Our City is blessed with an array of transportation options, perhaps the envy of any small city in this state and in the country. Our system has worked well for us to a great extent until recent years. The Santa Monica grid road system is simple and easy for drivers, bikers and pedestrians to understand. We have our own systems for bus and air transport and will shortly have a rail system with the extension of the Expo line. In addition to local taxi services, we now have bike-sharing, Uber, Lyft and Zipcar.
However, we face new challenges, which are the direct result of poorly planned growth. This growth has taxed the capacity of our surface infrastructure. With rail line service to downtown, the system will be stressed in dangerous new ways as the interfaces and intersections between various modes of transit multiply astronomically. For instance, Lincoln Boulevard is currently carrying between 43,000 and 59,000 vehicles per day on certain sections of the street. The Expo Line when fully operational will be running trains every 12 minutes during rush hour and every 20 minutes during the day and evening hours. The convergence of unrelated events in this picture is disaster waiting to happen, due to a failure to analyze and predict.
To better understand this problem, I would like to suggest a physics analogy. In the late 1920’s Werner Heisenberg, Nobel laureate, developed what became his “Uncertainty Principal”. It states simply and profoundly that there is a randomness, some say fuzziness, in nature, in the universe. In our little universe that contains our City, we are like those quantum particles in his theory. We cannot hope to calculate where those particles are located and the probability of how they (we) may behave. Unlike the clockwork universe of Isaac Newton’s theory, where everything follows clear-cut laws, our universe strains the ability of city planners to predict movements that we may make.
With such unpredictability comes great danger and, unfortunately, we have complicated the issue in concentrating so much growth into such a small area. Further, it might have been better, as previously emphasized, if certain modes of transportation, namely the Expo Line, had been more completely segregated from pedestrians, bikes and vehicular traffic. At the risk of overloading some of our over-strained thoroughfares we need to reduce the number of intersections where conflict exists between different types of transportation such as cars and trains. This should be a priority of the circulation element of our Downtown Specific Plan.
The future holds driverless cars, hover boards, and other new modes of transport that can only compound this complex issue. Pedestrians, drivers and visitors who are unskilled in dealing with the rail line, the large number of bikes, cars, buses and trucks, pose potential serious problems. There is a real possibility that our City government will face additional challenges in the form of enormous lawsuits.
We have already seen a train derailed by a wayward truck whose driver was confused. Fortunately, no passengers were aboard. The City Council has recently taken action to install a fence down the center of the rail corridor to prevent pedestrians and skateboarders from crossing the tracks. This picture is far from the pleasant renderings which show railcars, cars, buses, bikes and pedestrian co-mingling.
The solutions to our dilemma are varied and there are no quick fixes. Dependence on the private vehicle may wane and the county might develop a truly area-wide transit system that reduces traffic loads on the streets and freeways. We might learn how to teleport from one location to another as if in a Star Trek episode. That probably won’t happen — not in my lifetime, at any rate.
1. One solution is literally just simply to train our citizens, their children and our visitors to coexist with the system that we now have in place. Use of bikes, buses or jitney-size vehicles will help to some extent. These are resident-friendly and may reduce the dependence on the automobile. I have seen it work in Zurich, Switzerland, where I have spent much time in the last 18 years. There is a coexistence between all forms of transit. Within the city the speed of the trains or trams is much reduced, stops are more frequent and the volume of other vehicular traffic is lower. Furthermore, each pedestrian’s awareness is nurtured from childhood.
2. Provide substantial parking at the periphery of downtown and at Freeway off-ramps to allow visitors and our itinerant workforce to commute, and encourage telecommuting where possible.
3. Provide real low-income, affordable housing in appropriate locations, for workers who should not be required to pay more than 30-35% of their yearly income for housing.
4. In conjunction with additional parking, experiment with creating partial one way streets. For instance sections of 4th and 5th streets could be one-way in order to relieve the traffic from the I-10 off-ramps.
5. On Ocean Avenue, where the traffic is bumper to bumper by late afternoons and weekends, provide pedestrian bridges to allow access to the Pier, the park and the beach areas. These bridges would become part of a system that incorporates the renovated Pier Bridge.
6. Install true railroad crossing gates where the most heavily trafficked thoroughfares cross the rail right-of-ways.
7. Restrict delivery traffic to late night and early mornings.
8. Provide a master plan of dedicated mid-block pedestrian walkways where feasible in the downtown area.
9. Provide whatever mechanisms exist, electronic and/or mechanical, which ensure that the Expo train speed within our borders allows a capacity to come to a full stop quickly at intersections where its visibility may be compromised by existing buildings. Perhaps this might be no greater than ten miles per hour.
10. Conceptually explore the possibility of running an Expo spur line from downtown Santa Monica to Los Angeles International Airport along the Lincoln / Route 1 right of way, to serve our City, its hotels and the growing populations of the areas of Venice, Marina Del Rey, and Playa Vista.
These suggested measures would reduce the traffic in the City. They would provide better access to regional transportation, and they just might reduce future accidents that would be the direct result of a failure to prepare for monumental changes in our transportation structure that are coming. They would alleviate the “growing pains” of our City as it transforms from a small city with small city problems to a small city with large city problems.
Sam Tolkin for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)
Ron Goldman FAIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Bob Taylor AIA, Dan Jansenson Architect, Sam Tolkin Architect, Thane Roberts AIA, Phil Brock Chair, Recreation & Parks Commission.