Activists Say LA Is Barely Following Its Plan To Improve Streets. They Want Voters To Make Them
Los Angeles leaders launched two initiatives in 2015 aimed at making city streets safer and more accessible for people walking, biking and rolling.
One was Vision Zero, adopted from an international traffic safety strategy to reduce the risks of deaths and serious injury in traffic collisions.
The other was Mobility Plan 2035, which had a similar goal to create safer, liveable streets and reduce reliance on car travel by committing to citywide improvements like bike lanes, pedestrian crossings and better public transit.
Key to doing so, according to the plan itself:
Lay the foundation for a network of complete streets and establish new complete street standards that will provide safe and efficient transportation for pedestrians (especially for vulnerable users such as children, seniors and the disabled), bicyclists, transit riders, and car and truck drivers, and more.
Despite putting both plans in motion more than six years ago, L.A.’s streets are deadlier now than they were then, especially for people walking.
In 2015, 186 people were killed in crashes on city streets. Last year, the death toll was 294, according to city data. Pedestrians make up the largest share of victims, with 132 people killed by drivers while walking last year. That’s up 50% from 2015.
Fed up, a coalition of safety advocates and community groups is working to get a measure on the local ballot this November. The measure would compel the city to follow its mobility plan whenever it repaves a street. That’s rarely happening now, according to the group, called Healthy Streets LA.
Citing mapping data, organizers say the city has implemented just 3% of the improvements outlined in the plan since 2015.
“At that rate, it would take them over 200 years to fully implement a 20-year plan,” said Michael Schneider, one of the petition organizers and founder of Streets For All, a street safety advocacy group.
Asked for clarity on the progress of the mobility plan, L.A Department of City Planning officials declined to provide data on how much of the plan has been enacted, saying a progress report is in the works and expected to be released “later this year.”
“Policy documents are intended to be implemented over a 20-year horizon typically, so progress is expected to be achieved over time,” department spokesperson Nora Frost told us. “Any data claims at the moment are unsubstantiated speculation.”
Schneider contends his group’s figures are accurate and were pulled from public city mapping data.
“We used the city’s own files,” he said.
Healthy Streets LA will need 93,000 registered L.A. voters to sign its petition by May 27 in order to qualify for November’s ballot. The group says they've received letters of support from two dozen of L.A.'s neighborhood councils so far and are working to build more support.
For Schneider, the biggest challenge is L.A.’s car-centric mentality, where “no matter how safe you make biking, or how efficient you make the bus, no one's ever going to bike or take the bus, and therefore we should just be building around cars.” Schneider has questions for people who give him that script:
What I ask them is: ‘Is what we're doing working today? Are you never in traffic? Is finding parking easy? Do you like the quality of the air you breathe? Do you enjoy your commute?’ If the answer to those things are no, then the question becomes: ‘Well, what do we do about it?’
He also pointed to a lack of political will — a common criticism from safety advocates — as a key reason why L.A.’s streets remain so deadly, noting that the city’s elected leaders “don’t need voters’ permission to follow their own plan.”
“They could at any time pass an ordinance to say ‘when we repave a street, we're going to follow our own mobility plan,’” Schneider said. “Our city is very good at plans … and we create really good plans. Where we struggle is the implementation of the plans that we create.”
Outreach Challenges, Staffing Shortages And Political Will
It’s not just activists — some city leaders have also addressed the lack of progress to make L.A. safer and more accessible for Angelenos walking and rolling.
Councilmember Nithya Raman said one factor is who elected officials hear from the most.
“Council offices hear from voices that say no more frequently than they hear from voices that say yes,” she told LAist. “Building that community of people who say yes and who say [they] actually want these improvements … that's another way of overcoming some of the challenges.”
Raman highlighted another major bottleneck: L.A.’s Department of Transportation “is really understaffed to actually deliver on [street safety] projects.” She offered this comparison:
In the city of L.A., there's only five staff members that are fully dedicated to active transportation projects for L.A.'s 7,500-odd miles of streets…If you compare that to New York City, it has about 8,000 miles of roadway and they have 34 staff members that are fully dedicated to active transportation projects.”
