Pasadena Mayoral Runoff
Pasadena voters will decide on April 21 whether Vice-Mayor and Councilmember Jacque Robinson or Councilmember Terry Tornek will be the new Mayor. With an ambitious new mobility plan expected to come before the Council in the Mayor’s next term, I wanted to get a sense of which candidate would provide stronger leadership for the plan and which would be more likely to support sustainable transportation and walkable, bikeable, neighborhoods.
While there are a number of important issues in the campaign, a lot is at stake for those who walk, bike, and/or use transit in Pasadena—and for those who’d like to, but are intimidated by the idea of riding a bike in traffic. My family and I regularly bike, walk, and use transit in Pasadena, so installation of better bike infrastructure is very important to me. As the “Crown City” goes, so goes much of the San Gabriel Valley, thus the election of a bike-friendly mayor has regional implications, too.
Pasadena is in dire need of a bold new bike plan—and that plan must be implemented sooner, not later. Anyone who rides here knows that Pasadena’s bike infrastructure is at least 20 years out-of-date, and Pasadena’s deadly streets have been the cause of several deaths in recent years, such as that of Phillip O’Neill in 2013. And while the city benefits from good transit, with numerous Gold Line stations, Metro, Foothill Transit and ARTS bus lines, transit users who wish to use a bike for “first mile/last mile” transportation will find very little in the way of bike infrastructure. The city lacks virtually any street that incorporates the latest designs in protected or buffered bike lanes that other cities have been installing. It’s a shame, too, because Pasadena has such potential to be a bike-friendly city. Pasadena’s draft bike plan, while far from perfect, is a good first step toward remedying this, but there will undoubtedly be pushback from car-oriented residents and it is imperative that the next Mayor possesses the vision and political courage to withstand the pushback.
A good place to start an assessment of the two candidates is with their responses to the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition survey on issues such as bicycle and pedestrian safety, which both Tornek and Robinson answered.
Most urgent transportation needs: On the question of the city’s most urgent transportation needs, Tornek cites “traffic calming” and “protected bike lanes” as the main elements of improving roadway safety and he specifically mentions Colorado Blvd as a potential “great street” project. These are excellent ideas. Unfortunately Tornek’s brief answer left me wanting to know more. What elements of the complete streets policy should be prioritized? How would he deal with the notorious timidity and foot-dragging of Pasadena DOT? What about other streets and road treatments short of protected bike lanes (i.e., bicycle boulevards, greenways, etc.)? How about bike share and connectivity to transit?
In her answer, Robinson mentions that she supports the mobility plan, but she specifies an approach focused on “traffic mitigation” to be achieved by “synchronizing lights on thorough fares to encourage movement of traffic.” Unfortunately, this car-prioritized approach would neither encourage a modal shift from cars nor improve safety for bikes or pedestrians. Robinson also notes that in her efforts to revitalize the Lincoln Ave. corridor she has “pushed for a traffic diet [road diet?] to narrow the street in certain sections and slow traffic to encourage walkability and make the area safe for bikers and pedestrians.”
While Colorado Blvd. includes protected bike lanes as part of the proposed bike plan, Lincoln Ave. does not. A road diet that would significantly slow automobile traffic on Lincoln would be welcome, but without any plan for bike infrastructure on Lincoln it is difficult to see how it becomes “safe for bikers,” let alone how it would encourage others (i.e., schoolchildren, families, commuters) to ride Lincoln Ave. And, note to candidates: if you don’t want to appear out-of-touch or downright hostile to the cycling community it’s best to avoid the term “bikers.” Bikers wear leather jackets and ride Harley-Davidsons.
Reducing Pasadena’s carbon footprint: Robinson prefaces her answer with the claim that Pasadenans are “very dependent” on their cars and says residents would drive less only after transit alternatives “become more frequent and efficient.” I’m certainly supportive of more frequent transit service, but without a concrete proposal for more frequent transit and a plan to fund it, this answer looks like an excuse to maintain a status quo of continued car dependency. Tornek says he supports “mixed use development and high density housing in appropriate locations,” which have been shown to reduce a city’s carbon footprint by promoting more walking, bicycling and transit use, especially when located near transit.
Safe Routes to School: Asked what they would do to promote active safe walking and bicycling to schools, both candidates say they would promote neighborhood schools . . . (cue crickets chirping).
This partial answer by both candidates ignores the fact that neighborhood schools in PUSD already suffer from very low levels of walking and bicycling to school. Simply encouraging families to attend neighborhood schools without following through with infrastructure improvements, safety programs and walk/bike to school programs will fail to change this. The problem is not primarily distance, it is lack of bike infrastructure leading to/from schools.
Here was an opportunity for both candidates to knock one out of the park, to promote local schools AND Safe Routes to School programs AND safer sidewalks AND better bike infrastructure near schools. Encouraging active transportation for our youth is a no-brainer, instead we’ll continue to suffer from the same unsafe car-choked streets around schools twice daily, continuation of the obesity epidemic (along with much hand-wringing about how our kids don’t get enough exercise), air pollution, stressed-out parents, and another generation that thinks it’s “normal” to be chauffeured in an SUV a mile and a half to school every day.
