Can LA Make “Great Streets” If the Mayor Won’t Stand Up for Good Design?

This plan for the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge was preferred by neighborhood residents. But the city capitulated to a more status quo design. Photo: KCET via Los Angeles Walks
Residents preferred this plan for the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge across the Los Angeles River, with bike lanes, sidewalks, and a road diet, but appointees of Mayor Eric Garcetti opted for more space for traffic instead. Image via Los Angeles Walks

Los Angeles, with its expanding transit network, is supposed to be in the process of shedding its cocoon of car-centricity and emerging, in the words of a recent Fast Company headline, as America’s “next great walkable city.” The city’s streets, however, didn’t change a whole lot under former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. When Eric Garcetti was elected mayor in 2013, advocates thought he could provide the leadership to finally prioritize walking, biking, and transit on LA’s streets.

And Garcetti got off to a great start. He chose Seleta Reynolds, a standout from the San Francisco MTA’s Livable Streets program, to lead LADOT. The city retained groundbreaking former New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan to help shape its Great Streets strategic plan. The city is expected to adopt a Vision Zero policy in just a few weeks.

Garcetti himself has said, “As city leaders, we need the backbone to make the bold changes necessary to build great streets.” But the mayor’s failure to go to bat for a pedestrian-friendly redesign of the critical Glendale-Hyperion Bridge calls into question the strength of his commitment to changing streets — and with it, Los Angeles’s potential to become a walkable, bikeable, transit-rich city.

Last week, the city’s Public Works Board, whose members are all appointed by the mayor, rejected the bridge design that neighborhood advocates favor. That design, reported Streetsblog LA, would have repurposed one motor vehicle lane to create safe access for walking and biking on both sides of the bridge. The mayoral appointees, bowing to pressure from City Council members Mitch O’Farrell and Tom LaBonge, went a different route, voting for a design that preserves all the car lanes while removing an existing sidewalk from one side of the bridge.

About 1,200 people had signed a petition supporting the proposal with bike lanes and sidewalks on both sides of the bridge, as had dozens of businesses, nearby schools and the neighborhood councils in two of the three surrounding districts. Traffic studies showed that reducing the road to three lanes wouldn’t affect car congestion significantly. But the Public Works Board voted for a proposal that maintains four traffic lanes and leaves pedestrians with just one sidewalk — and a long, uncomfortable detour.

Advocates did not expect a decision so soon. LaBonge is at the end of his tenure in the council, and the leading candidates vying for his seat favor the more pedestrian- and bike-friendly design. With elections this week, the local politics were guaranteed to shift in favor of the better design in a matter of days. Instead, Garcetti’s appointees rushed through a decision the week before the election.

Don Ward, who lives in nearby Los Feliz and served on an advisory committee the city set up for the project, said the bridge design has major implications for walking and biking access. “The elevation change in this area, there’s only three routes to get to the LA River in this whole area and all three routes are major arteries and difficult for bikes and pedestrians,” he said. “This one bridge is the most viable option to have sidewalks and bike lanes on because it’s in the middle. And it’s an old historic bridge. And it connects three neighborhoods.”

Without a sidewalk on both sides of the bridge, people crossing the river will have to walk far out of their way. Image: Los Angeles Walks

Ward and a group of friends spent hours organizing in the affected neighborhoods. “The majority of the footwork was done by people who care, like parents and bike riders,” he said. “A bunch of us went house to house gathering signatures, we got church groups, school groups, businesses. I made it job number one to explain everyone knew they were losing a car lane. Some people didn’t want bike lanes but they did want a sidewalk.”

Their advocacy compelled the city to hold a public hearing and establish the advisory committee. And it looked like Garcetti’s administration was adjusting its timetable to allow for the design decision to be made after LaBonge left office. Instead, his appointees on the Public Works Board blindsided the people who’ve worked for a walkable, bikeable bridge.

Deborah Murphy, founder of L.A. Walks and a nearby resident, also served on the advisory committee. “Fear of traffic has outweighed safety of all road users,” she said. “They have decided that it’s more important to let people drive 55 miles per hour on this bridge.”

The approved plan does include bike lanes, but Ward says without a sidewalk on both sides, those bike lanes won’t be good for much.

“I don’t want a 4-foot-wide bike lane that people are going to walk in because otherwise they have to walk a half-mile out of the way,” he said. “Don’t shove some family into the gutter next to 50-mile-an-hour traffic, and have them think that they’re safe.”

“There were so many people who worked on this and it’s just crushing to go through this entire process and at the end they just say ‘fuck you,'” Ward said.

29 thoughts on Can LA Make “Great Streets” If the Mayor Won’t Stand Up for Good Design?

