Editorial: Why is Kevin de León trying to stall a transit- and climate-friendly project in Eagle Rock?
In a city trying to reinvent its streets to be more walkable and bike- and transit-friendly and environmentally sustainable, Eagle Rock could become one of Los Angeles’ great success stories — if new Councilman Kevin de León chooses to be a supporter, not a spoiler. But in the first major test of his leadership on livability issues, De León is heading in the wrong direction.
At issue is the planned 18-mile rapid transit bus line from North Hollywood to Pasadena, a Measure M-funded project whose alignment is now being finalized by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Designed to operate like light rail, rapid transit bus lines typically have dedicated lanes, synchronized traffic signals and rail-like platforms for boarding and discharging passengers.
For the record:
12:47 p.m. May 19, 2021An earlier version of this editorial mistakenly identified Pasadena City College as Pasadena Community College and Melrose Avenue as Melrose Boulevard.
Because the buses don’t get bogged down in traffic, the service is more reliable and frequent. Buses arrive every 10 minutes on weekdays. That’s crucial; bus ridership has declined over the last decade, and one reason is that buses have gotten slower because they’re stuck in the same worsening traffic as cars. Giving buses separate, speedier lanes can greatly improve service and make transit more appealing, which is important if we want to reduce emissions.
Sadly, Pasadena leaders flatly rejected bus-only lanes two years ago. They vetoed the idea of even studying a bus lane to Pasadena City College because it might hinder floats during the once-a-year Rose Parade and disrupt traffic the rest of the year.
So far, other cities’ officials have been largely supportive of Metro’s plan to include bus-only lanes on most of the rest of the route. But De León recently introduced a related but different wrinkle, as reported by StreetsBlogLA.
When Metro released the draft environmental impact report last fall, there was considerable disappointment in Eagle Rock. For more than a decade, the community has been working to transform its section of Colorado Boulevard from a pass-through speedway into a small-town main street safer for shoppers, walkers and cyclists. But to add bus-only lanes on Colorado Boulevard without losing traffic lanes, Metro proposed removing some elements that were designed to support businesses, slow traffic and make streets feel safer, such as landscaped medians, curbside parking and bike lanes.
Rather than see their vision for downtown Eagle Rock dismantled, a group of residents came up their own plan, called the Beautiful Boulevard. They divided the two-mile stretch into three segments, each designed to support the community vision of a greener, safer street. In some stretches, they proposed going down from two lanes of general traffic in each direction to one lane, which would make space for the bus/emergency vehicle lane and the landscaped medians, bike lanes and curbside parking.
To its credit, Metro consulted with community groups and incorporated key elements of the Beautiful Boulevard proposal into a new route option for its governing board to consider this month. And this is where De León has come into play.
Last week, the council member released a statement asking Metro to come up with another option that maintained two lanes of traffic in each direction and bike lanes, while attempting to restore medians and curb extensions. He also called for more in-person public hearings before Metro chose an option for Colorado Boulevard.
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with more public discussion and analysis. But activists in Eagle Rock are understandably worried that the delay is an attempt to undermine the Beautiful Boulevard concept in favor of a car-centric view of the streets. That would be disappointing, considering how De León has touted his commitment to fighting climate change and his support for transit and safer streets.
There’s a long history of L.A. leaders proclaiming their climate leadership only to abandon climate-minded street design at the first cries of opposition.
Last year Councilmember Paul Koretz killed Uplift Melrose, a project to redesign 1.3 miles of Melrose Avenue with wider sidewalks, protected bike lanes, crosswalks, landscaping and benches. To make room for all the amenities, the city would have removed a lane of traffic — a move Koretz said was “irresponsible” because it might slow down emergency vehicles. Never mind that there are narrow streets across the country, and somehow fire engines and ambulances manage to get through.
What’s so frustrating about Eagle Rock’s Beautiful Boulevard and Uplift Melrose is that both projects had widespread support from neighborhood improvement groups, local businesses, schools and religious institutions. Despite being two very different communities, both recognized that fewer traffic lanes could help make their main streets safer, more amenable to walkers and bicyclists, and more inviting to customers.
In L.A., there’s always a reason to say no. On paper, Los Angeles — and many California cities, for that matter — have embraced sustainable city design as a strategy to fight climate change. They’ve committed to making neighborhoods more bikeable, walkable and transit-friendly so people can get out of their polluting cars. But far too often, those ambitious plans are scaled back or dropped altogether when there is opposition to change.
There’s still time for De León. We’ll never get beautiful boulevards and sustainable streets without political leadership.
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