Beverly Hills conducted a Complete Streets ‘walk audit’ on June 9th. It followed on the first Community Workshop (read the recap), the Workshop #2 (recap) and an Earth Day Complete Streets pop-up (pic). After those earlier conceptual discussions and associated mapping exercises, this event was a hands-on opportunity for participants to evaluate our environment for accessibility and safety. And of course to make recommendations. “Everything is on the table” in terms of improvements, said Aaron Kunz, Community Development Department Deputy Director for Transportation.
What is a walk audit? A walk audit is simply an exercise that helps us focus attention on the built environment as it exists today. In conjunction with a complete streets planning process, a walk audit gets us out onto the streets where we can cast a critical eye on the features that may impede multimodal mobility. Are there barriers to accessibility, for example, that make it impractical or even hazardous to walk or ride a bicycle? (Read more about walk audits.)
The spirit behind the walk audit is summarized in this assessment tool from Delaware:
Everyone is a pedestrian! Most trips by car, transit, or bike begin by walking. Many roads are designed with only cars in mind, but at least one-third of Americans do not drive, including children, adolescents, many older adults, people with disabilities, and low-income individuals….This includes economically disadvantaged individuals who do not own cars, people who do not drive, and/or persons with disabilities. Creating walkable, safe, and pleasant pedestrian areas creates transportation equity for mobility- constrained and special-needs populations. — Healthy and Complete Communities in Delaware: The Walkability Assessment Tool.
The walk audit is a fresh, and purposeful, look at streets that are a product of incremental engineering decisions over many decades. These decisions are generally taken without regard for the bigger mobility and accessibility picture. They may be triggered by traffic count thresholds and unfailingly overlook leading-edge best practices. Traffic engineering reflects our cultural bias, and for too long it prioritized efficiency over safety and, in particular, put the convenience of auto travelers front and center.
The culture is changing, however, and a walk audit asks us to consciously reevaluate the street and perhaps even bring a little bit of rigor to our assessment. What may need to change to encourage walking or bicycle riding? That’s what our own city plans say we should be doing.
About 25 participants, 10 staffers and several Traffic and Parking commissioners attended the session. Iteris consultant John Lower framed the issue and it was all about safety. “When we talk about ‘accidents’ we’re really talking about crashes: 94% of them arise from human error, and though our streets we can influence that behavior.” He went on to talk about the potential for ‘intelligent transportation’ (aka networked vehicles) to avoid that harm; and the need to shift more rides to transit by solving the ‘last mile’ connectivity problem: home to transit. “We want you to recognize these challenges and to buy in to possible solutions.”
This was a hands-on exercise, so we split off into groups to walk two segments of the business triangle, South Santa Monica and North Crescent Drive.
The former has long served as an expedient path for pass-through traffic but which came at the expense of safety and enjoyment of the corridor. There is now interest to refashion it as a village-like ‘local street.’ Crescent Drive is a busy pedestrian conduit between City Hall and the triangle and has already been identified as a bike route in our bike route pilot program. Both offer clear challenges! I participated in a South Santa Monica Boulevard walk audit so I will describe what we saw and talked about.
Not two minutes after we left the library we were confronted by a major safety challenge: the Burton Way / Rexford intersection.
There is no better illustration of why riding a bicycle into Beverly Hills feels so hazardous: the marked bicycle lane on Burton ends with a couple of fading sharrows, which provides no guidance to a rider though that intersection. Worse, those sharrows exist in an optional right-turn lane (in the distance in the image above). Why queue impatient motorists waiting to turn behind a rider who may be continuing straight to go westbound? Why make that optional turn lane so extra wide? See the aerial:
Better would be to narrow the turn lane to accommodate a marked bicycle lane to the left of the turn lane. It’s good when every road users knows where they are supposed to be. And then on the far side of Rexford that lane could have continued (instead of turning into a third vehicular lane). After all, this is where the boulevard narrows; do we need three through-traffic lanes? The poor sap on a bicycle dutifully follows the sharrows and then finds herself in a meat grinder of harried motorists. Crazy!
Those heading eastbound anticipate the beginning of marked bicycle lanes on Burton, but when they come off of South Santa Monica there is no bicycle lane that protect them. There is no marking to guide them through the intersection. Somehow we are expected to (again) share a too-wide optional right turn lane. Why no bike lane? There is width sufficient for it. As it is it is a ‘right-hook’ nightmare for the cyclist.
For pedestrians crossing Rexford westbound (as we were) the danger at this juncture was clear: the wide-radius right turn from Burton onto north Rexford allows drivers to negotiate the turn at high speed. Speed kills when vehicles collide with pedestrians in a crosswalk.
Pedestrians faced the same hazard (and greater danger) at the South Santa Monica / Crescent intersection. The ‘diamond’ shape seen in the aerial is created by two acute corners and two wide, obtuse angles.
The westbound driver turning north onto Crescent can take that northeast corner at high speed. (Same with eastbound drivers turning south on Crescent.) This is the southwest corner of City Hall and yet it feels to be the most dangerous place for walkers or riders in the entire city. Three of the four crosswalks there are not high visibility and the north-side crosswalk is arguably not even disability-accommodating due to the many pop-up bollards.