  1. Welcome to LA. My favorite little nugget of insanity here is when LADOT seizes the opportunity to squeeze in a road widening whenever a lot on one of the busy boulevards gets developed. New residential highrise? Great! Lets widen the road and shave a few feet off the sidewalk. A nice warm welcome for the new residents.

  2. During the Public Works meeting the BoE kept saying that option 1 makes a continuous sidewalk between Silver Lake and Atwater. What they didn’t say is that option 3 does that too, on BOTH sides of the bridge. They argued against keeping the eastern sidewalk because it terminates part-way across the span as a way of supporting option 1 but if they didn’t mention that option 3 would have enhanced rather than eliminated the eastern sidewalk

  3. You know I’m a streets advocate as much as anyone but I think LaBonge is representing a silent majority of drivers. I think he is responding to a constituency, even though they weren’t as loud or organized. The notion that people will walk miles across this bridge to go from one neighborhood to another is patently absurd. Each neighborhood has tons of parking and low one-story buildings. The first commercial building on one side is a 7-Eleven with a huge parking lot. I think the two hypothetical sidewalks would get used by far fewer people than the car lanes will.

  4. LaBonge is anti-bike, he has been since the last election when #BikeLA supported someone else. He used to lead bike rides and stuff but every bike project in his district over the past 4 years has been shelved. Of course more cars use the bridge than bikes/peds but we need to look to the future. The billion $ LA river plan plays an important role in this.

    They built this bridge 100 years ago for then, we need to build it for the next 100 years today. That 7-11 won’t be there forever.

  5. Non sense. Atwater does get filled up on the weekends. It has a finite amount of parking. But this is more about getting to Atwater and the LA river (which needs no parking). Atwater has a great farmer’s market, coffee shops, a book store a winery and a whole plethora of great little shops to spend an afternoon walking (or biking) around and investigating before heading home to Silver Lake. Why force everyone to have to hunt for parking? Why not give people MORE options to get to Atwater without driving? This is why bike friendly commercial districts thrive, they are INCREASING capacity without reducing available parking for those who dont want to drive. All for the cost of the time it takes to travel 1200 feet at 35mph vs 55mph? Not worth it. Option 3 is the winner for the communities and businesses.

  6. We all know Garcetti is more into closing down small parks and streets to throw raves and concerts for his celebrity worship over actually being a real mayor.

  7. Interesting fact: during construction, traffic (18,000 cars each day) will be reduced to two lanes.

    Engineers say: 9,000 cars in a single lane? This is not a problem! Exempt this project from environmental mitigation.

    Another interesting fact: Option 3 was rejected because 3 lanes of traffic “will cause congestion”.

    Engineers say: 20 extra seconds of congestion in 2040! We must have four lanes for cars. Nobody uses the (disconnected) sidewalks that exist now!

  8. I think this boils down to how weak Garcetti is as a mayor. He has no big money coalition, no labor coalition, that can sweep a majority or even a voting block into power in the city council.

    The council president, Herb Wesson, from what I’ve heard, is the big power broker amongst all the termed out state legislators now presiding as councilmen in city hall.

    With no extra-legal power to wield during election season the mayor can proclaim all he wants – the budgeting and legislative power the council has is enormous. They are give princlely powers over their districts well above and beyond their role as law makers.

    Any billionaires want to see a livable Los Angeles need to stop giving to 501(c)3’s and need to start plowing that money in PACs and 501(c)4’s. Either we get a real ground game and propganda machine rolling in this town or we should just all it quits.

    In fact, I’ve just about called it quits.

  9. It’s great that LA’s DOT has hired the brilliant Janette Sadik-Khan, who headed New York’s DOT and caused fundamental changes to occur in our streets. She was the first commissioner of that agency who saw her mandate as something other than exclusively serving the needs of drivers; she saw it as improving the conditions for all users of the streets, including those people whose interests had been neglected (namely, bicyclists and pedestrians) under the prevailing orthodoxy.

    Sadik-Khan oversaw the remaking of many New York streets to allow for more comfortable bicycling, thereby inducing even more people to take up riding. Under her commissionership, bicycling skyrocketed in New York, as did the quality of life of bicyclists. We here in New York miss her terribly.

    But, the only reason that Sadik-Khan had any success is that the mayor who appointed her, Michael Bloomberg, gave her unflagging support, defending her unapologetically in the face of relentless criticism and denunciation on the part of many other sectors of the establishment (including, by the way, on the part of the current mayor when he held the post of Public Advocate).

    Without support from the chief executive, no city agency, not even one headed by a visionary genius such as Sadik-Khan, could have made any difference in the design of our streets. So, while it is encouraging to see that LA’s DOT under its head Seleta Reynolds has retained such a prominent and accomplished expert in the field of livable streets as Sadik-Khan, this expert’s input will go to waste if the DOT’s initiatives are not strongly backed by Garcetti in the manner of Bloomberg.

