Vision Zero: LADOT, Focus Group Have Same Goals, Different Ideas About How to Reach Them

Detail of Vision Zero High Injury Network as it overlaps with equity indicators. Many of the streets highlighted in South L.A. are prioritized for potential safety interventions. Source: Vision Zero
Detail of Vision Zero High Injury Network as it overlaps with equity indicators. Many of the streets highlighted in South L.A. are prioritized for potential safety interventions. Source: Vision Zero

“Remember, the end goal is to get to 20% reduction [in traffic-related deaths] by next year, and then zero by 2025,” said MIG Consultant Esmeralda Garcia of the city’s effort to put together an action plan to implement Vision Zero.

Gesturing toward another consultant and Brian Oh of the L.A. Department of Transportation (LADOT), she told the ten attendees (myself included) at the South Los Angeles focus group meeting last Thursday, “Anything that will help [us] to get to that goal – that’s why we need to hear from you. That’s why this conversation is important.”

The statement made me feel very important indeed.

Then I remembered that I had not been invited to attend this gathering.

As Joe Linton noted in his coverage of Vision Zero’s first real stab at community engagement, the fact that it all seems to be happening rather quietly and out of public view is both odd and very much by design. Focus group attendees were nominated by a process that still remains somewhat shrouded in smoggy mystery. And the Vision Zero Alliance (LA0) – a diverse coalition of organizations explicitly formed to partner with the city on shaping policy and communications around safe and equitable streets – appears not to have been brought on early enough in the process to play a significant role in setting up the meetings.

LADOT will likely dispute this last point, having reassured me that all proper protocols were followed with partners. Still, I think we can all agree that there are more efficient ways for the city to get feedback from its partners besides having them show up to focus group meetings at random locations around town. If only because when half of the attendees at a meeting are tied to the LA0 organizations already said to be in regular communication with LADOT, then LADOT is wasting its time getting redundant feedback while also not hearing from the wider community it is purporting to engage.

These concerns aside, the questions I found myself pondering had more to do with the purpose of the meeting and how any feedback gathered might actually be used.

To the best of my understanding, the purpose of the meeting was to support LADOT in its effort to develop an action plan governing the drive to reduce traffic-related deaths by 20 percent in the next year and a half. KPCC called the approach a “fine-tuning” of a plan that should be finished by September.

Except we were not presented with a formal plan.

Instead, we got: a) a good overview of what the crash data told the Vision Zero team; b) a look at the issues being considered and where those issues intersected with the many prioritized corridors in South Los Angeles; and c) suggestions regarding potential solutions to reduce fatalities using engineering, education, and enforcement.

Then, after each topic, we were asked for feedback: Did we get the data right? What are the highest priority traffic safety issues in your community? Will the sample solutions work in your community? What might be more effective? And, finally, how can the city “make it easier for you to engage on traffic safety?” and how can non-profits and individuals promote safety?

Those talk-back periods were where it became clear (to me, at least) that, while the city and the attendees were ultimately focused on the same outcome, they sometimes appeared to be envisioning deeply divergent ways to get there.

Thus far, LADOT has largely focused on using a quantitative data-driven approach to assessing safety. If the budget guidelines are anything to go from, that data seems to already have pushed LADOT in the direction of approximately three million dollars’ worth of an educational effort to raise more awareness around Vision Zero and, more concretely, pedestrian islands, lighting, crosswalks, and other small-scale interventions at intersections to improve dangerous crossings.

Terrible quality image of the South L.A. streets prioritized (in blue) for safety interventions. Central, Slauson, most of Manchester, MLK Blvd., and Wilmington did not make the cut. Source: Vision Zero handout
Terrible quality image (sorry) of the South L.A. streets prioritized (in blue) for safety interventions. Central, Slauson, most of Manchester, MLK Blvd., and Wilmington are all part of the High Injury Network, but did not make the cut for first prioritization. (Vision Zero handout)

Right out of the gate, however, attendees had questions about the data and the extent to which the city’s framing actually fit the mobility landscape in the neighborhood.

While the combination of data collected from kill and severe injury (KSI) crashes and the factoring in of equity, children, and seniors ensured that key South L.A. corridors would be given priority, we were concerned about how well it captured the whole picture. And whether it prioritized the right corridors, or the key issues along those corridors.