What’s the fix? The city could create a pedestrian scramble at Crescent to shorten the crossing distance between City Hall and the triangle. Here’s a before/after animation:
Alternately, or in addition, squaring off the crosswalks relative to the curbs would help too. Not only would that shorten the crossing distance across wide South Santa Monica Blvd; it would also require that eastbound drivers stop well in advance of the corner on the red before proceeding around that oblique angle turn. Win-win.
The intersection is also hazardous to a westbound rider who would turn left onto the bike route at Crescent. The choice: merge across two through traffic lanes and into left turn pocket. Dangerous because this is a high-speed corridor (and there is no enforcement). Or cross Crescent to the northwest corner and wait for the southbound signal (aka box turn). Why not put the city’s first bike box just before the crosswalk at Crescent? That allows riders to bunch near the front of the car queue and is very handy for accessing the left turn. The riders are visible to all drivers queued at the signal and riders get a jump on the movement. It’s a no-brainer if the crosswalks are squared off: that makes more room for a bike box.
The peril for bicycle riders only begins at Crescent. Once west of the Wallis, the road narrows considerably. Here traffic is dual-lane with no curbside parking. Boy do drivers fly through here – like water shooting through a crimp in a garden hose! What we need is traffic calming.
I suggest a road diet! Take these dual lanes down to single-lane and create a buffered bike lane in each direction.
Kory Klem made a good point at the last workshop: make South Santa Monica Boulevard single-lane west of Beverly. Then, remove curbside parking on the north side to make room for a bicycle lane. Kory noted that removing the north-side curb parking would help to accommodate both bike lanes AND back-in parking. That would increase parking capacity on the south side to make up for the less-efficient parallel parking lost on the north side. Here’s the diagram:
It is a win-win-win. 1) It would (properly) send drivers to the garages (just behind the stores) rather than invite them to circle continuously for an open meter. 2) It would vastly improve the pedestrian experience on narrow north-side sidewalks. A buffered bicycle lane would put motor traffic fully 8 feet from the curb (today west of Canon it abuts the curb). And finally, 3) It would provide bike lane connectivity though this most difficult area. Safety first!
We are halfway there: eastbound travelers already see the road narrow to one through-lane on the blocks before Beverly. (This was a recent change to accommodate eastbound right-turn-only lanes at busy intersections.) Why not expand on that concept to create single-lane travel from Moreno through these choke points and clear on to Burton? That way we could have contiguous bike lanes from Century City to the eastern Boundary near Robertson. Win #4: Reverse angle parking makes it safer for cars backing out and the adjacent bike lane need not be buffered from motor traffic: parked cars are the buffer. No bicyclist would be in harm’s way.
My group identified several other issues that I will touch on briefly. Like sidewalks that are unpleasant to roam – especially between Canon and Beverly. (Ironically the area used to be rife with pedestrians as the streetcar station was located adjacent.)
And half-blocks north of the boulevard provide little to the pedestrian. These are important connectors to Beverly Gardens Park, but they are unsightly (and with the exception of Alfred Coffee there is little to catch the eye).
There are whole blocks that are ‘dead’ from a pedestrian standpoint as this part of South SM west of Camden shows. Indeed an entire chunk of the triangle seems to have been simply carved out from our designated pedestrian area according to the map.
Why? No doubt there is a story to it! If I know Beverly Hills, it was easier to carve it out than to suggest to commercial property owners to prioritize the street. As a result the whole corridor west of Camden dies on the vine.
From there we headed back to the library on the south and shady side of the street. As we paused adjacent to one of the city’s so-called pedestrian plazas (probably the short end of a development bargain for a behemoth tower), we stumbled on some public art. It was an older couple in bronze. With fear in their eyes. Our Community Development Director immediately identified the figures as frightened pedestrians. There is no better metaphor on a walk audit though a part of the city so badly in need of complete streets!
At the library we pored over maps and devised our recommendations. (I’ve elaborated on some of ours above.) Here are a few pics. Send me the results of your table!
The walk audit was a chance to surface all manner of ideas, including some that did not anticipate adding bicycle lanes to either South Santa Monica or to Crescent Drive. That is a foreshadow of the challenge we face in coming up with a complete streets plan to makes our streets safe and accessible while also needing to accommodate stakeholders more concerned about motoring.
TPC Chair Nooshin Meshkaty is the most safety-minded commissioner we’ve ever had. At this walk audit she took to task the transportation staffers and consultants who fail to step up, and, in my view, who too long let our streets descend into madness. “Professionals with ideas we should not stop at anything. People have suggestions but we need leadership,” she said. “Take our city through the future. Guide the vision of the residents. It is not just crosswalks but about the future. Guide our community to that.”
Make your comments specific and reference problems that need to be fixed. The draft complete streets plan is set for release coincident with the third (and final) community workshop on August 22nd. The clock is ticking!