Santa Monica Lookout
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The Art of Orchestrating Downtown Santa Monica Traffic

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

November 11, 2013 -- With major construction underway in and around Santa Monica’s increasingly popular central business district, City and Downtown officials are working hard to keep the steady flow of pedestrians, bikes and cars moving smoothly.

That’s a major challenge when the number of people flocking to the heart of the city can lead to long waits at traffic lights, conflicts between drivers and pedestrians and traffic back-ups at key intersections, all of which can be frustrating.

“Circulation and parking in Downtown is one of our biggest challenges,” said Kathleen Rawson, CEO of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (DTSM). “Downtown is certainly popular. That's the good news.”

In order to tackle the complicated and nuanced problem of managing Downtown traffic, Santa Monica is adopting a three-pronged approach, said Sam Morrissey, City Hall's principal transportation engineer.

That approach focuses on making Downtown less confusing for drivers, more efficient for pedestrians and bicyclists and, for those who don't follow the rules, facing up to the consequences.

“Some of the biggest causes of delay and congestion in Downtown Santa Monica are vehicles disobeying signs and traffic signals,” said Morrissey.

That was the message he conveyed to the Downtown Board's Parking Access and Circulation Committee when he presented the City’s traffic strategy in August.

The presentation included pictures of drivers who tried to make left turns after the lights had changed and whose vehicles ended up jutting deep into the middle of the intersections, blocking crosswalks and opposing traffic, all because they didn't want to wait for another light cycle to make their turns.

While Morrissey acknowledges that most of these drivers are “willfully disobeying the rules,” he's still optimistic about changing their behavior.

“Maybe they are confused about the implications of what they are doing,” he said, adding that the City, in concert with the police department, is trying to help make it clearer for drivers to understand that blocking one intersection for a whole light cycle can cause a ripple effect throughout Downtown.

Although Morrissey isn't enthusiastic about stepping up punitive measures — he fears it could add to frustrations — he acknowledges that it may be necessary. “We are exploring ways to issue citations more efficiently with the police department,” he said.

The problems are sometimes caused by pedestrians. “It's very difficult in some locations,” said Rob York, who has been a consultant for Downtown since 1991. “You lose a whole light sometimes because there are so many pedestrians.”

To address that issue, officials are looking at adding pedestrian-only crossings, which would stop traffic in all directions once every signal cycle at major intersections.
Rawson likes the idea, which she believes would eliminate many of the conflicts between drivers trying to turn and pedestrians crossing the street.

But with Downtown growing more popular every year, Rawson believes now is the time to implement some long-term solutions. “The work that the City has been doing to help mitigate the congestion has been good, but there will need to be some investment done to help in the long term,” Rawson said.

One major tool the City has in its pocket is the pending Downtown Specific Plan, a comprehensive planning document that will outline building height and density limits from block to block, the future width of sidewalks, parking zones and other important elements that, when combined, could have a dramatic impact on how traffic flows in Downtown.

“As part of the Downtown Specific Plan process, we are contemplating placing pedestrian-only crossings everywhere in Downtown,” Morrissey said, adding that the plan won't be approved until spring of 2014 at the earliest.

Traffic officials are also exploring the possibility of timing the cycles of Downtown's signal lights to better accommodate a pedestrian-paced flow of traffic, Morrissey said.

That means timing signals to change based on an average traffic flow of around three miles per hour.

Officials are also looking at strategies that would reduce the number of cars circling as they look for parking. “We need to tell people where to go,” Rawson said.

There is a smart phone app for that. The Santa Monica ParkMe app allows drivers to find the location, cost and availability of parking in the immediate area in real time.

But Rawson cautioned that drivers shouldn't be on their phones while trying to navigate Downtown. She is an advocate of placing real-time signs at strategic locations that tell drivers where to go without requiring them to take their eyes off the road.

The City plans to improve signage Downtown based on a program it is launching at beach parking lots, Morrissey said. The signage, he noted, should be easy and quick to understand. Signs that display a dizzying amount of information can be overwhelming for drivers already stressed out by traffic.

“When we talk about people disobeying the rules, a lot of that is with parking,” Morrissey said. “It's confusing what they can and can't do on the street.”

Some of Downtown's parking issues should be alleviated when, at the end of the year, Parking Structure 6 comes back on line with enough spaces for 748 cars, 90 bikes and 19 motorcycles -- double the number of spaces it had before it was demolished last year.
Real time information is vital to help visitors navigate Downtown while major construction projects are underway, York said. “Obviously the construction is a temporary condition, but we're going to have construction for many, many years.”

Construction projects include the ongoing work on the Expo Light Rail line, the pending $10.7 million Colorado Esplanade project, a number of proposed hotel redevelopments and the complete overhaul of the California Incline, Santa Monica's connection to Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) scheduled to begin next year.

The City already has launched a campaign to inform drivers of alternate routes that connect to PCH. The primary detour takes drivers down Ocean Avenue to Moomat Ahiko Way, while the secondary detour leads drivers down Lincoln Boulevard. “We want to make sure that the message goes out far and wide,” Morrissey said.

With so many moving parts, coordinating the flow of pedestrians, cars and bikes through Downtown is akin to tuning an instrument — or an orchestra — but Morrissey says his team is up to the task.

“There are a lot of different things that we are trying to do,” he said, adding that many of them could end up codified in the Downtown Specific Plan.

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