Ryan McDonald

Traffic jam: South Bay lobbying forces L.A. to take Vista Del Mar off its ‘road diet,’ but congestion solutions remain elusive

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Illustration by Tim Teebken

 

First in a series

 

by Ryan McDonald

Anna Prus showed up toward the end of the public participation period of a Hermosa Beach City Council meeting last month. Mayor Justin Massey was preparing to close public comment when Prus hurried toward the dais.

Although she apologized for showing up late, her tardiness had everything to do with her appearance at the meeting. Prus works at UCLA and, like many South Bay residents who commute to the Westside, took Vista Del Mar to work. So when recent lane closures on the road began prolonging her commute, Prus turned to local officials for help.

“I’ve been working at UCLA for nine years. It used to take me 40 minutes to get home. Tonight I left at 6 p.m. and got here at 7:42. So the quality of life is severely down,” she said.

Prus was one of about a dozen residents to address the council about Vista Del Mar that night. They urged the council to lobby the City of Los Angeles to eliminate the lane closures. They said the road reconfigurations had added 30 to 45 minutes to their daily commute.

After extensive pressure from South Bay cities — and a still-active campaign to recall Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin, in whose district the closures lie — the lane closures on Vista Del Mar are coming to an end. South Bay cities, with an assist from Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, successfully pressed their concerns on Bonin and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT). Bonin announced late last month that parking spaces added on the west side of Vista Del Mar will be removed, allowing two lanes of traffic in each direction to resume.

Traffic challenges for Southern California planners have grown with the population, trends that shows no signs of stopping. California is projected to add more than six million people in the next 20 years, almost all of whom will live in large cities. Los Angeles County, alone, will add about a million people in that time span, according  to the State Department of Finance.

Only a fraction of the growth will take place in the South Bay, which is fully built-out, and where local governments have made increases in housing density unlikely. But as Vista Del Mar has shown, the area is not immune to policy choices in other jurisdictions. Officials in Los Angeles and elsewhere are reshaping zoning regulations to promote development near transit centers. Their plans call for dramatic increases in “multi-modal” transportation options.

Debate over whether these plans are beneficial ran just below the surface over the last 12 weeks, overshadowed by criticism of the implementation of the lane closures. The lack of notice was widely criticized. Even Bonin, in a video announcing the reversal of the lane closures, acknowledged that the changes on Vista Del Mar were made “suddenly and without community input.”

But administrative bungling cannot fully explain the intensity of the reaction among South Bay residents.The experience with Vista Del Mar exposed a vulnerability in the area’s dependence on single-person car travel, which left unaddressed, will worsen with time.

The vast majority of working adults in Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo Beach commute to jobs outside the South Bay, according to the South Bay Cities Council of Governments (South Bay COG). Los Angeles is by far the most popular destination. Despite modest increases in carpooling and public transit over the last five years, approximately 88 percent of these commutes are by people alone in their cars.

Several speakers at the Hermosa council mentioned that living in one place and working in another is central to the identity of the Beach Cities: access to Los Angeles job centers without its hustle and bustle. The prospect of this changing is deeply unsettling.

“I’m literally in a position where I’m going to have to start thinking, Am I going to have to leave my job, which I love, which I’m invested in, because I want to stay here. And I don’t think I’m the only one,” Prus said.

Reconfigured

On Friday May 19, Bonin emailed constituents to announce imminent construction.

“On Monday, crews will begin working on Vista Del Mar, which has been the scene of a series of horrible collisions, with pedestrians being killed by speeding cars. The city will restripe the street, moving all of the parking to the west side of the street, creating U-turn pockets, and narrowing the road to one lane in each direction. This will make the street safer, create more parking inventory, reduce speeding, and curb the use of Playa del Rey streets as a shortcut from the South Bay to points north,” Bonin wrote.

The email also announced changes to nearby Pershing Drive and Culver and Jefferson boulevards, including the elimination of some vehicle lanes and the installation of bike lanes.

