If you expected that Beverly Hills might install bicycle lanes on our segment of North Santa Monica Boulevard when reconstructing it next year, you will be sorely disappointed to know that City Council appears to have pounded the final nail into the bike lanes coffin. The decision reflects a lack of concern for the scores of speakers who supported the inclusion of bicycle lanes as a safety measure and stands as a rebuke to the hundreds more who urged our city in written comments to do the right thing by riders.
[Note: this post has been edited substantially from the original to include new transcribed material from the City Council study session. We’ve also distinguished more clearly our own editorial commentary, which is appended at bottom, and removed some theorizing about City Hall to an upcoming post. We hope it proves more readable!]
City Council Study Session: Project Design Recommendations
At today’s meeting, a split (3-1) Council turned away from the city’s Blue Ribbon Committee recommendation to stripe bicycle lanes and directed staff to proceed with this major corridor reconstruction without the inclusion of bicycle lanes. In the majority were councilmembers Willie Brien, Nance Krasne and (Mayor) Julian Gold who seem to believe that riders in this city – and from the region beyond – simply don’t need lanes on North Santa Monica Boulevard despite overwhelming testimony to the contrary.
The prospect of putting bicycle lanes on North Santa Monica Boulevard seemed promising just last year. Lane advocates had put on the table a ‘Greenway’ design concept that included bicycle lanes yet sacrificed no Beverly Gardens parkland. Support from riders then and now was overwhelmingly in favor of including bicycle lanes.
Just prior to this study session, City Council received eleven more letters in support of bicycle lanes on North Santa Monica. None was opposed. Eight speakers at this meeting supported striping as part of the reconstruction, and most of us framed the issue in terms of our personal safety. (Incidentally, nobody spoke up against the inclusion of bicycle lanes.)
Speakers Sharon Ignarro, Carleton Lee, Tish Laemmle, Rich Hirschinger and Susan Gans, for example, all said they want a separate bicycle lanes for that reason. Laemmle said, “If you stripe the lanes, it will make it safer for everybody [because] the bike lane makes it clear: cars are on one side, bikers are on the other.”
Other reasons for support touched on our place in the larger region and world. Gans properly called out the Beverly Hills section of the boulevard as a “missing link” in the regional multimodal mobility puzzle. She highlighted three classes of users who would benefit from separate bicycle lanes (the “recreational, eco-conscious, and mandatory” riders, the latter with few transportation options). And echoing our own city plans, she urged the city to encourage all of these users to ride “by taking this one-time opportunity to make Santa Monica [boulevard] safer….””
Longtime resident and rider Barbara Linder reminded Council that if we want to be competitive globally for visitors, we have to make cycling safe. “You talk about ‘destination city’ and we spend a lot of money for holiday lighting,” she said. “I have been to many destination cities throughout the world, and I have ridden a bicycle in most of them, and all of the class-A destination cities have bike lanes.”
Resident Kory Klem (and co-organizer of the Greenway concept presented in January) spoke about the need for Beverly Hills to look forward, not backward, to plan for new modes of mobility. Better Bike spoke up to highlight the city’s obligation to ensure that construction mitigation accommodates riders (as we communicated to the city in a recent letter).
Councilmember Krasne opened the discussion repeating her position that North Santa Monica boulevard is too dangerous for riders (whom in the past she has labeled ‘organ donors’ with some humor). And that’s even after the blacktop is expanded – an option she supports. “I don’t want the bicyclists competing with heavy trucks, buses, and all the other crazy people on the road,” she said. So far so good; we don’t want to compete with heavy vehicles either. Then she proposed bike lanes on the adjacent south roadway.
I’d like one street designated for the bikers with no parking on the sides, and I’d like that to be [South] Santa Monica. I think it’s doable if we get rid of one of the [travel] lanes and have only two lanes going west and one going east. The bicyclists can have the entire width of the city to ride though, right into Century Park [sic] on ‘big’ Santa Monica where it converges. – Nancy Krasne
Her recommended route is a dangerous ride today, of course; it’s a gantlet of harried drivers and curbside parking door zones and unexpected right-hooks. Removing one travel lane, a row of curbside parking, and then restriping to add bicycle lanes would make for safe travel between Moreno Dr. and Doheny, she said.
The staff report touched on South Santa Monica Boulevard in the construction-related mitigation section, and mentioned the option of temporarily removing 39 parking spaces. But no city representative had suggested making that mitigation measure permanent for bicycle lanes.
Krasne has brought up her South Santa Monica suggestion before. And in truth we liked it then and now; a bicycle boulevard on the south roadway would be great. But every time it’s raised there is pushback because of the loss of parking.
This time pushback came from from Lili Bosse, always a champion of businesses, who agreed with letting the Traffic and Parking Commission review mitigation options on the south roadway. But clearly she was not comfortable with Krasne’s concept. “I have a LOT of questions about this,” she said.
