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Is Los Angeles City Ready for a So-Called Road Diet to Improve Mobility?

Friday, August 26, 2022

While cities around the globe have been rethinking the role of cars and creating more space for bicyclists and pedestrians, Los Angeles City hesitates to realize an implementation plan of improving the city’s infrastructure.

The city’s Mobility Plan approved in 2015 aimed to make Los Angeles more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly by 2035, however this initiation became bogged down by red tape among city departments and lawsuits. The plan meant to rework some of Los Angeles’ most storied boulevards by adding bicycle lanes, building wider sidewalks, and creating more visible crosswalks. Currently, only 3% of its goals have actually been implemented, whereas the number of traffic deaths in Los Angeles has increased by 20% over the past year despite the city’s goal of eliminating traffic deaths by 2025 through the Vision Zero initiative.

Bureaucracy wasn’t the only thing holding back the realization of the plan. The traffic closure at Griffith Park after a cyclist was killed, combined with lane reductions on other streets in the city, sparked a wave of oppositions that engulfed the Westside and the South Bay. After this situation, Westside Councilman Mike Bonin apologised to drivers and said lanes would be restored. So, is that a sign that people in Los Angeles are not ready for a so-called road diet, which is a big part of both a Vision Zero project and the Mobility Plan? Or will people never be ready for such drastic changes in order to create a safe space for pedestrians and bicyclist, thereby requiring more courage or force from the city?

It isn’t only residents that are raising concerns about the mobility plan, however. Long-time mobility advocates point out that even the process of getting streets paved can tilt towards more wealthy individuals, leading to even more inequity for underserved neighbourhoods. Opposition to the plan has even led to successful lawsuits, such as that made by the non-profit Fix the City. Mike Eveloff, a board member of Fix the City said, “If you take away vehicle lanes, you are creating congestion.”

Tired of lobbying the City Council to implement the Mobility Plan, several transportation groups have begun collecting signatures for the “Healthy Streets LA” ballot measure. At the same time a counter proposal was introduced by Council President Nury Martinez. The idea of both is to make the mobility plan part of regular street maintenance. However, the effort of Nury Martinez pushes further in two ways: It seeks a working plan that prioritizes low-income and transit-dependent neighbourhoods and adds a local hiring program to make the coordination between department smoother.

Personal Comment:

Two main arguments against the Mobility Plan have been made: exacerbating inequity and increased congestion. I think the first issue can easily be solved with a clear implementation plan and better management of the city budget. The second argument is more complicated, and we have already discussed it in the Drive Sweden newsletter many times. However, I would like to point out that this argument seems to assume that more infrastructure would necessarily ease traffic. But this is not that simple.

Induced demand is the idea that increasing roadway capacity encourages more people to drive. Let us recall the “traffic evaporation” term, which means that traffic disappears when road space is reallocated from general traffic to pedestrians, buses and cyclists. There is a lot of evidence that traffic evaporation works in practice. For example, this study, based on data from 545 European cities, has shown that road expansion led to more vehicle traffic and persistent congestion problem. The researchers of this study concluded that when lanes were reassigning from car traffic to other modes, traffic issues were less severe than expected, and traffic volumes were significantly reduced. Another real-world example is the closure of the 42nd Street in New Your City, known as one of the city’s most congested streets. Surprisingly, the traffic flow improved because traffic lessened overall.

Of course, removing lanes or closing a road would spark a wave of opposition. People regularly make poor transport choices: we get in the habit of travelling one way and don’t consider alternatives. The road diet makes people think about other options and when things change it can prompt our long-established routings to change as well.

Written by Kateryna Melnyk,
RISE Mobility & Systems