The changes were part of the “Safe Streets Playa del Rey Initiative.” According to Bonin’s office, they had been in the works for at least two years. They were the result of community surveys indicating concern over traffic accidents and the growing volume of cut through traffic, some of it originating in the Beach Cities. (Some of Bonin’s constituents dispute this narrative, saying that the outreach was minimal and included only a small portion of the community.)

The Vista Del Mar changes were a more recent vintage. On April 19, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved a $9.5 million settlement with the parents of Naomi Larsen The  16-year-old girl died in 2015 after being struck by a taxicab while attempting to cross Vista Del Mar. Her parents alleged that conditions on Vista Del Mar represented a “foreseeable tragedy.” The LADOT began the changes on Vista Del Mar as an emergency measure on the advice of City Attorney Mike Feuer, just in advance of the Memorial Day holiday and the summer season crowds.

The outcry over lane closures on Vista Del Mar was immediate. Bonin responded by portraying Beach Cities residents as elites indifferent to the plight of people his road reconfigurations were helping. “With respect to our friends in the South Bay, many of whom have made clear that they would rather see a four-lane highway traverse our neighborhood in Playa del Rey, I won’t solve their 405 traffic problem on the backs of the people I represent,” he stated on June 21. A week later, he re-tweeted an op-ed from the Los Angeles Times by Manhattan resident Peter Flax, titled “Hey Manhattan Beach, preventing pedestrian deaths is more important than your speedy morning commute.”

Hyperbolic rhetoric was not confined to project proponents. An aggrieved commuter emailed  Los Angeles Times transportation reporter Laura J. Nelson, suggesting that Larsen’s parents had told their daughter to go to Vista Del Mar in hopes she would die to enable them to collect a large settlement. A commentator on Streetsblog LA questioned why the city of Los Angeles would want to make it easier for people to come to the beaches off Vista Del Mar, when “the main users of Dockweiler [State Beach] are from communities inland that are well known for lack of lawfulness.”

Council members from El Segundo, Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo took their concerns to the South Bay Cities COG, and to Supervisor Janice Hahn. Hahn knew Bonin from their time together on the board of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. She brought in the county departments of Public Works and Beaches and Harbors, and sat down with Bonin to arrange a compromise. They settled on increasing the number of affordable parking spaces in the Dockweiler lots. The compromise maintained accessibility for low-income beachgoers and eliminated the danger of crossing Vista Del Mar to reach a parked car. Removing parking on Vista Del Mar created space to restore the two lanes that had been removed.

In an interview, Hahn complemented Bonin for “having the courage to say, ‘Let’s take another look.’” But Hahn, a Los Angeles City Councilmember for 10 years before serving in Congress and then winning the Supervisor’s race last fall, acknowledged that the situation on Vista Del Mar required an approach different from what councilmembers were accustomed to.

“On the council, you don’t always take into account the concerns of other communities and neighborhoods. This was a regional problem, and it deserved a regional solution,” Hahn said.

Best-laid plans

Traffic backed up along Vista Del Mar earlier this summer. Photo by Dave Davis

Bonin announced restoration of the closed lanes in a July 26 video. He also announced the creation of a committee to study road changes in the area, promising it would include both supporters and opponents of changes.

The mea culpa failed to satisfy Keep LA Moving, an umbrella group formed shortly after the lane closures. Its members include residents of the Beach Cities as well as Playa del Rey and other nearby Los Angeles neighborhoods. On August 9, the group filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court, becoming the second organization to sue the City of Los Angeles over the Vista Del Mar changes. (The first was a Playa del Rey condo association.)  

The lawsuit claims the road changes on Vista Del Mar, Culver, Jefferson and Pershing violated California law by failing to properly notice the projects, or evaluate their environmental effects. The suit also takes broad swipes at two related policy programs adopted by the City of Los Angeles: Vision Zero and Mobility Plan 2035.

Vision Zero is an international nonprofit devoted to ending traffic fatalities. Los Angeles began its Vision Zero effort in 2015, and set a goal of eliminating traffic fatalities by 2025.

