LA's 'Slow Streets' Will Limit Traffic To Promote Social Distancing. All Neighborhoods Can Apply

L.A.'s "Slow Streets" program launched in the Del Rey neighborhood on Friday, May 15, 2020. (Courtesy Joslyn Treece)

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City officials today launched the Slow Streets program, which places signs and temporary barricades on some residential streets — but doesn't completely close them off to vehicles. The program is starting in two neighborhoods — West L.A./Sawtelle and Del Rey near Culver City — but all communities can apply.

As more Angelenos strive for whatever form of fresh air and exercise they can get during the coronavirus pandemic, you may have noticed more people strolling on sidewalks, walking their dogs and jogging. But city sidewalks are only so wide and many ofthem don't allow people to stay six feet away while passing their neighbors.

Slow Streets aims to address that need by placing with signage that indicates the streets are for local traffic only.

L.A.'s "Slow Streets" program launched in the Del Rey neighborhood on Friday, May 15, 2020.(Courtesy Eric DeSobe)

The changes are designed for residential streets, not main corridors, and will be capped at two miles of streets per community, according to LADOT spokesperson Colin Sweeney. Local residents will not lose parking, and delivery drivers, emergency services and other essential vehicles won't be affected.

The city's Department of Transportation is managing the program and will coordinate with community members to determine where the signs and barriers should be placed.

The application form to join the program is online, but it requires a "sponsoring organization" — meaning a neighborhood council or city councilmember's office — to sign off to indicate broader community support, Sweeney said. That group would then coordinate with the city to plan and monitor the initiative in their neighborhoods.

LADOT will also gather feedback from residents to better understand how the program is working — or not. Sweeney said it's possible signs and barriers could be removed from certain streets if LADOT determines people are violating public health orders. All current guidelines to limit the spread of COVID-19 remain in place.

"These aren't places where people are supposed to congregate and barbecue," Sweeney said. "It's not a block party. It's essentially providing more space so that folks can pursue active-use activities while observing physical distancing."

Asked how speed enforcement will work, Sweeney initially said LADOT has shared the current Slow Streets sites with the Los Angeles Police Department and would be asking officers to monitor those locations. But Sweeney later walked that back, saying the department "[has] not and will not be asking" police to monitor Slow Streets locations, adding that there is "no additional enforcement beyond usual operations as part of this program."

"If people see unsafe speeds on designated Slow Streets, they should report that on the feedback survey on ladot.lacity.org/slowstreets," he said.

The changes are designed to be temporary and would likely be phased out in coordination with community groups as the city and county ease public health restrictions and "we return to normal," Sweeney said.


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Mayor Eric Garcetti said it is possible that some of the safety measures could become permanent.

"I think it'll be a great experiment for Los Angeles," Garcetti said of the program during a news conference Wednesday. "We've all enjoyed being outside. Maybe we'll learn some lessons for some permanent closures in the future, but at least for now, we'll have safe places for us all to be."

Del Rey and West L.A./Sawtelle had previously submitted proposals through their neighborhood councils.

LADOT had been working with those neighborhood councils, along with City Councilmember Mike Bonin's office, and was set to erect signs and barricades on April 30. But the night before, Mayor Garcetti's office announced the plan was being postponed, citing concerns raised by the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

WHY THE WALK-BACK?

At a news conference earlier this week, Garcetti explained the delay this way:

"We didn't want to just do one small area of town and [county Public Health Director Barbara] Ferrer didn't sign off when it was just going to be one or two places because there was a worry everybody would rush there and there would be such huge crowds as we saw in beaches in Orange County and other places."

Last week, Councilmember Bonin expressed frustration over the delayed rollout, saying county health officials "have a very poor understanding" of what the Slow Streets program aims to do.

L.A.'s "Slow Streets" program launched in the Del Rey neighborhood on Friday, May 15, 2020.(Courtesy Eric DeSobe)

"We weren't even talking about closing down streets entirely," he told me last week, "just sort of putting some cones up and letting [drivers] know there might be activity in the street, and to go slower."

