Ryan McDonald

Traffic Jam: Cycle of frustration off Vista Del Mar

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A bike lane in Playa del Rey sits empty earlier this summer. Although lane closures on Vista Del Mar have been lifted, issues with road diets on Culver and Jefferson boulevards and Pershing Drive remain. Photos by Kevin Cody

The lane closures on Vista Del Mar have inspired South Bay residents to take a broader look at regional mobility policy. They don’t always like what they see.

Part three of four

by Ryan McDonald

 

Somewhere in the City Hall archives, the Manhattan Beach bike master plan sits neglected. The city approved the document around the year 2000, but it resulted in few if any changes to the ways people pedal through the town. The plan is collecting dust today because something better came along: the South Bay Bicycle Master Plan.

The South Bay plan stemmed from the recognition that most cities in the region were too small to have their own schemes for bike-based transportation. Greater connectivity, city planners realized, could be achieved if cities created paths and lanes that ran from city to city. The plan, according to project consultants Alta Planning & Design, is the first-ever “multijurisdictional bike master plan” in the United States. In 2011, it was adopted by the three Beach Cities as well as Gardena, El Segundo, Lawndale and Torrance. It calls for tripling the total mileage of bikeways in the participating cities. Since that time, bike lanes and “sharrows” have been installed throughout the region. Most are on smaller streets, but they can also be found on main drives. The popular protected bike lane on Harbor Drive in Redondo Beach was named one of the “Best new bike lanes in America” in 2015 by cycling safety organization People for Bikes.

The prospect of automobile drivers sharing the road with cyclists has not always been met with enthusiasm. The implementation of sharrows on a stretch of Longfellow Avenue, for example, produced a minor outcry at a Hermosa Beach City Council meeting. But the South Bay Bicycle Coalition has engineered broad support from local residents and elected officials, who have  been cooperative in implementing the plan.

The same cannot be said for the road reconfigurations implemented earlier this year in Playa del Rey. Just after Memorial Day, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) removed a lane in each direction on Vista Del Mar, a long-popular arterial for South Bay commuters, and installed bike lanes and “road diets” on Pershing Drive, and Culver and Jefferson boulevards. Many South Bay residents complained of extra time added to their daily commutes as a result of the lane closures.

Organized response from South Bay constituents eventually pushed Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn to craft a compromise, resulting in LADOT removing most of the lane closures on Vista Del Mar. In announcing the reopening of the lanes, Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin called for the formation of a task force to discuss the future of the road reconfigurations. (For now, lane closures on Culver, Jefferson and Pershing remain in place.)

Among those on the committee is Todd DiPaola, a founder of the South Bay Bicycle Coalition. In 2009, it partnered with the more established Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition to develop the South Bay Bicycle Master Plan. DiPaola moved to Manhattan Beach from the Bay Area, where he had seen small changes in roads and urban layout get people to “take their bikes out of the garage, and start using them more.” The lack of similar adjustments here, where the climate is even more conducive for bike riding, puzzled him.

“Clearly, if you look at The Strand, people want to ride bikes. People even drive down here with  bikes on their cars so they can ride here,” DiPaola said.

DiPaola, who runs a tech company in Venice, supports expanding opportunities for bike riders, but criticized the closures on Vista Del Mar and neighboring streets. He observed two critical differences between the South Bay Bicycle Master Plan and the Playa del Rey plan. The first was regional cooperation, which he said was lacking in Playa del Rey. Even more significant, DiPaola said, has been Los Angeles’ failure to pursue “the low-hanging fruit.” In the name of improving mobility and safety, he said the city led off with aggressive measures destined to irritate residents and commuters, while neglecting lower-impact options that could have created allies.

“There are areas where you are going to have trade-offs. But there are so many things that have zero trade-offs, even if it’s just the way you put paint on the ground. And in the situations where you do have trade-offs, you’re going to have to have a public dialogue,” he said.

The impact matters because measures like those in Playa del Rey reflect what the future may hold. Faced with swelling populations and mandates from the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Los Angeles and other California cities are increasingly turning to road diets and other measures to encourage alternatives to driving. But as these measures are actually implemented, they have produced a well-organized backlash that is undermining the consensus that produced them.

Some officials in parts of Southern California, such as Los Angeles City Councilmember Gil Cedillo, who represents progressively inclined neighborhoods northeast of downtown, are calling for a moratorium on road diets. The situation recalls a 2000 story from the satirical publication The Onion headlined “Report: 98 Percent of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transit for Others.” But the intensity of the South Bay’s response can make nuanced views like DiPaola’s seem like a shrinking middle ground, and reveals uncertainty over future support for the plans.

“There’s a growing constituency for [mass] transit, and also for those who bike to work. As those constituencies get more powerful, they can provide political muscle. But there is no question that the vast majority of commuters rely on their car. And anything seen as impeding the flow of traffic will get them politically mobilized,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the Climate Change and Business program at UCLA Law School.

