Equity, the Mobility Plan, and the Myth of Luxury-Loving Lane Stealers

A man waits for a bus in the shade of a telephone pole on Figueroa Ave., just north of 85th St. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
A man waits for a bus in the shade of a telephone pole on Figueroa Ave., just north of 85th St. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

It’s hard to take some of the hysteria surrounding the City Council’s approval of Mobility Plan 2035 this past August very seriously.

And by “hysteria,” I mean the lawsuit and most recent claims by Fix the City president James O’Sullivan, who told MyNewsLA that the city “want[s] to make driving our cars unbearable by stealing traffic lanes from us on major streets and giving those stolen lanes to bike riders and buses,” and that, worse still, “…not all of us — in fact, very few of us — have the luxury of being able to ride to work on a bike or bus.”

Oh, yes. All those transit-dependent people luxuriating on bikes and buses, stealing your lanes. How very selfish they are, indeed.

I’m sure that at this very moment, those very transit users are rubbing their hands together in collective selfish glee as they stand, sweating through their work and school clothes in 90-degree heat at a filthy sun-drenched bus stop while waiting for a bus that is late because it is stuck behind car traffic. In fact, they are probably high-fiving the sweaty cyclists riding past them on the sidewalk as we speak.

Some people are just so selfish.

Shameless luxuriating at S. Flower St., just south of Adams. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Shameless luxuriating at a S. Flower St. bus stop, just south of Adams. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

* * *

The crux of most arguments against the Mobility Plan generally lies in the notion that the needs of the many (beleaguered drivers) are being subjected to the whims of the few (mostly arrogant/entitled hipsters) — a claim supported by census data suggesting that only 1% of folks in Los Angeles County ride bikes to work and just 11% use transit.

Which, I’ll admit, can sound pretty damning.

At least on the surface. (And as long as you don’t consider the possibility of people switching over to transit or cycling as more and better infrastructure for both goes in as part of the Mobility Plan [PDF]. But I digress.)

When you think about what those numbers mean on the ground, you have a completely different story on your hands. One that suggests that those doing the complaining are (inadvertently, I hope) advocating for the holding of lower-income Angelenos hostage to the very traffic conditions that they themselves find so abhorrent and destructive. Conditions that will continue to present challenges to lower-income residents who desperately want their neighborhoods and the children they raise there to grow and thrive and be healthy. And conditions that the complainants themselves had the means to escape.

Pshaw! Thou art a luxury-loving lane-stealer, you might be thinking to yourself.

Just bear with me.

And let’s take the case of Central Avenue in South Los Angeles — a street slated for a protected bike lane and road diet, per the Mobility Plan — and see why a different approach to mobility matters.

Large trucks start rolling down Central Ave. in earnest right about the time that school gets out. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Large trucks start rolling down Central Ave. in earnest right about the time that school gets out. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

A very busy thoroughfare on the weekdays, Central connects the warehouses downtown to the 110 Freeway (via MLK Blvd.) and the 105 Freeway in Watts, and is popular with trucks looking to avoid the congested mess that is Alameda Street (which runs parallel to Central).

Which means that the streetscape environment is heavily dictated by (largely) non-resident cut-through congestion that picks up around 3 p.m. (above), just as kids are getting out of school.

Meanwhile, the low- and very low-income residents that live, work, and play in the densely populated neighborhoods flanking the corridor are heavily reliant on cycling, walking, and transit to get to work, to shop, or to get themselves or their kids back and forth to school.

The same census data that suggests just a fraction of county residents walk, bike, or ride transit also suggests that 71% of those using transit to get around have incomes under $25,000 (see Equity Atlas, p. 16). Lower-income commuters are also more likely to walk or bike to work, sometimes in combination with transit use. Given that the median income of the Historic South Central, Central-Alameda, and South Park communities hovers around the $30,000 mark (and family size at around 4 people), we can safely assume that to mean a significant proportion of the residents along Central spends an awful lot of time at the mercy of a streetscape environment dominated by people that have no stake in the community [Census figures support this, suggesting at least 18% of South L.A. residents are regular transit users.]

