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Op-Ed

Dangerous streets are the leading cause of death of our children. It’s time to finally make L.A. walkable

The completion of Metro’s Expo and Gold lines has made it easier than ever to travel from Azusa to Santa Monica without getting into a car. But while riding these new rail lines may beat sitting in traffic, the final leg of your journey can still be daunting — especially if you’re on foot.

Los Angeles has some of the most dangerous streets in the United States. Almost 200 people a year are killed in traffic crashes here. Our annual collision death rate is higher than Chicago's, Seattle's, or San Diego's, and it almost doubles that of New York City and San Francisco. The victims of traffic crashes are disproportionately people walking or biking. Only 18% of all trips in Los Angeles are made on foot, but pedestrians account for 33% of those killed or severely injured in transit here. These victims are often the most vulnerable people in our city: students walking to school and the elderly account for 30% of all people killed or severely injured in pedestrian or bicycle-related accidents. Traffic collisions are the leading cause of death for children ages 2 to 14.

If we’re ever to truly improve safety and mobility in Los Angeles, we need to make the city more walkable. This starts with the way we make decisions about the design of our streets — and making sure that those affected have a say in this process. 

The symbol of our unsafe streets is a lack of painted crosswalks and other pedestrian safety infrastructure, such as flashing pedestrian-activated signals. Long stretches of road with nonexistent or poorly marked crosswalks, especially when paired with our wide boulevards, encourage driver speeding and force walkers to choose between risking their lives at an unmarked, or unprotected crossing, or going  as much as a quarter of a mile out of their way to find a safe crosswalk.

You might think simply requesting that the city install more marked crosswalks at trouble spots would make for an easy fix.

Unfortunately, the process of getting a well-marked crosswalk added to your neighborhood streets is almost as frustrating as trying to walk safely in L.A. Online city improvement tools such as MyLA 311 and MyLADOT can be used to make requests.  MyLA 311, the better known of the two and the one with a mobile app, contains no category for crosswalks. Suggestions and requests made via MyLA 311 often fail to port to MyLADOT, which does have a “Pedestrian” category. Whicever mechanism you use, you’re likely to never get an answer, and there may well be no official record that you even tried. 

The city's crosswalk decisions appear to err on the side of not marking crosswalks at all. New crosswalks require “warrants” — a checklist of conditions engineers use to determine a site’s feasibility — and the bar for feasibility is set high. As a result, marked crosswalks and other pedestrian infrastructure improvements tend to be viewed as emergency measures, put in place only after a death or debilitating injury in a particular locale.

Still, pedestrian safety in L.A. is making some headway. The recently launched “Vision Zero” campaign is a multiagency initiative led by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, with the goal of reducing traffic deaths to zero by 2025. Its preliminary research has already determined that roughly half the people who are killed or seriously injured while walking are struck where there is insufficient crossing infrastructure on a pedestrian path of travel. The LADOT is beginning to reform the checklist for marking crosswalks.

These changes are welcome. But there is still far more work to be done.

Los Angeles’ Pedestrian Advisory Committee suggests that a new system be created that empowers neighborhood councils, business improvement districts and coalitions of businesses and residents to formally request a marked crosswalk. This process should be transparent from beginning to end: A copy of the warrant sheet for every LADOT crosswalk decision should be sent to the petitioners and their council office. If the site is deemed appropriate for a marked crosswalk, it should be entered into a public database until construction funds become available. If the site is rejected, the public should know why.

Though it’s masked by our dangerous and traffic-clogged streets, another L.A. is possible — one where it is easy, pleasant, and safe to travel on foot. To uncover it, we have to change the way we make decisions. Los Angeles can no longer afford to prioritize the movement of vehicles at the expense of safety, with all the attendant tragic consequences.

Max Podemski is the planning director at Pacoima Beautiful. Mehmet Berker is a cartographer and  geographic information system specialist. They are both members of the Los Angeles Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

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