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Cities are Limiting Car Traffic to Give People More Space to Safely Walk. Why Was a Plan Postponed in L.A.?

The following article was originally published May 8, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

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Story by Ryan Fonseca

 

Reporter Roundup is a collaboration between PBS SoCal/KCET and KPCC/LAist to bring you the biggest headlines M-F about COVID-19. Watch the May 8 episode here.

Fleeing the confines of your home for some fresh air and exercise is one of the few collective joys we have right now. But trying to navigate narrow Los Angeles sidewalks as all your neighbors stroll, bike, jog and walk their dogs — while still trying to follow social distancing guidelines — can present a challenge.

That's why some Angelenos want the city to rethink how public streets and sidewalks can best serve their needs in the age of coronavirus.

growing number of U.S. cities, including New York CityPortland and Oakland, have launched plans to limit vehicle traffic, reduce car speeds and promote more space for residents to safely walk, bike and play in their neighborhoods.

But a grassroots effort to launch a similar program on the Westside as a model that other L.A. neighborhoods could adopt has been put on hold. Here's a look at why the city pumped the brakes and what's happening next.

 

SEEKING 'MORE PROTECTION' ON NEIGHBORHOOD STREETS

"Stay 6 feet apart" sign next to a traffic cone on a bike lane | Courtesy LADOT
"Stay 6 feet apart" sign next to a traffic cone on a bike lane | Courtesy LADOT

As Matt Wersinger, president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, walked around his community with his family, he was struck by the challenge of keeping a safe distance from others while getting the fresh air and exercise keeping us (mostly) sane right now.

"Parts of Del Rey are dense and have apartment buildings," Wersinger said. "Del Rey is also very park-poor. So people are just going for walks around the block ... and you observe that people have to walk into the street to avoid an oncoming person on the sidewalk to keep the safe six-foot radius."

After seeing what some other U.S. cities were doing, the Del Rey Neighborhood Council developed its own plan. Their proposal called for a sort of "soft closing" of certain streets by expanding space for people to move around outside their cars while maintaining social distancing. Car traffic on some residential streets would be limited to residents only, other than essential service vehicles and delivery drivers.

Wersinger noted that the proposed changes would be short-term and "address a pre-existing condition." The program would not affect access for emergency vehicles or take away parking for residents.

"When people are jogging in the street, when my seven-year-old daughter is biking in the street with me, or when you have elderly folks who simply need a little more space than the sidewalk allows and they need to step into the street, this will offer them a little bit more protection," he said.

The Del Rey Neighborhood Council took its plan to City Councilmember Mike Bonin, who represents the community, along with several other West L.A. and coastal neighborhoods. Bonin then wrote a letter to L.A. Department of Transportation General Manager Seleta Reynolds, asking the department to explore how to implement the short-term traffic calming measures "as soon as possible," starting in the apartment-dense neighborhoods of Del Rey and West L.A.

"We weren't even talking about closing down streets entirely," Bonin told me this week, "just sort of putting some cones up and letting [drivers] know there might be activity in the street, and to go slower."

LADOT worked out a plan, which was set to launch April 30, according to Bonin and the Del Rey group. But the night before, Mayor Garcetti's office announced the plan was being postponed, citing concerns raised by the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

 

'LEVELS OF FRUSTRATION'

Asked last week about conversations with City of L.A. officials about the open streets proposal, County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said health officials are not opposed to the idea, but "just want to do it in a thoughtful way." The health department did not respond to LAist's request for further comment.

Bonin expressed a few "levels of frustration" about the postponed plan, including the response from county health officials. "I think it sort of got lost in the bowels of Department of Public Health bureaucracy," he told me.

Bonin wrote a letter to Ferrer earlier this week to clarify that the "Family Friendly Streets" program was not aiming to create "a regional recreational draw" by shutting down major roadways.

"On the contrary, they were seeking to use and share relatively small stretches of local-serving streets for local use," Bonin wrote. "As attractive as Del Rey and West L.A. are to the people who live there, I cannot imagine that anyone from Silver Lake or Encino is going to drive across the city to walk around the block there."

Bonin said he has not yet received a response from the county.

According to Harrison Wollman, spokesperson for Mayor Garcetti, L.A. leaders are "actively developing a city-wide slow streets program, and is committed to working with our public health experts to implement the program in a manner that prioritizes the safety of Angelenos and minimizes the risk of spread."

L.A. Dept. of Transportation spokesperson Colin Sweeney told me the department "is prepared to implement a Slow Streets program based on collaboration with local health officials as soon as we are safely able to do so."

LADOT did not provide further details about the program or an estimated launch date.

A family walks wearing masks in downtown Los Angeles on March 22, 2020, during the coronavirus outbreak. | Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images
A family walks wearing masks in downtown Los Angeles on March 22, 2020, during the coronavirus outbreak. | Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images

WHY OPEN TRAILS, BUT NOT LOCAL STREETS?

Bonin said he's "absolutely baffled" that health officials have deemed it safe to reopen hiking trails countywide, starting Friday, but voiced concern about promoting more space for people not in cars to safely get around in their communities.

"The trails, I predict, are going to be packed and they're going to be regional draws — and there's going to be very little social distancing," Bonin said. "A safer and a more family-friendly way to do that is just allow people to have a little bit more space on the streets in their own neighborhoods, so they can get outside and social distance and stay at home all at the same time."

 

ADDRESSING EQUITY

People social distance while waiting at a bus station in Huntington Park on April 2. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
People social distance while waiting at a bus station in Huntington Park on April 2. | Chava Sanchez/LAist

Another point of concern raised by community and policy advocates: Will the city take steps to address pre-existing inequality in mobility and transit access, or will the pandemic and the city's response to it amplify the disparity?

Councilmember Bonin noted that while he wants the open streets plan to launch in his district, he hopes to see it roll out in neighborhoods across the city so all Angelenos have opportunities to safely enjoy public space. He also believes there's a valuable lesson to be learned about street safety and the need for improved, more equitable design.

"If anything, this experience is probably showing people how dangerous and unsafe it is to be a pedestrian in Los Angeles and how much our pedestrian ... infrastructure needs a real boost of steroids," he said.

John Yi, executive director for the street safety advocacy group, Los Angeles Walks, applauded Del Rey residents' efforts to improve access and safety, but fears that it could represent a continuation of the same inequitable local-level democracy that he's seen play out for years here.

"If you have political agency, if you have a luxury to be at home, to have good access to wi-fi and be able to advocate online, organize online, then you'll get your resources," Yi said. "But if you're working, you have to leave the house, you don't have internet, you don't have a personal computer — there's a lot of limitations that you have in engaging in the democratic process."

Madeline Brozen, deputy director for the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, noted two distinct mobility needs the city needs to solve in the interest of public health: safe space for recreation; and safe space for essential travel, especially through public transit. She says that's especially important for disinvested communities in L.A., where more residents rely on buses to get to work, grocery stores and make other vital trips.

"We know that we have a lot of bus stops that don't have adequate shelter or don't have adequate space," Brozen said. "If we are able to be intentional about right now, trying to say, OK, we can see that there's a lot of people there and we're going to make more space, that's really going to pay off in the long-term."

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