Responding to the rage at a road diet story

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The City of Los Angeles is trying to slow drivers down through lane reductions. We got different perspectives on a road diet that caused road rage in Playa del Rey – and listeners reacted.

On this week’s DnA we aired a segment that looked at the dispute over a road diet in Playa del Rey. As has been widely reported, back in June, transportation planners put several streets in the beach community on a “road diet.”

A backlash from some residents and commuters ensued and the road-diet was itself slimmed down. We wanted to understand how this reduced diet was received and reflect on what might be the implications of the backlash in Playa del Rey for the implementation of 40 or so road diets planned for other parts of Los Angeles.

Karla Mendelson, Larry Williams, Kimberly Hunnell, Ray Karapetyan. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

To this end, we gathered at the intersection of Culver Boulevard and Nicholson and spoke with Larry Williams, owner of Playa del Rey Florist, and Ray Karapetyan, owner of Miracle Instant Shoe Repair in Playa del Rey. They were unhappy with the diet.

We talked with Kimberly Hunnell, a Playa del Rey resident and data analyst who spoke in her capacity as mother and cyclist as well as designer Robin Perkins (whose business Selbert Perkins Design is located on that intersection); they were both delighted by the road diet, the original and revised versions.

We also got commentary from Karla Mendelson, who directs Keep LA Moving, a group that has sued the city over the road diet. She lives in Manhattan Beach but her husband commutes through Playa del Rey. We also spoke by phone with Dan Mitchell, Chief Engineer and Assistant General Manager with the city of LA Department of Transportation.

Listen to the segment here:

The reaction to the segment from some bicycle advocates and proponents of road diets was swift and angry, and a number of criticisms of the segment were aired on social media or emailed.

Below are responses to the criticisms we received.

For background, plans already in the pipeline for a road diet in Playa del Rey were precipitated by lawsuit against the City of LA from the parents of 16-year old Naomi Larsen, who was fatally struck in 2015 by a car as she tried to cross dangerous Vista Del Mar Boulevard, which runs between the Western end of LAX and Dockweiler Beach.

Planners removed a lane from each side of Vista Del Mar, the road running parallel to Dockweiler Beach, and they moved parking from the east side of the street to the west. This was to reduce crossings between the beach and parked cars following deadly collisions on that stretch. They also replaced car lanes from Culver, Jefferson and Pershing Boulevards with bike lanes.

After all these changes traffic during drive-time became too slow, according to commuters who also felt blindsided by changes that in their view were sudden and implemented without extensive outreach.

Enraged drivers created a petition to recall City Councilman Mike Bonin, and they filed a lawsuit. Bonin offered a mea culpa and the road-diet was itself slimmed down. The DOT added back the second eastbound lane on Culver, and reinstated both car lanes on Vista Del Mar. They also took away most of the parking along the parallel to Vista Del Mar, moving it with the help of County Supervisor Janice Hahn to the beachside.

Complaint: One tweet said “Like Climate Change, there’s consensus on Road Diets but @FrancesAnderton treats it as a balanced debate.”

DnA: This is a false comparison. Our segment did not argue that road diets don’t work; it looked at one specific stretch of road diet whose efficacy is not yet proven and has triggered a political backlash over how it was implemented that has ramifications for the rollout of future road diets.

Furthermore, while experts agree road diets work in terms of their main goal — slowing down traffic –there is a diversity of opinions on specific features of a road diet, such as the precise form and location of a bicycle lane. Let’s not forget that not all bicycle-heavy cities have them; and bike-riding on arterial roads in Los Angeles can still be extremely scary, even with bike lanes.

For example, what we did not mention on air was that DnA’s producer witnessed a near crash between a cyclist and car at that very intersection — as he arrived for the interviews — because the new bike lane and a feeder traffic lane from Pershing now merge as they turn the corner into Culver Blvd; hence the question to Dan Mitchell about whether road diets need to be contiguous to be effective.

Complaint: The segment pitted a licensed professional against people giving anecdotal experiences.

DnA: First up, critics are right that they shouldn’t be mixed up so that’s why we ran the interview with Dan Mitchell, the traffic engineer who very clearly made the case for road diets, as a self-contained Q and A. Maybe it should have been separated further.