Laws of motion

In 1962, Jane Jacobs sat for an interview with Mademoiselle magazine. The author of  “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” was in the midst of a fight against New York City’s master planner Robert Moses, whose Canal Street Expressway would have plowed through Greenwich Village, Soho and other lower Manhattan neighborhoods. She bemoaned that “extraordinary powers of government have been created” to implement the then-fashionable urban planning policies behind the highway. Only through a kind of rebellion, Jacobs said, could these policies be halted, and better ones put in their place.

Some 55 years later, a similar story emerged on the asphalt of the South Bay. Over the summer, residents from the Beach Cities, Playa del Rey and neighboring communities banded together to oppose the road reconfigurations. Keep LA Moving launched the kind of grassroots land use campaign Jacobs advocated. They talked to local businesses, documented traffic accidents in the neighborhood, and filed appeals with the City of Los Angeles.

The resemblance between road reconfiguration opponents and Jacobs, however, is one of strategy rather than ideology. Just a few breaths later in the interview, Jacobs began laying out an agenda that would be anathema to Keep LA Moving.

“What we need is more things that conflict with [automobiles’] needs — wider sidewalks, more space for trees, even double lines of trees on some sidewalks, dead ends not for foot traffic but for automobiles, more frequent places for people to cross streets, more traffic lights — they’re an abomination to automobiles, but a boon to pedestrians. And we should have more convenient public transportation,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs’ words sound a bit like Mobility Plan 2035, a planning document intended to serve as the “transportation blueprint for the City of Los Angeles through the foreseeable future.” Passed by a lobsided 12-2 vote of the City Council in 2015, MP 2035 calls for significant changes in the way Los Angeles approaches roads and transit, driven by a shift in trips by means other than a car. Under the plan’s projections, trips on a bike will increase by 170 percent, on public transit by 56 percent, and on foot by 38 percent. More than 560 miles of Los Angeles’ roads are to be converted into bike- or bus-only lanes.

Although the lane closures on Vista Del Mar were an emergency measure not called for in MP 2035, the near-simultaneous removal of the lanes on nearby streets has prompted many Beach Cities residents to associate the two. They view MP 2035 as quixotically trying to change ingrained patterns of getting around in the region. Keep LA Moving has filed a lawsuit over the road reconfigurations, alleging specific violations of the California Environmental Quality Act, but the complaint drips with complaints about the broader direction of transportation policy.

There has been a reversal of roles since the early 1960s, when Jacobs penned her “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Where once Jacobs and her allies had to fight and scrape against highways and sprawl, it is now car commuters and bike-lane opponents who find themselves on the defensive. Planning and transportation circles have largely embraced Jacobs’ ideas.

Expert endorsements, however, have done little to placate residents in the affected areas. Jim O’Sullivan lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, and is a member of the resident advocacy group Fix the City. Members of Fix the City advised Keep LA Moving as the group launched its fight against the Vista Del Mar closures.

In 2015, Fix the City filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles, alleging that the city violated CEQA in passing MP 2035. It’s one of many suits the group has filed against what O’Sullivan describes as an urban planning apparatus increasingly detached from the needs of residents.

“There is a tremendous disconnect between what people want and where the planners want to take us. The supposed benefits won’t happen in your lifetime, your children’s lifetime. Maybe in your grandchildren’s lifetime. But no one can guarantee anything,” O’Sullivan said.

Janette Sadik-Khan, chair of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, previously served as the commissioner of the New York City Transportation Department. During her tenure, the city greatly expanded the number of bike lanes, and closed off a portion of Times Square to traffic. (The policies produced an initial outcry, but polls indicate they now have the support of a majority of residents.) Sadik-Khan’s 2016 book “Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution,” describes the benefits of these programs as well as the tactics used by their opponents. At times sounds as though it were written about Playa del Rey.

“They oppose plans for walkable neighborhoods and bike lanes, claiming that they might congest traffic, make streets less safe, and pollute the environment or erode property values,” Sadik-Khan writes. She claims that if this opposition succeeds, the effect will be to freeze transportation policy in place.

Whether or not they subscribe to the ideas of MP 2035, many Beach Cities residents work in, or must at least pass through, places that do. Ed McPherson is a Manhattan Beach resident who works as an attorney in Century City. He helped draft the complaint filed by Keep LA Moving, which criticized MP 2035 for “relying on purported ‘aspirational’ benefits from reducing vehicle trips, … in spite of explicitly recognizing that the plan would actually increase congestion on existing streets and increase vehicular delay.” Like O’Sullivan, McPherson characterizes MP 2035 as an unworkable fantasy, concocted by bureaucrats indifferent to the people it affects.

“They want this place to be another Copenhagen. Well, Los Angeles is a little bit bigger. And I’m sorry, but I’m not taking my bike to work,” he said.

The passing scene

The balcony of a home on Highland Avenue in Manhattan Beach sports both bicycles and a sign opposing Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin, whose district contains the lane lane closures.

Tanner’s Coffee has been brewing java for decades from a quirky storefront at the intersection of Vista Del Mar and Culver. Co-manager Lucas Lee said the shop relies on a mix of locals and commuters to stay afloat. With its large parking lot, the restaurant is able to accommodate people stopping by in cars. Many of those cars contain Beach Cities residents stopping off for a quick coffee or pastry on their way to work on the Westside.

