Lowered expectations in Santa Monica

Transportation consultant Jeff Tumlin introduced the bike planning process in Santa Monica with a heaping spoonful of lowered expectations. The Nelson-Nygaard principal, who led Santa Monica in reworking their transportation plan, rattled off a series of bad frames, highlighting obstacles and limitations in a performance that could have landed him a job with LADOT. Tumlin has previously been a powerful force for Complete Streets in Santa Monica and elsewhere, but he put the wrong foot forward in this case, setting the tone poorly and establishing a bad framework for change.

Tumlin explained that Santa Monica would like to help cyclists, but that “everything we do for you takes away from them.” “Them” being motorists. This common framing of the cycling issue is the greatest threat to bicycle friendliness today. The basic idea is that you cannot do good things for cyclists without having a negative impact on motorists. It is an “us vs. them”, “I win, you lose”, zero sum game point of view, and it is absolute poison.

Photo by Mihai Peteu

Following the artless logic of “I win, you lose” bicycle planning, Tumlin explained that further progress would rest on setting clear priorities and navigating treacherous political waters. When your only way of winning is by taking away from others, your priorities for taking things away become a priority. “The City has already done the easy stuff” explained Tumlin, who then expounded on why the journey to bike friendliness would be tough.

Bay Area consultants telling any ninety cyclists in Metro Los Angeles, particularly this ninety, that they face a difficult political battle is like Englishman telling Irishman that religious divisions can be trying. This was a roomful of cyclists who are street veterans and political veterans – they know exactly how hard it is on the street and in City Hall.

Tumlin remarked later that the room contained one councilman, three Planning commissioners, three Recreation & Parks commissioners and ninety cyclists. He didn’t mention the numerous Planning staff & police officers. With a such a turnout, Tumlin had an opportunity to drop the negative thinking and move strongly to inspire. It surprised me that he didn’t – when I last watched him during the LUCE update process he seemed much more confident.

The whole affair made me wonder at where Santa Monica is in the (somewhat lethargic) race to bike utopia. It seems crazy, but there is a case to be made that Los Angeles has overtaken Santa Monica. Santa Monica has quietly added a good deal of bike infrastructure, they have a great bike valet program for special events, and they have some good stuff going on in the schools. On the other hand, while Santa Monica’s attempt at a Ciclovia has foundered on an absurd permitting & political process, Mayor V has added CicLAvia to his curriculum vitae and started planning for another one. Where Santa Monica chased out Critical Mass (and consequently Midnight Ridazz), LAPD has made an effort (still struggling though) to support it. Los Angeles also has three brick and mortar bike repair collectives and two or three more in that are maturing, where Santa Monica has none. And relevant to this process, LA miraculously has a bike plan proposal it can get behind, whereas Santa Monica is just getting started.

The first 40 minutes of the evening were given over to discussions about infrastructure, with Tumlin first giving his introductory remarks, and then Tumlin’s colleague (whose name I didn’t catch) giving an overview of possible engineering solutions. However, the area in which Santa Monica is losing ground isn’t just in infrastructure. It’s in encouragement, it’s in education, it’s in rethinking the value and purpose of city streets.

A blinkered focus on infrastructure reinforces the “I win, you lose” frame. Street width, in the short term, is fixed. You can’t make the street wider, and you can’t make it narrower; all you can do is restripe it. If you believe, like many people do, that the only solution to hostile streets is to give cyclists there own special place, a sovereign nation, five feet wide, named “Bike-Lane-Land”, then you can’t do anything positive for cyclists without taking away space from motorists. If you accept this “fact” you will spend your days endlessly discussing the merits of 12 ft travel lanes vs. 10 ft or 9 ft, which is exactly what Tumlin’s colleague spent 10 minutes doing.

A slightly less poisonous version of the “I win, you lose” frame is the Interest Balancing paradigm. In this way of thinking, which Tumlin expressed a bit of, cyclists win at the expense of motorists, but it’s the right thing to do because cyclists interests have been neglected. One must balance the interests of all sides. The downside, which Tumlin was quick to mention, is that cyclists interests will have to be balanced against motorists in all cases, including on major arterials. As he put it, you can either slow down the street enough to make it safe for cyclists, or you can give them their own space. But, it’s just not reasonable on some streets, especially the big ones, to slow down traffic enough to make cyclists safe – that doesn’t balance the interests properly. Tumlin didn’t put it exactly that way, but that was the gist.

