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One-Way Ticket; Yeah?
By Frank Gruber
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and surely one of the more desperate of the latter is County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's call to make Olympic and Pico Boulevards one-way to alleviate Westside traffic desperation.
How desperate a measure? The best estimate of the increased capacity on the two streets, under the most favorable formulation of the plan, is a 20.5 percent bump. If Supervisor Yaroslavsky thinks that a 20 percent increase in the efficiency of the two boulevards is going to allow him to get him home in time for dinner from events in Santa Monica -- well, let's just say he's desperate, because there's plenty of latent demand out there waiting to use any available capacity.
But that doesn't mean the plan isn't worth a look.
Last Thursday evening the City of Santa Monica Planning Department hosted a workshop on the plan at the Ken Edwards Center. (see story) Lucy Dyke, the head of the Department's Transportation Management Division, hosted the meeting, but the star attraction was Allyn Rifkin, the retired traffic engineer who developed the plan for Supervisor Yaroslavsky.
The first thing to say about Mr. Rifkin's plan, from the perspective of a columnist who writes about Santa Monica, is that it is unlikely that the plan will be adopted here for the simple reason that Pico and Olympic in Santa Monica are narrower than they are in L.A. They are too narrow to accommodate all the lanes that would be needed.
They also have medians that would have to be removed. The medians on a considerable part of Olympic are intended to become the right of way for the Expo Line light rail as it heads for its terminus in downtown Santa Monica. The City installed the medians on Pico to improve the commercial district there, and it's unlikely that the City would remove them.
Santa Monica planning staffers told me that Mr. Rifkin has not yet developed a model for implementing the plan within Santa Monica. It's hard to imagine how the plan would "fit."
The second thing to say about the plan, from the perspective of a columnist who as a believer in pedestrian friendliness has a visceral negative reaction to one-way streets (also known as "auto sewers"), is that it's a much more intriguing project than I thought it would be.
The reason is that under Mr. Rifkin's plan the two boulevards wouldn't exactly be one-way. There would be two contra-flow lanes. During peak hours buses and authorized mini-buses and vanpools (i.e., the kind of transportation I wrote about two weeks ago would use these lanes. (see column) During non-peak hours one contra-flow lane would be used for parking and the other would be open to cars as well as transit vehicles.
At the meeting last week Mr. Rifkin said that when he took the job to design the project, he didn't want to do anything "unless it was great for public transit," and he may have done just that. Proposing to dedicate two contra-flow lanes to transit was a stroke of genius.
Most bus lanes are only one lane, because lanes are hard to come by. But single-lane contra-flow bus lanes don't work, because faster buses can't get around the slower buses, and if a bus breaks down, everything comes to a halt. In non contra-flow situations, single-lane bus lanes don't help as much as they should because vehicles turning right slow down the buses.
Two transit lanes allow for faster buses -- Metro Rapids, and point-to-point mini-buses and vanpools -- to pass slower local buses, and buses do not have to slow down or stop at corners to accommodate vehicles turning right, since nearly all the traffic in the lanes will be going straight.
Mr. Rifkin didn't mention it, but two contra-flow lanes are also great for cyclists, who have the right to ride in bus lanes, but who often feel intimidated by buses trying to pass them with little room in single bus lanes to do so.
There has also been a lot of discussion about whether left turns should be allowed if the plan is implemented. Mr. Rifkin's modeling indicates that without left turns, the plan will produce a 20.5 percent increase in capacity, versus only a 5.7 percent increase with left turns. But without left turns, the plan will create more side street traffic, as motorists have to make three right turns instead of one left to change directions.
But the tide may be turning toward allowing the left turns. As Mr. Rifkin pointed out at the meeting last week, cars making left turns will be making them against only intermittent traffic in the contra-flow lanes, and should not create back ups.
More important, people should realize that if the plan is implemented, the real benefit will not be an increase in capacity for cars, which will be of temporary benefit anyway, but rather a dramatic improvement in the speed of public transit, making it a viable choice for commuters now driving their own cars. This could lead to permanent reductions in traffic congestion.
It's too early to endorse the Yaroslavsky/Rifkin plan. There are too many issues that have yet to be researched, particularly the potential impacts on neighborhoods and local businesses. We also need to see how the sidewalks will be landscaped to get an idea of the impact on pedestrians. (Perhaps there is even room to widen sidewalks in commercial districts.)
As for Santa Monica, while our Olympic and Pico Boulevards may not physically be able to accommodate the full plan, the Planning Department still needs to evaluate how to connect them to L.A.'s boulevards if L.A. and Beverly Hills implement the plan. In particular, the City needs to devise a plan to give the buses, mini-buses and vans that would be using the transit lanes expedited access to our employment centers.
But one thing I learned from last week's meeting is that the Pico/Olympic project is not necessarily a one-way ticket to nowhere.
* * *
On Saturday the Planning Department will host an important public workshop as part of the land use element update. The purpose of the workshop will be to explore the potential over the next 20 years for redeveloping Santa Monica's industrial areas.
Santa Monica's industrial core, through which the Expo light rail will run, is the area of the city with the most potential for redevelopment. Over the years Santa Monica has shifted from a blue-collar town to one with an economy based on office and production jobs and service industries. These new businesses concentrate more jobs on less land; meanwhile, at least since Douglas left Santa Monica because it couldn't expand here, industrial jobs have been migrating to the metropolitan edge.
This workshop will be an important one in the land use element update process. Unfortunately, I'll be out of town and I won't be able to report on it, but readers who are interested in Santa Monica's future might want to invest a Saturday and attend.
The workshop will start at 9:15 and continue until 2:30. Registration begins at 9:00, and participants are encouraged to RSVP by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The location will be the Santa Monica College Concert Hall, located on the northeast end of Santa Monica College, 1900 Pico Boulevard. For more details, go the City's website: http://www.shapethefuture2025.net/.
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