How we design our streets says a lot about what we value as a community. Are they safe and comfortable to use for everyone in the community, whether you are an 8-year-old walking home from Franklin Elementary, a father out for a jog with your newborn in a stroller, or a centenarian resident of a retirement home in downtown Santa Monica heading to the Vons around the corner?
Planning our city for those who don’t need to, don’t want to, or simply can’t get around primarily by driving is more than just a way to fight traffic congestion — it is a moral imperative if we believe in equity, environmental justice, and a sustainable future.
For many, owning a car is a luxury they simply can’t afford. In fact, according to the 2012 American Community Survey, about 15 percent of Santa Monica residents — predominantly renters — don’t own cars. But our city streets should be safe for all of us to use, whether or not we own cars.
That also means we need complete neighborhoods, like downtown Santa Monica is becoming, where people can live, work, access quality transit, and find their daily necessities within comfortable walking, biking, or rolling (for those who may rely on wheelchairs or other assistance for mobility) distance from home. When more people have the option to leave their cars at home and opt out of sitting in the infamous Los Angeles traffic, this benefits everyone, especially those who don’t have the same flexibility.
On May 27, Mayor Kevin McKeown reaffirmed Santa Monica’s commitment to “Vision Zero,” the idea that all our streets should be planned and designed with the underlying principle that safety for all those who use them as the top priority. While this may sound like common sense, many of the streets in our city, like Olympic and Lincoln for example, were designed to be largely inhospitable to people in favor of moving cars through our neighborhoods at highway speeds. Worth noting: at 20 miles per hour, there is about 5-percent chance that a collision with a pedestrian will end in death; at 30 miles per hour, those odds jump to about 45 percent.
These streets were designed at the height of the reign of King Car, an era of drive-thrus, drive-ins, and sprawling surface parking lots, when people were expected to live their lives (when not at home) almost entirely in their cars -— assuming you could afford one, weren’t too young, or hadn’t grown too old to drive.
We still have much work ahead of us. The Santa Monica Police Department, in the last three years, has investigated 874 collisions in which someone walking or riding a bike was killed or injured, including the recent tragedy at Olympic and 26th Street.
Even so, we have made tremendous strides. Since the adoption of the Bike Action Plan in 2011, we have added dozens of miles of clearly marked bike lanes to our city streets. We continue to raise awareness about safety and responsibility for those on bikes and those behind the wheel. And, overall, we have increased the visibility of the people who ride, largely because, since the plan was adopted, we have seen a huge spike in the number of people on bikes.
In recent years, we have seen Broadway, Main Street, 2nd Street, Michigan Avenue, and soon, Colorado Avenue, transformed into multi-modal corridors, inviting people out of their cars to experience the city at a human level. Programs like Safe Routes to School, which encourages our students to bike, walk, or take the bus, to school, are helping the next generation learn how to safely get around without being entirely dependent on cars.
Soon, we will see parklets popping up along Main Street, adding much needed pockets of public open space where people can stop and sit, eat lunch, mingle, or just rest a minute before continuing about their day.
With Expo opening next year, Santa Monica’s bike-share program, the first public system in the county, coming online later this year, and the city resuming work on the Pedestrian Action Plan soon, this transformation will continue.
In many ways, the future of mobility lies in the past. Before the advent of the car, we moved at human speeds through our city streets, which allowed them to be robust public spaces as well as thoroughfares.
Returning to human-paced streets not only helps cut back on all the negative impacts of a car-centric society, including traffic congestion and pollution, it can also save and improve lives.
Lizzy Tooke, Natalya Zernitskaya, Brian Derro, Ernie Powell and Judy Abdo for Santa Monica Forward