For one, there is significant underreporting of collisions – even severe injury ones – in communities like South L.A. I regularly come across cyclists and pedestrians who say they have been hit at least once; although three or four times seems more the norm. I personally have witnessed or rolled up on the aftermath of several collisions between cars and bicyclists or pedestrians. And, minus the arrival of law enforcement at the scene of a crash I came upon in Silver Lake (back when I called crashes “accidents”), none of the other incidents were reported – not even those where the victim ended up in the hospital.

That underreporting may be why Avalon Boulevard was labeled a prioritized corridor while Central Avenue was listed only as being on the High Injury Network, for example. Were unreported collisions factored in along with the fact that Central is a lifeline to a far greater number of cyclists and pedestrians than Avalon, it might rank as a higher priority street.

For another, there are the collisions that don’t happen because people choose driving over biking and walking.

The intersection at Manchester and St. Andrews. Source: Google maps.
The intersection at Manchester and St. Andrews (at top). The park is to the right. Source: Google maps.

A local resident – the only attendee who was neither nominated to attend nor linked to the planning community – told me his elderly mother was frustrated that she could not walk across Manchester Avenue to get to St. Andrews park. The traffic was so daunting that she generally resorted to driving the handful of blocks just to be able to cross the busy intersection safely. At which point she would often just drive on west to a bigger park in Inglewood, he said, since she was already in the car (and could avoid having to cross Manchester that way, too).

In short, a street can be so daunting to navigate on foot, particularly for elders, the disabled, or families with small children, that it effectively limits the number of potential pedestrian crashes by encouraging driving. Could we see how the data looked when it was overlaid with crosswalks and other information that might give us a better picture of these sorts of access issues and street users in the area? Would observation be used to corroborate quantitative data to ensure the range of needs were fully captured and solutions were appropriate? Would LADOT be spending time on the corridors selected, getting to know the community, the larger community context, and the mobility patterns of its diverse residents? And would be there some effort to improve the quality of the data?

Brian Oh reassured attendees that LADOT understood the data was imperfect and was looking at ways to improve data collection (such as working with paramedics to capture injuries and deaths resulting from collisions). We were also told LADOT was cognizant that imperfect data meant harder-to-capture dynamics remained elusive but were by no means insignificant.

LADOT could eventually take measures to make those non-prioritized streets safer, Garcia said. Given the mandate to reduce fatalities before 2018, however, it was likely those issues wouldn’t be addressed until later phases of the implementation.

The action plan, Oh reminded attendees, was just phase one of a multi-year process.

All of which makes sense perfect sense, from a bureaucracy’s perspective.

But for Vision Zero to be both successful and sustainable over the long haul, it will ultimately require behavioral change. That sort of shift requires cultural change and community buy-in.

Thus, from a disenfranchised community’s perspective, it is never too early to begin to build the foundation of trust needed for messages to even be received in the first place. This is especially true in communities where the city has not upheld its promises in the past and where improvements can spark suspicions about impending gentrification.

Design and engineering matter, of course, and attendees saw these sorts of solutions as infinitely preferable to an enforcement approach, which attendees agreed would further tax an overly burdened community and be “trust-breaking,” as Niki Wong of Redeemer Community Partnership put it.

But as more than one speaker reiterated, South Los Angeles is a community that has long been denied improvements. Any entrance the city considers making into the community must be taken as an opportunity for the city to re-introduce itself to residents, work with them to discern which improvements will fit their needs best, and build partnerships that will serve all parties down the line.

Wong, Adriana Mendoza of the AARP, and resident James Harris suggested piggy-backing off local community events and ticked off a list of organizations the city could begin to connect with to jump start that process.

Malcolm Harris of TRUST South L.A. recommended the city go one step further and put themselves in the community’s shoes.

“If I wasn’t in this work, I wouldn’t have been thinking about [traffic safety],” he said. There are too many other things going on – too many other pressing issues impacting residents’ lives.

