as a freebie, surely our transportation officials, who together represent a half-million bucks in staff costs annually, can take it too.

Next Step: Remove the Fence that Corrals Riders to the Blacktop

The 50,000 drivers that traverse Santa Monica Boulevard on any given weekday might have wondered about the strip of land on the south side of the Boulevard. The city has been in talks forever to purchase it. But environmental contamination and unwilling sellers complicate that deal. So the land sits fallow, surrounded by a tall chain link fence.

While drivers may not even notice the fence, it is cause for concern among riders because it presses right up to the curb for long stretches between City Hall and Doheney. The tight space (especially west of Beverly Blvd) leaves little margin for rider error. In fact it’s so close to the curb that it could for example snag a cruiser bike handlebar, or catch overhanging cargo strapped to a rear bike rack. Or a rider could find herself pinned between the car of a careless driver and a fencepost.

The fence presses right up to the curb. For the fallen rider there is no escape. And overhanging trees cast a shadow over the edge of the roadway to reduce rider visibility.

The fence presses right up to the curb. For the fallen rider there is no escape. And overhanging trees cast a shadow over the edge of the roadway to reduce rider visibility.

Should a rider fall, this fence will also block any escape from fast-moving traffic in this shadow-covered part of the corridor. Today she is fenced-out from any refuge. Alternately, without a fence the rider could retreat into the grassy area beyond to be buffered from further injury. Because of this fence, too, an injured rider must make a long circuitous walk around these parcels to reach nearby households for help. There is simply no means of escape for the rider along this forlorn and dangerous stretch of blacktop.

Prune the Trees for Greater Visibility

Riders on this south-side stretch of eastern Santa Monica Boulevard would also benefit from greater visibility. The problem is that overhanging trees block the sun (as see in the shadows in images above). So drivers, accustomed to the bright sun, might simply not see a rider in the deep shadows. Worse, at speed the driver may not even see a fallen rider. And with so few eyes on this part of the corridor, and those fenced-in parcels, no pedestrian will come to the assistance of a fallen rider. There is no emergency phone. Given the prevailing spirit of community in Beverly Hills, how many drivers would stop to help a fallen rider?

Improve the Santa Monica-Beverly Boulevard Intersection

While the city dithers on reconstructing Santa Monica, other opportunities to bump-up the safety are overlooked too. For example, an intersection like Santa Monica at Beverly Boulevard needs repair (and rethinking). This T-juncture is heavily trafficked and bus lines ply it regularly. But pity the poor pedestrian or rider who must cross on faded crosswalks or navigate glass and other debris. She is an afterthought at an intersection that is wholly given over to motor traffic.

Santa Monica-Beverly Boulevard pedestrian island

No welcome for walkers! This intersection doesn’t say much for a city ranked 7th for walkability in California by WalkScore.

Santa Monica-Beverly Boulevard crosswalk

Markings on the north side are also faded because the city chooses not to use more durable thermoplastic.

Pity the rider especially. Approaching eastbound on Santa Monica, for example, she’s pinched in a narrow lane between motor traffic on the left and the curb fence on the right.

Santa Monica-Beverly Boulevard buses allow little room for riders

Keep too far to the right (like the BH municipal code requires) and you’re luncheon meat sandwiched between the traffic and the curb.

And if she “keeps to the right” (per the Beverly Hills municipal code requirement) she is inevitably trapped as motor traffic turns at speed onto Beverly Boulevard.

Santa Monica-Beverly Boulevard puts motor traffic before bike travelers.

The long right-turn lane (not a pocket) allows turning traffic to continue at speed. That makes a left merge into the #2 lane a hazard indeed.

Now, good cycling practice suggests a merge left into the #2 lane to continue east on Santa Monica. But the priority on motoring makes moving left, through the right turn lane, a clear hazard:  fast-moving traffic whizzes by facilitated by  the long right turn lane (it is not a turn pocket). Riders are failed by an intersection designed only for motor travelers. There is nothing here that would reduce the consequences of human error. Europeans by contrast accommodate that inevitable error by building safer facilities.

Reopen Civic Center Drive for Through Travel

There is another problem with this intersection too: in the effort to hasten motor traffic flow, engineers have cut off the only viable alternative to Santa Monica for two-wheeled travelers. The route that holds that potential is Civic Center Drive, which parallels Santa Monica south of the (now fenced) old railroad right-of-way. This aptly-named street links the Civic Center with Doheney and could deliver eastbound riders to West Hollywood safely…were it not interrupted by Beverly Boulevard!

Santa Monica-Beverly Boulevard aerial viewOn the west side side, Civic Center simply merges onto Beverly; to the east of Beverly it terminates in a lonely and useless cul-de-sac. But Beverly wasn’t always a barrier to through-travelers. Before officials engineered this intersection strictly for motor traffic, Civic Center drive continued straight through. So let’s revisit that option if only to give bike lane opponents an alternative they can point to for our safe travel.

We’ve heard much from city officials and neighborhood folks that riders should “find an alternative” to Santa Monica Boulevard. Overlooking for the moment that 50,000 drivers on an average every weekday choose this route because it’s the most direct crosstown connection, our transportation officials could help us find an alternative by opening Civic Center Drive to through travel.

Re-Engineer the Santa Monica Boulevard-Wilshire Intersection

The most egregious safety hazard in our opinion is the Santa Monica Boulevard-Wilshire Boulevard intersection. This is another #fail in a boulevard engineered for motor traffic only.

