Drivers use a busy stretch of Jefferson Boulevard west of Vermont the same way they use many popular Los Angeles corridors: flying down extra-wide lanes at dangerously high speeds in order to get somewhere else. But many of the residents who live here rely on public transit, bikes, and sidewalks to get around, putting themselves at greater risk than those traveling in cars every time they use the street.
So neighbors are taking matters into their own hands, successfully proposing and implementing grassroots changes to the thoroughfare, without waiting for the city’s intervention.
“It’s a simple question for those of us who live in the neighborhood,” says Niki Wong, director of Make Jefferson Beautiful. “These are streets that we walk and bike on every day.”
Make Jefferson Beautiful is an initiative launched five years ago by Redeemer Community Partnership, a community development corporation based out of a church just west of USC. It began as a street beautification project, with a strong environmental justice angle that includes improving the neighborhood from a public health perspective (part of the effort also hopes to stop local oil drilling).
In a striking contrast to groups in neighborhoods like Silver Lake, Mar Vista, and Playa del Rey that are organizing against similar safety improvements—and even suing the city to reverse existing changes—this LA community is united in its desire to transform its street design.
After community meetings that included sessions on how to address the area’s dangerous levels of air pollution as well as tree-planting workshops, a team of neighbors presented several proposed “treatments” to the community to improve quality of life along the corridor, along with detailed infographics explaining the benefits.
The most popular treatments selected by neighbors included changes like adding more trees, widening sidewalks, and creating a dedicated bike lane. These are many of the elements that make up a “road diet”—the traffic calming infrastructure the city puts in place to reduce vehicle speeds, which some other neighborhoods have rallied against.
Their work has now garnered statewide attention. Make Jefferson Beautiful has been awarded a $6.3 million active transportation grant from Caltrans to implement its vision.
The grant will pay for protected bike lanes, sidewalk repairs, pedestrian lighting, and trees on Jefferson Boulevard from Vermont Avenue to Western Avenue. In addition, the group has also received help from Los Angeles City Councilmember, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who has been one of the most vocal elected officials to endorse Vision Zero, and who connected the group with engineers and planning department representatives to do traffic and economic studies of their proposed changes.
Los Angeles has the highest rate of traffic deaths of any large U.S. city, and LA’s Department of Transportation general manager Seleta Reynolds directly attributes a recent uptick in deaths to speeding.
Just last week, a major study by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that speed plays an even bigger role in the U.S.’s traffic death epidemic than previously thought. The report made recommendations for cities to reduce speed limits—many of which were set decades ago using an archaic rule which does not account for the many types of users on today’s urban streets. Cities like Boston, New York, and San Francisco are setting citywide speed limits of 25 mph or less.
This is why LADOT is taking trying to reduce road speeds by redesigning its most dangerous corridors.
Yet this approach has been met with serious opposition from some neighborhood groups and even city leaders. Angry commuters have launched campaigns trying to discredit LADOT data and spread misinformation through Twitter accounts claiming to be “city-sponsored advocacy groups.” One councilmember wants to ban road diets in his district.
Adding to the ugliness, about two dozen local transportation advocates received a troubling letter by an anoymous author who fantasized that “someday we’ll be driving along late at night, witness an automobile strike a bicyclist at high speed, sending him flying to the pavement, cheer as the offending motor vehicle races away from the scene.”
Wong hasn’t seen any organized opposition to Make Jefferson Beautiful. “We encountered individuals who were worried about what bike lanes might mean,” she says. “Either with a sentiment of how they don’t want things to change or how it would impact property or business.”
But Wong says she’s optimistic that the group has been diligent about addressing concerns. “Up until now it has been a very smooth process, but we know going forward there is an opportunity for opposition. We will continue to be involved in the community, trying to quell those legitimate concerns to show that the drawbacks and cost of the treatment is worth it due to the benefits it will bring.”
Although this part of Jefferson is on the city’s high-injury network, it hasn’t been specifically targeted by LADOT as one of the 40 corridors to receive safety improvements. Wong supports the city’s data-driven approach, but believes Jefferson’s stats are actually worse than what LADOT says—she thinks the data in particular underestimates the number of crashes in certain neighborhoods where people might be wary about summoning the police.
“In South LA, there are so many injuries that happen and go unreported,” she says. “If you focus just on reported injuries you might not capture the truth about the most dangerous streets.”
Besides, when it came to making the case for simple changes, she says her neighbors didn’t need data. The need for quality of life improvements was tangibly obvious to the area’s many transit-dependent residents, including Wong herself, who lives a few blocks from work.
“When I talk to our neighbors in our community they walk and bike not just for recreation but for necessity,” says Wong. “What really came out of the community was that our community ought to be safer—and had to be safer.”