Wednesday, December 24, 2008

When Holidays Lights Go Bad

A Million-Light Baby, With Parental Issues
How can an "eco-friendly" festival exclude bicycles?
Min Kang
Issue date: 12/22/08

The Insider

The festivities have begun and it is time again to visit the bright child of Los Angeles, officially known as the 13th Annual Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Griffith Park Light Festival. Whether you like it or not, with its twinkling lights, it attracts Angelenos searching for a unique winter holiday experience with a traditional twist.

The festival sponsored by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) draws large crowds; an estimated 650,000 visitors attended last year. A bold mission to "go green" attached to its glittering surface, the festival could be the poster child for the city's eco-friendly lifestyle. At least that is the objective. The problem is that not everyone can agree that earth-consciousness is what the festival represents.

The Department of Water and Power (DWP) gushes about how the festival has "gone green." To them, this means converting festival lights to Light Emitting Diode Lights or LEDs, using a clean fuel cell for power and expanding the "vehicle-free" nights to two weeks of pedestrians walking through the one-mile route.

During the walking-only nights, it can be a pleasant trip. Fortified against the cold with a delicious warm churro in your mouth, you join other pedestrians out for a leisurely stroll. There is a predominant theme of mischievous elves. Kids gaze intently and point to the lit brontosaurus, while others stand awkwardly in the cold against a dazzling tunnel of light as cameras flash. Music blasting from hidden speakers hit all notes of holiday emotions; from nostalgic carols to sexy saxophones evoking the content end of a night of revelry.

One grandmother dressed as Mrs. Santa hustles the two-step with her grandson as they dance along to the tunes. Couples cuddle in crooked arms and kiss. A troupe of dog owners and a variety of pedigreed dogs reminiscent of "Best in Show" walk briskly past.

Linda Bennett with her red-nosed husband (illuminated Rudolph bulb attached to his nose), a newcomer to the festival, already has made memories. "It is a great family meeting place. My whole family is here, my grandsons. It was my daughter's idea to bring us all together here."

Kim Hughes of the water company's Public Affairs office, says that this is "a gift from the city to the city (residents)." Certainly the DWP is proud of their baby. It is the most visible public relations outlet they have. But this is the artifice of holiday cheer is created by LED lights. And like Cinderella's pumpkin carriage, the magic is only temporary.

After December 7, the festival returns to its car-dominated tradition of gridlock and its generous contribution to global warming. "Never let the cars in, says Richard, a light festival visitor and new father. "The fact that we could walk through is great, rather than smelling the exhaust (from cars)." In previous years, pedestrians have had to walk along the path with motor vehicles.

When Hughes claims that DWP has enjoyed a long-established, strong environmentally-conscious reputation, it reflects the staunch efforts of the department to maintain the image - that the festival represents the same altruism to the environment as in their projects. "The LADWP has always been a leader in environmental stewardship, as it was one of the first utilities in the country to develop a "Green Power" program, a solar program, etc."

In reality, the DWP has reservations about letting the festival be completely car-free. Many of the concerns involve unsupervised children. In a recent Los Angeles Times article "City-Sanctioned Traffic Jam Adding to Global Warming," by Steve Hyman, he suggests that Joe Ramallo of the DWP fears that a pedestrian-friendly festival would encourage solicitors of "unsupervised kids who linger and hang out." Some other concerns veer to the ludicrous, like how pedestrians "could trip over things" or "children may stray too close to the lights."

A serious obstacle to creating a pedestrian-only festival is, ironically, the lack of parking spaces. Pedestrians drive to the festival form their homes and need a place to park their cars. "We try to monitor parking because there's only a certain amount of space," says Hughes. To be precise, there are only 2,200 spaces in the zoo parking lot, by the Merry-Go-Round and its adjacent lots. The festival has to accommodate 2,000-5,000 cars a night. "We're trying to bring in the Metropolitan Transit Authority [MTA] public transportation, says Hughes, "but right now there's only one bus (during "vehicle-free" nights) that takes visitors up here until 6:30 p.m." She admits, "The budget is tight," but returns to reassuring plans as she ends her sentence, "and next year we hope to lobby for longer times and more shuttles."

We should understand that the department is working hard for us. That same dedication for the community is the message the department wants ingrained. It is perfectly stated in Ken Lombard's, President of the LADWP Commission, 2002 interview with Business Wire: "The light festival represents an important opportunity to reinforce LADWP's commitment to the communities throughout Los Angeles and the 3.8 million residents we serve by bringing them together to celebrate our history and our City's landmarks in grand holiday fashion." In other words, the department is trying to promote its presence in the community and accommodate as many people as possible. Unfortunately, the goal of "accessibility" conflicts with the goal of "green."

