An Apology: Santa Monica Gets Bicycling Right, and This Writer Got It Wrong

Santa Monica has made substantial improvements, such as this door zone buffered bike lane on Montana Ave

Consider this a public apology to L.A. County’s bike-friendly city by the bay.

No, not that one. The other one.

It’s something I’ve been mulling ever since I met Andy Clarke, President of the League of American Bicyclists, at the ceremony honoring L.A.’s recognition as a Bike Friendly Community last October.

As we talked, I felt compelled to tell him I’d been one of the loud, angry voices complaining about the bike league’s 2009 designation of Santa Monica as a bronze level BFC.

He responded by asking if I was the one behind the petition calling on the LAB to rescind the award. I wasn’t, I said. But I sure as heck signed it.

And I was wrong.

It wasn’t like we — those of us who signed the petition and opposed the award — didn’t have our reasons.

In those deep, dark days of the last decade, Santa Monica may have been the L.A. area’s most pleasant place to ride. But compared to the virtually non-existent support for cycling in other area cities, that wasn’t saying much.

And Santa Monica certainly had its issues, like a heavy-handed crackdown on the city’s nascent — and now dead — Critical Mass, which included ticketing cyclists for things that weren’t even illegal. Not to mention a reputation for unresponsive city and police officials.

Then there was the relative handful of bike lanes in the city, all of which were in the door zone, and usually blocked with cars or other objects that didn’t belong there.

Previously, the bike lane put riders directly in the path of swinging car doors

Meanwhile, traffic-clogged Lincoln Blvd was inexplicably classified as a Class III bike route in what could only be considered an attempt to thin the herd.

And what should have been the crown jewel of SaMo’s bicycling infrastructure, the city’s section of the beachfront Marvin Braude bikeway, was virtually impassible on weekends.

Evidently, some things never change.

But then a funny thing happened.

As Cynthia Rose of the LACBC affiliate chapter Santa Monica Spoke explained, city officials learned a lot from the application process itself, and in the process, actually grew into the award.

While Gary Kavanagh is on a short hiatus, Ted Rogers and Juan Matute will cover the Santa Monica beat for Streetsblog. This column is supported by Bike Center and the Library Alehouse

In place of door zone lanes, the city explored sharrows and ways to make their bike lanes better — including reconfiguring the Montana Avenue bike lanes with a door zone buffer. Which has gone a long way towards taming what had long been one of the area’s riskiest bike lanes.

Then the flood gates opened. From bike-friendly traffic signal detectors to the county’s first Bike Center this side of Long Beach, along with the area’s first Bike Campus, period.

Even the pedestrian-clogged beach bike path — actually a multi-use path in some places — will soon be getting new markings on the concrete indicating where pedestrians are and aren’t welcome; preliminary markings are already starting to appear.

Preliminary markings show where on-path signage will indicate sections shared with pedestrians

Then there’s the new combination bike rack/repair stand I noticed across from the playground on the beach bike path yesterday; I’m not sure when it was installed, although it’s been there long enough to get tagged on the opposite side.

And clearly, there’s a lot more to come, including a planned bike share program.

Even Santa Monica police and city officials have become more approachable. Or maybe advocates just became smarter about how to approach them.

Instead of the highly confrontational approaches of the past, a new generation of Santa Monica bike advocates — including members of the Spoke and Streetsblog’s own Gary Kavanagh — tried a different approach.

They listened. They made suggestions instead of demands. They worked with city officials to improve plans that didn’t go far enough, instead of rejecting them out of hand.

In short, they took to heart the advice offered on Twitter Thursday by BrooklynSpoke:

Best advice for advocates: Stay calm, stay nice, stay courteous. That’s the path to winning.

And the city responded in kind, with results that can be seen on the streets.

They also took it a step further, pressuring candidates for city council to support cycling, and getting them on the record for their stands for or against various bicycling issues.

The old wheel bender bike racks have been replaced with this repair stand and secure bike parking

The result is a city government committed to moving forward with bicycling improvements and challenging Long Beach as the region’s most bike-friendly community. As well as one that now responds to riders and is open to suggestions.

The Spoke, Kavanagh and handful of other local advocates deserve a lot of credit for that.

Of course, Santa Monica isn’t perfect yet when it comes to bicycling. Over the next few days, I’ll explore a few areas where things could be improved a little. Or maybe a lot.

But in the meantime, I hope the city and people of Santa Monica will accept my most humble apologies.

I may have had good reasons for opposing that bronze-level designation, but time — and the efforts of the city’s leaders and bike advocates — have proven me wrong.

And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a very good thing.

  • Yolo Watefah

    “Best advice for advocates: Stay calm, stay nice, stay courteous. That’s the path to winning.”

    I really can’t disagree more. That is a recipe to be ignored. Once a group has gathered up money, people, a propaganda creation, and distribution network THEN you can “be polite”. If you have no leverage, politeness doesn’t do anything in a real political fight.

