CityWatch, Oct 12, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 81
"I used to believe in conspiracies, until I discovered incompetence." -Former L.A. councilwoman Ruth Galanter
A simple Bureau of Street Services (BOSS) resurfacing project on the Valley's Wilbur Avenue and a Department of Transportation (LADOT) "road diet" have kicked the proverbial hornet's nest, resulting in a clash of cultures that continues to escalate, drawing both CD12's Councilman Smith and LADOT's departing GM Rita Robinson into the fracas. Nine months ago, the BOSS notified local agencies and utilities that Wilbur Avenue, between Devonshire and Chatsworth, was scheduled for a facelift. After allowing six months to pass, ensuring that there are no construction conflicts, the BOSS went to work performing a street improvement that typically brings cheers from the community.
The Department of Transportation, which has three sections engaged in the business of designing street plans, (only two of them subscribe to the BOSS notifications!) jumped on the street resurfacing opportunity and implemented a "road diet." Wilbur went from two lanes in both directions to one lane in each direction, a left turn lane, and bike lanes on both sides.
All this took place quietly. No outreach, no coordination between the LADOT and the neighborhood councils or the CD12 council office or the cycling community or the local PTA or the local NASCAR chapter. No coordination took place between the LADOT's Operations, Geometrics, and Bikeways divisions. Nobody notified the City of LA's Bicycle Advisory Committee. Nada!
The LADOT argues that they simply took advantage of an opportunity to engage in a "road diet" and to add bike lanes and that they should be congratulated, not criticized. "After all," says LADOT's Assistant GM John Fisher, "the 1996 Bike Plan calls for bike lanes on Wilbur Avenue and we had a very small amount of time to design and implement a new striping plan. We had no time for outreach."
Conspiracy theorists tend look at situations such as this and wonder if the LADOT simply dropped bike lanes onto Wilbur as part of an engineered conflict strategy, killing any hope of a bikeway network, resulting in an "I told you they don't fit!" declaration and allowing a return to "business as usual."
Realists, like Galanter, will look at this situation and simply chalk it up to incompetence.
1) LADOT Incompetence: Wilbur Avenue has been designated for Bike Lanes since '96 and yet the LADOT Bikeways division never developed a striping plan. 14 years is a long time and yet the LADOT claims they had no time for outreach because the resurfacing work was a surprise to them.
DOT Operations subscribes to the BOSS resurfacing notification yet DOT Bikeways doesn't. The simplest and cheapest way to introduce bikeways facilities to the streets of LA is to work cooperatively with other departments.
2) Outreach Incompetence: The LADOT has a Bikeways Project Coordinator who somehow has the time to travel, from Sacramento and Chattanooga, giving presentations on facilities that don't exist in the City of Los Angeles.
It would seem that the highest priority would be on coordinating the divisions within the LADOT, the LADOT with other city departments, and the City of LA with the people who actually walk, ride bikes, take mass transit and drive the streets.
Most importantly, it would seem that coordinating transportation issues with the people of Los Angeles would be a priority but, based on results, such was not the case.
For all of the billion dollar transportation solutions on the horizon, the simplest opportunity for the people of LA to improve access and mobility is to focus on "human infrastructure," information and education that results in small behavioral shifts, all adding up to safer streets, greater communication and cooperation, and enhanced effectiveness for all modes.
The Wilbur Avenue incident is the epitome of arrogance, imposing a solution on the community without input and then framing the situation as a win-lose proposal.
It created a situation that consumed incredible amounts of energy and time, not from the folks who are on the clock, but from the community, all because the LADOT is evidently incapable or unwilling to simply engage the community in the solution.
"Road diets" are not new and the notion that moderate speeds increase capacity and through-put is counter-intuitive but true.
The fact that property values go up as speeds go down and the fact that local residents can cross the street safely and enjoy active transportation when cut-through traffic is eliminated are all missing from the conversation because the conversation never took place.
The LADOT must embrace a "Common Ground" approach to traffic engineering or the Wilbur Incident repeat itself in other neighborhoods.
3) Council Office Incompetence: Councilman Smith has come forward to argue that the bike lanes don't make sense. In fact, he went so far as to introduce a motion that would require all bikeways improvements to go to the local neighborhood council for approval. This from a guy who has worked the hardest in city council to keep neighborhood councils from gathering steam.
He has championed speed limit increases in his district over neighborhood council objections. But now, they become his ally (or tool) in fighting the LADOT who acted against his wishes.
Smith objects to the bike lanes on Wilbur Avenue, claiming cyclists are only 2% of the population and that they shouldn't get more than their share.
He forgets that when discussing Measure R, he fought to have the funding for bikeways improvements reduced below 0.75%, again arguing that cyclists should only get their fair share.
He apparently subscribes to the win-lose theory of transportation planning (wait until he finds out about the Complete Streets Act!) and is simply confused on what constitutes "fair share."
The upside to Smith's involvement in the brouhaha is his motion that now directs all transportation projects in the community to the neighborhood council, a position that empowers the community and introduces accountability and oversight to the mysteries of transportation.
4) LA Times incompetence: Sandy Banks wrote a column bemoaning the Wilbur Avenue "improvements" and demonstrates the casualness that is all too common at the LA Times. While the general public may not care too much about the difference between bike routes, bike lanes, and bike paths, one would think that journalists would at least attempt to differentiate between a $2K bike route and a $1.5MM bike path. (Wilbur gets neither but that doesn't stop the LA Times from getting them mixed up)
The LA Times refers to 400 miles of existing bikeways facilities, projects the addition 40 more per year for the next 20 years, and predicts a resulting 1600 miles of Bike lanes and paths. Whew! Too much cut-and-paste on the Mayor's press release! The reality is this, there are currently 58 miles of paths and 157 miles of lanes.
The proposed Bike Plan will result in 157 miles of paths and 213 miles of lanes. The Mayor's promise of 1600 miles includes 511 miles of studies, 101 miles of routes, and 651 miles of friendly streets. Step away from the Kool-Aid!
Banks (and the Times) can be forgiven the sloppy grasp of transportation designations and mathematical failures but the LA Times column inadvertently justifies "road diets" with when it protests the impact of the bike lanes on Wilbur.
Banks writes "For years, Wilbur Avenue had been a free-flowing community secret, a commuter street that bypassed the congestion of Northridge's main routes. Then a "street improvement" project last month turned our speedway into a parking lot."
The Wilbur "road diet" isn't a tool for benefiting cyclists, it's a strategy for getting Banks and other motorists to slow down, to stop using the smooth-flowing street as a cut-through alternative to the arterials that are congested. It is a tool for returning streets to the community, to the people who live in the neighborhood.
Through it all it is evident that the real clash of cultures is not between cyclists and motorists, nor is it between locals and cut-through traffic. It is between City Departments that operate with complete arrogance combined with contempt for the public and Neighborhood Councils, empowered by the City Charter to advise the Mayor and the City Council on the budget and the delivery of services.
The Wilbur Avenue fracas is dismissed by many as a tempest in a local neighborhood teapot but the impact will resonate throughout the city. This could be good for neighborhood councils, it could be good for local residents and merchants who are most directly impacted by cut-through traffic, and it could be good for people of all modes if we can work together and establish common ground.
For that to happen, it's important that puff pieces such as LA's proposed Bike Plan are analyzed for accuracy and held to a performance standard.
It's imperative that the Bike Plan be incorporated into the community plans and that it is integrated into LA's strategic transportation plan. Most importantly,
LA's proposed Bike Plan must satisfy the Complete Streets Act which goes in to effect on Jan 1, 2011.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)