Messaging around Vision Zero, he continued, would therefore need to be connected to real issues people were living – overpolicing, access to jobs, fear of displacement, etc.- so the information doesn’t get shut down or ignored. “The typical marketing I see is more for the average person over on the Westside…who has the choice [to ride their bikes]. Not someone who is struggling and who only has a Tap card or their bike.” Or for whom mobility is tied up in housing affordability, public safety, family obligations, and/or the kinds of work or school schedules they are juggling.

In that vein, I would argue, any engagement should also be more active and take into account what residents already know – how they move and how they already think about safety. People who are largely dependent on walking, biking, and transit to get around are generally pretty sensitive to the environments they move through. They may not know all the formal rules of the road, but they have little choice but to be hyper-aware of what is going on around them. Not being drivers themselves, however, they may not have a sense of how easy or hard it is for drivers to see them (especially at night), to anticipate their movements, or to react in time to avoid a collision. Participatory work with youth – engaging them on how to conduct observations, survey their neighbors, run simulations, synthesize data, draw conclusions, and/or formulate solutions – may mean safer kids now and more conscientious drivers in the future.

Whether we will see this kind of targeted, community-specific, and relationship-building approach in either the short or long term remains to be seen. Right now, Garcia told attendees, LADOT has “an ongoing consultant…that is putting together a marketing and education campaign [focused on how the city can] best promote and bring awareness to Vision Zero and all the issues that are happening.”

“There is definitely going to be an emphasis on [messaging to] the people that are in cars,” she said. “But there are also going to be [messages targeting] shared responsibility…” (distracted walking, unsafe behaviors by pedestrians or cyclists, etc.).

They expect to have the campaign ready to launch by the end of the year and, to that end, have already put together an education and outreach strategy.

As the meeting wound down, several of the attendees reiterated the importance of knowing the community before presuming to plan for it or construct campaigns targeting it.

When the question was put to attendees about how LADOT could reach out to folks with limited mobility, James Harris turned the question back on the facilitators.

“How would you meet them? You’re asking us, but you should be asking them. I have different issues.”

Picking up on a phrase a few of us had already used that night, he encouraged LADOT to “meet folks where they are” – go to churches, food giveaways, senior centers, community fairs – and to be prepared to listen.

Oh was quick to let attendees know LADOT understood the importance of this approach.

He acknowledged LADOT had learned a lot from past mistakes, when I raised concerns about the way improvements had been implemented along Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights. [The project was said to be part of a community-driven Great Streets program, but the community was left in the dark about what was happening on their main commercial corridor until well after the improvements had begun to go in. See here, here.]

“We’re not going to go in…and put in treatments that aren’t for the community,” Oh said. “We will be back to do the outreach. We’ve learned from…going in and thinking that we know what is best for certain communities.”

By the power definitely not vested in me, I hereby nominate you to attend one of the remaining focus group meetings, if you’re curious to learn more about Vision Zero.

  • Tuesday 8/2 – Palms Rancho Park Library at 2920 Overland Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90064
  • Wednesday 8/3 – San Pedro Library at 931 S. Gaffey Street, San Pedro, CA 90731
  • Tuesday 8/9 – Alma Reeves Woods Branch Library at 10025 Compton Avenue, Watts CA 90002
  • Wednesday 8/10 – Pico Union Branch Library at 1030 S. Alvarado Street, Los Angeles, CA 90006
  • Eliminate all traffic fatalities by 2025? Call me jaded, but that’s a tall order. You’d probably have to set a citywide speed limit of 25 MPH and aggressively enforce it, aggressively enforce laws against DUI and distracted driving and bring back red-light cameras, or maybe ban human drivers entirely.

    Of course, if a real politician tried to do that, he/she would be booted out of office so fast it would make your head spin. That’s why I think it’s just a slogan. Nobody seems willing to talk about the kinds of radical change that would be necessary to literally accomplish Vision Zero.

  • sahra

    ‘Tis tough, indeed. And I think that’s why they’re really looking at numbers now instead of all the things that really go into making a neighborhood ecosystem safe over the long haul. It was impressed upon me that they are taking this 20% reduction quite seriously. And it seems like they don’t have a lot of room to be flexible on the rollout. Which makes me wonder why they are going through this process of semi-engagement…

    Given that I also see reaching zero as a tall order – just because there will never not be drunks – it makes more sense to me to see the city begin by really reaching out to folks from the get-go. Make it sustainable and use it as a way to engage folks on other aspects of city planning. But things tend not to work that way…

  • Joe Commuter

    I think it’s appropriate to inform residents of safety improvements, but the residents can’t and shouldn’t design a project based on consensus rather than proven safety measures. It’s this kind of “safety solutions are subjective” process that allows Koretz, Price, and NIMBYs to make up facts about what’s safe and what isn’t, in complete defiance of years of proof to the contrary.