Bonin also said he was "absolutely baffled" that county officials would not sign off on the small-scale initiative, but reopened hiking trails countywide. On Friday, he lauded the official launch of the program as "a great way to make our streets more family-friendly."

"Kids who were cooped up in cramped apartments get a little more space to play, seniors get a little more room to walk, and exercise enthusiasts get a little more space to jog or cycle," he said in a statement. "Without this program, people were finding it difficult to maintain the proper distance from others on narrow, congested sidewalks and were feeling unsafe walking on the street amid speeding cars and construction trucks."

Garcetti said more neighborhoods have requested similar changes on their streets; LADOT has already received some applications, according to Sweeney.

The motion the Del Rey Neighborhood Council passed last month was based on a template created by Streets for All, a nonprofit organization that advocates for more investment in public transit and sustainable transportation in the region.

Adriane Hoff, who sits on that group's steering committee and serves on the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council, said the program could be especially vital for L.A.'s disadvantaged communities, where residents often lack the safety infrastrucure more affluent neighborhoods benefit from.

"This would also help provide a safer space for essential workers ... to get to and from places of employment," she told me this week. "A lot of these folks rely on public transportation, which is not very conducive to social distancing. But if they were able to utilize active mobility, like riding their bikes to work, we should help ... and give them a safe place to do that."

FEWER CARS, MORE SPEEDING

The Slow Streets program is rolling out as speeding ramps up on L.A. roads.

Soon after stay-at-home orders were enacted in L.A., people began driving faster.

Citywide, the percentage of drivers going over the speed limit has increased an average of 17%, compared to the weeks before stay-at-home orders were enacted, Sweeney told me. That's based on data gathered from speed feedback signs installed across the city. Speeding was up as much as 30% on some corridors, Sweeney said.

Typically, L.A.'s traffic signals run on a fixed cycle and sync up based on normal traffic patterns, according to Dan Mitchell, chief engineer for LADOT. But those more open roads and long stretches of green lights have enticed some drivers to go drive recklessly.

"What feels comfortable in a car feels very differently to people who are outside of a car riding a bike, or a scooter, or on foot," Mitchell said. "It's important that people are aware that we have more people out and about, and that they're particularly vulnerable to people driving their car too fast."

That's why earlier this month, LADOT switched daytime signals to "nighttime mode," which runs on a cycle designed "to take care of people as they arrive from whatever direction they arrive," Mitchell said.

"The signal is trying to get through everybody's turn as quickly as possible," he explained. "It also does not create that coordinated pattern of green lights down the street that can cause people to go faster on our streets, [which] makes our streets less safe."

Mitchell added that traffic volume has been cut almost in half.

"It has been slowly creeping up since then, but it's still at significantly lower levels, and most parts of the city are not experiencing congestion," Mitchell said.

So vehicle traffic is down and speeding is up. What does that mean for street safety in L.A.?

You might think that with fewer people driving, our streets would be less deadly — at least in the short-term. But this is Los Angeles.

After an initial lull when our local and regional "Safer at Home" orders took effect, traffic deaths on city streets have surged in recent weeks and are now at the same level as this time last year, according to LAPD officials.

As of Wednesday, 86 people have been killed in traffic collisions on city streets this year, Commander Marc Reina of the LAPD's Traffic Group said at a press conference Thursday.

Fifty of those victims — nearly 60% — were pedestrians killed by drivers, Reina said, and three victims were bicyclists. Police have logged more than 360 collisions that caused severe injuries so far this year, he added.

Reina had a simple message for drivers:

"Please slow down. Put your cell phones down. Don't be a distracted driver and be extremely mindful of your surroundings — especially of the pedestrians and bicyclists."

In 2019, more than 240 people died in traffic collisions on L.A. streets, according to city data. Roughly 55% of those victims were pedestrians struck by drivers. In the past 10 years, overall traffic deaths in Los Angeles have risen 32% while the number of pedestrians killed by drivers jumped 52%.

UPDATES:

Monday, May 18, 2:40 p.m.: This article was updated with new comments from LADOT spokesperson Colin Sweeney regarding LAPD's role in enforcing the Slow Streets program.

This article was originally published at 5:15 p.m. on Friday, May 15.

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