Yesterday’s streets tomorrow


Santa Monica’s street sizes were laid out 140 years ago in the horse and buggy era. During the intervening decades the City has had a two hundred fold increase in its effective population (residents+commuters+visitors), yet its street capacity has not kept up with this increased demand. If we look at the last three decades, our population crept up from about 87,000 to about 93,000, but job creation, visitors and commuting students have ballooned our effective population to over 200,000 per day. While that estimated number fluctuates short-term (eg over the weekend) or long-term (went down during the recession), the net effect of all this growth in transit demand is that our street capacity is strained to the point of functional collapse. This is evident to anyone who has taken any of the city’s eastbound boulevards at 5 p.m.

It does not matter if those travelers walk, ride skateboards, take bikes, skate, ride Segways, hop on buses or trams or ride in cars. They are all trying to squeeze through a funnel that was sized for a city envisioned over a century ago. While the city has engaged in an aggressive program to swap car lanes for bike or bus lanes, landscaped median strips and wider sidewalks, the net result is that actual total capacity has not increased. This is not an argument for or against a particular transit modality: certainly we need dedicated bike lanes for the safety of the increasing number of bike riders and the planted median strips make our travel experience more pleasant. But demand is going up while “supply” is not: all that is happening is that one modality is replacing another. The Expo line light rail takes out lanes of west Colorado. Bike lanes take out lanes of east Broadway. Bus lanes take out lanes at west Santa Monica Boulevard. The list of reduced transit capacity goes on and on.

In the transition from one modality to another we never gain actual increased capacity. Only a tiny fraction of the drivers that used those vacated lanes are converting to buses, biking, skateboards or walking. Most of the orphaned drivers are squeezing into adjacent lanes or streets. So now and for the foreseeable future we are getting relatively “underutilized” sidewalks, bus and bike lanes while the remaining clogged car lanes accept the displaced traffic. The wishful hope is that somewhere out there is a tipping point where enough buses, pedestrians and bicycles will replace cars. But this won’t happen for decades for the following reasons:

  • The demand to build residential and commercial space continues unabated, with a transit demand that is increasing faster than people are willing to change their transit habits.
  • While those new projects are governed by conditions requiring a reduction of peak car trips through Transportation Demand Management (TDM), even existing projects, such as Agensys, have consistently failed to meet their TDM targets, and effective enforcement remains nonexistent.
  • If Silicon Beach maintains its wealthy youthful labor force and they want to have families, most will end up commuting into Santa Monica because of the lack of affordable family-size housing. The current construction mix now in planning stages is still favoring small units compared to family units.
  • Mass transit has not reached the level of convenience that will get people out of their cars. The Santa Monica light rail stations have minimal to no parking, and are not well integrated with the Big Blue Bus. This is actually a regional problem.
  • The approval of reduced parking projects and the removal of parking along major boulevards combine to inevitably collide with the need for smooth traffic flow of all modalities.
  • Externalities such as the rapid growth of Playa Vista, Pacific Palisades, and West Los Angeles, over which Santa Monica has no effective control, will continue to increasingly overload Santa Monica’s available transportation resources.

Meanwhile the arms race continues between neighborhoods trying to protect themselves from the increasingly pressurized main arteries. The neighborhoods defend themselves with chokers, no left turns signs, expanded restricted parking districts, traffic bumps, one way streets etc. while commuters fight back by using alleys, using apps such as Waze (which finds optimal travel paths using sides streets) and leaving earlier or staying later at their jobs, which only expands the duration of peak travel impact. Finally, some desirable transit lane swaps prove politically impossible. When the City wanted to remove parking lanes on south Lincoln Blvd during peak hours, the neighborhoods exploded in protest foreclosing that option.

So where will the additional capacity come from? Sooner than later we must face the need to widen the main arteries to adequately and safely receive the current and anticipated demand. In the new zoning code all the properties facing the main arteries should be required to dedicate the first 10′ as an easement for future transit expansion, with no structures allowed. They would still preserve all of their original development rights of their lot area and of the area above the easement. Initially those easements could be used for sidewalk cafes, landscaping, and other public amenities, but when transit demand reaches certain levels, that area could be “recaptured” for sidewalk, parking, bike lanes etc. as the main central lanes grow in width or are dedicated as bus or bike lanes.

For example, The Esplanade project at the west end of Colorado takes out two lanes of traffic for a much-needed wider sidewalk and bike lanes. Again at great public expense and inconvenience, we are just swapping modalities. Now imagine if the properties on the north side of Colorado, which were built within the last 36 years (when no one saw the light rail coming) had been required at that time to dedicate a 10′ easement for public transit. The need for new projects such as the Esplanade, would be substantially decreased because we would have already built in the future capacity.

Santa Monica has historically built only about one block of new traffic lanes per decade. In the last 30 years two blocks of Cloverfield have been widened and Olympic has been extended to Ocean (we are already removing the parking lane during peak hours east of that extended Olympic block). This pitiful rate of expansion is completely inadequate. Today we are paying for yesterday’s lack of planning vision. With the current zoning code update we can avoid this mistake over the next 20 years by building in the additional transit capability now. Your grandchildren riding their solar powered skates to work will thank you.

Mario Fonda-Bonardi for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)