Reducing collisions between cars/bicycles (“vision zero”): Robinson emphasizes “a bike safety initiative to help drivers and cyclist [sic] better understand how to co-exist on the roads together.” Good answer. However, Robinson’s answer says nothing about the problem of infrastructure. While I’m not opposed to bike safety programs, anyone who’s ridden a bike on the streets of Pasadena knows the main problem is a lack of safe infrastructure for people on bikes (a result of streets primarily designed for rapid “movement of traffic”). For his part, Tornek answered that the city should “provide protected bike lanes wherever possible.” I love the idea of protected bike lanes, but where are the specifics? And, since even in my wildest dreams we’re not realistically going to have protected bike lanes on every street any time in the near future, shouldn’t bike (and driver) safety also be mentioned? What about road treatments short of protected bike lanes? What about a citywide safety program for youth and adults? Stepped-up enforcement of traffic violations? We need a network of infrastructure improvements, safety education programs, and enforcement. Unfortunately, neither candidate really gets this one.
Riding a bike: This may seem like a small thing, but it’s not. There’s no way around it: riding the streets of your city gives you a significantly different perspective on traffic and road safety than one behind the wheel of a car. Having a mayor who understands what it’s like to ride a bike makes a huge difference. Neither candidate, to my knowledge, rides a bike regularly, but even riding occasionally broadens one’s perception about streets. Last year, PasCSC did outreach to all members of the city council, inviting them to schedule an organized ride in their individual districts. Such events offer a concrete opportunity to see and feel how the streets work (or fail to work) for pedestrians and cyclists. It’s something that cannot be fully understood from behind the wheel of an automobile. Tornek went on a district ride with PCSC. Robinson expressed interest, but was unable to fit it into her schedule or send a staffer. I’d feel better about Robinson if she’d made the effort to actually get on a bike with PCSC volunteers and see what the streets in her district are like from a bicyclist’s perspective, as Tornek did. It makes a difference. Former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was not thought of as a pro-complete streets Mayor until he was knocked off his bike by a cab driver while on a ride and saw the serious need for better bike infrastructure. In other words, actually riding a bike in the city can wake a person up to the serious need for specific infrastructure changes like protected bike lanes.
Websites: What do the websites of the two candidates tell complete streets voters? Robinson’s website has no section dedicated to complete streets, but on a statement about development promises to “increase pedestrian and public transportation options with areas south of the  freeway.”
Pasadena needs wider sidewalks and more welcoming public spaces. As Mayor, I will prioritize reducing neighborhood traffic while increasing the walkability of out [sic] streets and making them more bicycle friendly. I believe streets are for people to walk, bike and ride transit…not just drive cars.
Debate 1: What have the candidates said about complete streets and/or active transportation in the two debates they’ve had? During the first debate, moderated by Star-News editors Larry Wilson and Frank Girardot, the only transportation-related question was regarding the proposed 710 freeway tunnel.
Robinson and Tornek both told the debate audiences they opposed the 710 extension. Robinson specifically mentioned “alternative modes” of transportation for the route and Tornek said the tunnel would be expensive and the route would soon be every bit as congested as it currently is (see the 405, for example). Of course, they are both correct. The well-documented phenomenon of “induced demand” or “latent demand” will mean that the 710 route will soon fill up with cars, solving nothing, and the only real long-term solution is transit—either light rail, or real BRT.
Unfortunately, during the debate neither candidate took the opportunity to tout the benefits of complete streets as part of a well-rounded social and environmental policy. On questions about the city’s economic situation, for example, they might have brought up the ways walkable, bikeable streets have been shown to benefit local businesses, but neither did. When asked about local schools, they could have mentioned how encouraging walking and bicycling to school through programs like Safe Routes to School (SRTS) benefits students’ health, improves safety, reduces traffic congestion around schools, and has even been shown to improve test scores, but they didn’t. They might have mentioned the benefits of active transportation to overall public health and lower healthcare costs, but they didn’t. When addressing the needs of the city’s low income residents, they ought to have discussed how redesigning our streets for alternative modes of mobility can foster social equity, but they didn’t.
Debate 2: During the second debate, hosted by KPCC’s Larry Mantle, candidates were asked what they would do to promote complete streets and improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians. Robinson explicitly said she supports the bike master plan and the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition’s efforts to “educate the public” that roads should be multimodal. However, when Mantle pressed her on whether she still supported a road diet for Colorado Blvd., even if it meant, in Mantle’s words, “losing a lane of traffic,” she hedged. “Yes,” she answered, “provided that we have the complete information.” She said the Council would need to be “mindful that it [a road diet] may not always have a positive impact.”
