Looking Back at Some Stories that Shaped 2021

COVID, new Metro leaders, resistance to freeway widening, new bus lanes, unsuccessful recall campaigns, and police accountability

Figueroa Street red bus lane markings next to green bike lane markings give. Photo by Joe Linton/Streetsblog
Figueroa Street red bus lane markings next to green bike lane markings give. Photo by Joe Linton/Streetsblog

In these days – with pandemic waves, insurrection, climate crises, and more – some news stories that are less than a year old feel like a long time ago. 2021 has been that way. Was it really less than a year since Donald Trump was president? Since Supervisor Holly Mitchell joined the Metro board? Since the recall of Governor Gavin Newsom failed? These all seem to have taken place long ago.

Today, Streetsblog is looking back at some of the biggest stories this site covered in 2021. These aren’t all of the big stories of 2021, just some prominent ones. Tune in tomorrow for a look ahead: predictions on some of the stories that could shape 2022.

Six stories that shaped 2021:

COVID

2021 started with, and is currently ending with, serious spikes in coronavirus cases. While Streetsblog hasn’t covered every aspect of the pandemic’s aspects – deaths, vaccines, masks, lockdowns, and more – the virus has impacted L.A. transportation and livability.

L.A. County transit agency budgets were made whole by the third federal COVID stimulus – President Biden’s $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan Act – passed in March. Those funds are part of what allowed Metro to restore transit service to pre-pandemic levels… kind of. Metro said it fully restored cut service as of September, but, hampered by a bus driver shortage resulting from COVID, the agency was cancelling ten percent of bus service on average. Despite unreliable service, Metro transit ridership is rebounding, but remains at about 75 percent of pre-COVID levels. Bus fare collection, waived since the start of the pandemic, is scheduled to resume on January 10th.

COVID hasn’t really stopped any Metro projects (even ones it should have – like Metro’s MicroTransit pilot) underway, but it has meant a lot of uncertainty.

New Leadership at Metro

On June 1, 2021, Stephanie Wiggins became the new CEO of Metro, replacing Phil Washington. Wiggins is Metro’s first woman CEO and first Black woman CEO. She assumed the reins at time when Metro transit operations, policing, and highway expansion were out of alignment with agency goals. Wiggins has stated that her top priorities include equity, climate, and transit rider customer service. This much-needed focus was not absent under Washington, though his top priority tended to be building transportation infrastructure.

In July, L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis became the chair of the Metro board. Solis has long been a champion for the lower-income Latino communities she represents. Her stated Metro priorities include better transit service, transportation spending supporting vulnerable communities, and reimagining highway investment. On the latter, Solis has played a major role in reining in the excesses of Metro freeway widening, including spearheading Metro board motions that paused plans for widening the 605 and 5, and the 710.

In early 2021, three new directors took their seats on the Metro board. County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, another longtime champion for lower-income Angelenos, has unsurprisingly emerged as a key progressive voice on the board. Mitchell led efforts to extend fareless buses, make Metro’s low-income rider discount program effective, and to rework problematic transit policing. Pomona Mayor Tim Sandoval and Whittier City Councilmember Fernando Dutra also became Metro boardmembers in early 2021.

Community Resistance to More and More Bigger and Bigger Freeways

Freeway widening has been a big story throughout the end of 2020 and all of 2021. More Metro and Caltrans freeway widening projects have been making their way through the project pipeline, perhaps due to plenty of available money – including revenue from Metro’s Measure M sales tax and California’s S.B. 1 gas tax, plus federal monies (under the Trump administration) favoring freeway expansion.

2021 started with Metro presenting slightly scaled-back plans to widen the 605 and 5 Freeways. In 2020, the $4+billion 605 Corridor Improvement Project plan called for demolishing 250+ homes along the 5, mostly in Downey and Santa Fe Springs. In late January and early February, Metro shared preliminary plans that would demolish anywhere between 156-182 homes along the 5 (which is still much higher than the 15-102 demolitions planned when voters approved some project funding in Measure M). Thanks to continued resistance from community groups, including the Happy City Coalition and Streets for All, and from the Metro board – even the revised widening plan remains stalled.

2021 also saw a big victory against Metro and Caltrans’ plans to widen the 710 Freeway. For decades, that the $6 billion 710 widening project had been resisted by community groups. In early May, Streetsblog broke the news that the federal Environmental Protection Agency had nixed the project. Before the end of May, Caltrans and Metro both paused the project, scrapping the prior plans, and pledging to reimagine a multi-modal investment plan for the corridor. Metro and Caltrans pulled together a new task force to figure out how to widen the 710 equitably… but there is little confidence that the latest task force process will be any different than the past decades of community input that agencies ignored.

Another big 2021 freeway story has been Caltrans and Metro’s continued demolition of homes to make way for widening the 71 Freeway through Pomona. Metro also kicked off construction of its $679 million North County 5 Freeway widening, made possible by a Trump administration INFRA grant.