    If we need rounds of meetings to arrive at the conclusion we should accept what are already proven facts about traffic engineering we will most certainly not reach zero deaths by 2025. Putting in a bike lane or losing a lane of traffic should not be rejected simply because the majority oppose it. I seriously doubt that’s what Sweden did to get as far as they have.

  • sahra

    I agree, to a degree. I think the challenge I was trying to get at is that there is a lot of uncertainty with regard to the data in lower-income areas and folks making decisions who are unfamiliar with how mobility patterns and barriers impact people’s lives in those neighborhoods. And given that those communities not only lack street infrastructure but all kinds of other infrastructure and mobility options, it’s not the same as fixing Sunset Blvd in Silver Lake. Or something in Koretz’ neighborhood. So, the solutions and strategies might need to be different. For folks in the communities I cover, having the room to maneuver can be a very good thing (unless you get someone obstinate like Price) – they are too accustomed to inappropriate solutions being imposed upon them and those conversations are important. But for more NIMBY communities, it can give them too much room to maneuver and you get stasis…

  • Sludge

    Something Vision Zero, the coalition, the politicians and community groups could all do starting yesterday: treat each and every fatality going forward as a really big deal. Show up for the ghost bike or memorial placement. Work with clergy and educators so it becomes part of their sermons and curricula. Join the family in grieving. If and when they are ready, help them tell their story so another family won’t have to.

  • Joe Linton

    Don’t be so pessimistic, Mr. Jaded! Sweden did it… So can L.A. It’s a lot less about enforcement than it is about engineering and street design. L.A. engineers have been really successful at cramming as many cars into streets as possible. If they realign their priorities, then they can be successful at safety.

  • ubrayj02

    These types of public meetings aren’t being held to get public input. They are held to provide employment for all the nice college educated people working in this field. If we wanted public input, we’d have the hosts working for free and pay the public to show up.

    What your report describes is a poorly marketed outreach campaign.

    If the intent is to build a constituency that can help push the politics of transportation reform, this type of thing simply won’t do the job.

  • Bob P

    Honestly, it’s the politicians and general public that needs to realign their priorities. I know how people love to hate on the engineers, but truth be told, they are merely delivering on the what the people have demanded thus far.

  • PFT Future

    Hosts working for free? Paying the public to participate? Do you work for free or do you expect to get paid for the work that you do? Do you pay the public to come to outreach meetings in your community?

    I realize public participation isn’t easy and I’m all for changing the model and actually going out into the field and doing more pop-up meetings, doing surveys with people actually out there on the street. Bringing on member of the community as a paid consultant to assist in the outreach process. To expect companies and agencies to not pay people and that people have to do it for free is ludicrous. Also god forbid that the people are college educated in the field of planning. Most of the time I like and agree with your comments but what’s wrong with paying people and have a college education if you are a planner?

  • Sweden eliminated all traffic deaths?

  • Joe Linton

    “Sweden’s roads are the world’s safest” If we fall short and only eliminate three-quarters or two-thirds of L.A. traffic deaths would that be a bad thing?

  • Dennis_Hindman

    According to the World Health Organization the estimated road traffic death rate per 100,000 people in 2013 was 2.8 in Sweden, 2.9 in the UK, 3.4 in the Netherlands and 3.5 in Denmark.

    On page 196 of this NHTSA report of 2012 traffic fatalities, the city of Washington D.C. is ranked as one of the 30 largest cities in the U.S. Its traffic fatalities per 100,000 population was 2.37. Which is lower than Sweden. The city of Washington D.C. reduced the number of traffic fatalities 73% in 10 years compared to 30% for Sweden.

    At 7:52 to 10:15 in this Streetsfilm, Gabe Klein, the ex Commissioner of Transportation for the city of Washington D.C., explains how D.C. is more comfortable to ride a bike in than New York City.

