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.

  • Erik G.

    What was most astonishing was the swift and overwhelming comments on the article FOR the road diet!

    http://discussions.latimes.com/20/lanews/la-me-banks-20101009/10

  • Ted

    Heh…lookit the fat ass on the bike up there. Heh heh…lookit ‘im! Hey there, fattie!

  • The photo is of Reseda, correct?

    Although your concerns are valid, we wouldn’t say there was *no* outreach:
    http://ladotbikeblog.wordpress.com/2010/08/26/ladot-set-to-install-2-miles-of-bike-lanes-on-wilbur-avenue/

  • Hulk Smash

    Wut? it’s Wilbur.

    As a daily Valley commuter, take Tampa or Reseda if you’re going North/South and quit yer bitchin.

  • Good catch LADOT Bike Blog. I grabbed the wrong pic off Joe’s story. It’s been replaced with the correct one.

  • Kevin

    Interesting that in the video there didn’t seem to be much traffic at all. This all seems like a big publicity move by Council member Greig Smith, which makes you wonder who he draws his campaign funds from.

  • You know what, screw it, I’d rather have the infrastructure installed. If John Fisher is going to go on record saying stuff like that then fine. What is wrong with the way the street ended up? The public meetings should be a part of this, but when Mia Burke talks about her early days in Portland re-striping the road without consulting the local shop owners, we all cheered and laughed.

    If the LADOT wants to do it guerilla style, then let’s do it. The homeowners property values are going to go up because of this, so let’s wait for their anger to subside and push for more.

  • BTW, there is a great chapter in John Fisher’s history of LA transportation where he talks about the first push button walk signals being installed in North East LA clandestinely. It “worked” to tame the pedestrian, and it was a fait accompli by the time everyone realized what had happened. Looks like he’s trying to imitate his forefathers in LA transit history.

    Good on ya’ Fisher. Just don’t run from your critics. Fire back at us, and be proud of what you’re doing. If I read another article that quotes “staff” and not someone in the department my head will surely explode.

  • LAofAnaheim

    What scares me most about this potential law that Councilman Smith is advocating is that if we have a major transit investment (i.e. Exposition Line, Crenshaw Line, etc…); do we then need approval from EVERY SINGLE HOMEOWNER? This would delay the process and then each homeowner group would hold up projects for their own benefits….outside of the greater good for the region.

  • Smith’s proposed law applies only to LADOT projects, so Metro projects wouldn’t be delayed or anything like that because of it.

    Ubrayj, it’s an interesting point. When wrecking the city, no outreach. When fixing it, NC’s need to give approval.

  • Marcotico

    Another problem this highlights is something that ubrayj02 has brought up numerous times. The complete lack of communication between LADOT and public works. Why is the re-pavement schedule of Streets (the very stuff of LADOT’s business) a complete surprise to them. This reminds me of the admission that they don’t save the data from the traffic control center for planning purposes. What?

    In New York, the mayor was able to get the NYDOT to work with all the other agencies responsible for street infrastructure to agree on the NYC Street Design Manual, which catalogs all the available street design treatments and categorizes them as standard, pilot, or experimental.

    When I mentioned that to someone in LA planning, they just shook their head sadly and said “Well they have a strong mayor structure, and totally different political structure.”

  • Erik G.

    It is notable that while Tampa and Reseda both cross the Metrolink Ventura/Amtrak Surfliner tracks (Reseda gets a grade seperation even), Wilbur does not. It is blocked by the Northridge Metrolink station.

    Wilbur is a tertiary residential road and not intended to be a secret commuter bypass.

  • “there are still a lot of people that don’t get it, and a lot of those people live in the Valley.”

    I’m going to frame that quote and hang it on my wall.

  • It’s interesting how folks perceive the street – where Sandy Banks writes of a “speedway” as if that’s a good thing… the neighbors living on the street state that they’ve seen car crashes where they hear noises, run out, and there’s a car upside down.

    It’s difficult to justify the process… The LADOT missed a teachable moment on this street. It’s not just the stripes (sharrows, etc.) that get laid down – but the way they’re communicated – and the way the process involves the community – and the way information is shared and transparent. Why isn’t the DOT on channel 4 showing that Road Diets are shown (federal studies) to be safer for all road users? Also, someday, maybe the public will have the same access to the resurfacing schedule that the DOT has.

    On a positive note, I am glad to see that NBC did cover both sides of the story pretty well.

  • EGL2

    @marcotico. When the Downtown Streets standards were revised, Public Works and DOT were at the table all the way through. Cooperating and offering great info. The Standards were adopted by City Council (including road diet for 2nd e/o tunnel) Planning lead the interagency group (which still meets) along with CRA. So it can be done without NYC-style gov’t.

    Before the Verdugo road diet in Burbank, DOT there held/met a public meeting, and got the ADT counts. Verdugo’s performance before and after even surprised the transpo planner – who is great BTW.

  • graciela.

