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Not so fast

LA officials have put the city on a ‘road diet’ to promote other forms of transportation, but traffic congestion is driving protests

Not so fast

A bicyclist rides alongside traffic on Rowena Avenue in Los Angeles. (Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images )

LOS ANGELES—When 300 upset people show up for a neighborhood council meeting, that’s the sound of a raw nerve. Here in Los Angeles, that nerve was road diets—the removal of car lanes from streets to reduce speed and accommodate bike lanes.

The meeting took place in a windowless basketball court packed so tightly that bodies spilled out the doors. People fanned shiny foreheads with pamphlets and signs, peeled shirts away from armpits and backs. The claustrophobic heat did not help cool already-sizzling tempers. For many, that kind of helpless suffocation is exactly how they feel when stuck in LA’s ever-worsening traffic gridlock. One man said in an exasperated tone, “I remember those days when a politician would campaign on traffic relief. What happened?” When a council member defended the road changes, the crowd interrupted with boos: “Listen to the community!” “It’s our tax money!” “Recall, recall!”

Hell hath no fury like an Angeleno forced to spend an extra half-hour in traffic. When elected officials mess with traffic in such a car-centric city, even the sleepiest citizens will rouse up to punch the horn. That’s creating political heat in this city—and portends similar troubles in other American cities where officials are trying—for one reason or another—to change the way people move.

When city officials removed two car lanes from a stretch of Venice Boulevard and replaced them with protected bike lanes, the city thought it was a win-win: The move would force cars to slow down, which would reduce traffic deaths, and the new bike lanes would encourage drivers to ditch their cars for bicycles.

Instead, many residents called it a “disaster”: A woman with silver braids declared, “It’s ironic that this project is called Vision Zero, because this was made with zero vision!” Another opponent asked, “Are we going to have to bike out when there’s a tsunami?” But then one supporter sniped, “So how many traffic fatalities are low enough for you? Forty deaths? Thirty? Twenty?” Another woman wore a black T-shirt with “Bike Lives Matter” stamped across the front and “No bike lane, no peace” across the back. Somehow, traffic has become almost as controversial an issue as racial strife.

Sophia Lee

A community council meeting regarding the road diet to Venice Boulevard (Sophia Lee)

No surprise there—LA has the worst traffic congestion in not just the nation but the world, a problem that costs drivers more than $2,400 a year in fuel and time, according to traffic data firm INRIX. Traffic congestion remains the greatest stress for LA residents, exceeding concerns over physical safety and housing costs. But LA also leads the nation in per capita traffic deaths: In 2016, 260 people died in traffic crashes on city streets—a 43 percent jump from 2015. More than half of those people killed were pedestrians or bicyclists.

So how does a city leader unclog roads and make them safer? The city has responded to concerns about traffic with two master plans: Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Great Streets Initiative, which “reimagines” neighborhoods into “livable, accessible, and engaging public spaces”; and Vision Zero, an ambitious initiative that aims to eliminate all traffic fatalities by 2025.

Garcetti has staked his political future on road diets. He rolled out plan after plan to push Angelenos out of cars and onto their feet, bikes, and subways. In 2015 the LA City Council approved the Mobility Plan 2035, a transportation plan that earmarks hundreds of miles for bicycles and buses, often at the expense of car lanes.

Garcetti’s LA 2.0 will be “the first postmodern city” where instead of cursing potholes in a four-wheeled, air-polluting machine, neighbors will stroll under swaying palm trees, sit on solar-powered benches, and wait at USB-charging bus shelters. Bicyclists will roll over to farmers markets and coffee shops on buffered bike lanes, and commuters will travel by LA’s Metro network, which Garcetti is expanding via multibillion-dollar subway, rail, and bus projects.

Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Lionsgate Home Entertainment/AP

Eric Garcetti (Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Lionsgate Home Entertainment/AP)

Political insanity? Elitist fantasy? Whatever critics call it, Garcetti will gain an impressive platform for his future political ambitions if he can pull it off. (He’s been making frequent out-of-state trips, stoking speculation: Sacramento or Washington?) In effect Garcetti has made a huge bet: If LA—a sprawling, polycentric, car-crazy city—can change, so can other cities. But then community members pushed back and said, Not so fast.

People from all political stripes have jumped into the brawl over road diets. A former Bernie Sanders delegate is running a recall campaign against a City Council member. Business executives lobby Garcetti. Social media gurus amassed more than 2,500 followers on Facebook and raised $22,500 to fund a lawsuit. A condo association filed the first lawsuit. Stay-at-home moms who never paid attention to local politics organized.

The biggest organized effort is Keep LA Moving, an umbrella group that filed the second lawsuit against the city and the LA Department of Transportation. Member John Russo said once-oblivious citizens are awakening to discover that city officials are “ruining our lives for their own agendas.” Already, people from other counties and states are contacting his group about organizing anti-road-diet efforts in their own communities.

