West Hollywood Is Creating A Pedestrian-Only Zone On A Busy Road By Banning Cars

(Courtesy city of West Hollywood)

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West Hollywood is the latest local city to rethink public space by closing a street to cars in order to create more space for walking and biking (and likely outdoor dining).

The City Council voted unanimously to launch a limited pilot program on Robertson Boulevard, creating a car-free zone from Santa Monica Boulevard to El Tovar Place, just north of Melrose Avenue. The street will transition to a pedestrian-only space on weekends, from 6 p.m. Saturday to 2 a.m. Mondays.

The pilot is slated to launch in mid-April and will then be studied for three months. Based on the findings, West Hollywood city leaders will then decide to continue the program and potentially expand the vehicle ban to include Friday night.

The portion of Robertson Boulevard set to close to vehicle traffic, shown in red, is designed to allow some space for drivers to access parking areas and turn around in the southern section (bottom right).(Courtesy city of West Hollywood)

City Councilmembers John Erickson and John D'Amico co-sponsored the motion. D'Amico cited ongoing street safety concerns on the roadway, which in pre-pandemic times is a high-traffic area for both drivers and pedestrians taking in the night life. The Abbey, a popular bar and restaurant on Robertson near Santa Monica, brings many revelers to the neighborhood, creating heavy congestion from personal vehicles and ride-share drivers.

A notice calling for patrons to socially distance sits in the outdoor patio of The Abbey, located along the road where the pilot program will take place. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Another reason: to give struggling restaurants and other businesses more outdoor space and create a "pop-up atmosphere for businesses," D'Amico said.

"We know that our businesses and our visitors and our residents are responsible, and they want to do the right thing," he said. "They want to make sure that people don't get infected and keep social distancing, and so we feel confident that an area like this that is planned well and used by businesses will really accomplish what the county was unable to do for the past year, which is sort of chart a course through this pandemic that allows businesses to succeed and stay open."

The program is also welcomed by local law enforcement. Captain Ed Ramirez of the West Hollywood Sheriff Station said pedestrians and other road users face "inherent dangers" on that section of Robertson Boulevard. Ramirez shared statistics from the start of 2018 through this month for the stretch of street included in the pilot, which showed:

  • There have been 62 recorded traffic collisions, 23 of which caused an injury
  • Three pedestrians were hit by people driving cars
  • Sheriff's deputies issued 281 traffic citations, mostly for distracted driving, failure to yield to pedestrians and failure to obey traffic signals

Ramirez said he'd like the program to be expanded to include Friday night as well. One reason he gave: if cars can't use the road, local deputies won't spend as much time writing tickets and filling out collision reports.

"I would much rather utilize our officers for actual crimes that are being committed... as opposed to writing citations," Ramirez said. "The measures that the city and the city engineers are doing absolutely help."

That shift from police enforcement to "self-enforcing" street design have become part of the local and national conversation about how best to save lives and reduce traffic violence.

Not everyone is sold on the idea, though. Much of the public comment from local residents included concerns about spillover traffic and fears that creating more space for people to shop and dine sends a bad signal amid a devastating pandemic.

D'Amico said the city will continue to enforce health and safety rules for businesses that use the space. He thinks much of the negative feedback comes from residents "afraid of any kind of change."

"They want to say, 'How dare you. I've lived here for 25 years, I don't want people I don't know parking in front of my house.' I just think West Hollywood... is a different city than it was in 1995. And I see that it's a different city, most of our residents see that it's a different city. I think there's a lot of opportunity in this kind of thinking around reimagining how to use our public space and turning it over to the public, from the vehicles that are currently using it only to pass through."

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