    On page 13 of this link below is a chart that lists the traffic fatality rate for cities worldwide:

  • I’ll take any progress in reducing the body count. I just get frustrated when people use slogans like Vision Zero without having a serious conversation about the specific, and possibly unpopular, steps needed to achieve it.

    LA abandoned its photo enforcement program a few years back even though the evidence showed it reduced traffic deaths. Why? Because people whined about how “unfair” the tickets were and politicians pandered to them. Politicians can look good talking about Vision Zero, but talk is cheap. Action takes political courage.

  • ubrayj02

    When you have a degree and manage a poster board and a flyer and email outreach campaign = work.

    When you leave your work and family and sit in a room and are asked to give design and technical feedback for a room full of people with degrees and post-it notes but, apparently, no idea how to design an intersection or public plaza = ???

    These meetings are make-work, or they’re legal requirements. Their purpose is to provide a veneer of accountability and to provide some billable hours to consultants. We have a crisis of faith in authorities in the country and the planning profession is not helping itself with this genre of “outreach”.

  • PFT Future

    Like I said, I’m all for changing the outreach program associated with projects, especially in communities where meetings haven’t produced the feedback one is looking for. Every community is different and having a poster board public meeting works in some communities but obviously not for others.

    Public outreach meetings are generally legal requirements or policy requirement for projects. This type of outreach meeting is the lowest cost approach for the agency as it reduce billable hours. Any more progressive form of outreach generally costs more and I promise consultants rather do in the field surveys or other public solicitations as it would actually drive up their billable hours.

    I was far more focused on your assertion that people should be working for free and that some how having an education makes you worse at planning. I think that in many cases outreach is an after thought verses the focus; and in some cases I actually think agencies go out of their way to try and make it harder for people to attend and comment but having a degree changes none of that. There are plenty of times planning professionals get it right with outreach and plans/projects and there are plenty of times they get it wrong but having a degree or being a professional doesn’t make it worse.

  • ubrayj02

    The suggestion that the public be paid to attend and the employees show up for free is a rhetorical tool to remind those decrying the lack of public “interest” in all these various public meetings and hearings is not simply chalked up to apathy.

  • ubrayj02

    What would I do to build support for safer streets?

    Hold a series of “safe streets” block parties. Interview people and produce a series of short films from targeted sectors of the city with stories of death, carnage, etc.

    Build an email list. Build a constituency. Fight for small, block by block, changes that have immediate impact on street safety – use these victories to fight bigger battles.

    Hold marches, rallies, die-ins, mass bike rides. Photograph and distribute images and stories from these events.

    Use the social network you’ve created to rattle the cages of local elected officials and threaten their hold on their seats in office.

    Do it all at once.

    How do I know this type of thing works? Because that is what LA was doing collectively until a few years ago when our NGO’s went to “social justice” lunches and conferences and never came back. When a new generation of cyclists and pedestrian advocates was ignored while the older generation reveled in its own past glories. When social and cultural isolation turned over every human interaction into a logged contact via the internet.

    Where do we go from here? It sure as hell isn’t another public meeting with post-it notes.

  • PFT Future

    What you just described is called advocacy work sans the beginning portion which are great ideas for incorporating the public in a more meaningful way and soliciting, hopefully more people than a simply meeting. The rest is advocacy work and aren’t what the City nor the people it employees should be doing.

    I really love the safe streets block parties the same way I love ciclavia events and I think we could get great recommendations and have more public outreach in that manner. I think the City should help facilitate many of the things you described but its not what they should be organizing nor how you obtain public outreach for a project or a plan.

    And yeah that makes a lot of sense to rattle the cages of local elected officials as an employee of the city. You have described an advocacy movement which is great and should have a role in planning but how does this go back to the point of having better public outreach to inform plans and projects. I think you have a lot of understanding and experience in the planning process and what is wrong with the planning process. Obviously, there are issues and some of them stem from legal mandated public meetings (which have their set protocols created due to lawsuits) and some from just outdated practices that never caught up to modern times. My original response was to the idea that these were only for college educated people to have work and that some how having a college education was a bad thing as a planner and the other part about people working for free and paying the public to provide comment.


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