SUNSET PARK — Parking Enforcement Officer Micah Mitchell came close to losing toes Tuesday morning as he helped a constant flow of cars navigate the narrow intersection at 20th and Pearl streets.
“No left turn!” he bellowed at stubborn drivers who seemed determined to follow their rote path down 21st Street and onto Pearl, either toward Santa Monica College, John Adams Middle School or Will Rogers Elementary.
Unlike previous years, all three schools began within a day of each other, creating a perfect storm of regular commuters, worried parents and new college students driving in from out of town.
And, despite cars backed up nearly three blocks along Pearl Street, the traffic is flowing better than it has in years, said Chief Albert Vasquez of the Santa Monica College Police Department.
“It used to be backed up a mile,” he said, describing the usual start-of-school traffic at SMC.
The intersection at Pearl and 21st streets was of particular worry to residents in the neighborhood because of the sheer volume of traffic that goes through the small, neighborhood intersection.
According to City Hall figures, Pearl Street sees 4,178 daily car trips, and 20th Street has 25,247 car trips north of Pico Boulevard. The amount of trips earned the intersection an “F” on its service report card, and qualifies it as the most congested intersection that doesn’t have a traffic signal.
The effect, wrote Zina Josephs, president of Friends of Sunset Park, is a dangerous situation for the over 100 kids that traverse the neighborhood to get to and from school.
This year is different.
SMC police partnered with the Santa Monica Police Department and planners to put in place a traffic management plan designed by Sgt. Jere Romano of the SMCPD.
It covers the city from freeway exits, where incoming students will see signs directing them to Pico Boulevard and the various off-campus parking lots and their associated shuttles to ferry commuters to the main campus in time for class, to the intersections where officers on motorcycles block traffic to ease congestion.
The signs help prevent pile ups from forming by telling students which parking lots are full to keep them from queuing up like vultures as they wait for the empty spaces that will never come.
The results have been palpable.
“It’s so much better with the college’s help,” said Christy Chism, lead crossing guard with City Hall. “It used to be one big mess, with horns honking and cars blocking intersections.”
Regula Ziegler, who heads the Friends of Sunset Park College Committee, approved of the changes.
Tuesday was Ziegler’s second day monitoring the intersection, and watching how an increased deployment of police officers controlled the swarm of cars as they tried to zip through the tight neighborhood streets, often bottoming out on the dip in the street as they did so.
“We can definitely see the results of the cooperation,” Ziegler said.
City Hall put out wayfinding signs and contributed police officers to the traffic control effort. SMC and Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District officials attacked the problems from another front — getting commuters out of cars altogether.
Both districts encouraged students to try public transportation or bicycles to get to school, and Vice President of Student Affairs Michael Tuitasi said that the college had also instituted a ride-share program called “ZimRide” so students can carpool more easily.
The school also handed out passes to students for the “Any Line, Any Time” program, which allows them to board any city bus for free.
“It’s a car culture,” Tuitasi said. “This is about changing the mindset.”
Ride sharing is particularly important for a school like SMC. According to school officials, only 15 percent of the over 30,000 students enrolled at SMC live in Santa Monica.
SMMUSD’s push was also evident. Over a dozen parents passed the intersection both going east toward Grant Elementary or west to JAMS and Will Rogers Elementary with children, some walking and some bicycling, in tow.
This year’s efforts have made the process work more smoothly, but each new school term has garnered some improvement, Vasquez said.
“My first year, there were 84 complaints just from the opening days of school,” Vasquez said. “Last year there was just one.”
SMC and City Hall hope to keep those numbers low, even with the influx of extra commuters.
The additional police will be on hand for the first two weeks of school. Then, the department will take a look at traffic and operations and see if they want to leave the extra officers out on the street.