Keep in mind that this is the work of a bureaucracy, a well-oiled machine pumping public relations propaganda. The commitment of accessibility for the masses excludes bicyclists from the 3.8 million Angelenos served. Other than one preview night for bikes, Nov. 28, bicyclists are banned from the light festival. Access has been granted to motorcyclists who speedily wind through spaces between cars. Recently, equestrians and canines have been welcomed, yet bicyclists are excluded. One discontented group of avid bicyclists wants in.

This group, known as the Bike Writers Collective, views the water company's ban on cyclists as being poorly justified. Founder and spokesperson Stephen Box, of steely eyes and a quick tongue, lashes against the DWP's ineptness to reduce congestion. He says, "The light festival is accommodating so many more vehicles that the Interstate 5 shuts down all the way to the 134 Freeway, as a result of the significant traffic congestion." He continues, "One would think then, that in an effort to reduce the congestion, (the DWP) would encourage other modes of transportation like (he makes an emphatic pause) - what do you call this? - a bicycle." Box has no mercy when revealing the fallacy of the water company's reasoning. "But instead what (the DWP does is) take the lane that typically cyclists would use on Crystal Springs Drive and dedicate it to another lane of motor vehicle transportation."

When asked why bicyclists are banned, Hughes unknowingly reveals how water and power encourages congestion without placating bicyclists. "We are concerned with safety, as a two-lane road is converted to three with an emergency lane and two vehicle lanes converted into a one-way route," she says. "Vehicles go through the festival without their headlights on and since we also have barricades, there is a very little safe area for bicycles and we would not want anyone to be injured."

The Bike Writers Collective is skeptical. "This is the same battle cyclists fought when the Griffith Observatory reopened," said Box in a LAist article, "and Recreation and Parks intended to exclude bicycle access."

The Bike Writers see the ban as a violation of California state law which the DWP has no authority to enforce. Box recites the state laws: "California Vehicle Code (CVC) 21 is the uniformity code which restricts the municipality's authority to regulate the movement of cyclists with three exceptions: freeways, sidewalks and bike licenses. CVC 21200 says where motorists go, we go." Three years since its formation, this legislation-savvy group has rallied and petitioned the city council to allow them to exercise rights supported by state law. Some have taken their passion for bicycles and cyclists' rights to articles and blogs to vent the frustrations of their campaign or relate the latest progress made on behalf of bicyclists.

The bicycle activist's most demonstrative act is the annual protest ride through Crystal Springs Drive which they did on Dec. 8, which, ironically, was the opening night for cars to enter the festival. They met at the Mulholland Fountain, dedicated to the legacy of William Mulholland, a paradoxical figure that brought water and expansion to the city while ravaging the Owens Valley and provoking outrage from environmentalists. It is clear that they are no pushovers. This community of bicyclists exudes youthful energy. Some of the cycling comrades are wrapped in stringed LED lights, another plays irreverent holiday tunes that include a parody from South Park, and one is a stern Santa wearing glasses. It is a sight to see.

Though excluding bicyclists may not be the most prominent issue, Box sees that the ban is a consequence of the DWP's refusal to recognize the core problem - severe traffic congestion around Griffith Park. Surveying the intersection between the southwest corner of Los Feliz Boulevard and Crystal Springs/Riverside Drive, Box notes, "This is one of the most congested intersections in our city; this is a treacherous intersection in general. A police officer was killed right over there. As he pulled someone over, he was hit."

In a 2005 study of fatalities and injuries from motor vehicle accidents in Los Angeles County cities, Los Angeles had the most fatalities; 277, and injuries; 42,832, of all other cities in the county. Box asserts, "For us to encourage motor vehicle transportation as a form of recreation and entertainment is absolutely antiquated. It is the complete antithesis of all that (the city) should be doing as a committee, to improve the quality of life in this community."

Despite complaints from residents and bicyclists alike, the light festival pushes safety and environmental concerns aside. It continues to support motor vehicle transportation because it brings in the most visitors. In the LA Times article by Hymon, Councilman Tom LaBonge "thinks cars are part of the deal to allow as many people as possible - including those who cannot walk the route - to see the lights." After all, isn't popularity what maintains legitimacy in the DWP's claim to "dedicated" service? This is the car-centric city. The 2000 census on the means of transportation utilized by Angelinos reveals that nearly 1.2 million people travel by car, truck, or van in Los Angeles.

Box makes a poignant statement of the water company's and the city's attitude: "There's a saying that success has many parents, but failure's an orphan." Water and Power and the city are proud to brag about their light festival that dazzles. As for the other offspring - the traffic jams, heavy smog and ban on bicyclists, both parents refuse to claim responsibility.

For now, the Light Festival carries a heavy burden to uphold the family name - the same "quality" service to the Los Angeles community.

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