Late this morning, this writer arrived at a bus stop at 17th Street and Montana Avenue, intending to travel to downtown Santa Monica. The bus stop contains no printed bus schedule, but a customer service number is provided, which includes an automated arrival information service. The recording asks for the stop’s four-digit number, but it quickly became clear that no such number is visible at the stop. Another call to customer service was answered by a live human, who, after a lengthy wait, cheerfully provided next-bus arrival information. In due course the bus indeed arrived — but on the opposite side of the street, going the opposite way to the requested destination. A follow-up call revealed that the first operator was wrong.
About a year ago, not long after SMa.r.t. started publishing this column, one of our articles discussed challenges to the use of mass transit. “A major barrier to the implementation of mass transit,” we wrote, “is the “first mile, last mile issue” — how to get to the station and then to one’s final destination. This is why the car is still favored over other options.” Much has been written before, and since, about the need for a practical, reliable and frequent public transit system in the city, to provide an alternative to driving. Reducing the number of drivers is seen by many people as a worthwhile goal, not only for environmental reasons, but also to reduce traffic congestion.
A convenient local, in-town public transportation system is one alternative to much local driving. “The City’s traffic is becoming worse,” our colleague Thane Roberts wrote in a recent column, “and will continue to do so as more development is approved despite our inadequate infrastructure.” “Some new measures to consider are: 1) a bike share system that is integrated with adjacent municipalities; 2) elevated pedestrian paths Downtown from the new Expo Line to avoid conflicts with street traffic; 3) “first mile” and “last mile” solutions such as small shuttles, improved bus service with better transit information, comfortable seating and weather protection at bus stops.”
In-town transit, and the “first mile, last mile” issue are really infrastructure challenges, several of which we have identified as fundamental building blocks for local residents’ quality of life. “One issue on which most residents can readily agree,” we said last July, “is that moving about the city by car, bus or bike is increasingly time consuming and frustrating. Traffic in downtown is abysmal … The city needs a realistic approach to mitigate this situation. Our quality of life, safety, and possibly our livelihoods are affected. Every new project needs to be assessed for its cumulative effect on this vital part of our infrastructure.”
But transportation is not the only infrastructure matter needing attention. “The city’s electrical and water infrastructure is increasingly under pressure due to the burden from thousands of daily visitors,” we said in the same article, “(s)trains in the city’s infrastructure manifest as disruptions in the electrical supply, the rising cost of water (only partially due to the drought), and the unwillingness or inability of our public officials to discuss reasonable limits on our city’s resources. A plan to honestly address inadequate infrastructure and limited resources must be part of any discussion on the city’s future.”
In August of last year, we pointed out the difficulties of achieving water independence (a City of Santa Monica goal for 2020 while large, water-consuming developments continue to be approved. “City government has not asked us to subsidize new development,” we wrote. “but that is the net effect of continuing to encourage and process large developments that significantly increase the city’s water consumption-especially projects substantially larger than basic zoning allows. Let’s not mince words: it’s irresponsible to consider such developments given the current water crisis. This past year has been the driest in recorded California history. There was a similarly dry year over 100 years ago, but our population has grown 40 times since then-and with indoor plumbing and hygiene changes, consumption is probably closer to 100 times what it was then.”
All of these infrastructure issues, transportation, traffic, water use and others, continue to be on the front burner in our city today, a year later. We have now had some time to consider solutions and alternatives, and indeed the city has made considerable progress across many fronts. The Big Blue Bus, for example, has inaugurated new routes connecting to the light rail stations, although their effectiveness remains to be seen. And water use in the city-at least among residents-is down substantially, by nearly a third, not least because of the City’s outreach efforts, new water pricing, and rebates for water-saving measures such as turf removal, landscape improvements and appliance and fixture replacements.
Nonetheless the major issues, which at their core are driven at a high level by City policies, and at a low level by the city’s daily management, continue to severely challenge the city today. They require an approach that is both imaginative and truly responsive to residents.
Going back to this morning’s bus ride mentioned at the beginning of this article. A bus eventually did arrive, and the friendly driver was treated, by this writer, to a small description of the phone recording which required the stop’s non-existent four-digit code. The driver peered through the windshield at the stop, and said, “How are you supposed to know the code if it isn’t there?”
Daniel Jansenson, Architect, for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow).