A Conversation with Santa Monica’s City Manager, Rick Cole

The City of Santa Monica has been a leader in championing sustainable modes of transportation and reallocating city land use for the evolving needs of residents. As the city where Bird (and the shared e-scooter revolution) first launched, Santa Monica was quick to embrace the remarkable adoption of e-scooters within the community and recognize it as a future of micro-mobility.

As part of an ambitious new project, the city will reallocate 94 parking spaces to build wider sidewalks, and add 19 miles of new green protected bike lanes. By providing spaces where e-scooter riders and cyclists feel safe, Santa Monica has helped prove that e-scooters are a viable option for cities, facilitating explosive growth in micro-mobility as a result.

We’ll let Rick Cole, Santa Monica’s City Manager take it from here.

Share a little bit about yourself. Who are you and what drives you to serve the City of Santa Monica day in and day out?

Working for our Mayor and City Council, my role is to serve as the CEO for the City of Santa Monica. I typically describe myself as a “change agent.” I’ve spent the last 38 years in public service (with some breaks to be an entrepreneur and to work in the non-profit and faith sectors) working to make government work better and cost less. What drives me these days is the opportunity to make Santa Monica a model for a 21st century government. I’d love to see residents’ interactions with their local government as convenient as ordering something on Amazon, or looking up something on Google.  

Santa Monica is the city where Bird, and thus the shared e-scooter industry, first launched. How have these new mobility options impacted Santa Monica and its residents?

There’s an old joke—I have one foot in ice water and one foot in boiling water and on average the temperature is fine. Last summer, the City Council was under enormous pressure from both tech enthusiasts who accused us of stifling a transportation breakthrough and angry residents who were concerned that irresponsible companies and reckless riders would wreak havoc on our streets and sidewalks. The Council showed resilience in those early days by introducing a pilot program that has become a national model for a rational approach to effectively managing this new industry. When autos first appeared on the scene it took decades to sort out the system of laws, infrastructure, insurance, licensing and enforcement we have today. We’ve accomplished more in the first 20 months of life with scooters than cities accomplished in the first 20 years of dealing with cars.  

The city has been a leader in reallocating space for and investing in infrastructure to support the shift of residents to active modes of transportation. Can you tell us about some of these recent projects?

We recently sponsored a ride along the nineteen miles of Green Lanes we’ve nearly completed, in part underwritten by revenues from the scooter pilot. While protected bike lanes are a better long-term solution, those take longer and require higher levels of investment. We’ve also recently added 1200 bike racks and more than 100 scooter parking areas throughout the City.  We are expanding the protected bike path along our beach north of the Pier to separate pedestrians and bikes on that crowded route as we do south of the Pier. Over the next decade we hope to transform the City to create “complete streets” that advantage transit, biking and other mobility devices—and achieve Vision Zero for no serious traffic injuries or fatalities.

As you noted, Santa Monica has added over a hundred micro-mobility parking spaces throughout the city. How has Santa Monica partnered with companies like Bird to establish and encourage social norms about where to park for this new transportation option?

That’s really part of the larger partnership between the City and the companies to figure out how this industry is going to work: how do we train riders to act responsibly by parking the devices out of other people’s way, to wear a helmet, not to ride tandem or on sidewalks etc. I’ve seen huge advances in how experienced riders use scooters over novices taking their first ride. The solutions are shared. Together, we need to educate the public generally about rules of the road, continue to improve technology and offer financial or other incentives that reward good rider behavior and penalize bad behavior. Operators need to double down on educating new riders, and cities have a responsibility to enforce State and local laws.

Fast forward, and it’s 2050. What does the state of mobility look like for Santa Monica?

I’m not sure I imagine the state of mobility in five years, let alone thirty. Here’s what I can forecast: the era of building our cities around cars is over.  We are rediscovering the wisdom of building cities around people. People should have choices. What’s the most convenient way to get where I want or need to go? What’s the safest? What’s the most affordable?  What’s the most environmentally sustainable? What’s the healthiest? What’s the most enjoyable? I think the answer increasingly is going to NOT be getting into a car, especially if it is just for short trips to get yourself from point A to point B.

Anything else you are excited about? We’re all ears!

I’m excited about Santa Monica as an 8.3 square mile hub of innovation—with a commitment to equity. Our society is too enamored with tech innovation as a tool to get rich or find shortcuts.  We aren’t paying nearly enough attention to ensuring technology makes our lives genuinely better and more just. Cities are a seedbed and a product of innovation from the first staircase to the elevator to the skyscraper. Let’s challenge tech innovators to make their products work for everyone. We don’t need more toys or distractions. We need solutions to reduce poverty, house the homeless, reduce crime and improve justice. We want to curb climate change and strengthen democracy. Here in our community, we tackle those big challenges because we see them as opportunities. That, great weather, cool people and three miles of coast are hard to match as an amazing place to work on inventing a better future and a city that works for everyone.

Rick Cole has served as City Manager of Santa Monica since June 2015; and during his tenure, he has spearheaded nationally recognized work advancing progress on mobility, sustainability, and homelessness. Prior to working for Santa Monica, Cole served as Deputy Mayor for Budget and Innovation in the City of Los Angeles overseeing a nearly $9 billion budget and 5 city departments.
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Rethink urban mobility

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