Raman cited those figures from an LADOT report to the City Council last October, in which department leader Seleta Reynolds states: “staff turnover, retirements, and a high vacancy rate department wide have affected LADOT’s ability to assign more staff, fully dedicated to active transportation.”
The city’s power structure also adds to those challenges, Raman said, specifically “there could be stronger advocacy and a stronger voice from the mayor.”
And because City Council members are typically tasked with securing funding for street improvements in their district, they have discretion over which safety plans are funded — or not — and which features are actually implemented. That means some communities see upgrades promptly (though often after a fatal crash) while other communities wait in limbo for similar improvements on their streets.
That lack of unified safety strategy has created what Raman called a “piecemeal process” of fragmented bike lanes, rather than the connected network outlined in the mobility plan.
“To achieve the broader goals of our city, I think we should be taking some of the discretion away from council members,” she said.
If You Build It, Will They Bike?
A recent project in Raman’s 4th Council District, which includes parts of Los Feliz, Griffith Park, Studio City and Sherman Oaks, provides an example of the mobility plan in action. Earlier this month, Raman and other city officials marked the opening of new protected bike lanes along Riverside Drive, stretching roughly half a mile between Los Feliz and Glendale boulevards.
Today, we hosted a community celebration to officially unveil the new protected bike lanes on Riverside Drive! I am so thankful to my staff, @ladotofficial, and @bsslosangeles for their dedication to bringing this project to fruition. pic.twitter.com/iche38GkGE— Councilmember Nithya Raman (@cd4losangeles) April 7, 2022
Raman’s office noticed that plans to repave that stretch of Riverside Drive overlapped with bike lanes outlined in the mobility plan. After getting feedback through a community outreach campaign, the city moved forward with protected bike lanes and reduced car lanes.
Raman said she used to ride her bike regularly on city streets, but after being struck by a driver, she was rattled and mostly stopped. She hopes adding more protected bike lanes can help alleviate that same fear in others.
“I'm much more likely now to bike to Griffith Park than I was before we made this investment,” Raman said. “I'm hoping that the more that we can make these kinds of investments, the more that we can encourage people who have legitimate fears, like I do, that it is safe to get out of your car. And I think in order to do that you need to build a network.”
Not all L.A. councilmembers have fully embraced the safety model outlined in the mobility plan and Vision Zero. It sometimes calls for reducing space for cars in favor of safer access for people riding bikes. Safety advocates have called out several council members — including Paul Koretz, Gil Cedillo and Mitch O’Farrell — for nixing bike lanes from street projects in their districts.
For example, in 2017 LADOT proposed a road diet on a dangerous stretch of Temple Street between Virgil and Beaudry avenues. The initial plan called for bike lanes, which would require reducing vehicle lanes in each direction. LADOT officials estimated driving on that section of Temple Street could take up to 4 ½ minutes longer end-to-end. They also stated that reconfiguring the street could reduce traffic collisions by almost 90% and prevent people from being killed or seriously injured each year.
Apparently, that wasn’t a trade-off drivers were willing to make. Asked about that project this month, LADOT spokesman Colin Sweeney told LAist the bike lane plan “was brought to the community though not ultimately adopted based upon feedback.” LADOT did not respond to requests to elaborate on the nature of that feedback.
The department later estimated there had been 40 fatal and severe-injury crashes on that section of Temple Street between 2009 and 2019.
Cyclist Deaths And Injuries Continue To Climb
L.A.’s Mobility Plan 2035 envisions about 1,100 miles of bike lanes, with approximately 300 miles of protected lanes.
Preliminary city data show drivers killed 17 cyclists last year and seriously injured more than 130 others.
And just last weekend, cyclist Andrew Jelmert was hit and killed by a driver while on a training ride in Griffith Park. Raman, whose district includes the park, said her office had already been considering safety improvements on the road where Jelmert was killed.
“We will continue that work with greater urgency,” she said in a tweet. “There is no time to waste.”
I was devastated to learn that on Saturday, Andrew Jelmert – an avid cyclist and AIDS/LifeCycle rider – lost his life after being struck by a vehicle. Cycling in this City should never be a life or death calculation, and it is our job to create streets that serve everyone’s needs pic.twitter.com/nhznGVk77u— Councilmember Nithya Raman (@cd4losangeles) April 19, 2022