I’m a busy person. I’ve got places to be, and traffic can really gum up my schedule. So I want Los Angeles streets to be as fast as possible. The fewer traffic lights and crosswalks the better. If a couple of pedestrians get mowed down every now and then, or a bike rider gets squashed, well, that’s life in the big city, right? They shouldn’t have been on the road in the first place. This is Los Angeles, get a car like everybody else.
People might not put it so bluntly, but that’s what it comes down to. The callousness of some of the commuters complaining about Los Angeles’ attempts to make the streets safer has bordered on satire. But this is no joke — there is a real possibility that traffic concerns and knee-jerk opposition to change will override good public policy and slow, or even reverse, L.A.’s ambitious plan to dramatically reduce deadly crashes on local streets.
Unveiled by Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2015, the city’s Vision Zero program aims to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2025. The City Council later endorsed and funded the Vision Zero Action Plan, which seeks to redesign the roadways and intersections of the city’s 40 most dangerous streets to make them safer. Often that means slowing traffic. A pedestrian hit by a car traveling 20 miles per hour has an 80% chance of survival. A person hit by a car traveling 40 miles per hour has just a 10% chance.
Together with the mayor’s Great Streets initiative to revitalize select commercial corridors and the city’s Mobility Plan to make it easier for people to bike, walk and take public transit, Vision Zero is part of a larger effort to shed L.A.’s traditional automobile-centric approach and evolve into a modern, multi-modal city.
But this is no easy transition, as the backlash to recent projects demonstrates. For example, consider the “road diet” on Vista del Mar near Dockweiler State Beach that removed two traffic lanes to make space for angled parking spots on the side facing the beach. The change was made in response to a $9.5 million settlement the city paid to the family of a teenage girl killed while crossing the busy street to get to her parked car. Last week, City Councilman Mike Bonin — one the council's most ardent supports of safer streets — announced that the city would add back the lanes in the face of commuters’ complaints and provide parking instead in a nearby county-owned lot.
Vista del Mar wasn’t an official Vision Zero project – it didn’t go through the standard community outreach and input process that is an essential part of any road reconfiguration. Still, it quickly became the rallying cry for opponents of road diets and other projects that might slow traffic. It’s worth noting that some of the loudest critics of the Vista del Mar reconfiguration and another nearby Vision Zero project in Playa del Rey don’t live in the community; they commute through it to avoid 405 traffic.
Last week Councilman Gil Cedillo introduced a motion that would block any road diet or lane reconfiguration in his district, which stretches from Westlake to Highland Park, unless he gave the OK. Cedillo is no fan of bike lanes and, if approved, his motion could halt a Vision Zero project on Temple Street near downtown that proposed to remove two lanes of traffic, add bike lanes and improve crosswalks. Earlier this year, Councilman Paul Krekorian sent a Great Streets project in North Hollywood back to the drawing board because he was concerned about removing traffic lanes to make room for protected bike routes.
Typical City Hall. It’s easy for Garcetti and council members to tout their progressive credentials and sign off on ambitious policies to transform L.A. It’s much harder to implement those plans. Too often city leaders fold in the face of opposition. We’ve seen this with the city’s Bicycle Plan. We’ve seen it with homeless housing. And that’s why so many ambitious plans remain unfulfilled.
City leaders, and Garcetti in particular, have to continually make the case that Vision Zero is about making the streets safer for walkers, bike riders, motorcyclists and, yes, even drivers. The mayor has been far too quiet in defending his program and council members who face blowback when they support road safety efforts. Projects downtown and in Silver Lake have demonstrated that road diets can help reduce injuries without significant traffic delays. There is a learning curve, and over time as more Vision Zero projects are completed, residents will likely see that the benefits of safer streets outweigh the lane losses and any effect on traffic flow.