The Wilbur Avenue Road Diet Controversy Goes Mainstream

Let the backlash against sustainable transportation practices begin!

Throughout the summer Streetsblog has reported on the Road Diet the LADOT has placed on Wilbur Avenue in the Valley community of Northridge and the backlash the Diet has caused.  City Councilman Greig Smith was so incensed that the Diet was placed without community input that he’s proposing legislation that would require local Neighborhood Council approval before any transportation project moves forward.  Recently, the project has attracted more high-profile coverage in the Los Angeles Times, on KNBC (above) and in City Watch.

Throughout 2009, one of the hottest topics amongst transportation reformers and neighborhood groups was the disturbing trend of speed limits being increased on local and arterial streets throughout the Valley.  Then Assemblyman Paul Krekorian tried to change the state law which was causing the speed limits to increase, but many reformers argued that a better remedy would be to change the design and striping of streets to encourage slower, safer driving.

Of course, now that the LADOT is actually redesigning and striping streets to encourage safer driving, the backlash has begun.

Unfortunately, the debate is being presented in the media as a “car v bicyclist” debate as Wilbur Avenue received two bike lanes after the street was narrowed from four lanes of car traffic to two lanes with a turn lane.  However, there’s a lot of other, more accurate ways, to view the conflict caused by the Diet.  After the jump, we’ll take a look at the framing of the debate, and how it will effect the way people will react to the debate.

8_23_10_joe_wilbur.jpg Photo by Joe Linton

Bike v Cars

This has become the frame through which the Wilbur debate is most often framed, but its also the one that is least representative of what actually happened and is happening.

This is the easiest way for advocates of speeding traffic, such as Times columnist Sandy Banks and Councilman Smith, to frame the debate to encourage people to view their argument sympathetically.  While CicLAvia should end the false assumption that nobody bikes in L.A., there are still a lot of people that don’t get it, and a lot of those people live in the Valley.

Thus, the debate over the Wilbur Road Diet becomes one about taking something away from the majority, “car drivers” and giving it to a special group of people.  Not only does it mis-represent the point of the Diet by focusing on a side-effect of reducing car travel lanes than the actual purpose, which was to slow down traffic on a residential street that has a middle school.

So cyclists may not be flocking to Wilbur Avenue, at least they aren’t yet.  But making Wilbur a bike street was a secondary reason for making some changes.

Speeding Traffic v Community Needs

The real purpose of the Wilbur Avenue road diet was to slow traffic on a residential street.  In an act of unintentional self-parody, the Times’ Banks made the case that Wilbur Avenue really needed a Diet:

For years, Wilbur Avenue had been a free-flowing community secret, a commuter street that bypassed the congestion of Northridge’s main routes. Then a “street improvement” project last month turned our speedway into a parking lot…

…I don’t mind sharing my local roads with cyclists. But why inconvenience people rushing kids to school, running errands or wrapping up a long evening commute for the sake of prospective bike riders who may never appear?

While Banks embraces the “Bikes v Cars” debate, its the one that requires the least reflection on her desire to speed through a neighborhood street, she makes the case that the people living along Wilbur Avenue are benefiting from the changes.  Wilbur Avenue is not a commuter street, but a local street.  It certainly wasn’t a “speedway”…at least it was never intended to be one.

As for the community itself, thanks to the advocacy of Don Ward, Ayla Stern and other volunteers at the Bikery, we know residents along Wilbur appreciate the diet and the bike lanes because it returns a feeling that the street and sidewalks are safe places for adults and children alike.  Ward and Stern led a door-to-door effort that resulted in “nearly every house” signing a petition to keep the street as it is.

LADOT Public Outreach v Everyone

If Smith’s office is to be believed, one of the main reasons he and his constituents are so upset about how Wilbur was changed from “our speedway” to a street safe for the community to use for multiple uses was the non-existent outreach done for the project before the new striping was painted on the street.

As Streetsblog has reported before, LADOT’s public outreach is so terrible that it has caused major issues on projects in the past.  Westsiders can vividly remember the Pico/Olympic plan that would have increased capacity and speed was presented as a fait accompli in the press before a public meeting was even scheduled.  In City Watch, longtime LADOT critic and City Council Candidate Stephen Box makes the case that their outreach on this project was so bad that the most likely reason was that the agency was trying to mess it up:

All this took place quietly. No outreach, no coordination between the LADOT and the neighborhood councils or the CD12 council office or the cycling community or the local PTA or the local NASCAR chapter. No coordination took place between the LADOT’s Operations, Geometrics, and Bikeways divisions. Nobody notified the City of LA’s Bicycle Advisory Committee. Nada!…

…Conspiracy theorists tend look at situations such as this and wonder if the LADOT simply dropped bike lanes onto Wilbur as part of an engineered conflict strategy, killing any hope of a bikeway network, resulting in an “I told you they don’t fit!” declaration and allowing a return to “business as usual.”

That’s a chilling thought, that somehow LADOT is responding to directives to embrace sustainable transportation options by completing projects that are designed to inflame the community.  Worse yet, that the outreach for the plans is designed to increase the conflict created, not reduce it.

LADOT staff refused to comment on the story, even on background; but did agree that their outreach plans could use improvement.

However, their public statements continue to show a defiance to the criticism that they’re lack of public outreach was a problem.  From Box’s piece in City Watch:

The LADOT argues that they simply took advantage of an opportunity to engage in a “road diet” and to add bike lanes and that they should be congratulated, not criticized. “After all,” says LADOT’s Assistant GM John Fisher, “the 1996 Bike Plan calls for bike lanes on Wilbur Avenue and we had a very small amount of time to design and implement a new striping plan. We had no time for outreach.”

And there is the root of the issue.  “Public Outreach” isn’t looked upon as a part of the plan when planning a project.  It wasn’t on the Westside two years ago, it wasn’t on Wilbur, it wasn’t on the James Wood Road Diet earlier this year…the list of projects that “just happened” is long.

If the goal really was to rally the community against Livable Streets, the kerfuffle on Wilbur may have accomplished its goal.  LADOT is working to “alter” the Wilbur plan to respond to community concerns.