Four times a day, taking my daughter to and from school, I cross one of the 40 most dangerous streets in the city.
Temple Street is hilly, for one, so visibility for turning is particularly bad. It’s straight, with few lights, so drivers treat it like a speedway. It’s wider than it needs to be, with short crosswalk crossing times that make it hard to get to the other side. It’s close to the freeway, so cars don’t slow down when they exit the offramp. In the 10 months I’ve been traveling this route, I’ve seen two frightening crashes.
Every time I navigate this street with my 2-year-old, I see a statistic as clearly as if it were painted on the pavement below my feet: Traffic deaths, according to the county’s public health department, are now the leading cause of death for Los Angeles children.
Last year, 260 pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, drivers, and passengers died on LA streets—a staggering 43 percent increase from 2015. This year’s outlook is grimmer. So far in 2017, pedestrian deaths are up 48.5 percent compared to the same time last year, according to Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the city’s transportation department.
“There is no question we are moving in the wrong direction,” she said at a budget hearing earlier this month.
Some advocates would say LA has been moving in the wrong direction for 60 years, ever since the city opted to redesign itself for cars. But just in the last year, voters overwhelmingly approved Measure M, voting for more mobility options.
Now is the perfect time to change LA's transportation destiny, says Jessica Meaney, executive director at Investing in Place, as 70 percent of voters said “yes” to not only better public transit but also to more walkable and bikeable communities.
“Approving Measure M was absolutely a turning point for LA,” she says, “but now city leaders have to deliver on the future that was promised to voters.”
The city has a proven strategy to deliver that future. The plan, called Vision Zero, aims to end traffic deaths by 2025, but it also offers a blueprint for the city to stop prioritizing cars and offer more choices for moving through LA’s streets.
But not all city leaders are on board, and a budget battle over the future of LA’s streets is putting the city at a crossroads.
“We know that children and grandparents are going to die. We know that. We’ve seen the data,” said Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin at the May 1 budget meeting. “If gunshots were taking the lives of our children and grandparents, we would be fully funding a way to address that—with urgency.”
Comparing traffic deaths to homicides is now relevant. If traffic deaths continue to increase at the same rate in 2017 as they did in 2016, more people in LA will be killed by cars this year than by gun violence, according to Los Angeles Times homicide data.
Ask a City Council member about homicides and they’ll likely give you a list of what they’re doing to prevent them: gun buyback programs, neighborhood safety groups, or increased enforcement in areas prone to violence.
Vision Zero is like a gun buyback program for LA’s streets. It’s a quick and effective strategy for taking the deadly weapon—the speeding car—away from people who are most at risk.
But Reynolds says LA’s streets are growing more dangerous because the city is becoming denser—and its transportation infrastructure hasn’t changed quickly enough to support it. More people are choosing to walk or bike in places that were originally built to move cars fast, she says.
“A street that was designed for more vehicles going higher speeds is no longer appropriate for how people are using the street,” Reynolds says. High speeds even contributed to a jump in driver versus driver deaths, says Reynolds, which went up 50 percent in 2016.
The new Vision Zero strategy focuses heavily on getting drivers to slow down, through speed limit evaluations, increased enforcement, and an ad campaign. But speeding can be most effectively controlled by road design, says Reynolds, which is why her department is emphasizing the need for infrastructural changes—like lane consolidations, road diets, and traffic-calming devices like speed bumps and medians—to reduce speed.
Even a small intervention, such as a curb extension, which narrows the roadway at an intersection and forces cars to make turns more slowly, can reduce the number of crashes by 20 percent, she says.
Public heath officials agree that reducing vehicle speeds is one of the best tools to save lives and reduce serious injuries when collisions occur.
“Road design has a major impact on health,” says Jean Armbruster, director of the Policies for Livable, Active Communities and Environments program in the county’s public health department. “Research shows that when pedestrians are hit by a car, they’re much more likely to die if that car is traveling more than 20 miles per hour.”
Richard Jackson, professor of public health at UCLA and the former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommends thinking about healthy road design as not just a way to stop collisions, but also to encourage walking and biking to prevent early mortality. “The rate of diabetes in the U.S. is twice what it was 20 years ago,” he says. “Anything that we do that’s removing the ability to be active is killing people.”
Earlier this year, LA’s transportation department released a comprehensive strategy for Vision Zero that included infrastructure changes for the city’s 40 most dangerous corridors. In April, Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed funding that plan to the tune of $16.6 million—more than four times the amount in last year’s budget.
