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City Council Addresses Monterey Road Improvement Challenges

ADA-compliant sidewalk issues trump bike-friendly road diet for now.

Monterey Road before rush hour. Photo credit: Ajay Singh
Monterey Road before rush hour. Photo credit: Ajay Singh

More than two and a half years after South Pasadena began grappling with the knotty issue of making the sidewalks along Monterey Road compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the City Council agreed earlier this month to take a step in that direction.

In its most recent meeting on Sept. 4, the City Council unanimously voted, 5-0, to direct the Department of Public Works to assess what it would take to relocate or work around as many as 67 utility obstructions along the sidewalks of the Monterey corridor from Fair Oaks to the Pasadena Avenue railway crossing.

Relocating the utility obstructions would cost around $900,000, Deputy Public Works Director Shin Furukawa told the council.

For nearly two hours, the City Council also discussed an advisory group’s design recommendations for Monterey. Called the Monterey Road Citizens’ Design Advisory Committee, the 11-member group was formed in 2012 and included civil engineers, traffic engineers, architects, bicyclists, business owners and residents, according to a brief presentation by Furukawa.

According to Furukawa, the committee met thrice in 2012, with facilitation from Steven Brown, a consultant with Fehr & Peers, a transportation planning and traffic engineering company that has an office in Santa Monica.

Committee’s Recommendations

The design advisory committee has outlined four key priorities for improving the Fair Oaks-to-Pasadena Avenue section of Monterey Road, Brown told the council. The priorities are:

1. Create relatively wide sidewalks, free of obstructions, measuring four feet to six feet.

2. Install ADA-compliant curb ramps.

3. Install on-street bicycle lanes, which would still leave room for two through lanes on each side of the corridor.

4. Install coordinated traffic signals to streamline and speed up traffic.

Are Road Diets the Answer?

The issue of subjecting Monterey to a road diet—reducing traffic lanes at the expense of bicycle lanes—figured prominently in the council’s discussions, as it has in the past.

The national experience is that road diets work well on thoroughfares that have a daily traffic volume of 20,000 vehicles to 25,000 vehicles, Brown said, pointing out that Monterey has a little less than 21,000 vehicles, according to July 2012 figures.

“Once you get above 25,000 [vehicles], it becomes tenuous” to implement a road diet, Brown cautioned, explaining that the committee took that factor into account.

The committee had an “extended discussion” about a potential road diet for Monterey that would result in one traffic lane in each direction, plus a bicycle lane and on-street parking wherever possible, Brown said.

“But the concern was whether such a treatment would create too much congestion,” Brown said, explaining why the committee opted not to recommend a road diet. A preliminary technical study suggested “it was a close call as to whether a road diet would be functional,” the consultant said, even though the study was not a “sufficiently detailed technical analysis to make a definitive conclusion” about the matter either way.

The committee’s final recommendations, said Brown, were to create continuous sidewalks measuring a minimum of four feet on both sides of Monterey; add a bike lane in each direction; reduce auto speeds; coordinate traffic signals; install higher-visibility sidewalks. 

“The way this could be accomplished would be to limit parking to high-demand locations rather than [allowing] continuous parking as it exists today,” Brown said. (High-demand locations include multifamily homes and apartments.)

With the help of a PowerPoint demonstration, Brown outlined the following major recommendations made by the committee:

• Install left-turn lanes at key intersections.

• Widen the intersections at Freemont and Meridian for a total of eight feet.

• Move utility obstructions to the edge of the sidewalk, and in some cases extend the curb modestly into Monterey.

• As a last resort, relocate impediments into approximately five feet of city-owned land at the end of sidewalks, although the committee acknowledged that this would be a controversial move, given that historically residents have treated the strip of city land at the end of the sidewalks as theirs.

City staff recommends that if the council wishes to consider a road diet, “then we would suggest a more detailed traffic study regarding [the road diet’s] feasibility,” Brown said. The council may also want to “revisit the East-West bicycle system as defined in the Bicycle Master Plan to determine if El Centro or Mission are better options than Monterey,” Brown said.

Finally, said Brown toward the end of his presentation, if the council wants to pursue the committee’s recommendations, then city staff can apply for state and federal grants, including from Caltrans and Metro, to fund the design and construction of projects. Any such grants would likely require the city to raise matching funds, Brown added. 