But councilmember Bosse was less equivocal about striping bicycle lanes on North Santa Monica Boulevard:
I absolutely support the widening and the striping of bike lanes. The significant concerns were taking green space from the parks, and I think we’ve come up with a way to achieve a street that will be consistent and safe and w/o taking green space. I take note of what Barbara Linder said. Having just come back from Paris, NY, Washington, Sweden – all of these cities are metropolitan cities and have bike lanes.” – Lili Bosse
More importantly, Bosse said:
I think this is actually a safety issue… Once repaved, bikes will absolutely use those streets. [Striping] would allow for a safer environment. It’s where we as a city need to be.*
Whatever the merits of installing bicycle lanes somewhere off North Santa Monica, merely advancing the proposal takes the focus off of North Santa Monica Boulevard. That allowed other councilmembers to fudge. For example, councilmember Willie Brien said he does not support bicycle lanes for North Santa Monica Boulevard “at this time.”
I think this is a unique opportunity to look at our streetscape and our traffic routes; what we want our business district to be; [whether] we want ‘little’ Santa Monica to be an increasing[ly] pass-through roadway for our city, or do we want to make that a street that’s more usable for our businesses… That’s why we want [traffic and parking commission] to take a look at it. – Councilmember Willie Brien
But the commission will be charged with reviewing mitigation options, not advance mobility planning for the triangle. As for bicycle lanes there someday, Brien was again noncommittal. “Maybe bike lanes in that area, or other alternatives to that. I’m not ready to say where we would do that.” As for North Santa Monica: “I don’t support striping ‘big’ Santa Monica at this point. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t get there, but at this point that was not the intent.”
But the discussion of bicycle lanes among other options was exactly the point of today’s discussion. The lanes was even identified as an option in the staff report (though with the caveat, “if desired”).
When pressed by Bosse about the bigger picture – i.e., how tomorrow’s vision for South Santa Monica might be reconciled with today’s political sensitivity about parking – he punted. “It may be bike lanes; it may not. It may be less parking on there [or] it may be different pedestrian opportunities.” He added, “That’s the point: to take a different look” at a “master street project that actually could meet all of our needs.”
Mayor Julian Gold was up next. He didn’t support boulevard medians but called bicycle lanes “a possibility and something I would consider.” Only not now.
In the matter of widening the roadway, I’m OK with that, and, in concert with the conversations from councilmembers Krasne and Brien, I think the decision about bicycle lane striping is a fallback – it’s something to be considered – but until we resolve the issue of the use of South Santa Monica Boulevard as a potential bike lane, I think we should just leave that unanswered.” – Mayor Julian Gold
So at this key juncture, during the discussion on project design, he’s not supporting bicycle lanes for North Santa Monica Boulevard. And in the end the Council split 3-1 on striping bicycle lanes. (John Mirisch was absent.) It did unite on expanding the boulevard, however, though split (2-2) on the medians. Tomorrow’s boulevard won’t have them.
What About That Bicycle Lanes Concept for South Santa Monica?
The prospect of bicycle lanes on South Santa Monica Boulevard seems unrealistic. While it is something we would support, Bosse reminded us that there is political opposition in the business triangle community to removing any curbside parking. We expect that no future City Council will eliminate a travel lane in order to accommodate bicycle riders. (While we support at least a temporary striped bicycle lane during construction as a mitigation measure, Traffic and Parking Commission discussions on the issue suggest it’s probably not in the offing either.)
So why suggest that Santa Monica South be our city’s bike-friendly crosstown street? Perhaps it is Nancy Krasne thinking big. (It doesn’t appear to be part of a calculated strategy. But in light of the political priorities it may well be a naive idea.) Indeed give credit where it is due: she was the lone voice urging the Community Development Department to find a couple of extra feet for blacktop adjacent to the five parking garages, and they found it.
While the South Santa Monica concept may not be realistic, it is very useful to bicycle lane opponents on City Council for two reasons. First, it is a red herring that distracts attention from the question that was actually before City Council during this important design phase: Whether or not to include bicycle lanes on North Santa Monica boulevard. And to that question the Council majority answered unequivocally: No bicycle lanes for North Santa Monica.
Second, it gives bicycle lane opponents Brien and Gold political cover to reject bicycle lanes for North Santa Monica Boulevard. With the Krasne proposal on the table, Brien could recommend that the city simply study concepts like it “before making a definitive decision” about bicycle lanes on the north roadway. For Gold, too, the concept is “something to be considered.” (No need to hurry to put bicycle lanes on our busy truck corridor, though.)
Despite rhetoric about the ‘safer city’ and the ‘smart city,’ our City Council doubled-down on auto-mobility at the expense of rider safety. That undermines support for our own multimodal mobility policies and eschews an effective traffic control device that is approved by both the federal and state DOTs for corridors just like this one. And it comes at a moment when transportation agencies across the country are recognizing their obligation to create roadways that provide safe access for all users. The principle is known as ‘complete streets.’
