Mark McDermott

Road diet lifted in face of commuter uproar

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by Mark McDermott

The West Los Angeles road diet is coming to an end and Manhattan Beach residents and officials who clamored for its demise are warily optimistic.

“Trust,” said Councilman Richard Montgomery. “But verify.”

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At issue are lanes that were eliminated last May along key commuter routes, particularly along Culver and Jefferson boulevards, intended both to increase bikeability and pedestrian safety. But the reduced lanes resulted in huge traffic snarls; local commuters saw their drive times increase by as much as 45 minutes and were outraged.

Local elected officials, including Montgomery, Mayor David Lesser, and Supervisor Janice Hahn, worked to find a solution. The most locally impacted roadway, Vista Del Mar, was reverted back to two lanes each way in July after Hahn worked out a deal in which LA County made its beach parking lots available for low-cost parking, thus negating the need for parking along the street. But South Bay drivers were still delayed in the more northern parts of their commute. A residents group called Keep LA Moving filed a lawsuit in August demanding the lanes be reopened.

Finally, on Oct. 18, Councilman Mike Bonin, who initiated the lane closures as part of his Safe Streets for Playa del Rey initiative, announced with LA Mayor Eric Garcetti that the lanes would be restored. Alternative safety measures, such as new crosswalks with flashing beacons, speed feedback signs, and “speed tables” that require cars to slow at intersections, will be installed instead.

“This pilot program has shown us that lane reductions are not the right approach in Playa del Rey, but we can and will find a way to ease congestion and improve traffic safety in this neighborhood,” Mayor Garcetti said in a statement.

Bonin indicated that the public outcry caused him and other officials to reconsider the road diet approach.

“From the beginning of the Safe Streets for Playa del Rey initiative, community feedback has been a crucial component in creating a safe and inviting community,” Bonin said. “Reducing the frequency and severity of traffic collisions is one of the top public safety imperatives for the City of Los Angeles, and the community-supported safety improvements we are announcing today will help keep people in Playa del Rey safe.”

Keep LA Moving activist Karla Mendelson, a Manhattan Beach resident, said the road diet had actually made the streets impacted less safe. She cited LA Department of Transportation data that indicated 50 accidents had occurred during the four months of closures, in contrast to the average of 12 per year that occurred previous to the lane closures. Previously, she said, most of the accidents occurred at night. Since the road diets, the accidents mostly occurred during commuter hours.

“We wanted common sense safety measures,” Mendelson said. “If you are going to do something about safety, then address the actual safety concerns. This did not do that.”

At the same time the announcement was made, the City of Manhattan Beach caught wind that the Los Angeles Department of Transportation was about to begin a sewer project that could cause a delay in full restoration of lanes along some streets impacted by the road diet. It appeared at first the delay could last as long as a year, but the bigger frustration among city officials as they had difficulty getting a clear answer to their questions regarding the issue.

“Look, all we are just asking is for transparency,” said Montgomery. “Just tell us the truth.”

Their concerns were relieved as lane restoration began immediately. But no lane restoration took place in one key area —  Culver Blvd. west to Vista Del Mar, and the northern stretch of Vista Del Mar, approaching Culver. As a result, that area has remained a chokepoint for commuters.

“Commuters are stuck,” said Montgomery. “Literally.”

Finally, Hahn once again interceded and was able to obtain a date for full lane restoration from the County: Dec. 1.

Montgomery said he believes the county will make good on that promise but remains wary.

“Well, I’ve believed a lot of things before. You know, we all believed there was a Santa Claus,” Montgomery said. “We are asking for some honesty, fairness, and information about what is actually going to happen. It’s a simple request.”

“But let’s also give Mike Bonin credit,” he added. “I’m pleased the councilman and Mayor Garcetti realized that this was a bad idea. It takes courage to say, ‘We tried something, and it didn’t work, and we are going to undo it.’ However, the choke point right now almost makes it worse …Just revert things back to the way they were before you did this, and if you are going to do anything like this in the future, involve the communities who will be impacted. You are ruining people’s afternoons and evenings, their work commute. You are affecting everyone.”

Mendelson said Keep LA Moving activists are likewise “skeptically optimistic.” Their lawsuit has not been dropped as they wait to see how things play out. Nothing has been restored in downtown Culver City. Some of the lane restorations, specifically between Jefferson and Nicholson, have resulted in narrower roadways than the original width to make room for a protected shoulder ranging from two to six feet.

“According to the DOT, it’s a free for all,” Mendelson said. “You can bike, walk, roller skate, whatever in either direction. Several motorcycles have been seen using the shoulder. Bollards have been reinstalled there, though they provide no real protection. People are complaining that the bollards take away from the beauty of the wetlands. With narrowed lanes, there is very little room for error with oncoming cars at 45 mph, plus there’s no room for cars to pull over if needed.”

“That does not jibe with the term ‘restoration,’ which implied a return to the original configuration,” she said.

“All in all, it’s another poorly thought out and utterly dangerous installation….I’m sure a lawyer will brand it an ‘attractive nuisance’ when people get injured there and it ends up costing the city millions.”

Keep LA Moving is also waiting to see if the businesses who suffered loss will be “made right.” Mendelson said three businesses closed during the road diet, while many others were impacted. Commuters, too, she said, suffered tangible losses. Hence the lawsuit remains alive.

“Projects like this impact people’s lives,” she said. “They are not just hypotheticals. These are real people and not just cars on the road. There are people in those cars, and those people have lives and needs. I understand there were a lot of unintended consequences, but the fact is procedure was not followed.”

Like the City of Manhattan Beach, Keep LA Moving remains frustrated by a lack of transparency.

“So far, there have been no published plans or a timeline made public, but Dec. 1 is a possible date for completion [of lane restoration],” Mendelson said. “People have a lot of questions, but no one has answers.”

“Our mayor, our council, and our residents are vigilant,” Montgomery said. “If you make us a promise, stick to it, keep your word.”

“We are watching,” Mendelson said.

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