Spend any time along the street and you will see that that speculation bears out, and then some. Central bustles with pedestrians, transit riders, and cyclists at various times of the day. Parents walk and bike their children to elementary school in the morning or to after-school programs at youth centers like A Place Called Home. Bus route 53, connecting Cal State Dominguez to downtown via Central, is one of the busier in the city, seeing 14,502 weekly boardings. And the street actually hosts more cyclists than pedestrians during peak hours — almost one cyclist per minute.

As you might guess, the oppressiveness of cut-through traffic is one of the top complaints made by those that must navigate the street on foot or by bike. The crush of massive trucks and impatient commuters keeps residents from feeling safe crossing the street, especially if they are with their families. And the overwhelming size of the trucks and the propensity of car drivers to dart in and around them puts pedestrians and cyclists at real risk for injury.

Screen shot of LA Times mapping of pedestrian collisions along Central. Together the black dots represent 48 collisions. Source: LA Times
Screen shot of LA Times mapping of reported pedestrian collisions along Central. Together, the black dots represent 48 collisions at four intersections along Central between 2002 and 2013. Source: L.A. Times. See map here.

Conditions are so poor that bicyclists (including the occasional LAPD officer) generally take refuge on the sidewalks. Which leads to a second complaint, often heard from pedestrians and small business owners in the community: the fear that they are going to collide with a cyclist as they move in and out of the shops along the commercial corridor.

Being on the sidewalk can also put cyclists more at risk for being hit by cars moving to or from side streets, either because the driver is in a hurry to squeeze a turn in or because cyclists sometimes dart into intersections from sidewalks assuming they are visible or that they have been spotted by drivers (or some combination of all three).

Officially, the poor conditions along the street have resulted in nearly 300 people being hit while walking or biking along Central over a ten-year span, according to the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. But both cyclists and pedestrians along the corridor tell me close calls with vehicles are a far more regular occurrence. Many cyclists even report having been hit several times, despite never having communicated any of those incidents to the authorities. Their testimony suggests the underreporting of collisions stems from the incidents being hit-and-runs in which they weren’t badly injured, cases in which the driver stopped to render aid and/or offered to pay for any damages to the bike, or cases where it was clear to the victim that the driver was indigent and unable to pay for damages.

All of which implies that the street is even less safe for residents than we suppose.

And all of which is further complicated by the fact that those walking or biking need access to Central Ave., regardless of how unsafe it can be. For residents and cycling commuters, it is a lifeline. The presence of gangs in the neighborhoods surrounding the corridor means that the side streets are off limits to those just passing through. The bustle of Central lends it some neutrality and offers potential witnesses and safe havens to duck into, should an issue arise.

It is therefore of the essence that Central be made safer and more accessible to all users, cyclists included. Even if prioritizing the safety of the most vulnerable inhabitants of a community means curtailing the convenience with which non-residents can cut through it.

A young man rides a bike along a Central Ave. sidewalk. The streets are much less congested on the weekends, but the lack of a road diet (and lack of bike infrastructure) encourages drivers to speed, making cyclists feel the sidewalk is always the best option. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
A young man rides a bike along a Central Ave. sidewalk (at center). The streets are much less congested on the weekends, but the lack of a road diet (and lack of bike infrastructure) encourages drivers to speed, making cyclists feel the sidewalk is almost always the best option. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

* * *

None of this is to suggest that, in opposing the objectives of the Mobility Plan, James O’Sullivan and Laura Lake of Fix the City or any of the other opponents (including wayward councilmembers Curren Price, Paul Koretz, and Gil Cedillo) are actively seeking to subject vulnerable lower-income Angelenos to more dangerous and unhealthy conditions. They are only thinking of themselves and their own quality of life (and the interests they might be beholden to, ahem).

And that’s a big part of the problem.