    Please, let’s not get complacent. It took a heck of a lot of anger, yelling, protesting, and shit talking to get the city to where it is now. The CicLAvia organizers did a ton of hard foot work to allow the mayor to step in and do his part. The backbone bike network took a lot of work to turn into a political priority and a lot of hot headed complaining and vociferous trash talking of public officials until it became a part of the Bike Plan. The money for Measure R bike projects in LA was saved because Stephen Box showed that the council had made a huge miscalculation and called them on it, during a public hearing – embarrassing staff, alienating our alleged “allies”.

    When you go to city hall, you are not going to make friends. You go to get something done. If you can do it nicely, good for you. More likely than not, you have to kick in the door and slam a fist or two on a table (figuratively speaking) with power that you have strained and hustled to build behind your idea.

  • Anonymous

    I lived in Santa Monica for a year and a half, and am now commuting here from Playa Del Rey for a few weeks before leaving California entirely. I will say, Santa Monica is FAR better than anything in LA, which appears designed to murder cyclists. It still needs improvement, particularly among the police force that seem to think bike lanes are a perfectly appropriate place for people to park, but I really do appreciate the improvements they’ve made. The relative abundance of bike racks (though private businesses are lacking in this regard) and presence of bike lanes helps a lot, as do the bike detectors at stop lights. The drivers here are also a good deal more considerate than those in LA; I usually don’t feel like I need to get a will prepared before I take the lane.

    I went to SMTalks a month or two ago and there were quite a few people asking good questions regarding cycling; about even with the number of folks complaining about traffic and car parking.
    Even so, when the opportunity arose to move somewhere more bike friendly than southern California, I jumped on it.

  • Anonymous

    The “buffered” bike lane look like a 2-way bike lane with one lane in the door zone, and I expect that’s how it will be used.

    The “secure” bike parking doesn’t look like it supports the frame in two places on the frame.

    Sorry, Santa Monica still fails.

     

  • Roadblock

    YOLO. Whomever you are… I love your rants. Please come out on Wednesday Jan 9th, some of us are still around kicking in the doors and slamming the proverbial fists. http://www.midnightridazz.com/forums.php?topicId=18627

  • Joe B

    I don’t know why you are apologizing. Santa Monica was in bad shape when the award was issued, and the improvements that were planned at that time were a day late and a dollar short.

    Santa Monica has gotten better: buffered bike lanes, bike corrals, sharrows. But those improvements have been fought for by activists every inch of the way, and the city hasn’t made it easy.

    Back when the first draft BAP came out, I made a simple request: to let us know specifically what infrastructure would be going in, so that we could comment and suggest improvements. (The BAP has almost no engineering details.) The City’s response was, “The traffic engineers know what they’re doing.” And since then, we’ve mostly found out what our new infrastructure would look like only by seeing the actual (often flawed) implementation. Often this infrastructure didn’t even conform to the loose description in the BAP. For example:

    * The Montana bike lanes, designated as buffered in the BAP, were preliminarily striped as a door-zone bike lane. Fortunately we caught this in time, screamed our heads off, and got the city to restripe the lane as buffered instead.

    * The traffic signal detector symbols were painted in the middle of the right lane. This means that a cyclist can’t both trigger the signal and simultaneously be courteous by staying to the left of cars trying to make a right on red. And often the signals don’t even trigger when you stop on the symbol. (I don’t expect the city to move the loop detectors, but optical detectors should be able to be recalibrated to detect cyclists on the left side of the lane.)

    * The new buffers don’t really look like buffers. How about some diagonal striping? Or, even better, stencils that say “<— Watch for Bikes!"?

    * New signs on the beach bike path seemed to direct pedestrians to walk on the path.

    * Some infrastructure is just plain dangerous, like Colorado/2nd, or the new extremely tight door-zone lanes on 2nd south of Montana.

    The part that I find the hardest to accept is the low-hanging fruit that goes unpicked. I understand that protected lanes and traffic diverters take time. But why does Santa Monica continue to push the outdated and confusing "Share the Road" meme (on street signs and bus ads), which many drivers interpret to mean that cyclists should ride in the door zone or the gutter? "Bikes May Use Full Lane" signs are cheap, they're unambiguous, they're in the MUTCD, we've been asking for them for years; why can't we have them? Another unpicked low-hanging fruit is double-yellow centerlines (which encourage excessive speed and discourage safe passing) on supposedly bike-friendly streets (eg 7th north of Montana, or 11th south of Pico). Why can't these be striped as dashed lines when the streets are repaved?

    I'm glad that Santa Monica appears to be headed in the right direction. But it would be so much faster, easier, and cheaper if the city were more receptive to input by actual cyclists.

  • PC

    Path to “winning”?  Doesn’t look like all that much has been won.  What has been done by SM has been done grudgingly, untransparently, and (apparently) half-assedly.  And the confrontational activists that you’re casually dismissing were the ones who had to fight to get the city’s ear at all. 

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