Traffic congestion. The possibility of it worsening is a major objection raised by WEHOville readers to proposed new residential and commercial developments in West Hollywood. Traffic congestion also has been a minor undercurrent of concern in the debate over improving pedestrian safety in the crosswalks on Santa Monica Boulevard. It’s a subject that the City Council has tackled, with Mayor John D’Amico and Councilmember John Duran making an unsuccessful appeal in February for the Council to authorize traffic officers at major Santa Monica intersections during rush hour to speed traffic flow.
With nearly 1,500 new housing units and more than half a million square feet of retail space likely to open in and near West Hollywood in the next two years, there’s no question that WeHo will be home to more cars. But what if the solution to West Hollywood’s traffic problem isn’t reducing traffic congestion but increasing it?
In a sense that’s what the city did in 2001 when it embarked on a two-year plan to remake Santa Monica Boulevard, its major traffic artery and a thoroughfare for commuters moving from east of West Hollywood to communities on the Westside.
That $34 million project had a goal of making Santa Monica Boulevard function as a “central park” as well as a boulevard. It caused agita among some business owners and residents who said it would increase traffic congestion. A newly released edition of “Urban Design for an Urban Century” by Lance Jay Brown and David Dixon says that is exactly what the project did, and with a very positive result. (You can read an excerpt of Brown and Dixon’s story of Santa Monica Boulevard here.)
In their book, Brown and Dixon trace the evolution of the concept that public streets exist for more than moving vehicles. In 1971, they note, the Oregon state legislature passed a measure that required local governments to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians on new and renovated streets. Over the next three decades, they write, there was a growing movement across the country to make public streets accommodate bicyclists, pedestrians and public transit as well as cars.
“Most recently, the paradigm for urban streets has added a new dimension: support for community gatherings traditionally associated with urban squares or public parks,” they write. The authors cite Donald Appleyard, whose 1981 “Liveable Streets” “made the case that planning and designing streets to reduce traffic and invite more pedestrian activity significantly enhanced neighborhood livability and sense of community.”
The changes cited by Appleyard include reducing the width of streets, adding curbside parking and creating intersections with a greater emphasis on pedestrians than cars.
Brown and Dixon call out the redevelopment of West Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard as a major step in the national movement to rethink the purpose of public streets. A part of the famed Route 66, the 2.8 mile stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard between La Brea Avenue and Doheny Drive was dilapidated when the City of West Hollywood was incorporated in 1984. It was owned by the state, which ceded it to the city in 1999. That’s when the redevelopment project began, which involved removing abandoned train tracks in the median and burying utility lines.
Two years later, the Santa Monica Boulevard we know today was born, with 1,200 trees along its 38 blocks, public art installations, wider sidewalks, more sidewalk cafes and a ban on surface parking in front of new commercial buildings. And then there was the addition of pedestrian crosswalks in the middle of some longer blocks that called out West Hollywood’s goal of becoming a walkable urban village rather than just a spot on an East/West thoroughfare.
The city also implemented a rigorous cleaning and maintenance program and hasn’t been hesitant to shut down major parts of Santa Monica Boulevard for events such as the LA Pride parade and Halloween Carnaval.
Brown and Dixon note that West Hollywood was a trendsetter in what became known as the “complete streets” movement. They cite Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s decision to implement some of the same policies used in West Hollywood.
“In effect, the city declared a break with policies designed to maximize street capacity for motor vehicles, policies in place since the advent of widespread auto ownership in the late 1920s,” they write of Boston. “Henceforth, it would plan and redesign streets to improve their ability to fulfill multiple roles—only one of which would be carrying traffic.”
“Meanwhile, in 2009 the New York City Department of Transportation, led by Janette Sadik-Khan, took West Hollywood’s plan for a Santa Monica Boulevard a step further. Facing traffic congestion and pedestrian gridlock in Times Square. The city launched ‘Broadway Boulevard,’ an intervention that claimed varying portions of the traffic right-of-way exclusively for pedestrians and created a sort of linear park dotted with tables, umbrellas, chairs, food vendors, performers, temporary public art, bike lanes and other amenities.”
The result, according to a New York City study, was a 35 percent decline in injuries to pedestrians and an increase in bike ridership and pedestrian traffic, which benefitted local businesses.
West Hollywood should continue to be a trendsetter by making driving more difficult rather than easier, an admittedly contrarian notion for improving our quality of life.
Some will argue that we aren’t New York City or Boston, both of which have more public transportation resources. Others will argue that making it more difficult for cars to move along the city’s major East/West thoroughfares will hurt local business.
But consider that West Hollywood does have public transportation options such as the free CityLine and Metro buses. The problem is that few residents actually use them. The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reports that only six percent of West Hollywood workers use the bus or city shuttle — the same low percentage as walk to work in WeHo, one of the most walkable cities in America. Seventy-one percent of us drive to work by ourselves, with many of us glued to our mobile phones while stuck in rush hour traffic.
Yes, a bus trip usually takes more time. The American Community Survey reports that the average bus trip for a West Hollywood resident is 51 minutes while the average driver gets to work in 30. That, of course, is why many cities create rush-hour bus lanes, making it faster for those who use public transit to get to work while simultaneously slowing down automobile traffic. That tactic has been proven to convince drivers to leave their cars at home and take the bus instead.
Consider also that it’s very rare to see bicyclists on WeHo’s streets (they’re a more common sight in New York City, where the car traffic is more dense.) Anecdotal evidence suggests that a major reason for the paucity of bicycles on WeHo streets is the lack of dedicated bicycle lanes. By getting really radical and reserving one eastbound and one westbound lane of Santa Monica Boulevard for buses and bicycles at rush hour, West Hollywood would make bike riding easier and driving more difficult.
The argument that making driving (and parking) more difficult will hurt local business also doesn’t have much standing. The bulk of traffic on West Hollywood’s East/West corridors is composed of drivers for whom our city is merely an obstacle on the way to someplace else. Let them drive their Range Rovers and other ridiculously large vehicles down Wilshire Boulevard. Making West Hollywood a really pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly urban village is certain to increase the number of people who visit us to eat, shop and play.