Column: On one of L.A.'s steepest streets, an app-driven frenzy of spinouts, confusion and crashes
Nobody could have known, several years ago, that technological progress could make life so complicated in Echo Park.
But along Baxter Street, everyone seems to have a story about the ineptitude of drivers — following directions from navigation apps — who can’t seem to handle one of the steepest inclines in Los Angeles.
“The car came through our garden, went through two fences and ended up backwards hanging over our driveway,” said Jason Luther, who was describing an accident that happened during the last rains.
“A lot of people can’t make it up the hill,” Baxter resident Robbie Adams said.
Why not? I asked.
“Because it’s too steep, and they don’t know how to drive up. So they stop and try to back down, and it’s a mess because people are coming up behind them.”
And that’s in good weather.
“Rain is a huge problem,” Adams said. “People start skidding and spinning. We had our garden wall knocked down twice, and my wife’s car got hit in our own driveway. I’ve seen five or six cars smash into other cars, and it’s getting worse.”
Adams said “we sent a letter to Waze” — a GPS navigation service — suggesting removal of Baxter as a shortcut possibility, or at least listing it as hazardous during wet weather.
“They said they couldn’t do that because it involves changing the algorithm of the app in a weird way,” he said.
Adams’ wife, Amy Talkington, helped organize neighbors in a call for a meeting, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. Several possible solutions are on the agenda, but there will be no easy fix.
GPS apps have upended normal traffic flows for a few years now in Los Angeles and beyond, sending drivers on shortcut routes through once-tranquil neighborhoods so they can avoid bottleneck headaches.
But the disruption has been particularly dramatic on Baxter Street, which has become a rush-hour thoroughfare for drivers trying to avoid jams on nearby Glendale Boulevard.
Everyone I spoke to pointed to navigation apps as the biggest culprit. A few also suggested the gentrification of Echo Park has reduced the number of residents who use transit and increased the number of drivers.
The problem is that Baxter, with its Himalayan double dip between Allessandro Street and Echo Park Avenue, is not a normal street, and it was never meant to be a thoroughfare.
It was designed for goats, not people or cars.
Whoever built it, more than 100 years ago, must have gone on to design roller coasters. A video of a daredevil skateboarder blasting down Baxter has had nearly 1.2 million views on YouTube.
The Times has reported that Baxter ranks as the third-steepest street in Los Angeles with a 32% grade, behind 28th Street in San Pedro (33.3%) and Eldred Street in Mount Washington (33%).
Still, it’s on the list of the 10 steepest streets in the United States, seven of which are in California, and four of which are in Los Angeles, with Fargo Street in Silver Lake joining the others. Only two of the top 10 streets are in San Francisco, which is often thought of as a city of hills, and the famous Lombard Street (27% grade) doesn’t crack the list. The steepest streets in the U.S. are in Honokaa, Hawaii, (45%) and Pittsburgh, Pa. (37%).
I use Lyft and when the drivers see the hill, they say, ‘Oh, my God!’
On Baxter, whether you’re heading up the steepest incline from Allesandro on the west side of the peak, or Lakeshore on the east side, you don’t see pavement in front of you through the windshield. You see sky, like you’re on a moon shot, blind to what might be coming at you from the other side of the mountain.
“You have to have experience,” said Zsuzsa Paszterko, who lives in a 100-year-old wood-frame house at the peak along with husband Andrew, a dog, a cat, two roosters and six chickens she lets out of their coop every Thursday for “girls day out.” They lay eggs, eat insects and fertilize the lawn, so everybody wins, except the insects.
Paszterko said she once saw a firetruck get stuck at the peak when its undercarriage hit the asphalt crown. Others have seen trucks and buses get stuck.
As I stood at the peak, a driver cautiously approached the intersection, rolled down the window, and asked me if the coast was clear on the western slope of Baxter.
I gave her the OK.
Annie Beedy, who was walking her rescue dog Pinto near the Baxter summit, said she hears cars “squealing out” and drivers honking horns.
“I use Lyft and when the drivers see the hill, they say, ‘Oh, my God!’” Beedy said.
It may be that there’s no turning back from either the convenience of modern technology or the misery it wreaks. But Baxter Street resident Talkington said in an email to friends and neighbors that Councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s office asked the city Transportation Department to study the matter, and two possible solutions have been proposed.
One is to turn Baxter Street into a one-way avenue heading east, but as Talkington told me, that could create new traffic nightmares and penalize Echo Park residents trying to go west and north.
The other is to prohibit left turns onto Baxter from Lakeshore Drive, a popular shortcut maneuver.
Todd Walker, who lives near Baxter Street, said ix-nay on the one-way, and he pitched a modified version of the second option. A 24-hour ban on left turns seems a bit much, he said. It’s L.A., and we all have to deal with traffic and with GPS apps, for better and for worse.
“My thought is that if there was no left turn” onto Baxter from Lakeshore “on weekdays from 4 to 7 p.m., Waze would be legally obligated to take it off their website and it would no longer show up,” Walker said.
That sounds good. Or maybe a sign that says, “Skateboards Only.”
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