At a meeting of the City Council’s transportation committee on March 29, Councilmember Bonin made a proposal to dedicate two-thirds of the local return funds from Measure M—the money each city in LA County gets from the sales tax increase to use at its discretion—to fund Vision Zero. That would add at least $40 million more to Garcetti’s figure just for 2017. His plan was approved 3-2, with support from councilmembers Jose Huizar and Nury Martinez.
But last week, the prospect of this new path for the city was dashed.
At a budget and finance committee meeting on Friday, councilmembers Paul Krekorian, Mitch Englander, and Bob Blumenfield introduced a motion that would, in effect, completely wipe out most Vision Zero funding from the 2017 budget, leaving only about $3 million from other sources. They want to direct half of Measure M’s local return money toward resurfacing roads instead, and save the rest in an unappropriated balance.
Bonin says he felt blindsided.
“Maybe it’s just because I’m the head of the transportation committee, but I am genuinely haunted that there are street segments where people are going to get seriously injured or killed,” Bonin says.
Two years ago, the city’s transportation department announced the Vision Zero initiative, a partnership with other departments—including police, engineering, fire, and street services—which uses a data-driven approach to street safety that was first modeled in European communities.
Most major cities in the U.S. have adopted Vision Zero policies over the last few years, some with exceptional success. But compared to other large cities, LA’s Vision Zero strategy is woefully underfunded, hollowing out its ability to actually save lives.
New York City’s Vision Zero policy, which has been in place since 2014, has seen a corresponding three-year reduction in traffic deaths. Last year, traffic fatalities declined to their lowest levels ever. Although the city has twice the population of Los Angeles, fewer people died on New York City streets last year.
In 2017, New York City is investing $115 million in Vision Zero, and it will spend even more in the years to come, with a five-year plan to spend $1.6 billion on traffic safety improvements, including major infrastructure projects in all five boroughs.
Los Angeles spent a little over $3 million on Vision Zero in 2016, its first full year with a Vision Zero plan. The 2017 budget includes the same meager allotments: $1.5 million for improvements and $1.5 million on police enforcement.
Reynolds estimates the city would need $80 million in 2017 just to reduce fatalities by 20 percent.
In comparison, the City Council moved last Friday to dedicate $23 million in Measure M local returns for street resurfacing.
Councilmembers Paul Koretz, David Ryu, and Joe Buscaino are pushing for local return funds that prioritize street resurfacing over Vision Zero because they say it’s what their districts want.
Less than one-quarter, or 17 percent, of Measure M revenue is earmarked for street and sidewalk repairs. The tax increase was initiated by Metro, and the highest share of the funding is set aside for major transit projects. But Ryu says his constituents expect Measure M money to go toward road improvements.
“Voters were told that these funds would help enhance our city's infrastructure—fixing our roads, bolstering public safety, increasing transportation options, and enhancing the commuter experience and the quality of life in our neighborhoods,” he says.
Bonin argues there are other pools of money from which to draw to pay for street resurfacing. He points to a newly implemented statewide gas tax that could be used to chip away at the city’s resurfacing list. Plus, he says, there’s no reason that Vision Zero improvements couldn’t include repaving and other necessary repairs.
“For whatever reason, people who are advocates for street reconstruction feel that street reconstruction is threatened if you do Vision Zero,” says Bonin. “Some folks hear ‘safer streets’ and they reflexively think, ‘Oh, this is about bike lanes.’”
One reason some councilmembers might be so resistant to Vision Zero is that wealthier neighborhoods generally need fewer safety improvements. LA’s traffic deaths are distributed across the city disproportionately, concentrated in neighborhoods with lower rates of car ownership, where residents must walk, bike, or use transit, which means these high-injury streets would be addressed first.
Street resurfacing money, though, has historically been divided up evenly by council district, so when it comes to Vision Zero, certain neighborhoods might feel they're being shortchanged.
There are no high-injury corridors prioritized for improvements in Council District 4, for example.
“It was very clear that constituents in my district overwhelmingly were asking for repairs of our streets,” Ryu told the Los Angeles Times. At an April 20 transportation meeting of the Sherman Oaks neighborhood council, representatives from Ryu’s office asked attendees to endorse the resurfacing plan because none of Vision Zero’s prioritized corridors were in Council District 4, and therefore constituents wouldn't directly benefit from Vision Zero, at least for the first year.
On May 9, the Mid-City West neighborhood council, which straddles Council District 4 and Council District 5, unanimously endorsed Bonin’s Vision Zero-focused plan. “These recommendations reflect the value our stakeholders place in making our streets safer,” reads the endorsement.
