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Should LA close streets to cars to give walkers more room?

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The idea is gaining traction on the Westside

AP

Del Rey resident Matt Wersinger says he tries to walk around the block with his wife and daughter daily.

It’s a simple activity, but one that can be tricky and stressful to accomplish while obeying orders from public health officials to keep at least six feet apart from others when venturing outside.

“We walk around our neighborhood and we see there’s not enough room for people to pass each other,” Wersinger says.

Wersinger, who chairs the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, suggests a simple solution to this problem: Close certain streets to cars, and open them up to pedestrians and cyclists.

In a virtual meeting last week, the neighborhood council approved a motion authored by board member Eric DeSobe calling on the city’s transportation department to “pilot a temporary emergency safe streets network” in the area, “redistributing” lanes of traffic on portions of some streets, and closing off others to cars entirely (except for local traffic).

On Monday, City Councilmember Mike Bonin, who represents the area and chairs the city council’s transportation committee, sent a letter to transportation officials supporting the proposal.

“During the past month, we have all experienced the ways in which our neighborhood infrastructure does not support new patterns of local essential travel, and does not provide sufficient space for local recreation,” he wrote in the letter.

Other cities, including Oakland and Minneapolis, have already opened up street space for pedestrian use, Bonin pointed out.

“I would like to work with you to bring these ideas to the city of Los Angeles... starting in Del Rey and West Los Angeles,” he wrote.

With thousands of Angelenos now unemployed, and many others working from home, traffic within the city has all but disappeared over the last six weeks. According to transportation data analyst Inrix, rush hour vehicle speeds were up to 63 percent faster than average in mid March.

Cars are moving so quickly through the city, in fact, that the transportation department has adjusted daytime traffic signals to prevent drivers from reaching dangerous speeds.

Meanwhile, local officials have closed beaches, trails, and many parks, significantly limiting space available for outdoor recreation.

Given the lack of traffic, Wersinger says restricting traffic on certain streets would be unlikely to disrupt drivers making essential trips. He also says he’s not worried that opening streets could simply draw more people to the area, further complicating physical distancing efforts.

“I think giving people a little more room to breathe doesn’t mean people are going to be coming there looking for a place to play,” he says.

Jessica Meaney, director of transportation advocacy group Investing in Place, says she supports efforts to create more spaces in Los Angeles for those who aren’t driving, but she says local officials need to carefully consider how and where these projects are implemented.

“Right now our message is stay at home,” she says. “So anything that’s not stay at home needs to be really well thought out.”

Meaney says transportation and public health officials should be focusing first and foremost on ensuring that those without cars are able to access goods and services they depend on.

“If we’re going to think about improving ways for people to get around, how are we listening to what communities need?” she says. “Right now, communication and transparency are essential.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the neighborhood council requested closure of three specific streets. The motion was amended and does not include any specific street names.