As other cities across California open up their streets for recreation and exercise during the coronavirus shutdown, Santa Monica is dragging its feet.
Mobility advocates have been calling on the city to join other cities, including Pasadena, San Diego, Oakland and San Francisco, in restricting car traffic on some neighborhood streets to provide more space for pedestrians and cyclists to practice physical distancing. Officials in many of those cities have put a particular emphasis on converting streets in less affluent neighborhoods, where residents often lack private outdoor space and parks.
Some Santa Monica residents hope the city, which has prioritized improving access and safety for cyclists and pedestrians, will take a similar approach.
More than 70% of Santa Monicans rent their homes, which rarely come with backyards. With beaches and gyms closed, the city’s parks and sidewalks have been in high demand and physical distancing has become difficult to maintain.
Carter Rubin, a Santa Monica resident and transportation strategist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the city could put up barricades, traffic cones or signs that would either prevent drivers from entering certain neighborhood streets or remind them to drive slowly.
“This can work without overburdening staff with enforcement,” he said. “It has to be a light touch on the city’s part … which also gives you the option to take it out if it’s not working.”
The network of “slow streets” would need to be dispersed around the city — especially in areas with a high concentration of apartment dwellers and fewer parks — to prevent people from treating them as a destination, Rubin said.
“If you do enough blocks around the city, people won’t have to travel to get to one,” he said. “It will help people do the walking they’re already doing, but give them enough space so they’re not too close together on the sidewalk.”
But local officials have resisted calls to open up neighborhood streets to pedestrians and cyclists.
Steven White, a Santa Monica resident who works for a transit software company, has been taking daily walks for exercise during the pandemic and frequently has to dart into the street to avoid coming close to other pedestrians on the narrow sidewalk. He has also noticed families using the streets to play sports and games because there are fewer drivers in his neighborhood.
But when a driver does come along, they drive much faster than they normally would because of the lack of traffic during the shutdown, White said. Speeding tickets were up 81% in March compared to the year prior, said Santa Monica Police Department Lt. Joseph Cortez.
Concerned about the lack of safe outdoor space for residents, White emailed the city in early April to ask if transportation staff could put up signs, barriers or make street lights flash red to indicate that drivers should slow down on or avoid certain neighborhood streets.
The plan could be executed in a way that wouldn’t cut off access for emergency and delivery vehicles, White said.
“In my neighborhood, I’d put a single barrier on every street that says local traffic only,” he said. “Nobody has to stand there turning people away — people can drive down the street if they want or need to — but having a barrier does discourage use and make you more aware as a driver.”
White received a reply from SMPD saying his suggestions would “add to driver frustration in an already stressful time.” He doesn’t know if his email ever reached the transportation division.
“I was frustrated about the lack of concern in the response from (SMPD) where it was all about drivers,” he said. “Most of the people who live here aren’t driving right now — they’re trying to walk in their neighborhoods. What about their frustration?”
Cynthia Rose, director of cyclist coalition Santa Monica Spoke, said she asked City Council in early April to authorize the city’s transportation division to create a network of slow streets using input from residents and neighborhood organizations.
“Understandably, (City Council) was very distracted in the midst of this crisis, but other cities have been moving in this direction for quite some time,” Rose said. “We need people to get out, get fresh air and be healthy, and the longer this goes on the more important that is.”
While city officials have considered the idea, they worry that converting some streets for recreational use would draw visitors from across the region.
“Closing streets for pedestrian access is appealing while our beach remains closed,” said city spokesperson Constance Farrell. “During Safer at Home orders, this could inadvertently increase Santa Monica’s attractiveness as a regional destination. We can’t risk a situation like we saw in other Southern California cities last weekend.”
Rose said she thinks officials in Santa Monica and Los Angeles, which is working on a slow streets plan, are wary of restricting traffic only in certain areas and believe recreational streets must be spread throughout Los Angeles County.
“Santa Monica, understandably, is afraid to be the first or the only place for safe streets in L.A.,” Rose said. “People are desperate and will be drawn to those areas unless they are dispersed equitably in all neighborhoods.”