I am always delighted to read the various blog posts and opinions of other LA area advocates who see Santa Monica with less frequency than myself, who notice what’s going on here with fresh eyes, and like what they see. Recent posts on Orange 20’s blog, and Flying Pigeon’s blog, written by Richard Risemberg come to mind especially. Santa Monica, in my opinion, is the city furthest along in developing an everyday bicycling culture in Los Angeles County despite the designation of Long Beach as silver and Santa Monica as bronze by the League of American Bicycling.
Admittedly I don’t get out to every corner of LA county very often, but I haven’t encountered any city quite where Santa Monica is at in building infrastructure for bicycle. I’m sure folks in Long Beach may find this suggestion contentious (I also think stoking a regional bikeability turf war is a good thing). In my visits to Long Beach, there are some truly impressive efforts, a few of which go beyond the infrastructure anywhere in the region. However, I just don’t observe quite the same measure of everyday bikenomics happening in Long Beach as I find in Santa Monica on Main St. and elsewhere on our growing network of bikeways.
Regional bragging rights aside, we still have a long ways to go to foster an environment for bicycling where nearly anyone feels they can use their bike for any kind of journey. This is especially clear when judging from an international perspective. Given Santa Monica’s prominence as not only a regional tourism draw, but an international destination competing for visitors from around the world with our incredible beachfront hotels, international parallels are important benchmarks to consider, not just those of our regional neighbors.
With relatively few topographical challenges, and an ideal year round climate for riding, I can think of few places possibly on the entirety of planet more naturally suited to bicycling than Santa Monica. However geography and climate is not destiny. We can find North American cities more weather challenged including Portland, Minneapolis, Vancouver, and Montreal, that put sunny beachside places like Santa Monica to shame in everyday bicycling culture. Policy and infrastructure are far more correlated with high rates of transportation bicycling.
The built environment and policy are important, but why it gets built the way it does, and how people respect it, is a product of individual and collective choices. Since accommodating bicycling is more cost-effective and requires fewer resources than accommodating automobiles, and we already have far wider streets than they do in most European cities, there are few real hard constraints on what could be done if we simply had the will to do it. Appropriating road space differently is politically challenging, but not difficult to accomplish if the will exists. From a standpoint of physical infrastructure, I would consider a bigger challenge than the streets for bicycling in Santa Monica, is addressing the shortage of housing in proximity to the scale of employment, another topic I’ve become very interested in.
What is holding us back from being a multi-modal paradise with world class bicycle ridership rates is a at it’s root a mental dilemma, our frame of mind, our social relations, and the politics those interactions produce. To consider an extreme example, if Santa Monica wanted to launch it’s own city space agency out of the Santa Monica airport, well we simply don’t have the resources for such a feat. There are hard limits to achieving such a goal no matter how much we desperately wanted it as a city. However creating a network of low stress bikeways with core routes suitable for 8-80 travelers, is something we could get done in fairly short order if we collectively felt like it.
First and foremost we need to influence hearts and minds. We have an incredible opportunity in the years ahead as the political climate has shifted toward a nearly unanimous consensus that bicycling is generally a good idea with varying degrees of conviction. Every incumbent returning, Terry O’Day & Gleam Davis, and each new face to the council, Ted Winterer & Tony Vasquez (an old new face) in last week’s local election has either demonstrated in their record or at least made comments during the campaign supporting bicycling as a component of Santa Monica transportation.
Political figures rarely move out too far ahead of where they feel the electorate is at. It’s impossible to please everyone, but no elected official wants to deal with a serious backlash without at least equal or greater support. Santa Monica Spoke has done an incredible job of pushing along some of the recent advances here, and in a fairly short amount of time and limited resources, but we need continued pressure and a broader coalition if we are going to successfully take the next steps to exit the “bronze age”. In part two I’ll outline some specific strategies and milestones to reach for in Santa Monica that I believe may get us to the next level, or better yet, a few levels beyond that.