As the pandemic transformed the way individuals navigate their lives, so did it transform how residents navigate their City — bus, bike, car, and traffic accident patterns were all flipped on their head in the past year and a Daily Press analysis of transit trends yielded several interesting insights.
The City became much safer
As residents worked, dined, and studied from home for many months, Santa Monica became eerily reminiscent of the sleepy beach town it hasn’t been for many decades. Alongside the welcome decrease in traffic came another lesser known benefit: far less road accidents.
According to data provided by the SMPD, the number of total collisions in Santa Monica decreased by 50 percent during the pandemic compared to the prior year — going from 1302 to 658. Both injury and fatal collisions were cut in half and collisions involving pedestrians decreased by over 60 percent.
DUI arrests dropped even more precipitously, falling by over 70 percent from 256 to 71, likely due to the closure of the local nightlife scene.
While quieter streets led many positive trends, it did have one notable negative impact: increased speeding, as citations were up by 142 percent in the past year. Overall the safety benefits of less cars and drunk drivers on the road outweighed the dangers from increased speeding and only two fatal car collisions were recorded during the pandemic.
The City reimagined the use of street space for travel and leisure
As the need for travel decreased and the need for outdoor space grew, residents and the City reimagined how street space could be used for dining, shopping, safe socialization, and fitness.
“Twenty-two percent of Santa Monica’s land area is streets and these are public spaces,” said City Chief Mobility Officer, Francie Stefan. “I think that we’ve seen a really interesting cultural shift in people using the streets more, to be safe and maintain social distancing, but still have limited social contact and other kinds of activities they need for their livelihood.”
Main Street is a prime example of reutilized street space.
With rows of k-rails hand painted by local artists sectioning off space on both sides of the road, this retail strip became Santa Monica’s outdoor dining capital. Exercise centers like Circuit Works have been able to run classes in the street, while clothing stores have taken advantage of outdoor space to display their wares and attract customers.
Although there was fear that removing parking spaces would drive down visitors to Main Street, City data suggests that the opposite occurred.
“There was a 41 percent reduction in parking lot usage Citywide, however, Main Street had only a 24 percent decrease overall,” said Stefan. “The lower reduction for Main Street indicates the Al Fresco project successfully helped mitigate the reduction of business activity during the pandemic.”
Given the success of the Al Fresco program, both the City and individual businesses are examining ways to make outdoor dining a long-term fixture in Santa Monica.
Residential streets also saw a shift in use as families increasingly took to biking and outdoor games as Covid safe outlets. Once restrictions on gatherings are lifted, the City seeks to revitalize its ‘block party program’, which allows neighbors to rent a-frame barriers to close their streets to traffic for limited periods of time.
‘Green’ transit grew and supported essential workers
While individual car traffic has been down over the course of the last year, the use of Big Blue Bus remained relatively high as it is a key means of transportation for essential workers. There was also a spike in bike sales and roller-blading and the City rolled out 18 miles of new protected bike lanes.
In order to provide guaranteed transport for essential workers Big Blue Bus waived fares for 11 months. It was able to offset this with over $24 million in CARES Act federal funding, which also covered fleet maintenance and PPE purchases.
BBB is operating at 75 percent of pre-pandemic services levels, providing as many as 16,000 daily weekday trips for essential frontline workers in the healthcare and service industries.
“The BBB team has done an outstanding job of providing continuity of service to our community and customers by delivering safe, sustainable, reliable, and effective transportation services in extremely challenging times,” said Ed King, director of Transit Services.
Chief Mobility Officer Francie Stefan said she hopes many of the green travel habits — like biking, walking, or roller-blading — that people picked up during the pandemic will become a permanent part of their daily routines.
As more sectors of the economy reopen, traffic has partially rebounded in Santa Monica and greater Los Angeles. However, with many companies considering maintaining part or full-time remote work opportunities, there may be long-term decreases to rush hour traffic and pollution.