Neither of these ways of thinking is doing us any good. If we have to go into political arenas and convince people that they should give us things by taking things away from other constituents, we will only win when we have huge numbers. The “I win, you lose” frame is a lose, lose, lose some more, keep on losing approach for cyclists. It makes common cause with no one, it’s uninspiring, and its fruit are insubstantial. There are easy ways out of this, here’s two.

First, we don’t need infrastructure. Not in an absolute sense. We need the opportunity to coexist peacefully. We need to be able to use the road and not get run over. If you could take the lane and be respected by the motorists behind you, then you wouldn’t want or need a bike lane. You can call me all kinds of names and label me a Vehicular Cyclist, but you know in your heart of hearts that it’s true – if you felt safe taking the lane, bike lanes wouldn’t mean much. Bike lanes, as the dominant form of bike infrastructure, are mostly used to give cyclists a greater sense of safety and encourage motorists to respect them. They address the need for cyclists to peacefully coexist with other modes, but they are simultaneously a tacit admission that city staff are either unwilling or unable to get motorists to treat cyclists with respect. Once you’ve given up on making the existing streets safe for cyclists, and you decide that you need bike lanes everywhere, you are firmly in the grasp of “I win, you lose” bicycle planning. However, if you instead identify respect as the core issue, you can move on from this form of bike planning and this losing framing. Get into some encouragement, enforcement and education solutions and we can all win.

Second, there are better ways to approach and pitch infrastructure solutions than the “I win, you lose” zero sum approach. Even the famous negotiating tome “Getting to Yes” calls out this approach as an obstacle to progress. Enlarging the scope by featuring the values of Complete Streets is a good solution. Streets are not traffic sewers to park idling congestion on, they are our public spaces. They are there for business, for meeting people, they are there for everyone and they should be welcoming to all. A street where cyclists integrate harmoniously with cars and buses and peds is a street where everyone can feel welcome. Santa Monica’s bicycle pitchmen should position cycling solutions as a necessary element of civilizing Santa Monica streets and as good indicator species for street health. Emphasize that ensuring that all streets are complete streets means better traffic flow, and wins for everyone.  Remind people of the good ol’ days when, as a kid, they could ride their bike to the store, and ask them what they want for their kids and grandkids. This is the Win-Win frame that Santa Monica should be engaging with.

It’s not all bad and I am definitely a bit too focused on the way material was presented. On the whole I’m pleased to see that Santa Monica is making progress. Michelle Glickert and Lucy Dyke are good for Santa Monica, and I think if Santa Monica is serious about being bike friendly, then they need to add more staff to work with Glickert and Dyke. LA could learn a lot from Santa Monica in that they always have collaborative design exercises at workshops that move the conversations forward rapidly and dynamically. I am also impressed that Santa Monica’s bike activists are well organized under the Santa Monica Spoke banner. Tumlin and his colleagues are very bright people, and very accomplished, but I’m not convinced that they know what they’re doing here. They obviously understand that it’s a tough political environment but their badly framed rhetoric suggests they don’t understand how to navigate it. However, if they can turn rhetoric around and recognize that they have an opportunity to engage in inspiration and transformation, then Santa Monica could be in luck.

I was reminded more than once of some of the reasons I disengaged from Santa Monica politics. At the beginning of the meeting one woman interrupted a conversation I was having with Justine Rembac (bad ass Director of Sustainability for SMC’s Associated Students.) The woman said to us, with perfect politeness, “I’m being asked to start herding people toward the front.” Herding people? I let her know that I don’t get herded. I know that it’s probably just a bad verbal habit of hers, but I also know you don’t say things like that in LA. You don’t say things like that in LA ‘cause you’ll get yelled at (or worse.) I appreciate that about LA.

Twice I was talking with someone in the audience and someone leaned over and said our conversation was disturbing their appreciation of the powerpoint presentation. If you look at City Council meetings you’ll find the same thing; at Santa Monica City Council meetings visitors are expected to sit quietly in the pews.  In Los Angeles people work the room constantly, carrying on in lengthy (quiet) conversations. Again, there’s a quality of (false) politeness in Santa Monica that’s replaced with irreverence in LA, and I’m partial to the irreverence. At a good meeting more gets done in the side conversations than the meeting itself. The meeting before the meeting, the meeting after the meeting, and the meeting during the meeting are, taken together, are more important than the meeting.  As far as I’m concerned, if you’re focused on the powerpoint, you’re missing the real point, which is to make something happen.   Making something happen involves talking to people, and as long as it’s in hushed tones, I encourage the powerpoint connoisseurs in Santa Monica to tolerate the side conversations.

