The ‘nuclear option’ in L.A.’s war to rein in the mighty car, make streets safe

In the city where the car is king, activists are pushing to claim strips of the main boulevards for cyclists and pedestrians.

Their fight took place in Griffith Park, where roads were recently closed after a cyclist was killed. It spilled down the steps of City Hall, where lawyers staged a dying. And now it could go to the ballot box in a vote testing the willingness of traffic-weary Angelenos to embark on a so-called street diet to make the roads safer and the air cleaner.

Los Angeles City Clerk Holly Wolcott this week cleared the way for a 2024 voter initiative that will accelerate the city’s ambitious transportation plan to create hundreds of miles of better walkable and cycleable streets by implementing it every time when roads are repaved. The Los Angeles City Council must now decide whether to send it to voters or accept it directly.

As it stands, the 7-year-old city plan reworks some of Los Angeles’ most famous boulevards, adding bike lanes, building wider sidewalks, planting more trees and creating more visible crosswalks. Originally intended to cover a 20-year period, the document offers a guide that can be modified over time to adapt to changing needs, city planners say. But the blueprint has been bogged down by red tape between city authorities, lawsuits and a lack of political will, with many drivers saying it will lead to more congestion by removing lanes.

The city has only met 3% of its original goals, says Michael Schneider, a software entrepreneur who runs the Streets for All advocacy group that created the plan.

“We spent years using data, trying to be nice, trying to be persuasive, trying to get the city to do what they said they wanted to do, but it did didn’t work that well,” said Schneider. “We needed a nuclear option. The city would not willingly do what it said it wanted to do.”

If the initiative is approved, any resident could sue the city if it doesn’t comply, causing a headache for councillors, who are already taking complaints from some locals about bike lanes. And it could only be overturned by the voters.

Around the world, cities have reconsidered the role of the car, closed roads, made more space for cyclists and pedestrians, and reduced the need for parking for new projects. The changes come as road deaths across the country have reached record highs and the effects of human-caused climate change are becoming more real.

“I think it’s going to be the most significant change in Los Angeles since they started making plans because it’s the first time they’ve actually had to execute their plan,” Schneider said. “There’s a whole story that goes back to the 1960s when Los Angeles was dusting all those great plans.”

But anything resembling street diets has historically caused an uproar in a region where traffic is a bane of existence.

After a teenager was killed near Dockweiler State Beach, the city scrambled to clear one lane, only to reverse course later in 2017 amid a wave of opposition due to on-road congestion. On the Westside, a bike lane clogging Venice Boulevard divided many in the community. And in Eagle Rock, neighbors were fighting over a proposed bus lane that will reduce part of Colorado Boulevard to one lane.

“When you take away lanes, you create traffic jams,” said Mike Eveloff, board member of nonprofit Fix The City. The group successfully sued Los Angeles over its mobility plan, demanding that a comprehensive outreach plan accompany new projects for 10 years. “This will lead to even more lawsuits against the city. No costs are shown. This constitutes a ‘hidden’ tax.”

Eveloff said he once loved riding a bike, but not anymore. “The infrastructure is not compatible with cars, bicycles and pedestrians sharing the same space.”

Like many proponents, Schneider argues that the city’s car-centric culture views cyclists and pedestrians as an afterthought, and that’s deadly.

In the first six months of this year, 78 pedestrians were involved in fatal accidents, up from 56 for the same period in 2021. If the pace continues, it will surpass record highs set in 2017 and 2019, when that number hit 136. So far this year, nine cyclists have been involved in fatal collisions.

Schneider, a longtime cyclist who comes from the world of tech startups, has taken a disruptive approach to his activism. However, longtime mobility advocates are concerned that his efforts represent a quick fix that could lead to more injustice in underserved communities. Proponents point out that even the process of paving streets can result in wealthier individuals who have the time or ability to push for street work.

“For those of us who work in transportation justice, our transportation decisions always have consequences, and too often we portray them as unintended or unexpected consequences,” said Tamika Butler, former executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and a UCLA graduate student, “if the process had actually been fairer, or if people had thought more about justice, these results would not have been so surprising, and in fact, they might just have been ignored on purpose.”

She highlighted projects like the Sixth Street Bridge, which was early hailed as a beautiful infrastructure project that would connect the historic East Side to downtown, but later revealed the need for public parks and more transit options.

Still, the initiative has drawn attention from other advocates who have long been frustrated by Los Angeles’ inaction. Schneider’s bold approach forces the town hall to pay attention. And he has garnered support from dozens of neighborhood councils, mobility advocates and some business groups.

Schneider’s political action committee Healthy Streets LA has raised nearly $1 million primarily from three wealthy donors: Arts District developer Yuval Bar-Zemer and real estate developer Todd Wexman, both board members of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, and hedge fund Manager Aaron Sosnick. All are cyclists.

Wexman supports the effort because he said the city is ineffective at improving mobility.

“People should feel safe walking or cycling in the city,” he said. “With more bus lanes and other improvements, the public would use mass transit more often and we would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.”

Faced with this possibility of a voting action, Council President Nury Martinez presented a counter-proposal which was approved by City Council earlier this year. She asked the City Attorney to similarly issue an ordinance that would make the mobility plan a part of regular road maintenance.

Their efforts go further in several ways: they are aiming for a work plan that prioritizes low-income and transit-dependent neighborhoods, adding a local hiring program, and introducing more coordination between departments that tend to be isolated. Advocates and city officials have long denounced the slowness of city projects, which often require approval from multiple departments.

“We need solutions that work because street violence continues to rise and disproportionately impact low-income black communities,” Martinez said. “There is no doubt that it is an equity issue. However, to solve the problem, we cannot create a quick fix that could lead to even more inequality. We need a systems approach to how we provide infrastructure and who we deliver it to.”

Martinez’s approach has garnered support from some mobility advocates who fear going ahead with the initiative without a plan could exacerbate injustice in the city.

“Streets For All has done an impressive job of urging City Council to answer a question we’ve all had for a long time. Why are our streets and sidewalks so dangerous, so lousy, so inaccessible? But we need to understand the impact of the voting action,” said Jessica Meaney, executive director of Investing in Place.

Meaney points out that unlike other major cities, Los Angeles doesn’t have a transparent capital plan, so it’s not always clear which road projects will get funded and when.

“There has to be a slowdown. We need an implementation plan. The only thing that the mobility plan doesn’t have are project lists with budgets, how much projects cost, what the scope is and the schedule. ”

Martinez’s efforts are beginning to answer those questions and, if accepted, could be rolled out by the time the ballot measure is due to go to a vote.

For his part, Schneider supports Martinez’s efforts. But he also wants his measure to either be adopted by the Council or come before the electorate. He warns that all of Martinez’s plans could be turned upside down if another regime comes along and overhauls them. A majority of voters would be required to overturn the voting measure.

“We want a little more protection than just being subject to the whims of the city council,” he said. The ‘nuclear option’ in L.A.’s war to rein in the mighty car, make streets safe

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