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A couple ride their bikes along the Santa Monica beach bike path on Thursday afternoon. City Hall received a bronze recognition from a national bicycle advocacy group for being bike friendly, despite complaints about pedestrians on the bike path. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITYWIDE — Boasting nearly 16 miles of bike lanes and a popular valet program catering to those who use pedal power, Santa Monica was recently recognized for being a bicycle friendly community by a national organization advocating on behalf of cyclists.

The League of American Bicyclists, which represents the interests of the nation’s 57 million cyclists, awarded City Hall with a bronze level distinction for its “remarkable commitments to bicycling,” placing an emphasis on bike lanes, the valet program and future plans to build bicycle parking facilities Downtown.

“We are trying to create a supportive environment for biking in Santa Monica and we feel we need to help people make different choices when planning a trip,” said Beth Rolandson, a principal transportation planner for City Hall and an avid cyclist.

“It’s a challenge,” Rolandson added. “It’s really about education for everyone, both bicyclists and pedestrians, as well as drivers, so we can all co-exist safely.”

Santa Monica is the first city on the Westside to be honored with the award, and is joined by Long Beach, which represents the southern portion, among this year’s honorees. The previous recipients from the county are Claremont and Santa Clarita.

The news came as a shock to some riders who have complaints about City Hall’s failure to keep pedestrians off the beach bike path and aggressive police officers harassing those participating in monthly, organized rides such as Critical Mass.

“Santa Monica is a great place with the infrastructure in place and fun rides … but until we focus on equality and that becomes the foundation, we are never going to get that level playing field,” said Stephen Box, co-founder of the Bike Writers Collective, which has created a “Cyclists’ Bill of Rights” that has been adopted by the city of Los Angeles, but not Santa Monica.

“If you focus on equality, then you can design streets that are good for everybody,” Box added. “It’s the basic principal that our streets are public spaces and [cyclists] should be equal partners in that space.”

Cities are recognized by the league for their role in actively supporting cycling for fun, fitness and transportation and are judged by their record in promoting bicycling in five key areas: education, engineering, enforcement, encouragement and evaluation.

Box said equality should be number six.

Nationally, 108 of the 274 communities that have applied have been honored, representing some 37 states, according to the league.

The bronze designation is one with real meaning since it is difficult to earn, and all applications are carefully evaluated by a team of local cyclists, national experts, and League of American Bicyclists staff, representatives form the league said.

Platinum, gold, silver, and bronze awards are given twice each year.

In addition to the bike lanes and the bike valet program, which parked over 20,000 bikes in 2008 at Farmers’ Markets and city-sponsored events, City Hall was honored for 19 miles of bike routes and a 3-mile beach bike path. Bicycling, Rolandson said, also plays a key role in the city’s Land Use and Circulation Element, a document which will dictate development in Santa Monica for the next 20 years or more.

“Plus, Santa Monica is pretty well laid out for bicycling,” Rolandson said. “The climate is fairly moderate year round and the city is relatively flat and laid out on a grid.”

City Hall will continue to install more bike racks in commercial areas, with a focus on Downtown.

“One of the greatest things about riding a bike is that you can get really close to the front door of whatever your destination,” Rolandson said.

The “next frontier” in biking will be the construction of secured bike parking and limited service facilities which will allow people to purchase materials and perform maintenance on bikes. City Hall has received $1.6 million in grant funding to do build a more full-service facility on Second Street in a parking structure that will be staffed part time, Rolandson said.

Bicycle parking is also being required at all new commercial buildings, and City Hall is conducting a pilot project at three intersections, using censors that detect when a bicyclist is waiting for a light to change.

That said, creating harmony between cyclists, motorists and pedestrians is difficult given the nature of Southern California, where car is king and roads are becoming increasingly congested with drivers, bicycle riders and pedestrians competing for the same space.

Jennifer Klausner, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, which was founded in 1998 and is a leading advocacy organization for cyclists in Los Angeles, is very familiar with Santa Monica and the Westside, having lived and worked in the area, and understands the challenges city planners face in a city that is dense and built out.

“Cities like Santa Clarita and Claremont have less development than we do in central L.A. and Santa Monica, so they have more space to build paths that are completely separate bikeways. They are fortunate,” Klausner said. “For Long Beach and Santa Monica, two built-out, very dense and populated cities, to achieve this bronze level status is an honor.”

Klausner said more people will chose to ride if they felt it was safe. A major challenge is to create space for riders so that they feel comfortable. Santa Monica has done that with the creation of bike lanes, she said.

Riders should also plan ahead, selecting routes that do not rely solely on major boulevards with heavy traffic flow.

“Major boulevards don’t accommodate us, but if you know the city and know your route, [Santa Monica] is very bikeable,” Klausner said.

Better enforcement on the bike path would also help, Klausner said, along with education for residents and city employees, including police officers.

The key is to address a bias that enforces a car’s dominance on the road, she said, and part of that responsibility lies with organizations like the coalition and other bike groups.

“Our mission is to help create that awareness and that cultural shift where there is greater respect for non-motorized transportation,” Klausner said.