In an op-ed for the Daily News, Bonin and fellow councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson argued that the geographic disparity is exactly why a well-funded, unified approach to the city’s traffic deaths is needed. “These areas tend to be low-income neighborhoods that have historically suffered from generations of under-investment,” they wrote.
Martinez echoed the call to fully fund Vision Zero—even if every council district doesn’t end up getting the same cut.
“It’s been over 40 years that these communities have been forgotten, and every time we talk about being equitable and fair, these communities continue to be left behind, and I'm not going to allow that to happen,” she said at the March 29 meeting.
It’s not hard to find examples of homeowner associations, local businesses, and advocacy groups like Fix the City that work to oppose safety changes recommended by the transportation department, with arguments that are largely directed at bike lanes. Sunland and Tujunga residents recently flocked to a community meeting to express their distrust in Vision Zero, with one person calling it “part of a global scheme to get drivers out of their cars.”
But some councilmembers have undermined recommended life-saving projects in their own districts.
In Council District 1, Councilmember Gil Cedillo has come under so much fire for denying safety improvements repeatedly recommended for Figueroa Boulevard—including a proposed crosswalk where a boy was later killed—that his strongest challenger, Joe Bray-Ali, ran against him on a safe streets platform. (In yesterday’s runoff election, Cedillo won re-election.)
Koretz has claimed that road resurfacing should be prioritized for the safety of cyclists, but his actions in his own district don’t support this statement. Last year, after pressure from homeowner groups, Koretz voted down six miles of safety improvements recommended for Westwood Boulevard intended to protect the large number of car-free UCLA students. This not only prevented the proposed safety benefits for all users of busy, dangerous Westwood Boulevard, it also pushed cyclists onto smaller streets that would not be prioritized for paving.
Ryu has also suppressed safety improvements, delaying an LADOT-recommended road diet for 6th Street near LACMA and raising doubts about a road diet in Silver Lake. After a young woman was killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing Rowena Avenue in 2012, Ryu’s predecessor Tom LaBonge implemented the road diet, reducing four vehicle lanes to two in an attempt to slow cars down. Before he left office, LaBonge declared that Rowena was unequivocally safer. “There hasn't been a fatality on that street since the road diet came in,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2015.
Three independent studies, including one by data scientists, have shown the Rowena road diet works. There have been zero high-speed crashes on the street since the road diet was completed. Yet at the urging of local residents who are petitioning to take the road diet out, Ryu is hiring an independent consulting firm to study the road diet again. According to spokesperson Estevan Montemayor, the goal is to “determine the effectiveness of the road alterations that were made,” and the cost of the study is $88,850, which will be paid for with the council district’s discretionary funds.
That kind of money could pay for other critical safety improvements, like a rapid flashing signal, says Emilia Crotty, policy and program manager at pedestrian advocacy organization Los Angeles Walks.
“Projects like road diets, which have worked here in LA and across the country, save lives,” says Crotty. “Now we need a city council that rejects the status quo and says ‘enough is enough’—traffic crashes are preventable. We need a city council that fully backs life-saving projects and fully funds Vision Zero.”
If the City Council wants to make an argument about fiscal responsibility and transportation funding, Vision Zero improvements will likely save the city the most money over time.
In addition to a $1.4 billion class-action lawsuit LA settled for its broken sidewalks, negligent street design is now being specifically cited in major lawsuits brought against the city. Last month, LA settled a wrongful death suit awarding $9.5 million to the family of a woman killed while crossing a street in Playa del Rey—on a stretch of Vista del Mar with no crosswalks for two miles, where several collisions had already occurred. Last week, the city paid $4.5 million to the family of a cyclist killed in Eagle Rock who was thrown from his bike after striking uneven cement on a bike route on Colorado Boulevard. The money from just those two settlements, plus the $3 million already promised, could have fulfilled the mayor’s original $16.6 million recommendation for Vision Zero.
The City Council will vote Thursday to approve a budget that has zero new money for Vision Zero. Tomorrow’s also Bike to Work Day, so when you call your councilmember to ask how they’re voting, it would also be a great time to ask the person who represents you how they plan to get to City Hall that day.
If they’re not riding a bike, I can pretty much guarantee their reason is the same as the one that I hear from all of my LA friends who aren’t biking to work on Thursday: They would—if they felt safer.
Update: The city council voted on May 18 to dedicate $27 million to Vision Zero.