City Mobility Plan in Freefall

"Unfortunately, the City's Mobility Plan hasn't been working even for its own employees and top officials. While we support the City’s efforts, it is time for a critical and thorough re-evaluation of what has gone awry." Photo: Christy Schnabel.

Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City’s  (SMCLC) Diana Gordon wrote this wide-reaching report on Santa Monica’s troubled Mobility Plan. SMart shares it with you this week.

Internal City records obtained by SMCLC, and other documents, reveal that as the City pushes forward with intensified development, their plan to deal with increasing traffic is already failing.

To pave the way for more development, the City’s Mobility Plan aims to get people out of their cars into alternatives, such as bicycling, walking and public transportation. Evidence shows that their plan is not working.

SMCLC strongly supports increased mobility and safe transportation alternatives making our City more livable. Yet we also recognize the reality that cars currently are an important and necessary part of mobility for many people.

Unfortunately, the City’s Mobility Plan hasn’t been working even for its own employees and top officials. While we support the City’s efforts, it is time for a critical and thorough re-evaluation of what has gone awry. Political will starts with City Hall setting a good example

TWO-THIRDS of City government employees still drive SINGLE OCCUPANCY CARS to work during peak hours in 2018. Less than 15 percent come by bus, bicycle or Expo combined. This is the case two years after Expo opened even though City facilities are close to Expo and bus stops.

The city government has over 2,000 employees. The City’s current overall figures for its employees by one measure it uses are 15 percent worse than they were ten years ago in 2008.

Most city staff park in the Downtown/City Hall area, and ALL City employees park for FREE, paid for by the City. Every time the City enters into new collective bargaining agreements with City employees, free parking is included. This needs to stop. Likewise, top City officials also have failed to set an example by giving themselves even sweeter special parking privileges. The City is thus incentivizing its employees to drive to and park in Downtown. SMCLC has previously and repeatedly raised these issues.

Following City Hall’s example, most employees of Santa Monica’s major employers, such as Casa Del Mar/Shutters, Lionsgate and UCLA Medical Center also drive to work in single occupancy cars, ranging from 61 percent to 74 percent for those who travel during peak hours, according to records obtained by SMCLC. They also have low ridership by bus, bicycle and Expo. These employers together represent over 10,000 employees. Unfortunately, our City government has failed to lead by example.

At the same time, the City has been making driving and parking in Downtown, and elsewhere, more difficult and expensive for residents and small businesses. This disproportionately impacts families, older residents and the poor (as does the decline in the bus system.) Residents are often viewed as an adversary, rather than as the key constituency. The City has work to do to regain its moral authority.

Key elements of the Plan — Bike Share and Buses — are in freefall. The City’s Wellness and Mobility base Bike Share program is in near freefall, with sharply reduced rides. This is despite the City having promoted it as a key element of its efforts to advance wellness and a healthy lifestyle.

In March 2018 Bike Share dropped 63 percent from the same month in 2017, according to internal records. Since then the same month comparisons have shown reductions from more than 30 percent to over 80 percent. Additionally, City government employees riding bicycles to work declined 40 percent from 2017 to 2018. Big Blue Bus ridership has also dramatically decreased in the last few years, sinking 17 percent last year. Local routes are being cut. Wait times are often long. Bus stops are not passenger friendly. Our bus system may be geared too much to east-west, out-of-town centric, too duplicative of Expo. This is at the expense of vital in-town ridership, which is inadequately serviced. New alternatives may be wishful thinking, but are not helping. Car Share programs (Lyft/Uber) and electric scooters are convenient and offer some advantages. But let’s not fool ourselves: Each comes with serious shortcomings so far inadequately addressed by the City. 

Car share programs while convenient and useful have been shown by studies actually to increase auto traffic, 2.8 miles driving added for each mile of personal driving eliminated. (For one thing, think of all their driving around before and while you wait.) Even using UberPool or Lyft Line only reduced this number to 2.6. “Services like UberPool are Making Traffic Worse, Study Finds.” Washington Post, 7/25/18. “Uber and Lyft are Creating More Traffic and Congestion Instead of Reducing It, According to New Report.” Business Insider, 7/27/18.

With the deficiencies in the Mobility Plan growing, the City recently warmly embraced electric scooters, as an important part of its Mobility Plan. While fun and accessible, the City now recognizes they are not primarily being used as “last mile” connectors to Expo as hyped and are being used in dangerous ways.

Alarming injury rates involving electric scooters are emerging from emergency room data gathered by the press about such programs in Santa Monica’s and other cities. “Scooter Use Rising in Major Cities. So are Trips to the Emergency Room.” Washington Post, 9/6/18 – citing trips to SM emergency rooms. “Bird Scooters-So Much Fun, So Damn Dangerous.” LATimes 7/6/18. The City keeps only partial records of scooter injuries, not including local emergency room records.

Unfortunately, there is also evidence that scooters’ growth largely comes from replacing healthier alternatives such as bicycling, walking and taking buses, rather than mostly reduced reliance on cars. Bike Share’s precipitous fall may be due in large part to the rise of scooters. The City’s inadequate record collection and analysis impairs its ability to assess electric scooters or the new pilot program better.

The City needs to keep exploring ways to increase mobility now that traffic congestion has reached critical levels, with more and more traffic producing development on the way. Solo ridership by City government employees, deterioration of Bike Share and bus ridership and concerns about scooters, require a thorough, comprehensive, bottom-up review of the City’s Mobility Plan.The City must face reality if it wants more development. Without a working plan, our streets will be completely gridlocked.

The City, as one of Santa Monica’s largest employers, needs to find the political will to tackle its own mobility failings to demonstrate moral authority to lead. City employees shouldn’t be able to park for free while parking fees increase for the rest of us. Better records need to be kept and transparently made public on an on-going basis.

More has to be done to make Bike Share and bus transit up to date, user-friendly and easily available for residents. The City also needs to recognize that driving currently remains vital for many in order to perform necessary life demands. Driving is not the exclusive province of government employees and City officials. Families, older residents and the poor are disproportionately impacted by our failing and inadequate system.

This is yet another reason the City should slow down its development push. It needs to get traffic under control first. A thorough analysis should be conducted, and a public report issued and discussed by the Council after full community input. The City deserves a report and accompanying presentation that is frank, self-analytical and critical, rather than a promotional piece. We need to do better.

Diana Gordon for SMart. SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow) Daniel Jansenson Architect, Building and Fire Life-Safety Commissioner, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Thane Roberts AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commissioner