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Santa Monica City Council Calls for Safe Streets “Czar”  

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May 11, 2017 -- Rattled by five pedestrian fatalities in as many weeks, the Santa Monica City Council Tuesday ordered faster action on a sweeping re-design of city streets meant to embrace pedestrians and bicyclists and chase vehicles off car-clogged streets.

The Council also called for the creation of a “czar” to oversee its struggling "Vision Zero," a policy adopted in February of 2016 to end all fatalities and major injuries among users of City streets in coming decades.

“We will become an example of what even a Southern California city can do to move into the future,” said Council Member Kevin McKeown.

In its unanimous vote, the council told City staff to hasten and possibly expand its plans for fashioning streets to better and more safely suit the walking and bicycling populations it hopes will be a major presence in the years to come.

City Manager Rick Cole warned the task would be difficult and potentially unpalatable in a Southern California culture still mostly attached to automobiles -- and especially in car-centric L. A., which abuts the seaside city on three sides.

“The reality is that making our streets safer requires long-term and politically unpopular decisions,” he said.

Cost was not a particularly big issue for the council on Tuesday, although the price tag for the City’s Pedestrian Action Plan alone is already an estimated $187 million.

Dogged by complaints from activists about its spending habits, the council is nonetheless blessed with a biennial budget that tops $1 billion, and a populace that is mostly well-off financially.

“I don’t want to create a situation where we think if only we’d spent a little more money, we could have avoided a tragedy,” said Council Member Gleam Davis.

She proposed creating the City position of a “Vision Zero czar,” an idea that had been circulating among bicycling organizations and others who had experienced the perils of trying to walk or bike City streets, or threatened to stop doing so until the City acts.

The position would act as an overseer with a "holistic” view of the numerous agencies whose work involves City streets, from City planners and police to public works and the schools, she said.

Like the other parts of the motion approved Tuesday, the position was handed off to Cole for refinement. It is likely to re-emerge with details in coming weeks as the City starts wrangling over a new budget.

Mayor Ted Winterer suggested the City look into special property tax assessments for safety-related street improvements; McKeown said moving forward might be swifter if some changes are made as pilot projects.

Santa Monica’s Pedestrian Action Plan, adopted last February (along with the Vision Zero policy), makes more than 100 changes. They include improving crosswalks, adding curb extensions, widening sidewalks, adding signals and other amenities.

Capital projects are staggered over 5-year, 10-year, or 15-year time periods.
Short-term projects include new curb ramps, signal timing changes, pavement markings along paths to schools, sidewalks leading to Bergamot Station, and pedestrian scrambles in Downtown.

Further out, the plan includes several greenways, more lighting, reconfigured intersections, new median refuge islands, relocated transit stops and a new streetscape plan for Santa Monica Boulevard.

A separate plan to make Santa Monica bicycle friendly (which relies heavily on painted bike lanes) was adopted in 2011. It will be updated now.

Officials say they are making encouraging inroads, although they acknowledge progress is far from easy. In fact, most Santa Monica residents still use personal vehicles for commuting and even for traveling just a few short blocks, a recent study by independent consultants found.

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