New 17th street bike lanes spark community debate


While some see the pushback to the project as a clear cut case of resistance to changes to car-centric streets in favor of bike infrastructure, residents of 17th street say that the reality is far more complex and that the City has failed to communicate throughout the process and address their concerns

When the Santa Monica City Council approved the final design for protected bike lanes to be built along 17th Street at their July 24, 2018 meeting, Carter Rubin, issued a warning.

“You can do as much outreach as physically possible and beyond and as soon as it’s live and on the ground you will have hundreds of people calling… confused about how they’re supposed to use it and what the rationale was and lots of questions.”

A former senior program manager for the City of Los Angeles Greater Street Initiative, he said he had learned this lesson from previous projects.

“So I would encourage staff and council to be ready for that and to come up with innovative and engaging solutions to educate the public on how to use this,” he said.

Now, nearly five years later, the project – which relocated existing bike lanes on 17th Street to be between the curb of the sidewalk and parked cars, separated by a concrete barrier – is nearly complete and many residents are indeed confused and upset.

Posts about the project have popped up across local social media groups and a petition with a list of complaints about the lanes has received over 900 signatures.

While some see the pushback to the project as a clear cut case of resistance to changes to car-centric streets in favor of bike infrastructure, residents of 17th Street say that the reality is far more complex and that the City has failed to communicate throughout the process and address their concerns.

Eli Levitansky, who lives in the area and works on 17th Street said his concerns, which he said are shared by many of his neighbors, are not in opposition to having bike lanes, but rather the way the design has impacted the street.

“My opinions and feelings are not against bike lanes, we had bike lanes and it was very good,” he said. “The problem here is that they completely redesigned the streets with cement barriers.”

He and other residents said that the new design has created accessibility issues for people with disabilities and the elderly, made it more difficult for emergency vehicles to navigate, reduced the number of parking spaces, and increased traffic congestion.

Santa Monica Mobility Manager Jason Kligier acknowledged residents’ frustrations but said there had been significant positive momentum and outreach around the project when it was originally conceived.

“This is bubbling up in the community and many people are saying that they didn’t know about it, so clearly we could do better,” he said. “However, I do think it’s important to review all of the things that we did do, because we did a lot and there were quite a few touch points with the community about this project.”

He said this included knocking on doors, hosting public events and inviting the community to meetings and workshops throughout the planning process over several years.

However, the project was delayed several years. There were delays caused by some of the partner agencies, like Metro, or in receipt of promised funding from the state. The COVID-19 pandemic stymied construction due to government shutdowns and the massive reduction in city staff due to Covid-caused budget cuts also extended deadlines. The recent rainy season impacted construction as the work required streets to be completely dry before work could begin.

Residents said that there was little communication in the interim which left them feeling caught off guard when construction started.

Residents, including those with disabled family members, said they didn not remember the initial outreach efforts and that they only became fully aware of the scope of the project when they received a fliers about the immediate start of construction.

One family learned the handicapped parking spot in front of their house was going to be removed for the new bike lane and there was nothing that could be done to alter the project

at that point.

With parked cars now separated from the sidewalk by the bike lane and concrete barrier, disabled residents said it is difficult to get into cars without the dedicated spot in front of their homes. A neighbor whose son is in a wheelchair has had similar challenges because there is no longer space for the ramp he previously used to get into vehicles.

Jacqui Schwartz, the acting principal transportation planner for the City, said they have been working with residents to find solutions in these cases by altering the curb and adding accessible “blue zone” parking areas.

“We worked with a resident to figure out a solution…so instead of installing the concrete curb element, we switched it to plastic bollards so that there were gaps spaced out between where they parked their car and exit the vehicle,” she said. “We’re also adding another blue zone at a new location where there wasn’t one before near the intersection of 17th and Broadway.”

Rubin, who spoke at the 2018 meeting about the project, is now the senior transportation lead for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that while he thinks it is important for the City to take issues like this into account and find ways to address them, from his experience on other bike lane projects, some of the general dissatisfaction is a matter of residents needing time to adjust to the new layout.