The larger conversations around the Mobility Plan have not done enough to address the way in which our fair city’s current configuration (combined with the reluctance to provide and/or safeguard affordable housing) impacts the health and well-being of the lower-income families that inhabit our urban cores. Or what a challenge mobility can be when rising rents strain already constrained budgets. Or how gentrification and displacement can harm the ability of transit-dependent people to keep jobs, be available to nurture their families, or be part of a cohesive community when it takes them even longer to reach their destinations via transit or bike. Nor have we really heard connections made between the reluctance of Angelenos to give up their cars and things like the harm caused by the decades’ worth of lead, arsenic, and other emissions lead-acid (car) battery recycler Exide showered upon tens of thousands of lower-income East and Southeast L.A. residents.

The “luxury” O’Sullivan speaks of is not, as he believes, one of being able to choose to commute by bike or bus. It is in being able to speak of mobility in terms of convenience and choice. There are too many people — too many of our fellow Angelenos — that, by virtue of their lower-income status, have precious few options for how they move around the city and interact with their communities. They deserve access to the most basic of protections and pathways that will allow them to get from point A to point B safely. And they deserve slower, human-scale streets where they can linger with their families, support their local businesses, and build stronger communities without having to worry about dying every time they get on their bike to pedal to work or take their child’s hand and step into the street.

If you think about it from that perspective, then it becomes clear the Mobility Plan isn’t nearly ambitious enough. Not even close. Nor does it seem to be able to count on the political support it needs from the folks in charge of seeing it implemented. But it’s a start. And that’s better than nothing.

Let the lane-stealing begin!

  • Juan Matute

    It seems that one goal of Mobility Plan 2035 is to keep neighborhood streets safe as Waze and other apps lead to more cut-through traffic. Why on earth would Fix the City oppose the City’s plan to keep your neighborhood street safe?

  • ubrayj02

    This one is easy! Instead of “wasting” all this money on transit and bike lanes just buy everyone a car. That will fix everything.

  • EB

    thank you Sahra for this pointed critique of the elitist lawsuit from “fix the city” – one among seemingly many backwards-thinking, anti-safety (and anti-children, anti-working poor, anti-seniors) backlashes to the mobility plan. where is an advocacy group called “save our future” pushing back on all this negative momentum? where is mayor garcetti? i truly hope this lawsuit and the handful of negative op-eds are just the last throes of a failing paradigm, but it seems a shame that the authors of this plan aren’t doing more to shape the public narrative, which already seems to have veered off track…

    as i stood in the downpour this morning with other bus riders, getting splashed by speeding cars and feeling our shoes slowly becoming soaked (despite being a major intersection there is no bus shelter to speak of – only a single bench) while waiting for a late bus (which was stuck in car traffic as usual, since our route does not have bus lanes), i just found myself thinking how luxurious it is indeed.

  • Azunyan

    Has anyone considered that increasing bus and bike lanes might reduce cars…but at the same time, may also end up just changing the habits of former car drivers into scooter and motorcycle riders instead?

    Whose to say we won’t become like Taipei? Bus and bike lane advocates need to think about that as well; you can’t expect 100% of car drivers to start taking the bus or bicycling, they may just as easily go towards scooters and motorcycles instead.

    https://youtu.be/kcrqqYceJgY

  • 1976boy

    Those who like to trot out the statistic that “1% of folks in Los Angeles County ride bikes to work and just 11% use transit” must realize that County averages miss an important metric: local variation. In Downtown LA for example, the rate of transit ridership is in the ballpark of 65%, and many neighborhoods throughout the city likewise have far higher non-car reliance than the County average.

    Sure, there are probably many places in Los Angeles County where a pedestrian is a rare sight, but there are also places where car traffic is dwarfed by walking, bikes, and bus riders, perhaps with the exception of rush hours. Most of our streets have been designed to accommodate rush hour traffic which is a tiny slice of daily usage, at the expense of all others.

  • jk2001

    I drive, but also ride the bus, and sometimes the train. These lanes are okay. Getting to places as far west as Culver City and east to East LA is somewhat better by bus than by car if it’s during business hours or right after. Later at night or early in the morning, the car is more convenient. Transferring lanes from autos to bikes and buses really only skews the decision in favor of the bus a little bit more.

