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City leaders: Angelenos don’t understand just how deadly LA’s streets are

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Safe street advocates agree—but they also say city leaders aren’t committing to fixing the problem

Men and women walk in a marked crosswalk with a tall old building in the background.
Last year, 135 pedestrians were hit and killed by cars in the city of Los Angeles.

Faced with a steep increase in the number of pedestrians killed on LA’s streets, city leaders are re-examining how to fulfill their promise of preventing all traffic deaths by 2025.

They’re standing by their plan, called Vision Zero, but they say they will be proactive about underscoring to Angelenos why the changes it prescribes, some of which are highly unpopular, are needed to remedy the deadly streets crisis.

There aren’t any details yet on how they will accomplish that; Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin suggested an aggressive publicity campaign, potentially including celebrity PSAs.

“I think most people in Los Angeles are shocked when they find out that there are more traffic fatalities than gang homicides,” Bonin said, speaking Wednesday at the city’s transportation committee meeting. “They are shocked to find out how much we invest in reducing gang homicides and how little we invest in [reducing] traffic fatalities.”

Signed by Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2015, Vision Zero’s initial target was to reduce traffic deaths by 20 percent by 2017.

The city missed that goal by a large margin. From 2016 to 2017, the number of traffic deaths dipped slightly while the number of pedestrian deaths skyrocketed.

In 2015, 74 pedestrians were struck and killed by cars. That number rose sharply to 115 in 2016, and it ballooned again last year to 135 in 2017. Though pedestrians are involved in only 8 percent of the total collisions citywide, they make up 44 percent of the city’s traffic deaths, according to the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

City officials say they hope better communication will lead to more public support. In the past, some Vision Zero road changes, notably a road diet in Playa Del Rey, were met with fierce public opposition because they lengthened commuter travel times.

But safe streets advocates say there’s another piece of the puzzle when it comes to making Vision Zero more effective—commitment from elected officials.

Some transportation department recommendations designed to reduce the amount of road deaths have been ignored or blocked by City Councilmembers. That’s important, because it’s City Councilmembers have the power to say whether a specific safe-street project moves forward within their districts.

“I don’t want to sound dramatic, but these are life and death situations,” says Emilia Crotty, executive director of pedestrian advocacy organization Los Angeles Walks. “It’s really, really scary to see that some elected official can determine whether or not the city implements a public health intervention. That’s not the way things should operate.”

Matt Tinoco

Consider road diets, which reduce the number of car lanes in order to slow the travel speed of cars. Though road diets are proven to reduce the number of of traffic collisions by up to 47 percent, City Councilmembers have halted road diets proposed by LADOT in multiple neighborhoods, including Mid City, North Hollywood, Historic Filipinotown, and Highland Park.

“It’s kind of a long running thing that LADOT has to do what is okay with the council district,” says Mehmet Berker, a member of the Mid-City West Community Council. “The department can’t override the councilmember, unlike other cities where the transit department is more independent and on top. LA has such a strong City Council, which means what they say goes.”

Berker looks at a proposed road diet for Sixth Street as an example. Though LADOT has, in the past, recommended a road diet for Sixth Street between Fairfax and La Brea Avenues, councilmember David Ryu released a statement last December that effectively quashed near-term hopes for a full road diet. Instead, Sixth Street received smaller treatments like left-turn pockets and crosswalks.

Though there has been plenty of hesitancy about bike lanes and road diets over the past few years, it was the bungled road diet in Playa del Rey that touched off a recent firestorm of public criticism of Vision Zero specifically. Radio hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou stepped into the fray, blasting the city repeatedly for months over what they interpreted to be an anti-driver agenda. After Manhattan Beach residents filed a lawsuit, Los Angeles reversed the road diet and restored the traffic lanes.

Looking back, city employees and activists say the Playa del Rey road diet could have been approached with a better education campaign.

Their hope is that greater public awareness of—and enthusiasm for reducing—traffic deaths will encourage some City Councilmembers to be less hesitant, and more willing to make streets in their districts safer.