Blocks from the boutiques of Rodeo Drive, Mark Elliot navigated his bicycle over the cracked asphalt of Santa Monica Boulevard, dodging nails, discarded tools and a few sewer grates. Ferraris and Maseratis whizzed by, nearly pinning the 49-year-old against a fence.
Beverly Hills, the California enclave that epitomizes the 90210 lifestyle of palm trees, al fresco dining and mansions hidden behind shrubs, can be hostile terrain for two-wheeled commuters. The city of 35,000 has resisted adding bike lanes to a park-lined stretch of its main east-west thoroughfare. It’s also suing to reroute a planned subway line. And its stretch of Wilshire Boulevard may end up being the longest on the most-traveled street in Los Angeles without rush-hour bus-only lanes.
“We’re a suburban mentality locked into an urban area,” said Elliot, a website designer who’s been living in and pedaling through Beverly Hills for 10 years. “Mass transit is an afterthought, and certainly bicycling is an afterthought. We think of pedestrians chiefly as a liability.”
What Elliot calls “parochial exceptionalism” has consequences outside Beverly Hills’ six square miles (15 square kilometers). Surrounded by L.A. on three sides, the city is one of 88 municipalities in Los Angeles County, which is home to 10 million people, 7.6 million vehicles and the nation’s worst traffic congestion. Its location gives Beverly Hills outsized power as the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and L.A. city leaders pursue a $40 billion program for subways, rapid buses, dedicated busways, light rail lines and bicycle lanes to move more people around without cars.
In 2008, county voters raised their sales tax by 0.5 cent for 30 years to pay for the transportation plan; the measure garnered more than 75 percent support in Beverly Hills. Civic leaders say they’re just looking out for their city, not trying to sabotage the regional vision their citizens support.
“There is no disagreement about the traffic problems that we all face together,” said Jacob Manaster, a former school-board president who is on Beverly Hills’ Traffic and Parking Commission. “There is a disagreement about the solutions that are available. The quality and heritage of this community will have to be preserved.”
Beverly Hills has earned a reputation for extravagance, with the median home selling for $3.1 million in April, compared with $460,000 countywide, according to DataQuick, a San Diego-based property-research company. Still, U.S. Census Bureau data show about 56 percent of residents rent and the median household income is $86,000.
“We’re a unique community and we want to stay that way,” said Robert Tanenbaum, a former mayor who serves as president of the Beverly Hills North Homeowners Association. “People spend a heck of a lot of money to buy a home here and they don’t want their privacy and safety intruded upon.”
The city rallied in the 1960s to block the proposed Beverly Hills Freeway, which was to have been part of a web of highways spanning the heart of the metro area. History vindicated those insurrectionists, Tanenbaum said, and he predicted opponents will be hailed for fighting a subway going under Beverly Hills High School and a plan to replace greenways with bikeways.
“Go ahead with your plans,” he said of regional transit planners. “Just don’t invade our city.”
In 2012, “No Subway Under BHHS” signs sprouted up after Metro’s board approved the subway route under the school, part of a regional extension from downtown L.A. that would include two stops in Beverly Hills, including one near Rodeo Drive.
The city and Beverly Hills Unified School District sued Metro to thwart the subway plan and appealed after a Superior Court judge ruled in Metro’s favor. Tunneling under the 87-year-old campus, whose graduates include director Rob Reiner and actress Angelina Jolie, could complicate efforts to put a parking garage under the school or take other measures to expand it, Manaster said.
“We only have one high school,” he said. “It’s a storied high school. The idea that a major accident could happen during construction has made and continues to make people nervous.”
Therese Kosterman, a spokeswoman for Beverly Hills, said the city backs an alternate subway route along Santa Monica Boulevard. Metro officials contend that would make the subway more vulnerable to earthquakes and would make it impossible to build a stop in Century City (355), a cluster of office and apartment buildings just west of Beverly Hills.
Since 2011, the school district has spent almost $4.1 million in legal fees to fight the project from a $334 million construction bond measure approved in 2008, according to annual audits and documents released by the district under a Public Records Act request. Superintendent Gary Woods didn’t respond to telephone calls and an e-mail message seeking comment on the dispute.
Dave Sotero, a spokesman for Metro, said in an e-mail that that the transportation agency is “confident that the court’s ruling will be upheld on appeal.”
The city hasn’t been faulted for the lack of bus-only lanes on its part of Wilshire Boulevard, which Metro wants to line with dedicated bus paths. Metro hasn’t formally requested that Beverly Hills add the lanes, Kosterman said. Paul Gonzales, a spokesman for Metro, said the agency may do so in the future.
As for the Santa Monica Boulevard bike lanes, the five-member City Council, which hasn’t taken a final vote, is divided, with three expressing opposition at a March 4 meeting.
The 1.8 miles in Beverly Hills is lined with flower and cactus gardens, arbors, two fountains and a gravel running path, as well as an illuminated, 40-foot-long Beverly Hills sign in front of which tourists pose for pictures. The proposed bike lanes would displace as much as six feet of greenspace beside the road.
The Beverly Hills North Homeowners Association considers the lanes a raid on greenspace. The group published a full-page letter in the Beverly Hills Weekly, a local newspaper, calling parkland “inviolate” and saying most bike lane users wouldn’t be locals.
“This place has a character that is unusual,” Manaster said. “Preserving that is not something that people should get upset about. Transit can adjust to that.”
Beverly Hills’ resistance, particularly to the subway, as traffic continues to worsen is an “embarrassment” to the city, said Brigham Yen, a real-estate agent who lives in downtown Los Angeles and is a mass-transportation activist.
“This is about a lot more than Beverly Hills High School,” Yen said. “This is about millions and millions of people and how they live.”
Elliot, the Beverly Hills cyclist, said he’s dismayed when he attends meetings of the city’s parking and traffic commission and observes more discussions about routes for celebrity-gawking tour buses than about safety for pedestrians or bike riders.
“I simply got tired of riding around and feeling unprotected by the policy makers and seeing positive changes all around us,” he said. “Why not here?”
To contact the reporter on this story: James Nash in Beverly Hills, California at firstname.lastname@example.org