In 2010, City Councilman Bill Rosendahl made a startling declaration: “The culture of the car is going to end now!” It was, of course, trademark hyperbole from the cable TV host turned politician. But in August 2015, two years after Rosendahl left office and months before he died, the City Council took two bold steps toward fulfilling his seemingly outlandish promise.
First it passed the mobility plan, a policy to add bus lanes and bike lanes and eliminate car lanes. Weeks later, Mayor Eric Garcetti signed Executive Directive No. 10, committing the city to Vision Zero, a plan to reduce traffic fatalities 20 percent by 2017 — and to have zero deaths by 2025.
The backlash began almost immediately. Fix the City, a nonprofit that advocates for infrastructure improvements and against density, sued the city over the mobility plan, claiming it would lead to more cars idling and hence more air pollution. And a so-called “road diet” on Rowena Avenue, which cut the Silver Lake street from four car lanes to two and added bike lanes, sparked outrage in 2015 among a group of nearby residents, who said that motorists were cutting through their residential streets to avoid the gridlock.
Last year, Councilman Paul Koretz nixed a plan for a bike lane in Westwood and Councilman Paul Krekorian canceled a road diet in North Hollywood. Councilman Gil Cedillo, meanwhile, has stated his opposition to any sort of road diet or lane removal in his Eastside district.
More recently, anger among Playa del Rey residents boiled over after the city added a road diet on Vista del Mar. Residents forced the city to back down and restore Vista del Mar and another Playa del Rey street to their former width, but not before outraged Westsiders began a campaign to recall City Councilman Mike Bonin, in large measure over his support for bike lanes and road diets.
So where does that leave L.A.'s lofty Vision Zero dreams?
“You have to set those goals. I don’t know where we’d be without those improvements. [Fatalities] might be worse.” —Mayor Garcetti
Mayor Garcetti tells L.A. Weekly that Vision Zero “remains a high priority. You never bat .1000. By and large, it's been overwhelmingly successful.”
In 2016, there were 260 people killed in traffic collisions — an increase of almost 43 percent from the previous year. The mayor says 2017 traffic deaths, as of Oct. 24, are down 6 percent compared with the same time period last year.
“To me, it’s proof that Vision Zero is working,” Garcetti says.
Nevertheless, those numbers mean the city won't come close to meeting its first Vision Zero goal of cutting traffic fatalities 20 percent by 2017.
“You have to set those goals,” Garcetti says. “I don’t know where we’d be without those improvements. [Fatalities] might be worse. But you have to continue doing the work.”
The mayor points to other, less invasive measures such as new crosswalks, speed feedback signs and more LAPD speed enforcement as signs of Vision Zero's progress.
Others are skeptical of the progress.
“There was a small amount of momentum over the last five to 10 years to do some good projects,” Streetsblog L.A. editor Joe Linton says. “And the amount of backlash that Bonin and [the L.A. Department of Transportation] is getting is going to discourage other council members, who are already not inclined to support these projects.”
Bicycle activist Ted Rogers, who blogs at BikinginLA, was more blunt when he wrote, shortly after Bonin announced the reversal: “Vision Zero, in any meaningful sense, is dead in Los Angeles.”
Road diet proponents like Rogers say that as long as L.A. streets are designed to accommodate as much volume as possible, cars will tend to go as fast as they can. And speed is often what turns an accident into a fatal one.
“There’s a lot of things you can do to reduce traffic deaths in Los Angeles,” Rogers says. “But if you take road diets off the table, we will never get to zero. We may get from 260 [traffic deaths] to 180 [deaths], or 150. We will never ever get to zero unless we totally rethink the way we get around in Los Angeles.”
Rogers compares the Playa del Rey bike lane debacle to a Brooklyn bike lane New York City installed in 2010. A number of wealthy residents, including the wife of U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, hated the bike lanes; one group filed a lawsuit to get rid of them. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg stood firm, and after five years a judge threw out the lawsuit.
With the Playa del Rey road diets, Rogers says, “The mayor never stood up to fight for them, the Department of Transportation never stood up to fight for them. Bonin got slammed. They never had the courage to prove it was a good project. I don’t know for myself whether it was a good project; we never had the stats come out. It was just ridiculous that they would take it out before we knew if it was working.”
The mayor says Vista del Mar was the wrong street for a road diet — that too many cars are reliant on it.
“That one wasn’t thought out in the way it should be,” Garcetti says. “Usually, there’s a process that wasn’t, in my opinion, [followed] to make those road diets. It was actually compounding confusion on the road. I had no problem saying there’s a different way of doing this.”
He adds: “I don’t think this is about acid tests or ideology. You have to see the ones that work and the ones that don’t.”