In 2021, one of the most disturbing aspects of Metro/Caltrans freeway widening has been the astonishing levels of agency gaslighting. This probably shouldn’t be a surprise, as for many years, Caltrans asserted (and still asserts) that freeway widening projects reduce pollution and traffic congestion. In 2021 alone, Metro leadership claimed the following falsehoods:

New Bus Lanes

Under the leadership of L.A. City Councilmember and Metro Boardmember Mike Bonin, the L.A. City Transportation Department (LADOT) and Metro have worked together to install 4.7 new lane-miles of new bus-only lanes. The work builds on several new bus lanes that opened in 2020: Flower Street5th and 6th Streets, and Aliso Street – as well complementing Metro bus service changes coming out of the agency’s NextGen study.

2021 saw the following new bus lanes open:

Also in 2021, Culver City installed 1.3 miles of two-way bus lanes as part of its MOVE Culver City project, which also included pedestrian and cyclist improvements.

Conservatives Targeting Recalls of Elected Officials

In 2021, conservative forces pressed for recalls of elected officials. Most prominent was the unsuccessful recall election that kept Governor Gavin Newsom in office, but locally, many progressive officials have been threatened with recalls, including District Attorney George Gascón and L.A. City Councilmembers Mike Bonin, Nithya Raman, and Kevin de León. Though none of these campaigns have actually succeeded in recalling an elected official, they have made progressive officials more cautious, and have taken time, energy, and money to push back.

Though an earlier Bonin recall fizzled before qualifying for the ballot, it appears that the latest effort has qualified and will go before the voters in 2022.

The Ongoing Challenge of Police Accountability and Structural Reform

The horrific killing of 14-year-old Valentina Orellana Peralta by LAPD in a Burlington Coat Factory fitting room has brought renewed scrutiny to law enforcement use-of-force tactics. Rightly so: the public needs answers about how and why a lone officer armed with a rifle could barge his way to the head of a formation (created by other responding officers to carefully approach the suspect of an in-progress assault), push aside a colleague carrying a less-than-lethal weapon, and then, without issuing any commands or heeding other officers’ calls for him to hold up and slow down, open fire on Daniel Elena López, who was not carrying a gun and was moving away from him.

The questions shouldn’t stop there: there needs to be a sustained effort to address deeper structural issues within the department that have resulted in at least five deaths in just the last week.

But LAPD has proven adept at shaping narratives that deflect questions about reform.

Statements released by LAPD, both in the immediate aftermath of the Burlington Coat Factory shootings and in the 35-minute critical incident video released on Monday, for example, signaled LAPD was already doing its level best to distance itself from accountability by focusing on the potential threat Elena López posed. [See twitter threads breaking down LAPD statements and the critical incident video.]

It was similar to how LAPD had handled things in early February, when officer Carlos Tovar fired eight wildly out-of-policy shots at 30-year-old Travis Elster as he fled a pretextual stop. Official statements first claimed Elster had tried to run over Tovar and his partner. When the body cam footage showed Elster had worked hard to avoid Tovar, LAPD then pivoted to claim Elster had pointed a weapon at Tovar, prompting Tovar to open fire (this was also patently false).

In that critical incident video, LAPD included extensive footage of Elster ducking into a store and changing his shirt (so he wouldn’t be recognized). The goal was to bolster the claim Elster was a dangerous fugitive and, presumably, limit probes into the validity of the traffic stop. LAPD has done the same now with the Burlington Coat Factory shooting, dedicating over half of the critical incident video to tracking Elena López’ movement through the store. It serves to keep attention focused on the threat Elena López posed to the public while distracting from the very glaring cuts made that would have offered viewers a fuller picture of the shooting.

While LAPD did not release a video addressing the June 30 fireworks detonation that blew up several homes along E. 27th Street in Historic South Central, they still pulled from the same playbook. Their very first public step was an outright falsehood: a tweet claiming LAPD had no idea what could have prompted the explosion.

Of course, the reason there was so much footage of the event was that LAPD had called media to the scene and specifically positioned reporters near the containment vehicle so they could get the best shots of the planned detonation. And yet in the days and weeks that followed, many of those same news outlets regurgitated the LAPD’s framing of the event, which actively sought to place responsibility for the explosion with Arturo Ceja III, the fireworks vendor. The subsequent deaths of two of the elderly residents displaced by the blast were similarly blamed on underlying health conditions. Then, on the one-month anniversary of the blast, LAPD invited CBS2 to join the mayor for an “exclusive” feel-good story about the success of the Community Safety Partnership program at South Park – a mile and a half south of the blast site. Most notably, it was the exact same “exclusive” story LAPD had fed ABC7 back in April, just two weeks after LAPD’s spectacularly chaotic sweep of unhoused people from Echo Park. [See the full breakdown of the blast and the LAPD’s response in the aftermath, here.]

Whether any of those efforts worked to rehabilitate LAPD’s image is unclear. But what they did do was help ensure LAPD was able to shape the terms by which they would be held accountable. While the department is not officially as overtly hostile to oversight as the Sheriff’s department – which has openly attacked victims’ families, elected officials, the inquest process, the press, the Metro board, and the civilian oversight commission, to name a few – the result is largely the same. The victims keep piling up. And substantive change continues to feel elusive.

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