    As to the bridge in question: I can say as someone who has never been to L.A., but who had until recently been planning a trip there (trip cancelled due to personal disaster; oy, long story), that this bridge looks like a pretty useful bike route. According to the elevation maps that I have seen, this bridge appears to be a convenient pass around much bigger hills. So making it even more attractive to bicyclists seems like a good idea.

    I’d be very interested to read any impressions that L.A. bicycists have of this bridge and its usefulness to bicyclists.

  10. I am an L.A. bicyclist and I find this bridge pretty useful. There are only a handful of streets (4 streets in about 8 miles – drivers have those, plus 2 freeways) that cross the river, the 5 Freeway, and parallel rail tracks. None of these bridges are really optimal for walking or bicycling.

  11. That’s actually a relic of LADOT’s design standards that call for roads to be wider than they actually are. The only way that comes to fruition is when a new development goes in and overhauls the sidewalk. That’s when LADOT says “hey, you gotta build the road to our design standards,” and the road gets wider in front of that new development.

  12. It would be nice if they could leave that relic behind at some point. I’ve seen them doing it in fairly urbanized neighborhoods like Downtown and Koreatown. Its bonkers.

  13. We drive across this bridge 2-3 times a week, and bike across it occasionally. It needs two lanes of vehicle traffic. Perhaps on weekends and holidays it could be reduced to one lane during day-light hours.

  14. The irony of your comment being that night time and off peak hours are when roads become the deadliest in terms of sparse speeding traffic, which is when lane reductions become most effective at saving lives. Regardless, the traffic study commissioned by the BOE shows that car volumes on this span have been flat for 10 years and in slight decline, which is why speeds were clocked at 55mph. All of this evidence points to a lane reduction as the best method for calming speeders and granting safe access to those who wish to travel without a car.

  15. Alex, can you explain what power that advisory group has? I worry that it’s more of a forum for internal discussions and that groups such as the BOE do not see this highly skilled dedicated group as a voice of power and consideration in the City.

  16. Wouldn’t it just be safer for bicyclists to walk their bikes across the bridge and allow car traffic to still flow across the bridge. Less congestion and short walk for a bicyclist.

  17. Wouldn’t it be safer if cars moved slower across the bridge? Dangerous situations arise from speed and mixing of modes. Option three provides dedicated space for all modes on both sides of the bridge while slowing down the most dangerous mode (driving).

    And surely you can’t be serious in proposing a person biking dismount and walk across the bridge- 99.9% of car drivers won’t even consider walking that far from their car to their destination.

    We will only have less congestion in the long-term if we give people viable options to driving. Requiring people who are making the positive choice of bicycling to walk across this long bridge, or requiring those who walk to go out of their way to get to a sidewalk on the other side of the street, will only encourage more people to drive.

  18. If only more Angelenos had your perspective on the fundamental roadblocks preventing LA from creating substantive changes at street level. LA’s fragmented and balkanized political dynamics and the lack of more consolidated executive powers prevents LA from acting like a singular entity (i.e. a city). As long as council-princelings like Koretz and Cedillo can single-handedly override City Hall, LA will never be at the forefront of anything.

  19. Pardon my ignorance but what are the differences between 501(c)3’s and 4’s?

    The other problem with LA is an uneducated, uninformed, and apathetic voter base. Too few Angelenos know, follow, or care enough to respond to propaganda machines. We are not SF or Seattle.

  20. 501c3 = non-profit, tax deductible donations, can’t engage in political stuff

    501c4 = Political Action Committee, unlimited spending on campaigns, legal bribes, independent expenditures, weak disclosure laws (so you can shadow fund politicians and lobbyists), not tax deductible to donate to

    And as regards your point about how Angeleons don’t respond to propaganda: hah! They most certainly do. We unfortunately live in a place where the bad guys have already won and our social connections are badly fractured, there is a lot of isolation, and fear. The livable streets movement could exploit the gaping holes in every mainstream political movement in this city by bringing people together in a virtuous public policy/pro-social cycle: make neighborhoods for people, they become more connected and supportive of reforms to make streets for people, etc.

    It will require money to do this. We need to have a PAC that churns out hit pieces, organizes protests, funnels dark money to ad campaigns for pro-livable streets candidates – basically a modern day political movement. Without this, we will continue to be beggars with our only leverage being the stink we can cause in the media.

  21. It’s very true that Bloomberg was an important part of that equation, but I was always impressed with Sadik-Khan’s apparent political savvy… She seemed very adept at building support from the ground up, even when there was resistance, and keeping up a slow and steady pressure to move things forward.

    Things may move more slowly without a Bloomberg to help, but I’m guessing she’ll still make LA a better place without one…

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