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Frank Gruber

Calming the Traffic Beast

By Frank Gruber

I wasn't able to attend the meeting last Tuesday about the future of the dangerous stretch of Ocean Park Boulevard that runs past John Adams Middle School, which was too bad for me because I am a major Ocean Park Boulevard user and intensely interested in what measures the City takes to calm the traffic beast there. (see story)

I consider myself something of an expert on Ocean Park Boulevard. Down at the Ocean Park end, my house is about a block off the boulevard, and so it's our major east-west surface route. My son attended John Adams, and two of my favorite Santa Monica stores -- Merrihew's Nursery and Bob's Market -- are located just where there's been so much trouble with cars running into people and other cars.

The commercial stretch that starts with the nursery and continues east of the blocks under study features shops, restaurants, coffee houses and services that are 100% homegrown. Kramer Sporting Goods is a local institution like Merrihew's and the Bob's meat department. But unfortunately the pounding the strip takes from the four lanes of Ocean Park Boulevard has prevented it from becoming a truly comfortable focus for a walking neighborhood.

The four lanes of traffic also make the street dangerous to cross. Aside from the fact that having two lanes in each direction encourages motorists to drive too fast to stop in time for pedestrians, they require the pedestrian to try to see "around" the cars in the near lane of traffic and guess what the cars in the next lane are going to do. Of course drivers of those cars typically can't see pedestrians starting to cross because cars in the outside lane block the view.

All you drivers and all you pedestrians know what I am talking about.

While the four "mix-and-match" plans the City presented at Tuesday's meeting (and which may be viewed via the Lookout's article) have a lot of promise in that they all address the "four-lane" issue, I fear that they are all either or both impractical or misguided.

The impractical part is that they will cost too much money, and the City has not identified any source of funding for a project of this magnitude. Widening sidewalks is a great idea, but it costs a bundle, mainly because of the storm drains and utilities. The idea of taking 10 feet of land from the John Adams play fields to make more parking should be a nonstarter.

Similarly, although angled parking can work well in many contexts, it won't work if the roadway is so tight -- as in this case -- that drivers will have a hard time backing out of their angled spaces into traffic they can't see. And until the state authorizes cities to adopt reverse angle parking (whereby motorists back into their spaces -- as with parallel parking -- and then drive out with a clear view of oncoming traffic), angled parking will make the street even more dangerous for cyclists, notwithstanding the bike lanes.

Furthermore, doing a lot of work on the blocks between 14th and 17th while leaving the rest of Ocean Park Boulevard the way it is, will do nothing for the rest of the street, which needs calming all the way from Lincoln to the city line.

There is a solution that won't cost much and will also allow for a test of how two-way traffic works, without making any permanent changes in the streetscape. It's a solution that has worked already in Santa Monica -- on Main Street and Montana Avenue and, for that matter, on Ocean Park Boulevard west of Lincoln (although the goals of the latter project were never fully realized).

The solution is to re-stripe the entire boulevard east of Lincoln to allow for (i) parking on both sides (including on the narrower stretch between Lincoln and 14th), (ii) bike lanes, (iii) one lane of traffic in each direction, and (iv) a "universal" left turn lane in the middle.

The beauty of the universal left turn lane is that while reducing the traffic lanes by half, it still allows traffic to flow. The goal of traffic calming is not to bollix up traffic, but to keep it flowing at a safe speed -- typically under 30 mph. With a middle left turn lane, for example, traffic doesn't have to stop when a car is parking, but rather it slows down while cars go around the obstacle.

Because there is always something going on in the shared lane, motorists can't rev up like they can when streets have physical dividers like those the City installed on Pico -- there's no "divided highway" affect.

Meanwhile, pedestrians have only one lane of traffic to worry about at any give moment, and there's a relatively safe haven in the middle.

Additional parking west of 14th, which can be metered, would not only be welcomed in the community, but the parked cars would also provide a needed buffer between pedestrians on the sidewalk and the traffic.

As for parking, City staff has also come up with excellent ideas for adding parking to some of the alleys and using metering to manage parking better. The Ocean Park commercial district would be an excellent location for trying out some of the ideas of UCLA Prof. Don Shoup, who argues for increasing parking meter rates, but then channeling the revenues into improvements that benefit the immediate area.

Ocean Park Boulevard is a good place to think less grandly, but more effectively.

* * *

I have previously written about the Jacaranda chamber music series, which has for several years presented top-caliber chamber music in Santa Monica at the First Presbyterian Church on Second Street. While the Jacaranda people seem more interested in the music than the urbanism issues, I have made the point that in an era when fewer Santa Monicans want to brave the crossing of the 405, Jacaranda at least has given local classical music fans an alternative.

In any case, it's a pleasure to report that after flitting about the region for this season while the congregation of First Pres renovated their sanctuary and overhauled their pipe organ, Jacaranda will return to its home for what promises to be a fabulous concert April 7, at 8 p.m.

The concert, named "Amazing Grace" for a string quartet by Ben Johnston that's on the program, the concert will be an all-American, all-20th century affair featuring music by, in addition to Johnston, Scott Joplin, Frederick Rzewski, Charles Ives, Morton Feldman, and Steve Reich.

No doubt "Amazing Grace" also refers to the delight Jacaranda feels moving to the renovated First Pres sanctuary. Last Wednesday at lunch the church and Jacaranda held a preview of the "new" hall and the overhauled organ.

The newly renovated sanctuary at the First Presbyterian Church

Patrick Scott, the series' producer, announced plans for the next two seasons, which will, for the centennial of his birth, feature the work of French composer Olivier Messiaen, as well as the work of composers who influenced him, and that of composers he influenced or taught.

Messiaen, according to Mr. Scott, was the greatest composer of organ music since Bach, and that bodes well for Jacaranda patrons, because listening to a pipe organ in an intimate space like the First Pres sanctuary is an overwhelming experience. Wednesday, Mark Alan Hilt, the artistic director of Jacaranda, showed off the First Pres organ by playing the Toccata from Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

Wow. Let's just say Mr. Hilt pulled out all the stops.

(For concert details go to the Jacaranda site.)


Just a reminder, the City will be conducting a series of neighborhood workshops on placemaking, on March 26, 28, and April 5, as part of the LUCE update process. For details, go to the public notice posted in The Lookout.

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