    I really hate that they are turning an issue of a neighborhood taking back its street and making it safer into a cookie cutter bikes vs. cars debate. No matter how many of us ride a bike, you know the average joe’s gut will side with the car. Last week ABC ran that bikes vs cars as a “what’s bugging you?” story, knowing well that they were pandering to the bike haters. So by turning the road diet into the same kind of clash, the crazy drivers that don’t even live there will get their way.

    I just don’t get why LADOT has to try to defend their position on the road diet. Should be as simple as 2+2. You guys use this residential street as a speedway, then we’ll do something so the street isn’t abused like that. Case closed. Don’t even try to entertain the arguments of the car crazed who are just making excuses to drive illegally. Tell ’em tough luck. They had since 1996 to speak up.

  • Greg

    Its pretty hilarious: the guy on the bike at the end stating that it would be nice if they had reconfigured the street to fit more cars on it and yet there are no cars at all in the frame. What cars? The parents dropping their kids off to school? Walk, ride your bike, or take the bus!

  • Don Ward

    I’d like to point out that the LADOT actually DID do out reach last summer when they placed signs at Superior and Prairie at Wilbur stating that the crosswalks there were slated to be removed. A local resident by the name of Paul Kirk in response, gathered some 600 signatures in support of the crosswalks and a safer Wilbur. In my mind the Wilbur road diet was a response to those petitions.

    Sandy Banks is the typical Porter Ranch voice of opposition as many of the Northridge West NC meeting feature her type of comments.

    The news from the last NWNC meeting is that Greig Smith is putting a lot of pressure behind the scenes on the LADOT to change the configuration which is not only dissappointing but going to be quite a waste of taxpayer money if it occurs.

    As it is, there is a window of about a half hour morning and afternoon each day in which there is school drop off and pick up by parents driving kids to school. Other than that, the road diet has calmed traffic wonderfully. No more roaring speeding cars blazing up to the next light, just a smooth breeze of cars floating by.

    One particular family of 8 that lives on Wilbur that I spoke to was initially against the road diet but now praises it becuase they discovered how much easier it is to simply get in and out of their driveway.

    Looks like it’s going to take another petition push to fight back against Greig Smith and Mitch Englander (Smith CoS ad CD12 candidate.)

  • Never thought I’d say this, but based on Don Ward’s comment above, “Good Job John Fisher!”. Keep up the good work LADOT!

  • This is a great opportunity to use what we know from the Safe Routes to School movement. It’d be helpful to find community members who would help observe the morning school drop off – and talk to families, students, community members, teachers, and the principal – I wonder how many kids live with in walking distance (walking school buses are pretty awesome) and bicycling distance (so are bicycle trains).

    To have a school that many students can access by walking or bicycling – is a great thing to have – for so many reasons (health, community, lower impact on natural resources, affordability, independence, air quality, safety – and tons more).

    The morning congestion caused by school private car drop off – is not unique to this community – in fact, 1/3 of all morning congestion is caused by school drop off according to a EPA study.

    I hope to make it out to the school myself soon to observe what is happening and find out more. MidDay Ridazz in the valley soon?

  • How dare those evil home owner demand a say in what happens in their neiborhoods! They just get to pay the taxes!

    You people are a joke.

  • I live just off of Wilbur on Kinzie. The street was restriped with absolutely no information provided to residents. Before the final paint was put down, there were some kind of temporary lines that made people start questioning the change of lanes. But before any comments could be heard, the city went ahead and striped the streets even thought there were valid concerns about safety. Residents have never been given a “heads up” about this change and many people just ignore the bike lanes completely, thinking it’s still a driving lane. The traffic has gotten a little congested during rush hour but it’s manageable. The “calming” has caused people to slow down which is a positive. It just would have made sense for the DOT to send a flyer out to the neighborhood advising them of the change.

  • Linda will you send me an email? safestreetsnorthridge at gmail dot com.

    If you see the lanes as a positive, I’d like to get your help in keeping them. Greig Smith and Mitch Englander are actively trying to waste taxpayer money by restriping 2 miles of street. I’m currently working on getting a cost estimate of this.

    My position is that what’s done is done, live with it until the next repaving rather than compel the city to spend value-able resources “fixing” something that not nearly everyone feels is a mistake.

    We need to get more signatures. Your help would be appreciated.

  • What’s done is rediculous. My vote goes for changing it back. I don’t have time to be stuck behind 15mph drivers all the way up the street. And no, I am not going to go drive on some other street just because it’s changed. I will fight for getting it back to a four lane street because that is what makes most sense. Absolutely rediculous that this was done without community input and yes, it makes many people despise the bike riders because most people attribute the change to the incorporation of the bike lanes.

    Definitely a step in the wrong direction. Time to revert back to the 4 lanes and make the street more efficient in design, once again. I don’t know about you but I’m all for progress and efficiency, not backwards steps like it has gone now.

  • Rediculous, indeed! If people can’t get to school at 45mph, they won’t learn spelling!

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