Or maybe I was just being loud and obnoxious.

My last thought: Santa Monica presented an accelerated plan for drafting and approving a bike plan. The justification offered was that Santa Monica needs a bike plan to qualify for certain funding applications. To my fellow bike activists in Santa Monica: if this is a poison pill, don’t feel you have to take it. This justification for swift drafting and adoption is EXACTLY the justification that LADOT et al offered when trying to push through an inadequate bike plan in Los Angeles. If the outlined planning process is going your way and suits your needs, then by all means, continue with it. But if you’re not getting what you need out of it, then insisting on a longer and more deliberative process is good and fair. If Santa Monica needs an approved bike plan they can easily reapprove the existing bike plan just for this year and continue with the public process of creating a stronger bike plan. If they need specific projects to be included in that plan to receive funding, they can throw those in the old plan, reapprove it, and continue with the update process. The need for an adopted bike plan is bullcrap excuse for an accelerated public process, and you don’t have to accept those terms if they don’t suit you.

Alex Thompson

Bikerowave co-founder, Cyclists' Bill of Rights co-author, President of Bikeside, and Math Phd. HULK SMASH straight from Michigan!

11 thoughts on “Lowered expectations in Santa Monica

  1. “If you felt safe taking the lane, bike lanes wouldn’t mean much…”

    That’s a big “if.”

    When I was riding around Amsterdam last October, there were a number of streets where bike lanes just disappeared into traffic, a la Los Angeles, and required cyclists to take the lane, or whatever.


    There, even in one of the top cities for cyclists in the world, I went from feeling like I owned the road to looking over my shoulder like a scared rat.

    I don’t know if one could ever make taking the lane feel safe on major routes — the Dutch model allows it usually only on residential streets, where the car is considered a guest of the bicycle, and where speed limits are lowered to something like 20 kph.

  2. The gentleman, who gave us the infrastructure refresher was Michael Moule, looks like he recently started working for Nelson/Nygaard (http://nelsonnygaard.com/Announcements/E-Letter-Engineering.html).

    My excitement levels never peaked at this meeting, maybe I’m too used to hearing how tough it will be to get X and Y done. I did get the feeling that the consultants were a bit worried by the political climate – I hope this doesn’t get in the way of them signing off on an amazingly robust bike plan.

    And yes, you were being a bit obnoxious with your conversations within a conversation within a powerpoint prez.

  3. In defense of Jeff Tumlin, he did mention that Santa Monica needs streets that anyone, regardless of age or cycling ability, should feel comfortable riding on.

    In defense of bike lanes, they can be greatly improved from a visual standpoint. Yes, the current North American implementation leaves much to be desired. Paint them green, demarcate the door zone by laying down hashed lines, ensure they dump into a nice, fat bike box that places riders ahead of traffic at each intersection.

  4. I tried to stay positive in thinking that though they presented it in a less-than-tangible way, it was still a good opportunity to walk around and give input on problem areas within Santa Monica.

    I was MOST disappointed by the way someone treated me at one of the booths when I suggested having Bike Valet services at SMC on the first week of semesters to encourage cycling, while cutting down on traffic in that residential area.
    The man laughed at me and said “The school should do that, they’re their own thing.” I tried to explain that this is something that would benefit that community as a whole, while knowing that those residents moved to that area knowing they’d be residing next to two elementary schools and a college…
    BUT he was not a person working there, and I was assured later that the city is trying to create better relationships with Santa Monica College.

  5. Yeah – I say really focus on broadening the scope of work so that education, enforcement, and encouragement are emphasized, and making sure that the evaluation process captures those priorities.

    To all of you – challenge their bad frames at every turn. Don’t let anyone get away with “to help you we HAVE to take away from them.” Challenge that every time – it may be that to exercise some options to help cyclists, motorists will experience negatives, but it is certainly not true all the time.

    I don’t buy that you can avoid making arterials safe for cyclists by making side streets good . . . that’s one I would work hard on too, but that’s my trip.

  6. If bike lanes become off the table for most of the arterials, I think sharrows should be considered on them. Every street is a bike street.

    I’ve been delayed in putting all my thoughts together for a post, but I agree some of the comments made seemed directed at setting the bar low. I also seriously take issues with the claim Santa Monica has done all the easy projects. No way.

  7. Some arterials are ineligible for sharrows since the speed limit is 40 mph or above. I tried to find a site or document that lists the speed limits for the streets in LA County and failed. Anyone know where I can find that info?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *