Horace Mann on Wednesday evening hosted a Parent-Teacher Association forum intended to jump start a community conversation about making city streets near our schools safer and more bike-friendly for children and parents. The forum was organized by current Horace Mann PTA President Jeffrey Grijalva and past President Howard Goldstein after talking with Horace Mann parent Jeffrey Courion (who also moderated).
The need for our streets to safely accommodate all road users is clear from a health perspective: health authorities find that children in our region are less active and suffer higher rates of obesity than ever, mirroring the national trend. Cycling presents a golden opportunity to get our kids active again. Indeed our city is well-suited to local trips by bicycle, for example, and riding to school in lieu of driving is one way of incorporating physical activity into the day of many children.
Courion is a longtime cyclist who laments that our city is not taking the steps to raise public awareness and install infrastructure to make streets safe. He’s an advocate for building community the old-fashioned way: walking streets and running errands by bicycle. Cycling lends itself to generating community, he said. “I bicycle in Beverly Hills and people stop to chat. We have a village feeling…a sense of community where people park their bikes and share tea and coffee.” Schools are centers of community too, he added.
Courion urged the 25 attending parents and officials to build on our village feel and available public transit with greater mobility options like cycling, which he called a great community-building tool. “This is an opportunity to have a civil conversation about the community in which we live.”
The Need for Multimodal Mobility
Multimodal mobility (planning jargon for numerous transportation options) is the key, and cycling is an often-overlooked option for short trips. Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) Executive Director Jennifer Klausner urged the city to be more progressive in providing those options. "We're seeing more and more cities are developing bicycle plans and filtering ideas about safety and bikability into their general plans," she said. "And we’re seeing infrastructure rolled out at a rate like I have not seen in my lifetime. We’re happy that you want to be part of that too.”
LACBC Policy Director Eric Bruins got down to basics with “bike planning 101.” Cycling is not only about recreation and transportation, he said, but about the environment and health too. “Los Angeles County spends $12 billion every year to address obesity-related illnesses that are entirely preventable. Barriers to walking and biking are literally making us sick.” Bruins then described how multimodal mobility options encourage a shift for local trips from the car to other modes. “The land use here really supports walking and biking,” he said. “If we make the streets reflect that we’ll have more people walking and biking to a greater degree.”
City of Beverly Hills policy documents like our environmental sustainability plan (2009) call for expanding multimodal mobility options and even suggests that residents and visitors walk and ride a bicycle whenever possible. Among the “Simple Things That You Can Do to Encourage a More Livable City” plan is to organize errands to avoid multiple trips.
Looking ahead, our sustainability plan says, “It is important to encourage development that limits or reduces energy consumption, construction waste, air pollution and the amount of time people spend in vehicles.” Reduced traffic congestion is identified as a key goal of the sustainability push. Beverly Hills may regard itself as a “green city,” but few of the goals of the plan have been reached.
Safe Streets for Bicycle Travel
Councilman John Mirisch is a supporter of a bike- and pedestrian-friendly city. He is the elected official taking the lead on a revitalized Southeast Beverly Hills, for which no bike routes are currently proposed. “Having bike racks throughout the city is a no-brainer – it’s not expensive, it’s something that we can do right away, and it suggests to people that this is a bike-friendly city,” Mirisch said. “Even entering the city, we could have signs that say, ‘Welcome to Beverly Hills – we share the road with cyclists.’” The councilman supported the Pilot Bike Route program when it came before City Council and he supports safer streets for the Southeast area around Horace Mann.
“Pedestrian-friendliness and bike-friendliness are two important goals,” he said. “It is a stated goal of the Southeast task force.” Robertson Boulevard might be put on a “road diet” (a concept presented by Bruins wherein the number of travel lanes are reduced) in order to calm traffic. “We’re looking at all options.”
Transportation planner Martha Eros presented an update on the city’s efforts to introduce the first-ever bike improvements in Beverly Hills. Last month, the council approved the Pilot Program to experiment with pavement markings along two selected routes. She also described the city’s coming bicycle rack program, which will include some new racks in commercial areas and sidewalk racks upon request by business owners.
Some give-and-take after the presentations suggested how far we are from our sustainability plan’s goal for true multimodal mobility. Parents and school officials questioned whether the Pilot is sufficient to address evident road safety issues.
In conversation we identified several barriers to getting kids to ride to school. Parents see that our streets are congested, that cyclists remain unprotected, and are understandably reluctant to send kids to school by bike. Public awareness is low about the need to share the road with cyclists. And streets engineered for safety and access by all road users as prescribed by Safe Routes to School are simply not to be found in Beverly Hills.
We need greater popular interest and greater political will to tackle that challenge, attendees agreed, as well as city transportation officials more sensitive to the need. (At my own site, Better Bike, I've called for such improvements for nearly three years to little effect.)
Horace Mann Principal Steven Kessler recalled his long tenure at the school and how so many campus bicycle racks were once filled to capacity. He noted that 80 percent of students then could run a mile without stopping to walk. Today, however, the few bike racks that do remain largely go unused as parents choose to drive. But the impact of that choice is clear, he said: today 80 percent of his students can’t run that mile; instead they need to walk it.
Is Principal Kessler the exception? Beverly Hills Unified officials have not indicated an interest in making our five schools the community centers that they could be, or safely accessible by bicycle. Today, no bicycle lanes connect our schools, few racks grace them, and cycling is no part of any physical education or mobility education program.
This forum marks the beginning of what is likely to be an ongoing community-wide conversation about making our streets safe for cycling. That discussion is long overdue in Beverly Hills. In the face of city policymaker inaction, our schools are perhaps our last opportunity to achieve the vision for healthy communities expressed in our plans. If we are to match the bike-friendliness of other cities, we will have to play catch-up with the bike lanes, signage and programs that make cycling safe and attractive, both to school kids and their parents.