How Can Vision Zero Work When L.A. Continues to Prioritize Speed?

Sherman Way's posted speed limit is 35mph. Is it safe for motor vehicles to exceed this?
Sherman Way's posted speed limit is 35mph. Is it safe for motor vehicles to exceed this?

I’ve been seeing a lot of headlines lately regarding the spike in pedestrian deaths and the city of L.A. Vision Zero program initiated by Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2015. Some of the headlines seem to conflate the spike with the initiative itself, as though the spike is happening because of Vision Zero.

Elsewhere, Vision Zero successes have been achieved through a combination of education, engineering and enforcement. Cities do slow speeds to create a safer, more controlled environment for travelers to navigate – no matter the mode they choose.

In Los Angeles, we’ve barely gotten started. When the opportunity arises for safety projects that calm motor vehicle speeding, there is resistance from not only the public, but from some rank and file within city agencies. LADOT continues to campaign alongside the LAPD to raise speed limits despite all the evidence that shows speed is the biggest contributing factor with regards to death and injury in collisions. The reason of course is the 85th percentile rule in state law. But why do we raise limits? Why are we not lowering design speed? Because culturally as Angelenos, speed feels normal, even if all we are doing is speeding from red light to red light.

Case in point, recently, while browsing Instagram, I spotted an @LAPDHQ post showing a motorcycle officer’s on-board video. The video shows a near miss where a driver pulls out in front of the motorcycle. It was a close call. Thankfully there was no collision and everyone lived for another day.

The curious issue for me was the narrative being pushed by the LAPD which places blame 100 percent on the driver. Yes, the driver seems to just pull out without looking carefully. Yes, drivers need to make sure the right of way is clear. Yes, this driver made a mistake – but look again.

That motorcycle officer is going fast. What I see is a dangerously designed corridor with few controls in place to make speeding feel uncomfortable. In the video there appear to be minimal efforts to slow drivers down: a couple posted signs warning of a school zone and unmarked crosswalk ahead but nothing particularly discouraging speeding. In fact this road has a very high design speed and fast-moving traffic feels normal.

It reminded me of a truly phenomenal New Zealand safe streets campaign with almost the exact same scenario playing out, fictionally, of another vehicle misjudging a gap in traffic.

With this campaign and the design speed of the street in mind I pushed back on the post. Most commenters denied my assertion that the motorcycle was above the limit.

I decided to calculate exactly how fast the motorcycle was travelling. Since the video had a time stamp all I needed to do was find the location and calculate distance to get the speed. I know Los Angeles well from driving everywhere and riding thousands of miles of it by bicycle. I recognized the stretch on Sherman Way in the clip, in the West Valley, beginning near the intersection of Oakdale Avenue – with the incident occurring at the corner of John Sutter Middle School.

My estimate based on markings on the street is that the motorcycle travels 220 feet in 3 seconds which equates to a little over 50mph heading right up to the point where the motorcycle hard brakes and the near miss occurs. If there had been a collision here, I’m fairly confident that an insurance company would argue that the motorcycle was not travelling at a safe speed especially for what appears to be rainy conditions. Not only would a collision at this speed have been tragic, it could have been costly for the city.

Now, my purpose in writing this piece is not to blame the individual officer or even the driver of the SUV, though I believe both share some responsibility here, particularly the driver of the SUV. We are all human. We all make mistakes. We all operate within the system that exists.

The ultimate blame, in my opinion, is with the engineering of roads that reinforce the culture of speed.

Everything about Sherman Way dares you to drive fast: wide lanes, big straight away, long stretches between traffic lights. From an engineering standpoint, the motorcycle officer did exactly as the street beckoned them to do. From the SUVs point of view it is quite difficult to traverse this six-lane road, with no signal, even under the best of circumstances.

In the video you can see that the SUV is not driving recklessly or rapidly, the driver seems to have simply misjudged the gap in oncoming traffic. Indeed, the speed limit posted about a block prior is 35mph. Yet the punishment for the errors in judgment like this can be death. Why does our city government set us up for failures like this?

I don’t want to imagine a young student trying to cross on foot here.

Moving forward, I respectfully urge that the city leadership, LAPD, and LADOT join wholeheartedly in the fight to change our traffic culture by seeing a different narrative.

Imagine the impact of the New Zealand PSA here in L.A.: “Slow down, other people make mistakes.” The power in this slogan is that it puts the onus on everyone to be mindful, without blaming any party directly.

Rather than raise speed limits, let’s lower design speeds, so the mistakes are less impactful when they inevitably happen. That change of stance from our city leaders, law enforcement, and the public at large could bring us one giant cultural step closer to achieving the goals of Vision Zero.

Addendum March 8, 2017: LADOT Vision Zero Deputy of External Affairs Lilly O’Brien-Kovari responded to state that just because LADOT is compliant with state law does not mean LADOT endorses the methodology. O’Brien-Kovari requested that Streetsblog L.A. relay the following:

LADOT has been working with State Assemblymember Laura Friedman who introduced A.B. 2363 in February to pursue changes to the 85th percentile methodology. LADOT is working with Friedman’s office on the bill text to allow for greater flexibility at the local level, which will help to prevent increasing speeds. The L.A. City Council adopted a resolution to support legislative changes to the 85th Percentile methodology.

