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Virtuous Cycles?

November 7, 2011-- I feel like the City of Santa Monica is doing a lot of planning just for me. I mean, I love trees, and last week the Planning Commission reviewed the City’s draft Urban Forest Master Plan. Now this week the commission will review the City’s draft Bike Action Plan, and the fact is that I have been commuting to work in downtown Santa Monica by bike for almost 20 years.

So, thank you Santa Monica.

The nearly 300-page bike plan does for cycling, what the urban forest plan did for trees. It is a thoughtful and comprehensive evaluation of the past, present, and possible future of bike-riding in Santa Monica. Its proposals are good; primarily the plan seeks to improve the facilities available to cyclists, and increase the sense, if not the reality (which exists already), that cyclists have the right to use city streets as motorists do.

The recent marking out of bike lanes and “sharrows” on streets in downtown Santa Monica is an example of these plans. As a cyclist who uses those streets nearly everyday, let me say that I appreciate signs on the street that remind motorists that, yes, it’s okay for me to use left turn lanes.

I’m not confident, however, that these measures themselves can achieve the plan’s goals.

The goal is to make Santa Monica “truly bike friendly for all.” The desire is to turn cycling into a routine form of transportation, much as it is in many European cities, where many people cycle to work and school, and use their bikes to shop and do other errands, even though standards of living are such that people can afford cars, and indeed typically own them. But cycling there is efficient and safe -- the best way to get around – and not primarily recreation.

Which is, by the way, exactly how I feel about cycling in Santa Monica -- for most trips, it’s simply the best way to get around. Try it -- you'll like it.

But -- without knocking the report for not accomplishing something it could never do -- it needs to be said that this goal cannot be reached without changes in the urban environment that go beyond anything that could be included in a bike plan.

The writers of the plan were obviously aware of this: they point out that the streets of Santa Monica, like nearly everywhere else in America, have been laid out and improved with the purpose of making cars go faster. To create streets that are more attractive to cyclists means remaking streets so that motorists drive more slowly. This is hard to do, and to a great extent it’s either a chicken-and-egg problem or a virtuous circle, depending on how optimistic you feel: the more cyclists there are, the more carefully motorists will drive, and the more carefully they drive, the more cyclists there will be.

The plan also points out that few people are interested in commuting by bike if their commute is going to be more than 20 minutes, which means about three miles. (My own commute from Ocean Park is an easy 10 minutes.) This means that any significant increase in the number of people who commute by bike requires people to live closer to their work than they typically do in Southern California. The best way to increase bicycle commuting in Santa Monica is to build more housing in the city, to match more residents with nearby jobs.

But I don’t want to dwell too much on what the plan cannot accomplish. One thing I like a lot about the plan is that it emphasizes that all who use the streets -- motorists, pedestrians, and yes, cyclists -- need to deal with each other courteously and follow the rules of the road -- and of the sidewalk.

Obviously, whenever I am on my bike in traffic I am concerned about the cars, and there are drivers who pass uncomfortably close. Yet, as a cyclist riding in the street I have felt threatened by a specific vehicle less often than the many times as a pedestrian I have felt threatened by an adult on a bike. And I know elderly Santa Monicans who are quite fearful of cyclists on the sidewalk.

The bike plan is good, as I said, in making it clear that education and enforcement need to apply to the conduct of cyclists as well as to that of motorists and pedestrians.

One final observation as a cyclist, which is that in the years I have been riding, particularly the last five or so, I have noticed many more cyclists on the streets of Santa Monica. The data in the report confirms this, but it seems rare these days, as it used to be common, for me to be the only cyclist stopped at an intersection. It is not unheard of these days for there to be more bicycles at an intersection than cars.

* * *

Lately Santa Monica City Hall has been experiencing change at the highest levels. Planning Director Eileen Fogarty retired, of course, this past spring, Big Blue Bus Director Stephanie Negriff retired last month, Police Chief Timothy Jackman recently announced his retirement, and then last week Barbara Stinchfield, longtime head of Community and Cultural Services, did the same.

“The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men” -- so said Charles de Gaulle -- and it is a sign of the strength of Santa Monica’s government that no one doubts that these key employees will be replaced by able successors. Sometimes these replacements come from outside, and sometimes they are promoted from within. I am only stating the obvious, but any organization needs a combination of continuity and new blood.

Still, taking that into account, it seems that a sign of the health of an organization is the extent to which successors are developed in house. Some departments in Santa Monica have this tradition, some don’t, and some go back and forth.

Ms. Negriff and Ms. Stinchfield were both civil servants who spent the bulk of their long careers working for the City, grew along with their responsibilities, and retired after having each held their directorships for at least a decade. It’s no surprise that their departments are models of stability and consistency of service. Nonetheless, to replace Ms. Negriff, City Manager Rod Gould went outside the department to hire Edward King, who ran the transit authority in San Luis Obispo. It will be interesting whether he goes inside or outside to replace Ms. Stinchfield.

Ms. Fogarty came in to run Planning from outside the City, replacing a director who had worked herself up from the ranks, but who had left a department that had been battered in Santa Monica’s political process. The situation cried out for “new blood.” Ms. Fogarty has now been replaced by David Martin, who has a long history in the department even if he left for some years (perhaps not coincidentally the department’s battered years) to work in the private sector. Hopefully this is a sign that after completing the updates to the general plan, the department is more stable than it was before.

Mr. Jackman came in from the outside to replace James Butts, who had been the police chief here for 15 years, but who had started his career outside Santa Monica. Clearly, the tradition in the police department has been not to appoint from within. Mr. Jackman is leaving after only five years. City Manager Gould will have to determine whether the department needs another chief from outside or whether he should promote someone already familiar with how the department operates and what its needs are.

Bike lanes in Spain. Photo by Frank Gruber

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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