Since the lane closures on Vista Del Mar several months ago, Lee said, business has been down 12 to 18 percent.

“Even on the weekends, there are fewer people coming. People don’t want to come because of the traffic. We get customers complaining about it daily. The regulars, they feel for us,” Lee said in an interview over the summer.

Other businesses, including Playa del Rey Florist across the street, have also reported declines. The fate of Tanner’s and other businesses has been closely monitored by Keep LA Moving, which argues that the road changes harm not just commuters, but the places through which they pass. This challenges one of the key selling points of MP 2035: that limiting the ability of cars to blitz down streets like Culver will create more vital neighborhoods.

Just down the street from Tanner’s is the Prince O’ Whales, a popular neighborhood bar. Stephen Mayer has owned the place for 46 years, and said he is pleased with the changes in area roads. Mayer feels that complaints about the reconfigurations are being driven by people who don’t live in the neighborhood.

“I think a lot it is from people in Hermosa and Manhattan who just care about their commute. They just speed through. You don’t allow that in Manhattan or Hermosa, but they’re trying to pound on us,” he said.

Mayer’s argument echoes one made by LA councilman Bonin’s office over the summer. Bonin justified the reconfigurations as prioritizing the integrity of the neighborhood over the interests of commuters. But whether road diets actually improve the safety for the pedestrians is disputed. The complaint from Keep LA Moving documented the accident-fatalities that have occurred in the neighborhood in the last 14 years. Almost all of them occurred at night. By choking traffic during commuting hours, the road reconfigurations harm the people least responsible for accidents, Keep LA Moving members say, and they fail to prevent cars from speeding through the area when the streets are quiet.

It’s an argument that will play out on Bonin’s task force, which counts Mayer’s wife Pamela as a member. She was struck by a car on Culver about 12 years ago, Mayer said. She survived, but still feels the effects of the accident. The experience made them realize that some customers were dissuaded from patronizing their business because Culver can feel like an intimidating speedway.

“When it was two lanes, it was brutal for people to try and get in and out, or parallel park. Now that it’s a single lane, it’s helped a lot. You’ve just got to slow things down,” he said.

Just off Culver, Gary Cziko and was returning to his Playa del Rey home after a morning of stand-up paddling. He carried the cumbersome board and paddle with an elaborate, extra-large surf-rack attached to his bicycle. He opened his garage on Pershing to reveal dozens of other two-wheeled creations.

Cziko is a board member of the American Bicycling Education Association, and an instructor with CyclingSavvy, a national bike safety course. But despite his earnestness, Cziko bears little resemblance to the caricatures of militant cyclists who want to rid the streets of automobiles. He readily agreed that the interests of cyclists have to be balanced against concerns about congestion. And he said that while road diets have been shown to reduce crashes in the past, the installation of bike lanes in Playa del Rey had been poorly handled.

“Now that room is taken away, and you’re forced to ride right against the door zone. A confident, aware cyclist will just take up the right lane. I would much rather have a full lane where I can control things,” Cziko said. “But narrower streets are better for pedestrians. And I applaud what they’re trying to do, making Los Angeles less car-centric. We have this incredible climate, and it’s ideal for cycling year-round — I lived in the the Midwest for 30 years.”

Next door to the Prince O’ Whales, Mason Casey was putting away rice and beans and a large coffee from Señor G’s one morning before heading to work. The mixed crowd at the popular restaurant’s sidewalk tables provides evidence of a once-sleepy neighborhood in flux: LAX employees popping in on their way to work and surfers grabbing burritos on their way back from Malibu now mix with Silicon Beach engineers passing through for a green juice.

Casey, a musician, lives on a houseboat in Marina del Rey, but often spends time in the neighborhood visiting friends. He gets breakfast at Señor G’s almost every day. Gesturing at the intersection of Culver and Pershing, he said he has known two people killed there in car-versus-pedestrian traffic accidents. One of them was a friend named Jack Tawardy, who worked as a cobbler in the neighborhood.

Tawardy was one of several people mentioned in the email sent out by Bonin shortly after the road reconfigurations began. (According to Keep LA Moving, Tawardy was struck late at night; his son took over his father’s business, and now opposes the road changes.) Casey said he called the city of Los Angeles following Tawardy’s death, suggesting that a properly demarcated crosswalk with flashing lights could prevent future accidents. He got no response and became convinced that “nobody gives a …”

Despite the hubbub over road reconfigurations designed to protect pedestrians, Casey said the street remains dangerous. His thoughts echoed those of Keep LA Moving: despite the backup during rush-hour, at other times, he said, he still sees people drive down Culver at speeds more appropriate for a freeway than a neighborhood street.

“All this, and they can’t take 100 grand and fix that intersection. It’s still a fatality waiting to happen,” Casey said.

Previous entries in the series:

Part I: Lane closures are lifted, but deeper issues remain

Part II: Can public transit be a solution?

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