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April 2017 Issue

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Westside Road Diets – Controversy and Statistics in the Name of Safety

By: Annie Levitt Heller


For those who live in Playa Del Rey, Venice Beach and other areas of West Los Angeles, the term “road diet” has been popping up everywhere from articles in the LA Times to NextDoor.com community boards. This is not the first time the term (used to describe a road lane reduction or road rechannelization meant to achieve some systematic improvement or address a particular concern for the area) has been used and residents of Silverlake, Downtown and other East Los Angeles communities have been debating the issue for years and with mixed results.  The debate consists of one simple question: how to improve pedestrian, bicyclist and driver safety along some of the most dangerous corridors in Los Angeles while also promoting alternative means of transportation.  The conversation is controversial but necessary as LA’s traffic accidents, bicycle catastrophes and pedestrian fatalities are on the rise.   

The Department of Transportation along with the Los Angeles City Council presented road diet plans in response to community input from residents who were concerned with dangerous street conditions, speeding drivers and the grave risk associated with simply walking across the street in their neighborhoods.  A particularly infamous example stems from Playa Del Rey’s major artery connecting Playa Del Rey to Playa Vista and beyond – Culver and Jefferson Boulevards.  Both were narrowed from two lanes in either direction to one car lane and one bicycle lane, causing extreme traffic in both directions during rush hour (which in LA lasts at least 2.5 hours every weekday morning and evening).  Not surprisingly, car commuters took to the internet, community meetings and the media to express their displeasure in the increased commute times, even launching a campaign to recall the District’s city councilman who was a strong supporter of the changes.  I myself have sat in the traffic created by the narrowed Culver Boulevard during which it took me almost 30 minutes to travel the 1.8 miles to get to Playa Del Rey. On the heels of the ongoing debate, LA officials announced in October 2017 that the two-lane road for both Culver and Jefferson Boulevard would be restored, leaving a resolution to the safety concerns in the area to another day.

Another road diet stirring up controversy is the recently completed Venice Boulevard project in Mar Vista between Beethoven Street and Inglewood Boulevard.  While recently perusing Facebook, I saw the following advertisement/article:

The above summary seems to evidence a pretty stark contrast in safety accomplished by the road diet on Venice Boulevard in only 90 days. An informational website run by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation provides information about the original study, the process of the “road diet” project and now, the three-month data benchmark.  LADOT partnered with a private contractor to use data from GPS-enabled devices to provide the “current and historical travel time, speed, and vehicle volume data.” 

One of the main goals of the project was to reduce speeding on this road to below the posted speed limit of 40 MPH.  Speed remains one of the leading factors in deadly pedestrian accidents in Los Angeles. In fact, the statistics on speed are staggering - at 45 MPH, cars kill 85% of the pedestrians they strike. That percentage drops significantly when cars slows to 30 MPH and below. Before the Venice Blvd project, cars were averaging 40-45 mph in some areas and post-project data shows speeds dropping to 35 MPH in at least one area which evidences the 15% decrease in “speeding” touted in the advertisement above. Cars driving more cautiously through this area may prompt city officials to reduce posted speed limits which could lead to safer roads for everyone in the area.

Most importantly, the data shows a slight decrease in general collisions and injury collisions along Venice Blvd. This data was obtained from the Los Angeles Police Department and based on reports that have been collected for incidents along this corridor. The monthly average for collisions in the area went from 5.5 pre-project to 4.3 post-project, and the monthly average for injury collisions went from 3 to 2.7 (this was also during one of the busier times of the year on the westside of Los Angeles due to tourist traffic and those looking to escape the heat for a relaxing day at the beach).  It’s too soon to tell if the decrease in accidents is truly related to the road diet, but as time goes on, the sample size grows, and the data will become more conclusive.

On the other hand, an unintended consequence of such road diets is “cut-through” where drivers are frustrated by the perceived traffic delay and then speed through neighborhoods to “cut-through” to where they need to go. This, in itself, could create an uptick in dangerous driving and pedestrian accidents, as the cut-through streets in the Venice Blvd area are residential, narrow, unmarked two way streets with cars parked on either side.

On October 2, 2017, the same website announced plans to improve the safety of right-hand turns at certain intersections as part of the same road diet evaluation. Some intersections will receive new right-hand turn configurations or modifications to “improve visibility on streets where cars are parked closely together limiting the visibility of cross-traffic and pedestrians.” This appears to address a potentially unpublished result of the road diet. Having also driven through the area, I can confidently say the right-hand turns looked precarious at best and are probably causing their own unintended consequences.

Until drivers completely rid themselves of distractions and slow down with the safety of other drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians in mind, it is not clear whether these road diets will have their intended effect on safety over the long term. For now, Los Angeles will continue to expand public transportation, encourage bike-friendly roadways, re-think the commuter lifestyle, and experiment with ideas for how residents can safely traverse the city, even if LA doesn’t always get it right the first time.

Annie Levitt Heller is an Associate at Sally Morin Law in Los Angeles and handles serious bicycle, car, motorcycle, pedestrian and Uber accident cases for clients in the Greater Los Angeles.  Sally Morin Law has offices in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Los Angeles.  Annie can be reached at (323) 283-8211 or annie@sallymorinlaw.com.

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