Having said that, years of covering designers and studying the history of design teaches that the experts don’t always get it right (think of the many urban planning and transportation mistakes of the post-war years that we are now trying to correct) and that well-intentioned plans don’t alway deliver as anticipated.

And it’s why the anecdotal experiences matter, because it is the anecdotal experiences that shape people’s actual behavior.

So I would defend putting on the users alongside the experts.

One critic wrote me, “it’s like pitting doctors against people who looked up their symptoms on WebMD. We would never say that a doctor’s trained perspective is wrong.” Actually people question trained scientists all the time, from (depending on one’s politics) disputing vaccines to GMOs to climate change.

Complaint: We did not challenge the anti-road diet people to offer up actual alternatives to keep streets safe — beyond speed bumps and crosswalks.

DnA: We actually had quite a long conversation about their proposed alternatives and they went beyond speed bumps and cross-walks. But in the limited airtime we could not include them.

For example, Lance Williams, the florist, suggested an alternative to incorporating bike lanes into the Culver and Vista Del Mar boulevards: “There are bicycle lanes that run along the beach and there are bicycle lanes that run through the wetlands over in the Marina area that are perfectly safe. They’re not near any traffic and they would be better suited for bike traffic. What they should do from Playa Vista is run them across Alla Road or something like that near the Home Depot. Take them straight to the bike path, light the bike path, fix the bike path and make it a better, safer place, because then we don’t have the danger of cars running into bicycles. The connections are there already.”

Now maybe when put to the test, this would not be the appropriate solution, but it was delivered in good faith and may warrant consideration at the task force meetings that are now taking place.

As for the suggestion of speed bumps, crosswalks and enforcement, the road diet critics in Playa del Rey stood in for thousands of Angelenos who might think the same thing. To have Dan Mitchell respond and clarify why these would not work in this specific situation was useful in terms of educating listeners about what’s involved in road diet design.

Complaint: We did not do due diligence on claims of loss of business made by the anti-road diet folks, or the “hour” Karla Mendelson claimed was added to her husband’s commute since the road diet.

DnA: Again, in the interests of time, we could not air the entire conversation but we did question the business owners’ claims from a number of directions (among them: given the drop in Main Street retail in recent months, could that account for the drop in business?).

They offered us the opportunity to listen to voicemails and see their emails and we concluded that these business owners had no reason to spend time fighting against something that was not genuinely affecting them. As for Mendelson’s husband’s commute, the road diet clearly did its job in slowing down traffic. Why would road diet advocates question this proof of success?

Conversely, Robin Perkins said the road diet was so successful that several of her employees were now cycling. We did not double-check with her employees if that was true. Nor did we check into the circumstances of Kimberly Hunnell’s road crash to see if it supported her claim that the road diet “saved her life.” We took that in good faith.

Complaint: Karla Mendelson doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

DnA: Karla Mendelson has clearly become a punching bag. She has been cited to us as a tool of the rich, and a know-nothing who shouldn’t be given airtime.

She may not be a licensed traffic engineer but she represents a group that has forced a design strategy to be reversed. In that sense she warrants being heard because it is groups like hers who affect the politics of road diets and other land-use issues. And it is groups like hers who reflect the feelings of many Angelenos — rich and poor, of all backgrounds — who drive because there are no alternatives and become frustrated at finding their drives even longer.

Moreover, she is not wrong when she points out that “unlike the European cities or New York that were built pretty much before the car, Los Angeles was built post-car and around the car. [Politicians and car companies] wanted to make this a driving city… We have to undo that somehow. But you can’t just unilaterally start stripping away car lanes from roads without providing people a viable alternative transit solution.”

Los Angeles right now is in a transportation evolution and to ignore the many who are resisting the changes because they appear to be on the wrong side of history equates to urban liberals perilously ignoring Trump supporters in rural states.

Without conversations that let both sides be heard, experts and users, the kind of warfare that broke out over Playa del Rey will continue to happen. We think our conversation on a street corner brought together feuding sides — who had been screaming insults on the Internet — in a way that made a civic contribution.

I am sure our reporting can be improved upon, however, and we will do more on the topic. Do continue to send us your thoughts — and criticisms.

Karla Mendelson speaks with Robin Perkins in front of Selbert Perkins Design office at the Southeast corner of Culver and Nicholson (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)