Unfortunately, I thought both the question and the answer reflected a singular windshield perspective. Yes, there’s an adjustment at first, but (a) road diets don’t cause roads to “lose” a lane, they repurpose a travel lane in a way that will encourage a transportation mode shift and provide protection for vulnerable road users who already use the streets; and (b) there are a wide variety of long-term positive impacts that far outweigh any temporary inconvenience to motorists.
When Mantle pressed her about her “qualms” on the road diet, a centerpiece of the draft bike master plan, Robinson backpedalled further. The road diet, she said, “is something we should consider.” She then explained:
When you remove a lane … the number of cars is not going to go anywhere so there’s either going to be more cars traveling on the street in a single lane, which will create more traffic, or they’re going to move to other streets, so we have to be mindful of that as we move to these new ideas.
The answer raises a troubling question in my mind about whether she’d actually vote for the road diet (rather than just “consider” it) let alone whether she’d have the determination to defend it when opposition arises. Moreover, road diets don’t “create more traffic.” They may shift it, they may slow it (not necessarily a bad thing from a safety perspective), and they may actually reduce it if alternative modes of travel are convenient and safe. Blaming bike lanes or road diets for “creating” traffic reflects a narrow windshield perspective.
Tornek noted that everyone says they support multimodal transportation, “until you actually have to remove a lane.” He reiterated his support for the road diet and parklets on Colorado Bl., despite the “great resistance” he anticipates this will initially generate. The complete streets concept, he said, is now state law, and it forces cities to come to grips with the reality that streets are not just for cars. “All of us,” he continued, “will learn to view the way our streets operate in a different way.” As for the Colorado Blvd. road diet and its effect on traffic, he cited the DOT’s data that showed only a 2% reduction in travel speed for cars, and noted that there is capacity on adjacent streets and “if it’s not going to work there [on Colorado Blvd.] it won’t work anywhere.”
Both candidates appear to support the city’s draft bike plan, but voting for the plan when it comes before council and implementing road diets and bike lanes are two different things. I get the impression from the second debate that Tornek would be more likely to follow through on the latter, even in the face of opposition. When pressed on the more ambitious specifics of the bike plan in the second debate, Robinson’s support wavered. Contrast it with her unequivocal (and admirable) support for raising the minimum wage, which she said she’d support even if some local merchants were opposed. She offers no specifics about bike lanes and sometimes betrays an uncritical windshield perspective on traffic and safety issues.
There is much I like about Robinson, such as her support for public schools, her work on the Lincoln corridor, and her advocacy of a higher minimum wage. It would be inspirational and historic for Pasadenans to elect a woman, a person of color, and a product of Pasadena’s public schools to the highest office of this staid old city. That said, her positions on complete streets issues tend to reflect a cars-first mentality. Even when she says she supports an element of the bike plan, she almost always hedges her answer. This is especially disappointing since she represents a district where a relatively higher proportion of low-income residents rely on walking, bicycling, and transit for transportation. One wishes she had been able to find time to go on a ride or walk in her district to see what her constituents on bicycles or on foot experience every day. Her answers on the Complete Streets survey were not as strong as Tornek’s and her apparent waffling on the Colorado road diet during the second debate was also extremely disappointing.
On the other hand, on his website and in the second debate, Tornek offers explicit support for specific infrastructure improvements such as protected bike lanes that we need on our streets. His answers in the second debate suggest he’s willing to support the proposed road diet on Colorado Blvd. even when opposition arises. His answers demonstrate a bit more insight into the way mobility choices can be reconfigured when infrastructure and development patterns are steered in that direction. On the City Council, Tornek, along with Councilmember McAustin, was instrumental in getting Pasadena DOT to revise and strengthen its draft bike plan last year and he made the time to go on an exploratory ride in his district.
Shifting away from car dependency is not going to be easy, but, aside from health and safety concerns, the issue is critically important as we face an unprecedented crisis of climate change. We need to think anew about transportation planning, especially in urban areas. We must view our streets differently to meet different transportation needs for the 21st century and shift our priorities accordingly. Fortunately, shifting to transportation alternatives brings with it a variety of added benefits for the economy, public safety, and public health.
Pasadena, like the rest of our society, cannot afford to waste more time. Bold leadership is required, as is the willingness to stand up to the inevitable resistance to change. Pasadena needs a mayor who thinks of streets in terms of moving people, not just moving cars. Though I’m somewhat disappointed in the brevity of some of Tornek’s answers on the PCSC survey and I have some minor reservations, for the most part he seems to get it. His answers on the issues and his strong performance in the second debate suggest he is more likely to help the Council approve the new bike plan and its timely implementation. For these reasons, I would recommend a vote for Tornek.
So, I encourage Pasadenans to read the Complete Streets survey, read the candidates’ websites and view the debates, and make up your own minds. But by all means please “bike the vote” on April 21. I also recognize that the work is just beginning. Those who want complete streets in Pasadena must continue to organize, speak out, and vigorously press the city’s leaders and staff to follow through with a bold vision for sustainable, equitable, safe, and people-friendly streets … regardless of who wins on election day.