Farewell to a Friend, Councilmember Rosendahl Who Declared “Era of L.A. Car Culture Has Come to an End”

Earlier today, we learned of the passing of former Westside L.A. City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl. While I personally have a great deal of respect and admiration for my friend Bill, I’m not writing another personal ode to a pal. I’m writing to remember one of the most important political figures that helped change the conversation about transportation policies and priorities in Los Angeles.

Bill Rosehdahl. Image via KCET
Bill Rosendahl. Image via KCET

When I first met and covered Rosendahl, it was at a community meeting for the Expo Line in the fall of 2007, I knew he was different than the politicians I was used to. I was accustomed to politicians in New Jersey, where I cut my teeth in advocacy, that cowered at the words “gas tax.” Rosendahl argued that it needed to be raised to pay for projects such as Expo.

While it was clear that he did not have the planning background to broadly embrace and understand all the principles of smart growth and progressive transportation planning; he was ready to fight for his communities and stand up to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa when the city proposed speeding up traffic on Pico and Olympic Boulevards. Later, he pushed Metro to raise the sales tax by double what was proposed in Measure R, although that suggestion never made it past the public testimony podium.

While these were undoubtedly good things, Rosendahl’s livability bona fides shone brightly in two key arenas: his dedication to making the streets safe for bicyclists and the leadership he showed as the head of the City Council Transportation Committee from 2009-2013.

Before ascending to the committee chair, Rosendahl was shaken by the infamous July 4th road rage crash in Mandeville Canyon. Briefly, a driver doctor slammed on his brakes after cutting off two cyclists, intentionally causing a crash. After calling 911, and bragging about teaching the cyclists a lesson to the operator, ambulances and police arrived to help the two cyclists who were left bleeding and lying in the roadway.

From that tragedy, the bicycle movement in Los Angeles rallied and at the same time Rosendahl found his voice on transportation issues. All of a sudden, the silver-tongued Councilmember started to sounds more like Jennifer Klausner and Don Ward than he did his fellow elected officials… even the ones who purported or tried to be bicycle-friendly.

A year later, Rosendahl was Transportation Committee Chair and he brought on Paul Backstrom to lead his transportation initiatives. Together with his future successor (then Chief of Staff) Mike Bonin, the trio blazed through the Council ending the discriminatory and retaliatory bike license program, passing an anti-harassment ordinance that became a national model for bike-friendly legislation, helping to rescue the bike plan and helping to beat-back last minute opposition to the city’s planned Measure R budget that included funding for walk and bike projects, including plaza and parklet programs now known as the LADOT People St program.

Along the way he even picked up a Streetsie, and starred in a Streetfilm.

Of course, Bill was also known for his excellent appointments to public committees and boards.

There is a lot I can say about my personal feelings towards Bill. I said a lot of them already when he first announced he would not run for re-election, so he could focus on fighting cancer. I will leave it at this: he was a great guy. I will miss him.

But I am not asking you to wish me well while mourning the loss of a friend, I am asking you to remember our champion in city hall, the man who saw bicyclists not as obstacles or a problem for engineers to solve but as people… people that were in danger because of bad laws, bad enforcement and bad urban planning. He could not wave a magic wand, but he did give the movement a big push.

There is still work to be done of course, but we might well still be at the bottom of the mountain if Bill hadn’t been the leader he was. Thankfully, the torch was picked up by his super competent friend and successor, Mike Bonin, but for today let us remember the man who got us started at City Hall.

Rest in peace, my friend.

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