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California

L.A. backs Venice Boulevard’s controversial ‘road diet’ as activists threaten to sue

Los Angeles, CA - MARCH 5, 2019 Cyclists navigate the west bound lanes of a new temporary and contr
Cyclists navigate the westbound lanes of the Venice Boulevard bike lane in Mar Vista on Tuesday. The bike lane ignited controversy after city officials removed a lane of traffic to install it, creating a safer biking route but sparking some traffic delays.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Setting the stage for a legal challenge, the Los Angeles City Council rejected an appeal Friday from neighborhood advocates fighting a bicycle lane on a congested Westside artery.

The council’s unanimous decision follows 18 months of furor over a “road diet” that reduced the number of traffic lanes along a 0.8-mile stretch of Venice Boulevard in Mar Vista to make space for a protected bicycle lane.

The road diet, part of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Great Streets initiative, was designed to help the commercial boulevard feel less like a freeway and more like a Main Street.

The city spent $1.8 million to add four traffic signals, sidewalk mosaics, curb ramps, more visible crosswalks and a bike lane with a buffer zone to separate drivers from cyclists. The project removed one vehicle travel lane in each direction.

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Venice Boulevard road diet
 
(Los Angeles Times)

Cyclists, pedestrians and some Mar Vista residents lent vocal support to the project, saying the changes reduced traffic noise and speeding drivers, making Venice Boulevard feel more like the heart of the neighborhood.

But painful traffic jams during the road diet’s early months sparked anger among drivers who had relied on Venice as a rush-hour alternative to the 10 Freeway.

Some residents also raised concerns about an increase in speeding cut-through traffic on side streets.

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In December, the city moved to extend the road diet beyond its pilot program and exempted it from environmental review.

Mar Vista activists appealed in January, saying the road diet’s effect on traffic and other issues merited a full analysis and public hearing.

“This controversy has been left to fester for too long,” said Selena Inouye, board president of the Westside Los Angeles Neighbors Network, an organization formed after the road diet was put into effect.

Inouye said Friday that the group planned to sue the city if the appeal was denied.

Westside Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Mar Vista, said at a City Council meeting last week that accepting the types of arguments listed in the appeal could tie up much of the Transportation Department’s work and hamper the city’s ability to do other street safety projects, including crosswalks, turn lanes and traffic signals.

In its appeal, the Westside group said the road diet had caused an increase in traffic by reducing the number of lanes by 33% and argued that the project may have harmed monarch butterflies and migratory birds from the nearby Ballona Wetlands.

None of the issues the group raised would require further review under state law, and the appeal suggested “a misunderstanding of the facts,” Transportation Department employee Tomas Carranza said at the hearing.

“Not every community concern is an environmental issue,” he said.

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Under state law, traffic congestion on its own is no longer considered an issue that would require further environmental study, the city said.

Because Venice Boulevard previously had a painted bike lane with no protective buffer from traffic, the road diet qualified as a modification of an existing route, which exempts it from environmental review, officials said.

An attorney for the activists said they were shocked to learn that Los Angeles was not planning to conduct an environmental analysis on the road diet, saying officials had said they would.

The Venice road diet was one of the first major battles in L.A.’s ambitious efforts to eliminate traffic fatalities and shift drivers to other transportation options by adding hundreds of miles of bicycle and bus-only lanes.

Those plans, called Vision Zero and Mobility Plan 2035, both hinge on the elimination of vehicle lanes in an effort to reduce speeds.

They came to a head in 2017, when the city eliminated more than nine miles of Westside traffic lanes within a month in Mar Vista and Playa del Rey. After two lawsuits and a sustained outcry from commuters, several of the road diets were reversed, but the Venice project was not.

The road diet “ignited a feud which has riven our formerly placid and welcoming neighborhood,” said Mar Vista resident Mary Hruska.

A group of advocates launched an unsuccessful recall effort against Bonin. An L.A. talk radio program focused repeatedly on the road diet, deriding the efforts as government overreach.

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The fierce debate brought into focus the conflict between residents who want to improve the commercial corridors in their neighborhoods and commuters fighting to preserve their crosstown driving routes.

City officials commissioned a 39-page study from the transportation consultants Fehr & Peers, which concluded that the road diet made the corridor safer and more popular with residents.

I see parents with children using the bike path, all sorts of people coming to Venice Boulevard,” said Anna Martin, the owner of L.A. Brakeless, a bicycle shop on Venice Boulevard. The community does support it, she said, “especially parents who want to ride their bikes with children.”

During morning and afternoon rush hour, the number of people walking and riding scooters rose, the study found. The number of bicyclists fell 16%, for reasons that were not clear.

The study also validated complaints that traffic had grown worse. Eastbound evening drive times along the 0.8-mile corridor increased by more than four minutes in the first three months after the bike lane was installed, to 7 minutes, 4 seconds, the study found.

By the time the road diet had been in place for a year, the evening travel time had fallen to 3 minutes, 56 seconds, a decline the city attributed to modifications to the road diet’s design, including new turn lanes.

Travel times in the morning, and westbound in the evening, changed far less significantly.

Side streets near Venice Boulevard saw an increase in cut-through traffic during rush hour, adding one to three cars a minute on each street, the city said.

Road diet opponents argued that the increased congestion had killed mom-and-pop businesses that relied on vehicle traffic to stay open and left empty storefronts along the corridor. Despite rents at record highs, the city said, taxable revenue rose during the road diet and more businesses opened than closed.

laura.nelson@latimes.com

For more transportation news, follow @laura_nelson on Twitter.


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