Friday, September 24, 2010

Sustainable City Report Card is out for Santa Monica. City gets a C+ in transportation, but I give it an F for bike safety.

Ocean Ave Cluster F*#k Bike Lane
(With poor education, and bike infrastructure that looks like this half the time, why am I not surprised collisions between cars and bikes are rising faster than bike ridership growth in Santa Monica)

According to the recently published city sustainability report card, conducted by the Office of Sustainability and the Environment with outside review, bike ridership is up (bike commutes to work are 11% higher than last year), but collisions between motorists and cyclists is up even higher, 78%! higher since 2007. Anecdotal accounts are useful in telling the human story, but in data this pronounced, we can see the big picture of how poorly the city has done in meeting the needs of a paradigm shift happening in local transportation. To an extent that almost seems criminally negligent in my opinion. When some bicycle activists booed at Santa Monica being given a bicycle friendly community distinction, it was because some of us saw through the B.S., and knew the city still doesn't get it yet.

What's interesting about this to me is that many cities have seen recent spikes in bike ridership growth accompanied by an increase in relative safety. Cities like New York and Portland went through bike ridership growth with a mostly flat or declining rate in total bike collisions and injuries, in spite of more riders and more miles traveled.

However I think in a lot of these cities with notable ridership increases, it has been driven by comprehensive plans, innovative infrastructure changes, and educational programs to improve bicycling safety. All carried out by staff that get it, and with a mandate to act from leadership. I think ridership in Santa Monica has largely grown in spite of very little being done by the city to improve safety for bicycling.

Santa Monica Door Lane / Bike Lane

Most recent Santa Monica bike lane projects were just finishing a few holes in the 1995 plan, which is full of dated and compromised design standards. The recent sharrows were a welcome addition, but cover only a short distance and still don't meet the bar set by Hermosa Beach's excellent implementation. Education is seriously lacking among bicyclists and drivers. Wrong way riding and sidewalk riding (both of which are illegal in Santa Monica) are very common, and are known to contribute to higher collision rates. Even Broadway Ave. with a bike lane gets frequent sidewalk riding, to me a sure sign of both a failed nothing but door zone bike lane design and lack of public education.

We have law enforcement that generally ignores cyclists and their plight on the road unless they dare ride in mass for change, in which case they can be welcomed with nit picking tickets, sometimes in cases where I witnessed with my own eyes that no violation really occurred. Many such tickets were thrown out in court for riders who took the time to defend. Tailing critical mass handing out tickets, sometimes for legitimate laws that were broken, sometimes because they felt like it, or rather that someone looked like a "leader",  was the only occasion I can really recall witnessing a SMPD bike officer actually riding their bike. I'm used to seeing them stand next to their bike at the promenade. Police that don't know what it's like from both the perspective of road cycling and driving, are not in a position to fairly assess bike & car collisions. Authors like Bob Mionske of Bicycling and the Law, have documented numerous cases of windshield bias influencing how police file reports.

Any cyclist with much experience knows that many drivers are certainty not well educated on bicyclists rights. I still encounter occasional drivers in Santa Monica pulling up to me in their car to lecture me about their false ideas of what the law is. No matter how assertively or defensively I ride, I am still buzzed by drivers far more times than I'm comfortable with, who don't understand what safe passing is.

The famous 2003 paper that largely gave rise to the safety in numbers concept, conducted much of it's sampling from cities across California. However it appears Santa Monica throws a wrench into this whole safety in numbers idea by growing bike commuting ridership faster than it's initial sustainability goals, but growing collisions with cars and bikes at a much faster rate than ridership growth. Obviously something is going seriously wrong here.

Some of the world cities with the highest bike ridership also have very low bicycle collision, injury and death rates. However I think there is a bit of bias toward looking at first world bike centric cities like Copenhagen, while many third world countries have very high bike ridership too out of necessity, but chaos on the streets results in high rates of collisions and fatalities for cyclists. I think in many regards, what we have in the Los Angeles region, more resembles the traffic environment of the third world, only the cars are much more expensive here. Since Santa Monica has made it self L.A.'s parking lot by the sea, and is the terminus of the 10 freeway, we also get to enjoy the traffic problems of the L.A. region compressed into a couple mile radius every time the weather is nice.

Until I know more specifics about this data ( I inquired with the Office Of Sustainability for more details), I can only speculate why Santa Monica is doing so poorly compared to so many other cities experiencing bike ridership growth. However I think I have a few ideas why this is going on, mostly topics I've ranted about on this blog for a couple years now. I am disheartened to read such a troubling statistic. I think it does add validation to my usually highly critical points of view though, as I unknowingly began my writing about this stuff during a period of substantial growth in traffic collisions involving bikes and cars in Santa Monica.

I have lots more to say on this, and what I think are some potential solutions, but I don't have enough time to write it all this evening. Statistics like this become firepower. It punches a hole straight through any flimsy notion that Santa Monica is doing a good job or even a remotely acceptable job for bicyclists. It seems Santa Monica wants to encourage you to ride a bike to commute through TDM goals, to cut some of the auto traffic, but wants to skirt it's responsibility and commitment to the safety of those new riders. We are not widgets in some computer traffic demand management model, we are human beings made of flesh and bone. Significant increases in collisions that exceed the growth in ridership is flat out unacceptable, and unsustainable.

The clock is ticking, how many years of growing collision rates are going to pass before Santa Monica shows more than a lip service commitment to improving road safety for bicyclists.


dreamlet said...

Great post. I don't live in Santa Monica but I live on the West Side and I'm struck by how challenging riding my bike in Santa Monica is. Traffic congestion in the city is through the roof, which would lead one to believe that the city would be MOTIVATED to encourage bike ridership but the opposite has proven true. It's such a shame because when you look at the city of Santa Monica, with all its money, lack of LA City political ennui, and perfect bike-riding landscape, it's clear that the city has the potential to be an incredible bike-riding mecca. If they were smart they would implement a bike share program, greatly increase bike infrastructure, and implement bike education throughout the city. Santa Monica could be like one of the great European cycling cities, if only they just "got it."

Rach Stevenson said...

I love how the city awarded itself nothing worse than an A- for effort in *every single category*. Apparently the best efforts of Santa Monica's city officials are not enough to get things done.