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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes

Staff Writer

September 29, 2016 -- Criticized for the number of municipal employees driving alone to work, the City of Santa Monica on Wednesday said it is now a modestly better role model for the "multimodal" future it champions for congested downtown.

The City’s annual survey of employee commuter behavior shows a slight drop in the number of staff driving to and from work by themselves, City officials said.

The average commuter ridership per vehicle for City employees is now 1.57, compared to 1.50 the previous year, the survey found.

Although small, the change is “significant” because it coincides with the May 20 debut of Expo Light Rail in Santa Monica, which includes a station downtown, City officials said.

“The study reflects that City staff, like many employees, residents, and visitors, are making the switch from driving alone to riding the recently opened Expo Line Phase II,” officials wrote in a release.

But the activist group that first brought the issue to the public’s attention called the City’s new findings "dismal.”

“A minuscule increase of average vehicle ridership from 1.5 to 1.57 fails miserably to reach the City's own 2.2 goal for 2016,” said Diana Gordon of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC).

For the City "to call this 'significant' is disappointing and not credible,” she said.

Municipal employees play an important role in the City's GoSaMo campaign to urge motorists to use alternative modes of transportation, largely because the City is Santa Monica’s largest employer and its jobs tend to be concentrated in the gridlock-prone downtown area.

City employees also are viewed as role models for the City's efforts, which include declaring every Friday beginning October 7 a "car-free" day.

"By providing incentives, tips, and support for people to walk, bike, train, or bus once a week, the City of Santa Monica hopes to make it easy and safe for people to make the shift to being car-free and carefree more often," City officials said this week.

City officials are offering a toolkit to help residents, workers and students become involved. To access the toolkit visit the City's Car Free Friday page.

The City’s future plans for downtown include major development projects. Ushering in more building without worsening traffic hinges on a willingness to switch from a car-centric past and present to alternatives such as using light rail, buses or carpooling.

Despite the recent increase, solo commuting by City employees worsened over the last eight years.

“We have a long way to go, though the modest improvement in our AVR is encouraging,” said City Manager Rick Cole. “The GoSaMo mobility campaign not only speaks to the community, but internally as we recognize our responsibility to be a model.”

An analysis by SMCLC of the commuting and parking habits of City employees early in January found the City was far from being a role model.

SMCLC found all City employees were given free parking in Santa Monica and the majority were driving to and parking in the downtown area ("Activist Group Finds City of Santa Monica Abuses Own Campaign Limiting Driving and Parking Downtown," January 27, 2016).

“The City should get its own house in order and not demand one thing for residents while looking the other way for its employees,” the group said.

SMCLC’s findings were based on internal City documents received under in a Public Records Request. New City documents tracking the City’s actions are expected to be given to SMCLC this week, Gordon said.

On Wednesday, Cole said the City still struggles with challenges that other Santa Monica employers face in trying to convert employees to a new multimodal way of life.

Cole said one problem is much of the City’s workforce –- estimated as high has 2,600 employees -- provides “nearly round-the-clock direct services.”

That “creates work shifts that don’t always align with ridesharing and peak transit options,” Cole said.

To reduce drive-alone trips by employees, the City has, among other moves, “started conversations” with the unions about “strategies that could effectively change employee travel behavior, including incentives and alternatives to free parking,” Cole said.

Still, Gordon called the progress cited in the City report “something to be alarmed about.”

“It demonstrates a lack of understanding of how serious an issue this is for residents and mobility in the Downtown,” she said. “Until the City takes this seriously, its 'targets' will continue to be 'pretend' goals that never come close to being met."

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