    But, adding a lane for the bus isn’t going to change that too much. There are speed limits. Also, some lines really need more buses during rush hour. The lane doesn’t address that problem. Also, north-south transit is a little more difficult than east-west. That’s just now it is – but it would be nice if that were addressed more.

  • sahras

    True, indeed. They need to add more frequent buses and give them signal prioritization. If you want to make transit rewarding, then you have to reward people for riding transit and make their lives easier and their commutes smoother/faster. The Mobility Plan definitely does not go nearly far enough in that regard.

  • Alex Brideau III

    And in certain cases (the Orange Line and surface-running light rail lines come to mind), transit needs signal *preemption*, not just the questionably effective “signal prioritization”.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Does anyone know whether a community organization can sponsor a bus shelter where there isn’t already one (assuming there are no space constraints, etc.)? Is there a wish list of shelter locations somewhere?

  • sahra

    They are a sticking point, thanks to our 20-year contract with CBS/Decaux. Even Great Streets apparently is beholden to working around that, should they wish to include transit improvements in their toolkit (I asked about that for Cesar Chavez). I’m actually working on a bus stop story and trying to figure out what’s gone in where, and what’s left…3 years ago, CBS claimed that the city’s cumbersome permitting process made it too difficult to get shelters put in (that seemed to be true, but also an excuse not to do it). And they prefer to put shelters where advertisers are most likely to want to put their posters. Which is generally not the places they are needed. But I’ll let you know what I can find when I have found it.

  • sahra

    Yes, that is probably a better way to say it — that is sorely needed along the Blue, Expo, and Gold Lines. There are times that I can walk to Grand Station from downtown faster than it would take me to get there by train.

  • sojourner_7

    Very polarizing and confrontational article. Certain to turn this issue into a “us vs them” scenario. The manner in which these type changes are addressed by Council is a root problem. Get rid of all auto traffic and LA would likely become a massive homeless encampment, because it would cease to function.

  • 1976boy

    Very polarizing and confrontational comment. Nobody is proposing to “Get rid of all auto traffic.” Why are opponents of this plan unable to debate it with facts? All I hear from opponents are doomsday scenarios.

  • Slexie

    Sorry, but this just sounds like another sour grapes article because the idea of putting Central on a road diet isn’t catching on like you wanted it to. I respect your opinion, but I don’t agree with it. You have a very congested thoroughfare for trucks (are people really intimidated by the size of a truck? I think you’re piling on and being a bit dramatic) and cars and peds and cyclists. So the solution is to take out a traffic lane, put in a bike lane, and expect those same peds who are soooo afraid of big trucks to get on a bike beside them? Uh-huh. Because that makes sense. You really want little kids and pre-teens biking next to giant trucks on the south side of downtown?

    Oh, but that’s where it has to be because the side streets are gang infested. What the heck kind of logic is that? We don’t want to disturb the gangs, so lets cram more people into less lanes on a street that’s already overloaded and dangerous?

    Now, why not put a bike lane on one of the side streets and give the city a chance to drive the gangs out or away at least a few blocks. The buses are already crowded and unreliable, when and if they show up at all. So the solution is to take out a traffic lane, and add MORE buses? The whole 2035 traffic plan does nothing to lessen commute times. Everyone keeps saying, “Oh but if I take longer on public transit to get to work, that’s time I can use to get work done.” Really? You’re going to pull out a laptop, tablet and cell phone and hunker down for an hour on the bus? If people were so interested in doing that, they would be doing it now. But they’re not because they are driving and it’s faster. Anyone using transit knows you don’t pull out your phone, you don’t want to be a target. I’ve seen it first hand. No one is sitting on the bus with their laptop out either.

    ” And they deserve slower, human-scale streets where they can linger with their families, support their local businesses, and build stronger communities without having to worry about dying every time they get on their bike to pedal to work or take their child’s hand and step into the street.”