For more information on Friedman’s A.B. 2363, see Streetsblog CA coverage.

  • But why do we raise limits? Why are we not lowering design speed?

    Bingo!

  • Nancy Johnson

    “change our traffic culture by seeing a different narrative.” That is why Vision Zero has proven to be a failure in Los Angeles. Vision Zero has been creating narratives to justify the changes it is pushing rather than trying to figure out city-specific solutions that are right for Los Angeles. Changing street engineering to slow traffic on major arterials in a city with a large volume of traffic like Los Angeles makes them more dangerous, not safer. We saw this on VDM and we are seeing it on Venice Blvd.

  • Jonathan Weiss

    If lowering speed limits might increases your travel time, ask yourself: How much added time is a life worth?

  • You are wrongy wrong wrong.

    Wrong. Look at the street in the LAPD video. There is one maybe two other cars on this street. Guess what? They will still AVERAGE no more than 25mph no matter how fast they speed from one red light to the next on the LA street grid. This is because cross flow traffic also needs to stop at red lights and the system can never be timed for better than 25mph. Slowing them from red light pause to red light pause by engineering slower top speeds will actually do good for drivers by calming them and making crashes less likely and stop and go less extreme.

  • Nancy Johnson

    Except that crashes on Vista del Mar and Venice Blvd went up.

  • LAifer
  • Melissa Balmer

    But here’s the thing – slower street travel speeds often improves travel time, especially if the lights are synced better. And consider this, if traffic moved more slowly overall, and we had fewer accidents of all kinds, that in itself would improve the flow of traffic. We’re obsessed with individual speed here when we should be doing everything possible to improve a much safer, steadier flow.

  • Wrongetheth Wrongmeyer Esquire

    Wrong again. The data is missing a key measurement.

  • Rightetheth Rightmeyer Esquire

    Great points!

  • Jonathan Weiss

    Certainly, lower speeds can lower travel time. But even when they don’t, even in the circumstances where they increase it, we need to prioritize saving lives. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/aaf5b8509c30d6248badb6ebaa637deb66a1a6db3741134e18c4e506efc79080.png

  • Whateth is Thiseth.

    This is too complicated for me brain. Whats the summary.

  • LAifer

    Changes how speed limits must be set under state law. Currently only allowed by a “speed survey,” which sets limits based on speeds people are already driving. Adds an “accident survey” which would allow cities to reduce speeds on roads based on their collision history (e.g. LA’s high injury network).

  • Thanketh Youeth Esquire

    Thank you LAURA FRIEDMAN. How can we support her in this endeavor to pass this bill, expecting a call from Seamus very soon.

  • V.NICE

    FYI This is a commercial from New Zealand. New Zealand is not Australia, as you state in your piece.

  • Don

    Fixed, thanks for spotting the mistake.

  • Safer Streets Please

    Ironically, fear of traffic seems to be the loud voice of public sentiment to ‘traffic calming’ measures/infrastructure as well much to do on lack of education and facts, positive media coverage. The path of ‘least resistance’ is status quo.

  • Nancy Johnson

    The loud voice of public sentiment is actually based on facts. Because when they implemented road diets, accidents went up. And after 2 years of Vision Zero, fatalities went up too. Vision Zero’s policies are not the solution for Los Angeles. We need safer streets, but “traffic calming” in LA equals more dangerous roads.

  • fail whale

    false.

  • michael macdonald

    You do realize that for something to be a fact, you need to do more than say the word “fact,” right?

    Oh look, it’s the Federal Highway Administration with a handy article explaining why “FHWA has deemed Road Diets a proven safety countermeasure”: https://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/road_diets/

  • Nancy Johnson

    Fatalities have increased in the 2 years since Vision Zero started implementing their changes.

    Accidents on Vista del Mar increased significantly after the road diet.

  • michael macdonald

    The Vision Zero Action Plan called for implementation of safety improvements on 90.3 miles of L.A.’s most dangerous streets in order to reduce traffic deaths. How many of those projects did you personally support? How many have been implemented?

  • 1976boy

    Fatalities did not increase on streets that had Vision Zero solutions applied. They increased in other places because the existing type of road design we have most everywhere is generally unsafe.

    I am unaware of the actual number of crashes that may have occurred after the road diet was put in place, but if there was an increase, there is no reason to reject the entire concept. It may need some adjusting or modification to accommodate driver behavior and expectations, as almost all crashes are a result of speeding, unsafe driving, or illegal maneuvers. The rare “accident” is just that, rare.

  • 1976boy

    I disagree with everything you are saying, but I am genuinely curious, as you are clearly an enemy of Vision Zero, what do you propose to make streets safer? Specifically, as people who find themselves getting around in a heavily car-based environment are not in any way safe under the status quo. Do you believe they do not deserve to be safe? Do you think they should not be allowed to travel outside of a car? I really want to know.

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