Santa Monica Boulevard turn lanes existingThe problem is the ambiguity associated with dual right-hand (westbound) turn lanes from Santa Monica onto Wilshire (at right). Of these dual turn lanes, the left one is an optional turn. Ordinarily, recommended practice suggests the rider merge left into that optional lane in order to proceed straight on Santa Monica. But on a corridor with the traffic volume of Santa Monica that alone is a challenge.

But this intersection introduces another hazard: that optional turn lane’s signal is an arrow which stays green for a turn well after the straight-ahead signal turns red. So the rider who does merge left yet fails to make the light can find herself stopped at the limit line while traffic in her own lane impatiently passes by at speed to turn. If she’s followed the recommended practice of merging left, this intersection puts her in danger.

But also consider the fate of riders who follow the Beverly Hills municipal code  to “keep right.” Should the westbound rider hug the curb as the dual turn lanes reach the intersection? No: he will find himself by the fountain waiting to cross Wilshire but with no means to safely cross it. Because on the left he’s trapped by those dual turn lanes, and the fast-moving traffic – always turning at speed on any green signal – offers no opportunity to continue on. But there no escape there because Wilshire provides no crosswalk to the Hilton side.

The situation is no hypothetical: we counted riders for LACBC’s bike count last year and saw rider after rider find himself in that turn-lane trap. Some turned west on Wilshire but then found no crosswalk. And there exists no left-turn on Wilshire until Whittier. Some others inevitably took a risk and scampered across Wilshire in the moment after the turn arrows went red. But that’s not only illegal it’s quite unsafe. Yet it can only be the expected behavior when an intersection fails riders like this one.

Were this intersection engineered for safe transit, no rider would not find himself in the turn-lane trap. No rider would be stuck at the limit line in an optional-turn lane waiting to get struck by turning traffic. And it demands action. Today. Should City Council phase in Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction over a period of years, we’re told, work on this intersection wouldn’t commence until phase II. And when would that be?

What the City Should Do for Santa Monica-Wilshire

Fortunately FHWA (the national DOT) has design guidance for this situation. One option is to simply leave it to riders to figure out how to navigate the twin turn lanes. Yes, that’s what FHWA puts forth as an option. But that’s a bad choice because rider safety education is scant and besides, Beverly Hills has lifted no finger to apprize riders of how to ride safely. That’s why vision zero gets it right: we’re better off designing our facilities to account for rider inexperience and even bad judgment (just like the Swedes do).

Santa Monica Boulevard shared-lane option diagramAnother option is to put a striped bicycle lane between the turn lanes (illustrated at right by the FWHA). This option at least properly guides riders to the intersection. But it would offer little protection as drivers in turn lanes continue to take advantage of the green turn signal, passing the rider at speed on both sides. Were the arrows signal and through-signals to turn red together, however, it’s another story (especially when paired with a bike box).

But the best option is to eliminate the dual lanes entirely to fit a bicycle lane to the left of a single turn lane (as shown by FHWA below). The advantages are twofold: a clearly-marked, dedicated lane would reduce ambiguity for riders unsure of how to pass through today’s intersection; and the elimination of the second (optional) turn lane reduces the opportunity for conflict. The intersection could then retain today’s signal timing.

Santa Monica Boulevard turn lanes best remedy diagramAn added benefit of eliminating the lane is that additional space is made available for the bicycle lane. (Alternately, with an incrementally wider boulevard, as under consideration, we could have our cake and eat it too: dual turn lanes and a dedicated bicycle lane at the intersection.)

Act Now!

What’s critical is that the city address these safety issues now. The issues enumerated here are all known and evident hazards. We need only to recognize them. So let’s include repair of the entire corridor’s blacktop, as well as the re-engineering of its intersections, during the first phase of reconstruction.

We want to see Beverly Hills do the right thing by making Santa Monica Boulevard accessible to all road users. That’s the promise of ‘complete streets’ after all: to make travel safe whether you walk, ride a bicycle or drive a car. That’s why evolving federal and state transportation policy embraces design principles already implemented by transportation engineers in Europe. Let’s put the safety of pedestrians and riders before the convenience of drivers. That’s what we should do if we’re ever to consider streets as a significant public space (rather than simply a conduit for motor traffic).

Safe, Multimodal Streets are Already in our Plans

It’s not just a matter of safety. Our own sustainable city plan says we need to encourage cycling. Our Bicycle Master Plan calls for a citywide network of bike routes. Even our General Plan’s circulation element envisions a multimodal mobility future for Beverly Hills. It’s just that our policymakers and city officials don’t evidently agree. They’re still wedded to an old way of thinking about the city as a small town.

Jeff Kolin, Beverly Hills City Manager and himself a rider, has been silent on the safety aspects of Santa Monica boulevard. He’s not spoken up to recommend any interim fixes, for example, and certainly noted to Council none of the issues we identify here. Ask him yourself why he’s so reticent. Find his number in our handy City Hall cheat sheet.

Bike Talk Lives!

Kill Radio's doorBetter Bike dropped by the venerable Kill Radio studios today to chat up the guys behind Bike Talk, a veritable institution on the Los Angeles area bike scene. Every Saturday, Bike Talk founder Nicholas Richert and his on-air MC, Chicken Leather, rock the mic from 10 to noon from behind this very door. Ensconced in an not gracefully aging building at Beverly & Vermont, Kill Radio is the Los Angeles bike scene incarnate: bootstrapped, threadbare, and proudly worse for the wear. Yet not about to give up the ghost when there’s work to be done yet to wrench a bike-friendly region from the clutch of car-minded DOTs.

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