    I don’t see that being unique to lower income, that’s pretty much what every one wants. What the heck are “human scale streets”? Have the current streets been scaled for some other creature?

    So give them a bike lane and wider sidewalks on a street that isn’t already congested and choked with truck traffic. I do not understand how anyone thinks by creating more congestion on already crowded streets and throwing cyclists in the mix is supposed to be a good thing. I mean, is there a lack of streets here?

    Do you know why there is so much bike traffic between Washington and MLK on Central? Hmmm…let’s see. Could it be because that area is blocks and blocks of residential single family homes? Gee, there are a lot of families there. Where are all the bikers (one a minute? really?) going? Because north of the 10 from there, it’s all industrial. How much biking have you done through there? At night? Have you biked through there at all?

    You use big hot button words and phrases like gentrification, affordable housing, and non-residential cut through congestion. But all it sounds like to me is you are sympathizing with poor people and lumping a bunch of social issues together to justify increasing commute times. I’m sorry, but long stretches of Central are industrial complexes and business districts. Why do you have such a problem with anyone using those streets? They are public roads and anyone is welcome to drive, walk or bike on them. In other articles you lament the visitors coming to some restaurant who don’t live in the area. Oh the horror! People liking a place to eat that is locally owned and driving there and spending their own money! How dare they! Wait…are…are you telling me that for them to get to that place, they had to drive through other areas that they didn’t live in? OMG! Well that is the worst thing in the world. I’m sure your head just exploded.

  • sahra

    I’m not going to address much of what you wrote, because a lot of it doesn’t really make sense, contradicts itself, sounds angry, or doesn’t apply to Central Ave. But I can say the road diet planned for the street currently is actually part of the Great Streets program (and will stretch from Vernon to Adams). It does not include a bike lane at the moment (its status is up in the air right now). The goal of the road diet, per Great Streets, is to allow for local traffic but hopefully discourage cut-through traffic, particularly the semi-trucks. So, if the road diet idea really makes you that angry, you can take that up with the Mayor’s Office. But getting rid of the truck traffic is a wish of just about everybody along the corridor I have spoken with between Adams and about 50th St. Residents as well as business owners. The business owners want to have a more walkable business environment and the residents don’t want their children to die. There are genuine questions about the extent to which a road diet would work. Right now, the city expects that if they make driving miserable, people will switch over to transit. But they aren’t really offering better/more frequent bus service to make that easier for folks. And you’re right, it would be great to see the gangs’ hold on side streets broken. But until the city invests in better schools, community policing, more recreational opportunities, and job training and opportunities for youth, that is really unlikely to happen. So sending vulnerable cyclists down those streets is unrealistic. Kids are getting their bikes jacked or being confronted by (sometimes armed) youth that harass them, intimidate them, rob them, and sometimes beat them up. And for commuters, Central is one of the key straight shots. I know people that ride from Watts to DTLA to work and back. The side streets are too much of a tangle — they get caught in some of the industrial pockets you mention.

    To some of your other critiques — I don’t think it is terrible that people drive. In South L.A., people often work off-peak hours or a couple of jobs, and sometimes they don’t have any choice but to drive. Transit doesn’t meet their needs. Those folks also want to be able to get up and down Central more easily. Encouraging the trucks to go elsewhere (again, if that worked), would be to everybody’s benefit.

    I have never lamented people from outside one community coming to eat in another and/or driving to get there. I have discussed how it is understood by a community that has experienced years of neglect, disinvestment, and discrimination and is currently undergoing a transformation, because that is important for those conducting planning and outreach to know. And it matters with regard to tracking how communities change and grow over time. So, no, my head did not explode. But I appreciate the concern for my welfare. Truly.

    And I am sorry that discussing equity (“sympathizing with poor people,” as you put it) offends so deeply. My thinking was that all people deserve safe streets, and the needs of those of the least means and the ability to make the fewest choices available to them need to be taken into account, because too often they are not. Some may find that kind of inclusiveness unpalatable. To each his own.

