Guest Column: The City Observed

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An excerpt from the 850 page safety study presented May 21, 2015

Traffic: a fact of life, constantly on the minds of people who drive anywhere in Southern California, and that is most people.  

And traffic also, above all, is the tail that wags the development dog, the bottom line in those endless neighborhood battles, be it in a city or suburb. Forget design and architecture; it is how much traffic will be generated by whatever project is proposed, not how it is going to look and how it might serve the users and their community settings.  

That is certainly the case in my misanthropic Malibu, whose major artery — its main street — is the Pacific Coast Highway. Known locally as the PCH, it is basically a single road leading into and out of, and through, the 21-mile long, one-mile-wide city, edged by the ocean to the west, and the Santa Monica Mountains to the east.

Think of the traffic as too much toothpaste in a constricted tube labeled “Malibu.” 

That wouldn’t be too bad if the PCH served just the city’s 13,000 residents, but an estimated 80,000 vehicles pass through it daily — most to and from a burgeoning City of Santa Monica to the south, and the sprawling L.A. basin beyond. And on sunny summer weekends, the area’s storied coast attracts some 300,000 more when the sandy beaches beckon. The traffic and the parking be damned. 

The result is gridlock, aggravated by at least a major accident a day, more on holidays, including an inordinate number of fatalities. Most Malibu residents generally stay at home on weekends, avoiding the PCH like a plague.

The PCH is the bane of Malibu; unquestionably the number one complaint of residents and visitors — a dark cloud in an otherwise bright real estate heaven.

The accidents, the gridlock and the general miserable driving conditions spurred increasingly shrill complaints of residents, which, in turn, prompted the city — aided by state and federal funding — to order a major study to see what could be done to make the PCH safer and smooth the flow of traffic. 

After several years of site-specific engineering, the study is now complete. It is an exacting nearly 900-page document that fine-tunes almost every foot of the PCH. Recommended are some 150 improvements, with a total cost of 20 million dollars or more, and includes synchronized traffic signals, realigning several intersections, narrowing some sections of the road while widening others, a median, an underpass, bolder stripping, and host of fixes to aid pedestrians. These were designed with the community in mind, so states the logo of the prime consultant team of Stantec.

But, unfortunately, the report is not easily accessible or digestible for the public. These projects usually are not revealed until the warning signs go up overnight. So much for government transparency.

Indeed, the combined public works and safety commissions met the other night in a nearly empty City Hall to blink at the study before sending it on to the City Council.   

PCH undoubtedly will be safer and traffic facilitated. That is good, but don’t expect it to offer much relief.  

Improving roadways almost always generates more traffic; traffic being like water, flowing downhill, to find its way into the most conducive channel. And, in Malibu, the PCH is the one and only channel

If Malibu is a piece of heaven on earth, as its residents contend, then the PCH has to be its hell. No place is perfect. 

This report previously aired on 97.5 KBU on May 24, 2015 as part of the ‘City Observed’ show.