The city’s Vision Zero Action Plan, released in January of this year, takes the position that while collisions are unavoidable, fatalities need not be. Traffic calming measures can reduce speeds, increasing the survival rate, especially for car-versus-pedestrian and car-versus-bike accidents.

Juan Matute, associate director of the UCLA Lewis Center and the Institute for Transportation Studies, said most studies indicate “road diets,” in which lanes are eliminated or narrowed, greatly improve the collision survival rate.

“As cars increase in speed above 20 mph, there is an exponential increase in the likelihood that a pedestrian or cyclist struck could be killed in a collision,” Matute said.

Keep LA Moving has been documenting accidents on Playa del Rey streets, and says the changes have made the roads more dangerous. According to city data the group compiled, in years past, the area surrounding the road reconfigurations has averaged 11.6 accidents per year. Group volunteers tallied at least 27 accidents in the roughly 12 weeks the Vista Del Mar lanes were closed.

One of those accidents involved Manhattan Beach-resident Travis Courtney. Courtney was on his way to a meeting in Simi Valley on the afternoon of August 3. He typically uses Vista Del Mar to bypass the 405, but chose to avoid it because of the closures. He was waiting at a light on Pershing when a woman hit him from behind, going an estimated 50 mph. Courtney walked away from the scene. The woman also escaped major injuries, but was taken to the hospital. Although the accident did not appear to be caused by the road reconfigurations, the experience opened his eyes to the recent increase in accidents in the area.

“From my standpoint, it was just her not paying attention. But then you could hear people coming out of their houses, saying, ‘Well, there’s another one.’ People are trying to get out of their driveways with blind spots, and with only one lane it’s pretty tricky,” Courtney said.

None of the recent accidents in the area has resulted in a fatality. And it’s possible that the higher number of collisions reflects a more aggressive tabulation effort; Courtney said that someone from Keep LA Moving approached him almost immediately after the crash. But opponents say the underlying principle of attempting to slow traffic in an area already struggling with congestion is flawed.

Code for vehicular traffic

Hence their problems with Mobility Plan 2035. MP 2035 was also adopted in 2015, by a 12-2 vote of the Los Angeles City Council. The plan calls for creating more space on roads for bikes and buses, sometimes at the expense of car lanes.

“In fact, MP 2035 is an immobility plan that has had, and will continue to have, significant, irreversible environmental impacts,” the Keep LA Moving lawsuit contends. The group alleges that the Los Angeles city council adopted MP 2035 “in spite of explicitly recognizing that the plan would actually increase congestion on existing streets and increase vehicular delay.”

Although Vista Del Mar was not part of MP 2035, losing the lanes caused many to blame the closures on MP 2035. But unlike the Vista Del Mar lane closures, MP 2035 was subject to environmental review. The complaint accurately notes that this review found the plan would have significant and unavoidable impacts on neighborhood traffic, freeway congestion, and emergency vehicle access. But consistent with state law, the city adopted the plan after finding its benefits — including accommodating population growth, increasing access to transit and reducing greenhouse gas emissions — “outweigh and override” the negative environmental  impacts.

Other lawsuits, including one by Westside homeowners, have challenged the wisdom of MP 2035. But because MP 2035 went through the review process, the opposition argument is different than the one against Vista Del Mar. It is less “Officials didn’t do their job,” and more “Officials don’t know what they’re talking about,” a harder legal argument to make.

Manhattan Beach resident Larry Kosmont is president and CEO of Kosmont Consulting, which manages environmental reviews for dozens of Southern California projects. Kosmont said of the the Vista Del Mar project, “This was an absolute trespass of the intent of CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act)…. Shame on them.” But he does not agree with the criticism of MP 2035.

He argued it is unfair to judge the MP 2035 on the basis of the Vista Del Mar crisis, and that MP 2035 is key to quality of life improvements throughout the region.

“The mobility plan has huge beneficial implications for the region if implemented properly. Everyone should be paying attention. The last time I sat on the 405 at 6:30, it wasn’t very pleasant,” Kosmont said.

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