  • Ellen Isaacs

    Hi Sahra, please see the image of a bus shelter in Paris at the following link, where it’s a communal gathering space instead of just a bench – or a pole. http://www.huffpost.com/ellen-isaacs/paris-bus-stop-of-the-future-for-Los-Angeles?

  • marcotico

    Hi Slexie, You probably should read some of Sahra’s many articles on South Los Angeles, before asking her “How much biking have you done through there?” Also regarding you sarcastic comment “What the heck are “human scale streets”? Have the current streets been scaled for some other creature?” Actually yes, the streets have been scaled for automobiles, not people. That is the problem most of the Streetsblog writers and regulars like myself have dedicated our careers to addressing.

  • Slexie

    Cars carry people, yes? So again sounds like the streets are already scaled for humans who drive cars.

    I asked her if she had biked through the area and she didn’t answer. If the rest of her writings are as long as this one, I don’t really have the time to go through everything she’s written to find where she has and has not biked. That’s why I asked her. Have you biked through there? In the industrial area north of the 10 on Central? At night?
    She accuses me of being angry, which I’m not, I just don’t agree with her. Her article tries to figure out how to stop cut through traffic by non-residents. Then her answer to me says she says she doesn’t have a problem with it. So which is it? The area north of the 10 is pretty much all industrial, so how are the businesses supposed to get their goods, when they are already avoiding Alameda because it’s too crowded? Where does she expect these trucks to go? That’s the non-residential cut through commerce she must be speaking of. Unless they get an airdrop, I don’t see another way to get their supplies delivered. Or are they supposed to bike with the supplies they are delivering on their backs? She and I both agree that the transit alternatives are still not better or faster than driving. You want to dedicate your career to something something something not liking cars, good for you. How do we get around without them?

  • Slexie

    Angry? Nope. I just don’t agree with you, that doesn’t make me angry. And I’m sorry, but you know good and well that the luxury of taking the bus or biking that he is referring to is being close enough to your job to use those modes of transportation efficiently. You’re saying:

    ” But I can say the road diet planned for the street currently is actually part of the Great Streets program (and will stretch from Vernon to Adams). It does not include a bike lane at the moment (its status is up in the air right now). The goal of the road diet, per Great Streets, is to allow for local traffic but hopefully discourage cut-through traffic, particularly the semi-trucks.”

    “Even if prioritizing the safety of the most vulnerable inhabitants of a community means curtailing the convenience with which non-residents can cut through it.”

    Yet you try to deflect this by saying something about gentrification which has nothing to do with what you said.

    Really? Because the map of the upcoming changes YOU linked to does have a bike lane being put in on Central. So maybe you should edit that so what you are referring to actually is correct. Now you’re trying to say the things I’m not agreeing with are part of the mayors plan and I should talk to them. But your whole article basically supports everything Great Streets wants, so what’s the difference? You end your diatribe saying there isn’t enough lane stealing going on. So whether you are talking about either plan, the results are the same.

    Do you know how much just making a street look nicer can have an effect on the neighborhood? Better lighting and a bike lane on a parallel side street would be better for bikers and walkers instead of trying to squeeze them into an industrial street with more buses and trucks. That’s why I asked you how much biking you have done in that area. You don’t have to wait for the government to come and make the schools better or any of that jazz. Put in a bike lane and wider sidewalks on a stretch that isn’t already crowded with truck traffic is safer than doing it on a main thoroughfare. I bike and I drive and I use public transit all over LA. The idea of putting in a bike lane on a street that is already over stressed is ridiculous. That’s only going to anger the drivers who don’t have the “luxury” of taking transit to work. Have you biked down the bike lane on Virgil, which stops just short of the most dangerous intersection of Beverly/Virgil/Silverlake Blvd.? I’d love to know how safe you think that is.

    If you’re not going to address what I said and then spend a paragraph explaining why your’re not addressing what I said, why don’t you just address what I said? Nevermind. Where are your numbers of one cyclist an minute on that route coming from? This I have to see.