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Wednesday, Feb 21, 2024

Taking Wheel on Transit

The subway is coming to Beverly Hills. One of my main problems with the current plan has been a lack of accessibility for a large number of residents.

In short, the subway stations will be difficult to reach for Beverly Hills residents who do not live within walking distance: Public transportation to and from the planned stations is virtually nonexistent for many of our residents, and no park-and-ride facilities are planned for any of the stations in or near Beverly Hills.

As I have pointed out previously, this would effectively turn the Beverly Hills Purple Line stations into a “one-directional” means of transportation, shuttling people into (and then out of) Beverly Hills, but not best serving our residents as a means of transportation to other parts of Los Angeles County. Many of our residents might not use the subway because it is simply too difficult and/or inconvenient to get to and from the stations. Clearly, access is a key element in any first-rate public transportation system.

Call it the classic “first- and last-mile challenge.”

Through increased pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, including more bike lanes and a bike-share program, my hope is we can increase local accessibility in Beverly Hills to the coming stations, but those measures alone will not unlock the Purple Line’s full potential.

A municipally run system of on-demand self-driving shuttles could very well be the answer.

At a recent City Council budgeting session, I proposed that we make funding available to develop potential strategies for and implementation of municipal uses for self-driving vehicles. A fleet of municipally owned and operated vehicles could act as a kind of public car pool to transport our residents to and from the stations. However, let’s take this incredible opportunity to look beyond first- and last-mile subway challenges. With the development of self-driving vehicles, the time has come to think bigger, even if we are still thinking local.

Why wait?

The first station in Beverly Hills, at Wilshire and La Cienega boulevards, isn’t scheduled to open until 2023. The next station, Wilshire near Rodeo Drive, won’t open for some three years after that. But why wait? Driverless vehicle know-how will very likely be ready for prime time years before the Wilshire-La Cienega station opens. We should look to take advantage of this evolving technology as soon as it is feasible; municipal self-driving shuttles would have the immediate capacity to take cars off the roads for local nonsubway-related transportation needs.

As I envision it, our municipally owned and operated fleet of self-driving vehicles would function as a kind of citywide on-demand car pool/shuttle service, allowing residents and visitors to get from one part of town to another, including, of course, to and from the stations once they eventually open. Pickup and drop-off locations could be from any address within the city and would be coordinated to maximize efficiency and reduce travel time; this hyperlocal system would operate entirely within the borders of Beverly Hills.

While branding mavens may yet figure out a snappier name or acronym, let’s refer to this municipal car pool system in the meantime as MASS (Municipal Automated Shuttle System), which would also have the added benefit of allowing for a variety of clichéd puns such as critical MASS, MASS transit and MASS appeal.

Transit tax advocates are always trying to sell new and increased transit taxes by throwing bones to various constituencies in return for support for these taxes. For example, bones are thrown in the direction of pedestrian and bike advocates, but these bones are very small, indeed; some people are now quite rightly suggesting that at least 10 percent of any new transit tax should be devoted to expanding pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

Bones are also thrown to municipalities, and so a small portion of regional transit tax revenues is returned to communities for local transit uses. While in some ways this might seem like a kind of kickback, locally administered first- and last-mile solutions to increase regional public transit usage should be prioritized for additional funding and significant resources should be made available from the county and Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to municipalities making use of the latest technology to create sustainable transit solutions.

Beverly Hills is only about 5.7 square miles, so our geography would seem to be well-suited to the individualized, convenient and efficient local public transportation envisioned in MASS. The city should take the lead in developing a hyperlocal transportation system that not only eventually will enable the Purple Line to realize its potential as a truly multidirectional transit system, but that also will serve the other transit needs of our residents locally.

And, yes, that would truly be a MASS worth celebrating. (Sorry, you were warned earlier. …)

John Mirisch has served since 2009 on the Beverly Hills City Council, where he is currently vice mayor.

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