LA streets are contested space where no improvement goes unpunished

venice-blvd-selvin.jpgRoad diet on Venice Boulevard in Mar Vista. Photo: Molly Selvin.

I mistook the tiny pile of white blossoms for shattered glass--a logical assumption in this asphalt city--swerving my bike to avoid a flat tire.

But no, it's just spring along the Expo Line bikeway. The ornamental cherry trees recently exploded into bloom, the orange-blossomed trumpet vines are creeping up the wire fencing, and the scent of rosemary and lavender floats in the air.

Two years after the Expo bike path and light rail opened all the way between downtown L.A. and Fourth Street in Santa Monica, the train is still largely clean and orderly and if not rapid, often faster and easier than driving and parking. And for those of us who cycle, run or just stroll, the bike path is what passes for an urban oasis: public space that is protected, mostly quiet, mostly graffiti-free and landscaped.

In Los Angeles, this is close to miraculous.

Not everyone is happy, of course. Car traffic feels more congested on north-south streets near train crossings, particularly during the morning and afternoon rush. My neighbors vent loudly, with their horns and online. I too grind my teeth behind the wheel.

And as gargantuan new apartment and retail complexes rise along transit routes--for example, at Pico and Sepulveda in West LA, and Washington and National in Culver City--traffic will surely grow worse. As a result, we'll likely retain our crown as the most gridlocked city in the world, a title L.A. has won six years running according to an annual survey by INRIX, a transportation analytics firm.

This despite--or perhaps because of--the billions poured into local mass transit in recent decades.

Our streets are arguably now L.A.'s most hotly contested urban space where no improvement, however well intended, goes unpunished.

Take Venice Boulevard. Last year, city engineers reconfigured about a mile in Mar Vista, roughly from Inglewood Blvd. to Wade St., narrowing car traffic from three to two lanes in each direction, improving pedestrian crosswalks and creating a protected bikeway between parked cars and the curb. Rather than a plot to torment motorists, the Venice "road diet," part of L.A.'s Vision Zero initiative, is an effort to cut pedestrian deaths citywide, which have spiked a horrifying 82% since 2015 according to transportation officials, and to encourage more people to bike rather than drive short distances.

City engineers believe that slowing traffic along some major arterials will save lives. The Venice redesign is intended as an experiment that engineers will adjust or abandon, depending on data as to its effectiveness. However, for some of my Mar Vista neighbors the "theft" of a lane along Venice has become their Howard Beale "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore" moment. In orange "Restore Venice Blvd." t-shirts, they're a frequent presence at neighborhood council and homeowner association meetings, determined to undo the lane changes and recall L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, who pushed the pilot.

Last fall, street crews undid similar alterations along segments of Culver and Washington Boulevards in Playa del Rey after just three months. The changes there, in the wake of publicized pedestrian deaths, didn't just slow traffic but often brought it to a halt, stoking political road rage among commuters and local business owners who blamed the gridlock for plunging sales.

Years ago, when Santa Monica added roundabouts and speed bumps along some of its busiest, most dangerous streets to protect pedestrians and cyclists, city officials there faced a similar outcry. But those changes and similar ones in some other local cities have stuck.

Personally, I like the protected bike lanes along Venice and the Expo bikeway. Cycling on most city streets feels like a death-defying act, requiring dodging gaping potholes as cars roar past literally inches to my left. Riding on the sidewalk, legal in the City of Los Angeles but not everywhere, means steering around pedestrians, homeless tents, and broken glass.

The Venice pilot seems perhaps the most recent example of why it's so hard to build much of anything public in this city. Developers often have wider latitude over their private property, the broader civic good be damned. But it took literally decades of lawsuits, combative community hearings and compromises before the Expo Line cars rolled. Similar roadblocks stalled the westward extension of the Purple Line subway, now, finally, underway. Los Angeles State Historic Park that opened last year in Chinatown--nicknamed Cornfield Park--was more than a decade in the making. Downtown LA's marvelous Grand Park was built between civic buildings, eliminating the need to placate NIMBY homeowners. But can you think of another ambitious public improvement in recent years?


That's why Expo is such a big deal.

Change is hard. Every public project, especially those aimed at getting us around this huge city more easily, inevitably anoints winners and losers. The resulting low-boil anger, on top of growing gridlock, has convinced many that government can't do anything right, why we build so little.

But how nice it can be when we do.

Molly Selvin was a Los Angeles Times staff writer for 18 years.

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