Playa Del Rey Street Safety Improvements Court Driver Backlash
4:53 PM PDT on June 7, 2017
Working with L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin's office, the Department of Transportation (LADOT) is installing various street safety measures in L.A.'s Playa del Rey neighborhood. The "Safe Streets for Playa del Rey" project includes new bike lanes, safer crosswalks, and road diets on portions of Jefferson Boulevard, Culver Boulevard, and Pershing Drive. As part of an immediately adjacent, but separate project, the city also reduced travel lanes and reconfigured parking on Vista Del Mar. The safety improvements are being installed, with completion anticipated later this month.
The Playa del Rey projects are in response to speeding, deaths and serious injuries on these streets, as well as community interest in making Playa del Rey (PDR) more a livable beach community and less, in Bonin's description, "a short-cut from the South Bay to points north".
According to Bonin's Mobility Deputy Jessie Holzer, PDR residents began working with Councilmember Bonin's office in 2015 with a goal of slowing speeds, reducing cut-through traffic, and making PDR more pedestrian-friendly. Residents prioritized calming on Pershing Drive and Culver Boulevard. Bonin's staff and LADOT had several project meetings with community leaders, including sharing a conceptual project plan in 2016. The project includes Pershing, Culver, and Jefferson. Street reconfiguration got underway during the past week, coinciding with resurfacing of a portion of Pershing Drive.
In a separate and adjacent project, LADOT is also reconfiguring Vista Del Mar. For many years, there has been parking on both sides of Vista Del Mar, so folks who park on the inland/east side of the street would walk across four lanes of car traffic to access the beach. The four lane configuration was also dangerous for drivers, who frequently crashed due to illegal U-turns, often in pursuit of beach parking.
According to LADOT, from 2003 to 2016, this stretch of Vista Del Mar saw driver deaths in 2005 and 2010. It saw pedestrian deaths in 2005, 2006, 2010, 2015 and two in 2016. There were also 210 collisions involving serious injuries on Vista Del Mar from 2003 to 2016. These break down into 156 vehicle/vehicle, 20 were pedestrian/vehicle, 9 bicycle/vehicle, and 25 fixed object/vehicle.
Two recent pedestrian fatalities have driven home the seriousness of the situation. While walking across Vista Del Mar in 2015, Naomi Larsen was killed by a car. Similarly Michael Lockridge was killed by a car in 2016. For Larsen's death, the L.A. Times reports that L.A. recently paid a $9.5 million legal settlement because "the city had failed to ensure safe ways for pedestrians to cross from the beach to their parked vehicles on the street." Further "city lawyers said it would be difficult to defend the case because Los Angeles had failed to take steps to protect beachgoers despite repeated collisions in the area." According to The Argonaut, a similar Lockridge case against the city is pending.
As of just over a week ago, the city took steps to make Vista Del Mar safe.
Parallel parking was removed from the inland side of the street. Beach-side parking was expanded by converting parallel parking to diagonal. According to LADOT the overall on-street beach parking was expanded by 90 spaces. In order to make space for the expanded beach-side diagonal parking, two Vista Del Mar traffic lanes were eliminated, overall reducing four lanes to two. The project also added three designated areas for safe U-turns.
With most of the Vista Del Mar project complete, some frustrated drivers are organizing against the safety improvements. Critics of the projects have formed a Keep Vista Del Mar Open Facebook group, a @Keep_VDM_Open Twitter, and an online petition against "One Lane Madness". Safe streets supporters started a counter-petition supporting Bonin's efforts.
Road diet reconfigurations of Pershing Drive, and Culver and Jefferson Blvds got underway this week. As of yesterday, preliminary street markings are visible, with permanent thermoplastic striping expected shortly. This weekend the Pershing upgrades will extend further south, coinciding with a second phase of resurfacing - from Manchester Avenue to Westchester Parkway.
Last night, the Neighborhood Council of Westchester/Playa agenda included a report and motion regarding the safety improvements. Television cameras were present. A standing-room only crowd of just over 130 people included both opponents and proponents of the street projects, with public comments running about 20 percent in favor and about 80 percent opposed.
The item opened with Holzer and LADOT Assistant General Manager Dan Mitchell giving a status report on the projects. Mitchell characterized Vista Del Mar as a street that serves two purposes: a "commuter highway" which it performed well, and a "beach access street" which it performed poorly. He went on to speak of the city's "moral obligation to prioritize peoples lives" and described the Vista Del Mar project as an "emergency" response to "tragic unnecessary deaths". He apologized that the city's outreach had been lacking and he maintained, as councilmember Bonin has, that these projects are low-cost pilots that the city will be monitoring to make adjustments based on their performance.
A couple of times during Mitchell's 20-minute presentation he was heckled by the crowd.
More than 30 people spoke during public comment. Project opponents were critical of the process, citing a lack of outreach. They told Mitchell to take his "morality mongering" elsewhere. They derided Bonin as "cowardly" and "shameful" for not being present that night. (Bonin met with Neighborhood Council board on Sunday, and sent three staff members to the meeting last night.)
Mostly they complained of longer drive times commuting on Vista Del Mar. Many of these commuters live and/or work in adjacent South Bay cities.
Several opponents blamed neighborhood cut-through traffic on recent changes, though others stated that cut-through traffic has been a growing problem for a long time.
Several opponents questioned whether lane reductions actually make streets safer, including one asserting that "Garcetti's Vision Zero can't regulate stupidity". Some stated that the Vista Del Mar's dangers had just shifted into adjacent neighborhoods. When one neighborhood council boardmember spoke about pedestrian deaths, a person in the audience interrupted shouting that "they had it coming". (Note: a commenter has asserted that this was a project proponent shouting sarcastically - this may be true, but wasn't clear to the author.)
Several opponents suggested that all Vista Del Mar on-street parking should be eliminated, including many expressing concerns that visitors leave their trash there. Bonin's staff responded that the state Coastal Commission would not allow for any reduction in parking as that would impede the public from accessing the beach.
Several opponents were critical of the city's purported use of Measure M funds - designated to "ease congestion" - for a project that would slow down traffic. One self-identified "suffering commuter" actually read aloud from a printed copy of the Measure M ordinance. Mitchell clarified that Measure M's sales tax does not begin until July 1, and the city will not see any Measure M funds until around September.
A handful of proponents spoke of having been included in the planning process for several years. Proponents named victims of traffic violence, asserting that something needed to be done. Some asked for Playa Del Rey's main streets to look and feel more like lively beach streets in nearby Manhattan Beach, El Segundo, and Santa Monica. A Playa Del Rey business owner complained that speeding traffic is hurting his business, making it difficult for driving customers to enter and exit his parking lot.
Some Neighborhood Council boardmembers and project critics did acknowledge that speeding and cut-through traffic were longstanding problems in the community, and encouraged the city to mitigate these, whether by police enforcement or other means.
The Neighborhood Council voted unanimously to approve a multi-part motion that formed a committee, urged "immediate" mitigation measures, and requested various items from LADOT including traffic study data, metrics for project evaluation, and written responses to concerns raised.
LADOT is still completing work on Vista Del Mar and striping lane reductions on Pershing, Culver, and Jefferson. LADOT spokesperson Bruce Gillman reminds road users that "construction is ongoing through June 25" and "people should anticipate delays". As the projects progress, new concerns or new praise may emerge as construction crews depart and the public experiences the streets in their new state.
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