Tuesday, January 4, 2011
I intended to write a full and detailed account of the Santa Monica Bicycle Action Plan workshop right after it happened. However I ended up putting it off when I was slammed with work deadlines and some late nights. This followed by some vacation time away from all the computers and human civilization back packing and camping in Joshua Tree. In the days that followed the meeting, several voices already wrote out accounts of the evening from various perspectives, and so it became less necessary for another big report on the same night. So in summary I will direct readers to everything already written about the workshop, and conclude briefly (or as briefly as I get) with a few of my own thoughts.
Eric Weinstein, a local rider who has been actively engaged at city meetings and who has volunteered help with Santa Monica Spoke on a number of occasions, wrote a guest post on BikingInLA. He gives a pretty good summery of what was discussed, and how it relates to the city's LUCE planning document. Activist Alex Thompson, writing for Bikeside, focused more critically on the way the discussion was being framed during transportation consultant Jeff Tumlin's portion of the presentation. He felt expectations were being lowered, and that the framing of bike improvements as an us versus them issue, them being motorists, is a poisonous discourse. Cynthia Rose of Santa Monica Spoke wrote out an account for the Spoke blog, and also references some of the other posts written. Some folks from the Natural Resource Defense Council, some heavy hitting environmental activists with an office in Santa Monica, were also in attendance. An account of some of their suggestions, and a few constructive criticisms, can be found at their blog Switchboard. From the local media, we have the Santa Monica Mirror's report as well.
On the whole, I thought it was a productive meeting. Some of the design solutions shown and comments made, illustrated to me that the planners understand what most of the problems are, and ways to address them. Concerns like the door zone were acknowledged, and ways bike lanes could be designed to alleviate that problem were shown. The large turn out, 3 rows of seats had to be added from what they expected, was a good sign, and those numbers are important in showing support for cycling.
I have to say I had a lot of similar impressions as Alex concerning the direction of the discussion once Jeff Tumlin took over speaking from Transportation Planning Manager Lucy Dyke. I felt there was a missed opportunity to inspire a crowd of mostly cyclists. I've heard some defend the comments Tumlin made as he was just preparing cyclists for the push back we might encounter against some changes. However an honest discussion of political hurdles, and how we might overcome them, was not what we heard that night. I left for the input tables feeling like the consultants job during the presentation portion of the meeting was to contain the enthusiasm and frame the discussion toward contentedness with mediocrity.
Also burned into my mind was when Jeff Tumlin said the city had "done all the easy projects already". I personally don't like being lied to, and it's gutsy claim to make in a room with some people who know every inch of roadway in this city quite intimately. I'm not entirely sure what he meant by easy, but to me an easy project is one which is A) low cost B) low man power (necessary to be low cost) and C) does not impact car parking or vehicle level of service ratings. Unless Tumlin defines easy as projects which complete themselves with no effort at all by magic fairies, the claim is entirely false.
I could think of dozens of little things the city could do to make things a little nicer for cyclists. Many blocks with bike lanes have no bike symbol on them, or very rarely, making it poorly distinguished that it is in fact a bike lane. There are places where bike lanes are too narrow, but other vehicle lanes are excessively wide. Like the 17th St. bridge over the 10 freeway, with claustrophobic door zone bike lanes next to vehicle lanes that are wide enough to drive an Abrams tank through. Apparently there are bike racks sitting around just waiting to be installed, and I've documented some private and public bike racks which are installed incorrectly. Sharrows are by their nature very easy projects since they require only paint and do not require reconfiguring roadway space, they simply reinforce existing rights of cyclists on the road.
I could go on and on. Easy improvements are far from finished. Give me a bucket of reflective thermo plastic paint and a stencil, and I'll round up some volunteers, and we could knock out a few "easy" projects over an upcoming weekend. I lot can also be accomplished with simple education efforts. I was happy to see the recent Seascape Newsletter (pg 2) had a piece on cycling, and many more such efforts through various channels that reach local audiences can be done fairly cheaply. I think it's important to see the government taking up eduction efforts, both for the broader audience it can reach and because of the legitimacy it stamps.
Moving forward, I think the biggest hurdles for the plan, and it's implementation, will be political will, as it always has been. It's not about money, bike projects are cheap comparatively to other transportation projects. Cyclists gave a lot of valuable input at the meeting, and I'm confident that city staff can come up with some good plans. However what I think what we are missing in Santa Monica that is driving progress so quickly elsewhere, is a fire and determination from leadership.
In New York Bloomberg has given NY DOT head Jannee Sadik Khan license to transform the city, and transform she has. Closer to home in Long Beach, the city council made it goal to make Long Beach the most bicycling friendly city in America, and they brought in Charlie Gandy as mobility coordinator to help make it happen. I heard both Gandy and Sadik Khan speak at the L.A. Street Summit, and they transcend being bureaucrats, they speak as activists for the ideas they are both implementing and championing. They can carry out their work because of the support from the top down, and they build support from the bottom up as well, and Sadik Khan especially is quick with facts to combat push back from those who challenge the changes she implemented.
What it takes to change the political landscape, that is less clear than a discussion of lane widths or bike racks and where they should go. I hope that city leadership takes the opportunity presented by the bike plan to rally behind improving bicycling in Santa Monica, both from elected and appointed officials, as well as staff. Just as importantly we need to broaden support from the community and public at large for these ideas. The Natural Resource Defense Council pointed out in their post the audience while fairly large for a public meeting, was a fairly exclusive set, and that more needs to be done to involve a broader spectrum of the community in the planning to ensure both support for the plan, and that is equitably represents the interests of all parts of the city.
As advocates I think in Santa Monica we have spent a lot of time debating this or that bike project or our personal gripes in the local infrastructure, but we must devote more time to community outreach, and in turn building the larger political capital it takes to get ambitious things done. We also need to maintain persistence in showing up to public meetings and city hall discussions, so that our voices are heard often. Our gripes need to spend more time jumping from the blogs and twitter and into the public comment, where the decision makers have no choice but to listen to our concerns.