Public Concerns

During the public comments period, Brandy Guenveur, a resident of Meridian Avenue, said that losing any parking on Meridian would be detrimental to the interests of residents on her street. “We have share driveways in older homes and we do have to park outside,” she said, adding: “We are impacted by the businesses on Meridian and what not.”

Guenveur also recommended that the city conduct a bicycle traffic study on Monterey. “It’s a busy, noisy street [and] Mission might be a better option,” she said. “Some of our bikers are kinda rude—especially the ones who wear flip-flops and no helmets,” she added, prompting Councilmember Michael Cacciotti, an avid bicyclist, to laugh. 

Beverly Biber, a resident of Oak Hill Avenue, said that of all the streets cited in the Monterey Road Citizens’ Design Advisory Committee report in connection with road diets, “none of them have a Gold Line intersection like we do on the west end of Monterey Road.” 

Added Biber: “That makes it really unique in terms of the congestion that is already created there. Many times at 5 o’clock in the evening, two lanes of traffic are backed up to Indiana Avenue.”

Road Diets and Traffic Nightmares

Councilmember Philip Putnam also expressed skepticism about road diets. A road diet in downtown L.A. on Mission and Broadway is a “traffic nightmare” during rush hour, not to mention that “I’ve never seen one bicycle” on Mission while the street is busy, Putnam said. “You see plenty of cars—and we’ve got a lot of e-mails on this [issue] about taking away traffic lanes.”

Added Putnam: “Spending $15,000 on studying a road diet when it seems so counterintuitive doesn’t seem like a good use of public funds to me.”

Eliminating a lane on Monterey near Diamond would create a traffic nightmare, Putnam said. “You’ve got kids walking to the high school and cars can’t turn left or right onto Diamond, where parents go to park on their way to the high school,” the councilmember said, adding: “A road diet would have to be considered in sections” as opposed to uniformly along the stretch of Monterey between Fair Oaks and Pasadena Avenue.

Mayor Richard Schneider agreed that the same point was brought up in the committee meetings he attended. “The problem of high school traffic was discussed and it is a difficult problem,” he said.

Both the city’s Public Works Commission and the Freeway and Transportation Commission got a cursory review of the Monterey Road Citizen’s Design Advisory Committee report and both agreed that the idea of a road diet “would have to be studied further before they could say Yes or No,” Public Works Deputy Director Furukawa told the council.

Micro Simulation

Schneider said that one of the recommendations in the Monterey Road committee report is to conduct a computerized micro simulation of what traffic conditions would be like if a road diet were to be implemented. But the city council agreed that whether or not a micro simulation makes sense is an issue that it will tackle after an assessment is made of the utility obstacles on Monterey that are keeping the street from being ADA compliant. 

In response to suggestions that road diets might be more practical on Mission or El Centro, Schneider, also an ardent biker, countered that the whole idea of bike lanes is to encourage intercity bicycle travel on major rather than relatively minor streets.

Bicycling on Mission may be fine for local people who know their way around, “but people who are traveling through the city want to stay on the main road,” Schneider argued, adding that one of the ways of protecting bikers from accidents is to have bike lanes sandwiched between the curb on one side and the parking lane on the other.

Ron Rosen September 18, 2013 at 09:30 AM
I have many of the concerns about a road diet as were expressed in the article. There is already gridlock at Monterey and Meridian during rush hour, and the other day traffic was backed up from the rail crossing a half block EAST of Indiana. (If there must be a road diet, it should be implemented with paint, not concrete, so that it can be changed if it doesn't work.)
Betty Jean September 18, 2013 at 11:16 AM
Yes, road diets are the answer for South Pasadena: The City of Traffic. *rolleyes*
Joanne Nuckols September 18, 2013 at 11:31 AM
A piece-meal approach, of looking at only the one issue of ADA, will lead to another 30 years of a badly designed widening of Monterey Road that the city has to live with. We should be looking at all the possibilities, with the whole community involved, to make this major thorough fare through town a great street, not just a roadway for cars to speed through town. It is not pedestrian friendly, it's not ADA friendly, it's not bike friendly...only car friendly. The time to change that is now!!!

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