Drivers heading west on Ocean Park Boulevard merge from two lanes to one near Clover Park. City Hall removed two lanes on Ocean Park as part of a pilot project to improve safety. The pilot recently became official.

merge from the two lanes on Ocean Park Boulevard to the single lane on Monday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

OCEAN PARK BLVD — If a nine month pilot project to reconfigure a busy city road became permanent, but nobody knew, would traffic be just as bad?

The answer for Sunset Park residents is a resounding yes.

Ocean Park Boulevard, a bustling east-west corridor that runs from the Pacific Ocean to the city’s eastern limit, got a makeover in 2008 after injury accidents between 16th and 18th streets near John Adams Middle School drew concern from neighbors.

Previous efforts had made little impact on the problem. Crossing guards and marked crosswalks, several rounds of flashing crosswalks and additional signs telling drivers their speed failed to cut back on the dangerous behavior.

So, city staff decided to try something a little more drastic.

The two lanes of the formerly four-lane road were taken out as part of a “road diet.” In their stead, left-hand turn pockets were added to provide cover and planners painted in bicycle lanes to facilitate bike traffic. On-street parking was also added in some areas.

“This recommendation to reconfigure and to have a road diet seemed like a promising answer,” said Transportation Manager Lucy Dyke. “Some were supportive of the idea, and some were really skeptical. The decision taken at the time was to try it and see.”

The result was a narrowed roadway meant to force drivers to slow down as they passed through the two block section.

For two years, city staff collected data about the change, examining accident rates, the speed with which public buses made it through the stretch and collecting residents’ input as well as that of the Santa Monica Police Department’s Traffic Services unit.

Data showed that not only had accidents dropped from 35 to 12 compared to a similar nine-month span in the previous year, that rate held steady for the second year. Injury accidents were reduced by 60 percent, and the only pedestrian-related accidents occurred at signalized intersections outside of the project area.

The new configuration also cut down dramatically on speeding, with 85 percent of motorists traveling at or below 27 mph rather than the posted 35 mph, or 25 mph while school is in session.

The reconfiguration accomplished its goals, Dyke said.

“We went through a couple of rounds of asking what people thought, and then checking, and monitoring,” Dyke said. “If it hadn’t had a marked effect on safety, it wouldn’t be here anymore. We saw a serious reduction in accidents.”

The timeline of the project is also a source of frustration to residents and business people. For many, it was unclear until the road was re-paved in 2010 with the reconfigurations striped onto the new pavement that the “pilot project” had ended.

It wasn’t even made official within City Hall until an information item appeared on the website on March 1, 2011 proclaiming the changes permanent.

As to the slower travel, City Hall won’t get any argument from businesses on Ocean Park Boulevard.

Sam Srebnick, a manager at The Slice, a pizzeria on the road, had mixed feelings about the project.

“I’m torn, because I like the bike lanes, but I do deliveries, too,” Srebnick said. “Around 5 p.m., when it’s all backed up, it can take 30 minutes to get to 23rd Street.”

Now, nearly three years since the changes took place, he can barely remember what it was like not to get off of Ocean Park Boulevard and take parallel streets like Ashland Avenue or Pearl Street.

Liz Seiji remembers.

Seiji bought the Edelweiss Flower Boutique 25 years ago, when the Sunset Park neighborhood was the “quiet part” of Santa Monica.

It’s difficult to get to work in the morning, and more difficult to leave at night when it’s bumper-to-bumper starting at 4 p.m., Seiji said. In the summertime, with the additional beach traffic, it’s nigh on impossible.

“I tried to get in my input, but they didn’t really care,” Seiji said.

The traffic backs up as far west as Lincoln Boulevard, turning a quick commute into a 10 or 15 minute ordeal, said Dari Silverman, owner of She’s the One, a children’s fashion store.

Silverman and other Ocean Park Boulevard business owners got notice at their businesses several years ago that the changes would be taking place, but not at her home, which is further down on Ocean Park past Lincoln.

“They go all out for tourists, but we are the people who live here,” Silverman said.

Not all are inherently against the project, said Zina Josephs, a representative of Friends of Sunset Park neighborhood Group.

“Some residents in the neighborhood are frustrated with the increase in traffic congestion, but others are pleased with what they feel are safer conditions for drivers and pedestrians, especially school students,” Josephs said.

Residents have expressed discomfort with how quietly the reconfiguration went from “wait and see” to permanent policy, she said.

The matter never went before the City Council, or on any agenda, because no action was required to leave things as they were, Dyke said.

“To keep it the way it is, the City Council doesn’t have to do anything. In general, those decisions, like re-striping, are really technical decisions that could be made by an engineer,” she said.

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