Richard Montgomery, council member of Manhattan Beach, a wealthy LA County suburb, said throughout his 15 years in local politics, this issue has sparked the “biggest, loudest outcry” he’s ever seen: “You’re hitting all the hot buttons—you’re messing with people’s livelihoods, commute times, stress levels, gas prices.”

While Garcetti has remained silent on the public backlash, many traffic safety advocates worry the recent mayhem will produce a chilling effect on other projects. The LA City Council member who carried out the Venice Boulevard project recently backtracked on another road-diet project, apologizing and promising to restore the original lanes. Another council member said he would block any road diets in his district planned without his approval.

Ted Rogers, a bicycling advocate who spends eight hours a day blogging about bicycles and street safety, blamed lack of political courage: “This is a city that’s killed by cars and will continue to be killed by cars.” He has a morbid interest in death, or so people joke. In truth, Rogers says, he’s just obsessed with safety. His mantra: One traffic death is one too many, and Vision Zero is the best solution to eliminate all traffic fatalities.

Vision Zero is an international campaign originating from Sweden with the idea that all traffic deaths are preventable. Since human mistakes are inevitable, the onus of preventing traffic deaths falls on street engineers to slow traffic using roadway redesign, tougher law enforcement, and education. A road diet happens to be the most cost-effective and efficient method, because all it needs is some repainting to force immediate behavioral change.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was the first mayor to embrace Vision Zero. He implemented his $1.6 billion initiative in 2014. Since then, traffic fatalities have dipped to a historic low. That was a “game-changer” for other cities to follow suit, said Kathleen Ferrier, who works with Vision Zero Network, a national campaign formed in 2014. So far, VZN has identified almost 30 cities from Seattle to Boston, Chicago to Austin, that have committed to Vision Zero. Ferrier said Vision Zero shifts the conversation to saving lives: “It creates more of a sense of urgency. That’s the backdrop of what Vision Zero is advancing—that urgency.”

Luiz Rampelotto/EuropaNewswire/Sipa via AP

Bill de Blasio (Luiz Rampelotto/EuropaNewswire/Sipa via AP)

Many LA residents don’t believe that Vision Zero is about safety. They suspect the real goal is to make drivers so miserable, they’ll capitulate to other transportation modes. In San Diego, another Vision Zero–endorsing city, people mix Vision Zero with the city’s Bicycle Master Plan, which partly stems from a climate action plan that requires an increase of bike commuters to 18 percent by 2035. One San Diego resident told me when she sees empty bike lanes while caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic, she sees a failed policy, even if traffic fatalities decrease.

The prevalent narrative still pits drivers against bicyclists and pedestrians. Keep LA Moving’s John Russo bristles at accusations that motorists are “privileged” and “selfish.” He says it’s a false narrative: “That’s ridiculous. Really, it’s about people who want to get to our jobs and families and live our lives, and not sit in soul-crushing gridlock every day.” Bicycle blogger Ted Rogers in turn seethes at drivers’ complaints: “They want to get home to their family? I just want to get home. I don’t want to die, I don’t want anyone to die on the streets.”

Meanwhile, Gary Mares just wants his neighborhood to remain as safe and quiet as it has been for the 12 years he’s lived in Del Rey, a residential LA neighborhood. Mares owns a single one-story house on Panama Street, a narrow two-lane street sandwiched between charming single homes and low-slung commercial buildings. The view from Mares’ front yard is the towering I-90 freeway, which even on a Thursday afternoon is bottlenecked.

Traffic has always been terrible, Mares said. Then five surface streets around the area underwent road diets: “Now we have this crush of traffic hell.” And he foresees worse hell with the onslaught of development happening right across from his yard: One is the construction of a tech campus and a 600-car parking structure, another a 500-student K-8 school. Once construction is over, Mares predicts backlogged cars and angry honks on Panama Street, where the neighborhood kids currently play.

Like many other residents I’ve talked to, Mares wants better road infrastructure to alleviate the inevitable traffic problems—not worse, which is where he says the city is heading with its new transportation policies. He says average citizens like him are fighting “the culture of arrogance” among city leaders who “push their own agenda irrespective to the community’s priorities and interests—and think they can get away with it.”

Even before Mares heard about road diets, he and six other neighbors formed the Panama Street Coalition to address incoming traffic issues in their neighborhood. At first, neighbors closed doors in their faces when they went door-to-door canvassing. Then the city implemented road diets, and once-uninterested neighbors are now calling Mares’ coalition and showing up at local meetings. “That’s the only bright spot,” Mares said. “This issue is not going to just pass. You mess with people’s lifestyle, people will come out.”

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Los Angeles. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.