Residents are angry, very angry. They’re angry about traffic that keeps them sitting in their own driveway unable to exit, traffic that causes them to sit idling through four traffic light changes while they creep one block. So they turn to the city staff in charge of traffic control and say, “Why are we having to endure this?”
I had a conversation with City Traffic Engineer Sam Morrissey who, with his small group of traffic controllers, has made a big difference in the way traffic moves. He and his group restructured the complex signal at Ocean Avenue and Moomat Ahiko a few years ago and got rid of traffic build-up extending down the hill to Pacific Coast Highway, and gridlock for vehicles turning south from Colorado Avenue.
But he had plenty of lanes to work with. That’s not the case in most of the city. In Downtown, for instance, Fourth Street, Santa Monica Boulevard, and Broadway were four-lane streets. They’re now two-lane streets and, in some cases, three-lane streets. The city got rid of the other lanes and they were turned into “bus-only” lanes. This exercise was named “Creating the Transit Mall.”
As we know, the City Council continues to approve development after development all over the city, bringing more and more traffic to our gridlocked streets.
I told Sam about the night I drove to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, planning to meet friends at 7 p.m. I originally intended to ride the 720 bus, but the driver refused to open the door for me at Broadway and Ocean (a regular posted stop) at around 6 p.m., even though I was about three steps from the door and looking the bus driver in the eye as he pulled away.
I realized I’d be late if I waited for the next bus, so decided to drive. I knew the freeway would be a parking lot, and didn’t know where the bottlenecks were due to freeway construction. I ended up driving east on Olympic. This was my first experience of traffic on Olympic. Four and five signal changes to move one light. It was awesomely frustrating and just shy of two hours of gridlock.
Sam tells me this gridlock originates in Los Angeles. Since our traffic information system doesn’t connect to the Los Angeles traffic information system, there’s no way they can determine where the bottlenecks are located or do anything about it. He says the city is exploring connecting to a countywide traffic information system. Then, he could adjust the lights to allow traffic speed increase of about 10 percent. Now, as he pointed out, that’s not much help. (If traffic was moving at 10 mph, it would allow it to move at 11 mph). But on Olympic, if you got a green light at Centinela, it might allow you to get a green light on Bundy. (On my drive, it might have allowed me to skip one of the several red light changes I sat through before I got through the light at Bundy).
I asked Sam about the Bergamot area and all the large developments in the pipeline that will bring several thousand additional car trips each day into this gridlocked area.
Actually, according to their environmental impact reports, four projects alone — Hines, Colorado Creative Studios, Roberts Center, and Village Trailer Park — will generate more than 13,000 new car trips per day. And that’s an underestimation, since the Hines EIR used obsolete numbers for the size of office space. Office space has shrunk dramatically, allowing for more employees in the same amount of space.
Sam said, “With this kind of traffic, drivers look for every street and alley they can find that is moving. There will be 10 new streets created in the Bergamot area and they will hold some of that traffic.” Sam didn’t create any of this traffic, and that’s his best answer. New traffic generation in the area is in the hands of the City Council. Sam and his group just have to do the best they can to handle it. And at this point, there’s little they can do.
Those new streets in the Bergamot area are supposed to be quiet streets, not traffic carriers. And they all lead into the few arteries available that lead out of the city. So even if they do become traffic carriers, they won’t reduce the time it takes to get out of the area because they lead right into the main arteries that are gridlocked.
I had the opportunity to pose a question to one of our council members at a public meeting recently. I asked, “When will you know this plan is not working?” The council member said, “I don’t understand.” I described my recent encounter with area gridlock and repeated my question. The answer was, “Traffic is a regional problem. Maybe over the years we can get the region to do something about it.”
When you finally understand how divorced the council is from the reality of the rapid diminishment of the quality of life in Santa Monica, and the fact that some council members do not care even slightly, you realize that a sea change is called for. We are getting inquiries from concerned and outraged residents asking, “What can we do?”
You might be interested to know that every development agreement approved by the City Council is subject to a referendum. If residents gather enough signatures to place it on the ballot, within 30 days of the approval, the fate of that development agreement will be decided by you, the voters.
In a stunning reversal, San Francisco voters recently rejected a Board of Supervisors approved 136-foot-tall development of high-end condos slated for the Embarcadero. The developer offered affordable housing, open space, ground-floor retail and restaurants, and years of tax benefits. Sound familiar? The voters overwhelmingly voted it down 2 to 1.
Ellen Brennan, former stockbroker, past member and chair of the Pier Restoration Corporation board, authored this column.