“I think it’s really natural for people to experience a change in our community – especially something like this, where we don’t really have a lot of local examples of protected bike lanes like this – I think it’s very normal that in the community there are some initial questions and concerns and reactions,” he said.

Ultimately, he said he thinks the lanes will serve as a benefit to the city and that the design will make the street safer.

“This is sort of the gold standard for the kind of bike infrastructure that you need to build to really protect the people who do ride and encourage new riders,” he said. “I think the evidence is that these projects work, they make the streets safer, they encourage more riders, especially when they’re built as a network, which is really what is happening in Santa Monica.”

Cynthia Rose, director of the non-profit bike advocacy group Santa Monica Spoke, has been a staunch supporter and advocate for the project since its inception, citing public health and environmental benefits.

“This is a system level change connected to the work of transportation justice and climate change,” she said. “The more options that we can give people to get out of their cars if they’re able to, then the better chance we have at meeting our climate goals, meeting our sustainability goals, having a healthier and more active population and visitors.”

She said that while does not ride down 17th Street often, she now feels safer when she does than she did before.

Seventheenth Street resident Fred Darr said he bikes almost everyday and is a strong proponent for bike infrastructure, feels that the new lane design has actually made the street less safe for both bikes and cars because they are no longer able to see each other over the parked cars between them, which he said is especially a problem when cars cross the bike lane to turn into driveways or alleys and cannot tell if a bike is coming or vice versa.

“It’s really hard to see them,” he said. “I’ve almost been hit at least three times.”

He said he preferred the previous design of green-painted lanes running alongside cars and that he wished the City would have installed plastic bollards as was done on Broadway instead of the concrete curbs.

Kligeir said bollards are less permanent, can’t stop vehicle from entering the lane and easy to be removed or stolen.

Darr and other residents on the street said another safety issue they have is that the new lanes make it more difficult for emergency vehicles like firetrucks and ambulances to access buildings. He said the numerous convalescent and senior living homes on the street mean that there are multiple emergency calls a day.

He added that because they no longer have room to pull up to the curb they end up blocking an entire lane and cousin traffic.

Kligier said the police and fire departments tested whether the lanes would pose an issue for their vehicles by actually driving through mockups of the new lanes and no issues were flagged at that time.

He said the City plans to continue monitoring the situation and also to begin to collect data on the number of bikes, cars and other vehicles that use the street as well as collisions and other incidents.

As it stands today, both sides interpret incidents to support their cause as was the case when

a photo widely circulated on social media shows a car flipped on its side next to the concrete barrier of the bike lane.

While many commenters said the bike lane was the cause and that they will result in increased crashes, Kligier said it was actually due to another car running a red light and hitting the one that flipped and that no one was seriously injured. He added that he thinks the concrete barrier prevented any bikers from being hurt by the incident and said the City believes the new lanes will help decrease future traffic collisions.

“It was a driver who broke the law and did something unsafe that caused that crash,” he said. “When I look at that picture, I see that the facility is doing what it was intended to do and keep people safe from those dangerous situations.”

The City of Santa Monica has a plan to create a network of protected bike lanes throughout the City in coming years.

Even with the negative reception from some residents, Kligier said he still thinks it is a worthwhile and overall beneficial endeavor.

“With two thirds of greenhouse gas emissions in Santa Monica coming from the transportation sector, we really need to do something different than the status quo,” he said. “We need to radically change how we get around this community so that our planet will be here in future years.”

Levitansky said he thinks it is necessary to rethink the design before moving forward with installing additional concrete curb-protected lanes.

“The city council should recognize that the idea was a good idea in thought, but it’s not in reality and that has been shown both in practice and in the voices of the residents and the businesses, whether they be pedestrians, bicyclists, and and most importantly, handicapped, disabled individuals and the emergency personnel.”

He said that the City has gained valuable lessons from the 17th Street project that they will keep in mind going forward.

“We’ve learned from this project and we’ll do better next time,” he said.

Grace Adams is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University where she studied Spanish and journalism. She holds a Master’s degree in investigative journalism from City, University of London. She has experience...