Pedestrians and bicyclists in Los Angeles walked away disappointed over L.A. City Council's decision earlier this week to pursue a Glendale-Hyperion bridge reconfiguration with a pedestrian sidewalk on only one side of road, as part of the $50 million facelift of the historic series of bridges connecting Atwater Village and Silver Lake.
The disappointment was palpable as pedestrian and bicycle advocates boo'ed the City Council's unanimous decision. "The city's been undergoing a sea change," said Don Ward, a member of the citizen's advisory committee [and KCET contributor] convened to study the project after the community uproar over the original design for the retrofit. "The sea change is that we want more options than just a car to get around. The people riding bikes, walking, and experiencing violence on the streets, we started as rowdy, as protesters, as people who didn't know what to do with the system."
"For this project, we actually engaged the system," Ward continued. "We actually went house to house. We got signatures. We got parent groups, principals. We got the neighborhood councils voting for this and still we were ignored. What do you expect us to do now?"
Ward and other supporters had advocated for a bridge that had two bike lanes and two sidewalks. Despite gathering over 150 letters of support, more than 1,200 signatures on petitions in favor of the two sidewalk option, support from Los Feliz and Silver Lake neighborhood councils, as well as support from incoming Councilman David Ryu, the community's advocacy for a two-sidewalk option still failed to pass.
The Glendale-Hyperion complex of bridges has been a flashpoint in the Atwater Village and Silver Lake neighborhoods ever since plans for its seismic retrofitting were unveiled in 2013. One side advocated for a two-sidewalk option that would save pedestrians a pesky detour that would only derail mobility. The other wanted a one-sidewalk option that would give room for cars and avoid possible traffic jams.
Ward's sentiments were echoed in public comments given after the straightforward vote by City Council to pursue Option 1. In a preamble, Councilmember Joe Buscaino, chairman of the Public Works committee, explained that his committee opted for a no recommendation on this matter because of contentious underlying issues. Buscaino noted that he's heard more than an hour of public comment with 2,000 letters accompanying it, and that if City Council did vote to pursue Option 3, it would restart the environmental process once again, jeopardizing about $50 million or so in funds. "It is unclear whether Caltrans is willing to extend its deadline once more."
Buscaino deferred to the councilmembers in charge of the two districts -- outgoing Councilman Tom LaBonge and Councilman Mitch O'Farrell -- to help settle the issue. "This is a local community mobility issue," he said.
Both Councilmembers LaBonge and O'Farrell steadfastly approved of Option 1. LaBonge pointed out that of the seven recommendations made by the citizen's advisory committee, six have been met by this new design. LaBonge also said that since the bridge isn't widened, if pedestrians were to be given two sidewalks, they would negotiate an 18-inch curb on a truck route, which could be more dangerous for pedestrians.
Councilman O'Farrell noted that Option 1 also has advantages. According to him, having four lanes would avoid traffic jams in the neighborhood five days a week (though studies conducted by PSOMAS, hired by the city to conduct traffic studies, states otherwise depending on the scenario). O'Farrell also cited his extensive experience with the project. "I have worked on the city's proposed seismic retrofit plans for the Glendale-Hyperion bridge for more than a decade, and have participated in numerous community meetings and public hearings. During that time, I have collaborated with city engineers and constituents on a plan that will improve the structural integrity of the bridge and add amenities that aren't there today, including a six-foot wide sidewalk and pedestrian activated crosswalk, protected bike lanes, and an exit ramp off Interstate 5 that will help reduce cut-through traffic in the surrounding neighborhood. These features are in addition to the construction of a brand new bike and pedestrian footbridge on the east side of the historic structure," the councilman said in a statement.
Despite those advantages, the decision has left a bitter taste in the mouth of pedestrian advocates who see this move as a step backward for Los Angeles. In a statement given moments after the decision, Deborah Murphy, Executive Director of Los Angeles Walks, a pedestrian advocacy organization, and Chair of the City's Pedestrian Advisory Committee for the last 17 years, shared some daunting statistics: "We've had 80 pedestrians killed in one year, and 40 percent of our traffic fatalities are pedestrians." She ended with a quote from Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx:, "Design of our road system is a reflection of who we are. We want safe sidewalks for everybody everywhere in Los Angeles. Now."
Sean Meredith, a Los Feliz resident, points out that this decision isn't just about public infrastructure, it's also environmental justice. Despite the neighborhood's hipster reputation, there are still working class families who have managed to hold onto their property, who are obligated to walk to school because no one will be driving them. "If they remove this pedestrian lane, that means a half mile detour twice a day. That's a very long day especially for young kids who are lugging heavy school bags or perhaps dropping off siblings."
Meredith points out that young adults of this age are more apt to take risks than take more time making a detour, increasing the chances of pedestrian fatalities. In a personal bid to showcase the danger, Meredith photographed students crossing the dangerous road to get to and from school and speeding cars who don't manage to stay within their lanes on the complex of bridges.
Despite the increased options of walking across the bridge to and from Silver Lake, which Councilman Mitch O'Farrell pointed out at the unveiling of the Red Car Bridge project, Meredith is skeptical that pedestrians won't take the more dangerous alternative to crossing the street in a shorter amount of time than they would having to find a circuitous route to their destination.
In her public testimony, Megan Cavenaugh, a registered nurse in Los Angeles, said, "The leading killer of young people in this city is car crashes. With the additional epidemic of hit and run, one would presume the city would do all it could to protect vulnerable users and pedestrians and cyclists. Some more progressive cities like Santa Monica, Long Beach and Pasadena have made safety as priority when it comes time to repave roads and refurbish city. L.A. considers itself a progressive modern city. Let's design our infrastructure to reflect that."
Infrastructure decisions such as the Glendale Hyperion Bridge retrofit are once in a blue moon decision points for a city to decide its direction on pedestrian safety. It could be decades before another refurbishment would be called on the same project area, making this a key decision in the city of Los Angeles. Whether it has made the right choice is up for vigorous debate. In the end, only time will tell the wisdom of the city council's decision.
This article has been edited for accuracy.