Los Angeles Times


L.A. activists want more street space for cyclists and pedestrian­s, but drivers fear losing lanes

- By Rachel Uranga

In the city where the car is king, activists are pushing to claim strips of the biggest boulevards for bicyclists and walkers.

Their fight has played out at Griffith Park, where streets were recently closed after a cyclist was killed. It spilled out along the steps of City Hall, where advocates staged a die-in. And now, it could make its way to the ballot box in a vote that will test traffic-weary Angelenos’ willingnes­s to put themselves on a socalled road diet to make streets safer and the air cleaner.

Los Angeles City Clerk Holly Wolcott cleared the way this week for a 2024 voter initiative that fast-tracks the city’s own ambitious traffic plan to create hundreds of miles of more walkable and bikeable streets by implementi­ng it every time roads are repaved. The City Council must now decide whether to send it to voters or adopt it outright.

As it is, the 7-year old city plan reworks some of Los Angeles’ most storied boulevards, adding bicycle lanes, building wider sidewalks, planting more trees and creating more visible crosswalks. Originally meant to be achieved over 20 years, the plan offers a guide that can be modified over time to

adjust to changing needs, city planners say. But the blueprint became bogged down by red tape among city department­s, lawsuits and lack of political will in the face of many drivers who say it will cause more congestion by removing traffic lanes.

The city has met only 3% of its actual goals, says Michael Schneider, a software entreprene­ur who helms the advocacy group Streets for All, which birthed the plan.

“We have 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 hasn’t worked so well,” said Schneider. “We needed a nuclear option. The city wasn’t going to voluntaril­y do what they said they wanted to do.”

If approved, the initiative would let any resident sue the city if it failed to comply, creating a headache for councilmem­bers who already field complaints from some locals about bicycle lanes. And it could be overturned only by voters.

Around the globe, cities have been rethinking the role of cars, shutting down streets, creating more room for bicyclists and pedestrian­s and reducing parking requiremen­ts for new projects. The changes come as traffic deaths have reached record highs across the country and the effects of human-induced climate change become more real.

“I think it will be the most significan­t change in Los Angeles since they started doing plans, because for the first time they actually will have to implement their plan,” said Schneider. “There’s a whole history back to the 1960s of Los Angeles having all of these great plans just collecting dust.”

But anything resembling road 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 eliminate a traffic lane, only to later reverse course in 2017 amid a wave of opposition due to tie-ups on the road.

On the Westside, a bicycle lane that clogged up Venice Boulevard split many in the community. And in Eagle Rock, neighbors battled over a planned bus lane that would reduce part of Colorado Boulevard to one lane.

“If you take away vehicle lanes, you are creating congestion,” said Mike Eveloff, a board member of the nonprofit Fix the City. The group successful­ly sued Los Angeles over its mobility plan, mandating that an extensive outreach plan accompany new projects for 10 years. “This will result in even more lawsuits against the city. There are no costs disclosed. This represents a ‘hidden’ tax.”

Eveloff said he once loved to cycle but not anymore. “The infrastruc­ture is incompatib­le with cars, bikes and pedestrian­s sharing the same space.”

Like many advocates, Schneider argues that the city’s car-centered culture considers bicyclists and walkers as an afterthoug­ht, and that is deadly.

In the first six months of this year, 78 pedestrian­s were involved in fatal crashes, up from 56 in the same period in 2021. If the pace continues, it will surpass the record high of 136 in 2017 and 2019. So far this year, there have been nine bicyclists in fatal crashes.

Schneider, a longtime bicyclist who comes from the world of tech startups, has taken a disrupter approach to his activism. But mobility advocates worry that his effort is a quick fix that could create more inequity in underserve­d communitie­s.

Advocates point out that even the process of getting streets paved can tilt toward more wealthy individual­s who have the time or ability to push for street work.

“For those of us who work in transporta­tion justice, there are always consequenc­es from our transporta­tion decisions, and too often we frame them as unintended or unexpected consequenc­es,” said Tamika Butler, a former executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and a doctoral student at UCLA. “When in reality, had the process been more equitable or had people been thinking about equity more, those outcomes wouldn’t be so surprising, and in fact, they might just have been ignored intentiona­lly.”

She singled out the Sixth Street bridge, which was hailed early on as a beautiful project that would connect the historic Eastside to downtown but later exposed the need for public parks and more transit options.

Still, the initiative has sparked buzz among other advocates long frustrated by Los Angeles’ inaction. Schneider’s brash approach has forced City Hall to pay attention. And he’s gotten 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 largely from three wealthy donors: Arts District developer Yuval BarZemer and real estate developer Todd Wexman, who are both board members of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, and hedge fund manager Aaron Sosnick. All are cyclists.

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

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

With that possibilit­y of a ballot measure looming, City Council President Nury Martinez introduced a counterpro­posal, approved by the council earlier this year.

She asked the city attorney to similarly create an ordinance that would make the mobility plan part of regular street maintenanc­e.

Her effort pushes further in several ways: It seeks a working plan that prioritize­s low-income and transit-dependent neighborho­ods, adds a local hiring program and institutes more coordinati­on between department­s that tend to be siloed. Advocates and city officials have long decried the slowness of city projects that often must get sign-off from multiple department­s.

“We need solutions that work, because traffic violence continues to rise, disproport­ionately impacting low-income communitie­s of color,” Martinez said. “There is no doubt this is an equity issue. However, to resolve it, we can’t rush a quick fix that could lead to even more disparity. We must have a systemic approach that looks at how we deliver infrastruc­ture and who we deliver it to.”

Martinez’s approach has gained the support of a few mobility advocates who fear that pushing forward the initiative without a plan could exacerbate inequity in the city.

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

Meaney points out that unlike other big cities, Los Angeles doesn’t have a transparen­t capital plan, so one doesn’t always know what street projects will be funded when.

“There needs to be a slowdown. We need an implementa­tion plan. The one thing the mobility plan does not have is project lists with budgets, with how much projects cost, what kind of scope it is and the timeline.”

Martinez’s effort begins to answer those questions and, if adopted, could be rolled out by the time the ballot measure is slated to go to a vote.

For his part, Schneider backs the Martinez effort. But he also wants his measure to either be adopted by the council or go before voters.

He warns that Martinez’s plans could all be upended if another regime comes in and reworks them. Overturnin­g the ballot measure would require a majority of voters.

“We want a little bit more protection than just being at the whims of the City Council,” he said.

 ?? Genaro Molina Los Angeles Times ?? BICYCLISTS CHAT on a stretch of Griffith Park Drive that has been indefinite­ly closed to cars to improve safety after a cyclist’s death in April.
Genaro Molina Los Angeles Times BICYCLISTS CHAT on a stretch of Griffith Park Drive that has been indefinite­ly closed to cars to improve safety after a cyclist’s death in April.
 ?? Mel Melcon Los Angeles Times ?? A BICYCLE rider passes a mural on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. If the ballot measure making streets safer for pedestrian­s and cyclists is approved, it would let any resident sue the city if it failed to comply.
Mel Melcon Los Angeles Times A BICYCLE rider passes a mural on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. If the ballot measure making streets safer for pedestrian­s and cyclists is approved, it would let any resident sue the city if it failed to comply.

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