That’s why the addition of bicycle lanes was recommended by the city’s own Blue Ribbon Committee as well as supported by the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. Proponents included officials from neighboring cities and of course everyday riders from Beverly Hills and beyond.
The Council’s decision not to stripe bicycle lanes despite room to accommodate them only makes sense when you acknowledge the rationale: creating extra-wide right-hand lanes prevents bicycle riders from riding in the center of lane as allowed under state law for sub-15 foot lanes. Thus under current City Council direction, riders would not be able to ride in the center of the lane even if safety recommended it. Imagine sharing the right lane with a dirt hauler piloted by a driver who himself wants to use the center of the lane. Where is the marginalized rider to go?
The extra-wide #2 lane endorsed by City Council just recreates the conditions that today have riders concerned about personal safety. That’s why, despite it being recommended by staff, validated by consultant Psomas, and as of this meeting endorsed by City Council, the federal department of transportation says that on an expanded corridor like ours bicycle lanes are more safe for riders than are extra-wide curb lanes.
Did the ‘Fix’ Come a Year Ago?
Better Bike has been advocating for a bike-friendly Beverly Hills since 2010. Bicycle Lanes for Santa Monica Boulevard was not only a topic of our earliest meetings but it has remained our most high-profile issue ever since. As we’ve observed, bike lanes on this corridor is the signal issue that would telegraph our city’s commitment to multimodal mobility. And for a time our hopes were somewhat buoyed. Contemporary thinking about mobility is trending in our favor, after all, and the Blue Ribbon Committee in January of 2014 recommended the city stripe bicycle lanes. It put the wind at our back.
But an indication that lanes were off the table came in March of 2014 when City Council simply sidestepped the Blue Ribbon Committee’s recommendations. At that meeting, three out of five councilmembers most clearly expressed their opposition to bicycle lanes (it is the only time they’ve gone on the record with candid opposition).
That fall a two-member ‘liaison’ committee meeting (Bosse + Brien) decided to take boulevard expansion off the table. That would have killed the lanes for good. (If we weren’t closely reading the staff report we would have been blindsided by it. Nevertheless we marshaled support for pushing back against the liaison decision and got the option on the table again.)
Fast forward a few months and the lanes question came back to City Council, which then punted in January of 2015. “Let’s talk about it later in the design phase,” Council said, deferring the discussion. And that’s where we find ourselves today: discussing project design. And bicycle lanes aren’t much a part of the discussion unlike early 2014.
But back then we recognized the signs of a done deal. As we pointed out in advance of this week’s meeting, the new staff report only affirmed our feeling: it made only passing reference to bicycle lanes and, more telling, it added the “if desired” caveat to the bicycle lanes option. And the report also illustrated numerous design options (like medians and landscaping) but tellingly presented not one image of a bicycle lane.
And then there is the city’s proposed budget for FY 2015-16 (which was posted online back in May). It noted as an accomplishment: “Finalized recommendations for final design of the Santa Monica Boulevard Reconstruction Project.” Heck, we thought that was the point of this meeting. You know, to discuss design options?
From the staff report suggesting that the ‘accomplishment’ cited in May would still be on the table today:
This report continues the City Council’s review of the Santa Monica Boulevard Reconstruction project at the 50% design drawing phase, focusing on: 1) widening on the south side of the roadway; 2) drainage concepts; 3) medians; 4) street lights; and 5) traffic mitigation during construction. Staff seeks City Council’s direction on these items in order to proceed with the final design and preparation of construction documents for bidding purposes. – Staff report
From the beginning, though, elements of this process were removed from public view. The staff recommended not to stripe bicycle lanes back in late 2013 before the Blue Ribbon had not even concluded business, for example. And the liaison committee’s decision not to expand the boulevard, announced quietly in November of 2014 in a staff report, came without warning.
Now at this meeting we learned that a new liaison committee (or is it an ad-hoc committee?) included councilmembers Brien and Krasne. They met to discuss boulevard design on July 9th. Now that meeting was effectively internal: it wasn’t electronically noticed or calendared online, we believe, yet according to the discussion what was decided behind those closed doors figured importantly into the Council’s decision today. But that’s how City Hall often works: through informal networks, ex-parte communication, and the hidden hand of lobbyists.
Regardless of how it happened, the Council’s position on bicycle lanes appears to have gelled long ago. That made securing a sensible ‘complete streets’ traffic control facility for busy Santa Monica Boulevard an uphill battle indeed.
*Unfortunately, Lili Bosse was not so vocally supportive of bicycle lanes when the question last came to City Council. She had let other councilmembers take the lead in that discussion despite being one of the two members of a Council liaison committee (along with Brien) that had bilaterally decided not to expand the boulevard – thus precluding bicycle lanes in the future.