Vision Zero is not a fad — and it’s not making our streets more deadly

A traffic safety denying op-ed in the Wall Street Journal claims both. And couldn’t be more wrong.

………

No Morning Links today.

I had planned to take Martin Luther King Jr. Day off, and post some inspirational words to remind us all to treat everyone like our own brothers and sisters, especially in these turbulent times.

But I felt it was necessary to address an op-ed that was inexplicably published in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday, without the apparent benefit of senior editors or fact checkers.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a massive four days worth of links to the latest bike news stories from over the weekend.

Today we’re going to discuss Vision Zero, road diets and traffic safety deniers.

Because sometimes, these people just piss me off.

………

Awhile back, I coined the term traffic safety deniers to describe people who reject the well-established science of traffic safety.

Just like climate change deniers reject the established science behind climate change, for no other reason than they choose not to believe it, or the experts in the field, evidence be damned.

Like lawyer and writer Christopher D. LeGras, who penned a virtually fact free, alternative universe op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, claiming that Vision Zero is nothing but a “road diet fad.” And that it’s having the opposite effect of what is intended, by somehow magically increasing the death toll on our streets.

Or I should say former lawyer, since he apparently gave up his membership in the bar to write full time, resulting in a collection of short fiction published by the small LA-based imprint Rare Bird Books.

Unfortunately, his op-ed reads like a work of fiction, as well.

He starts innocently enough, telling the tale of a 65-year old woman who broke her leg falling on the sidewalk in Mar Vista, suffering a compound fracture. And says it took the fire department paramedics ten minutes to get there, even though the station was just five blocks away.

But in which direction, he doesn’t say.

Yet somehow extrapolates that to blame the road diet on Venice Blvd — and every road diet everywhere else — and Vision Zero in general.

Los Angeles, like cities nationwide, is transforming its streets. In July 2017 the city installed a “road diet” on a 0.8-mile stretch of Venice Boulevard in Mar Vista, reducing four lanes to two and adding bike lanes separated from traffic by parking buffers. The project is part of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Vision Zero initiative, which aims to eliminate traffic fatalities in the city by 2025. Launched in 2015, Vision Zero is the most radical transformation of how people move through Los Angeles since the dawn of the freeway era 75 years ago.

By almost any metric it’s been a disaster. Pedestrian deaths have nearly doubled, from 74 in 2015 to 135 in 2017, the last year for which data are available. After years of improvement, Los Angeles again has the world’s worst traffic, according to the transportation research firm Inrix. Miles of vehicles idling in gridlock have reduced air quality to 1980s levels.

Well, it ain’t necessarily so

Problem is, the road diet on Venice was part of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Great Streets program. A community driven project that had been in the works since 2015, and had nothing to do with LA’s Vision Zero, which was only announced in August of the same year.

In fact, Vision Zero in Los Angeles was just vaporware until the Vision Zero Action Plan was released in January, 2017 — two years after community groups began work on a Complete Streets makeover of Venice Blvd, and the same year the Mar Vista Great Streets project was installed.

Never mind that the road diet on Venice reduced it from a massive six lanes to a more manageable four, to reduce crossing distances to improve safety for pedestrians and increase livability.

Not two lanes, as LeGras inexplicably claimed.

Then there’s the claim that pedestrian deaths spiked in 2017, two years after Mayor Garcetti announced the Vision Zero program.

But somehow, before any significant work had been done on Vision Zero, because the action plan, and the High Injury Network it’s based upon, weren’t even released until that year.

Not to mention that none of those pedestrians were killed on streets where Vision Zero improvements had already been installed. So rather than being the fault of Vision Zero in some vague, unidentified way, they can be blamed on the dangerous, deadly LA streets that Vision Zero is intended to fix.

Which is about like blaming the vet because your cat got pregnant after he fixed your dog.

And don’t get me started on LeGras’ laughable implication that Vision Zero is somehow responsible for LA’s worsening traffic and air pollution.

Traffic is bad on streets throughout the LA area, including the other 85 or so other cities in LA County that don’t have Vision Zero programs. Let alone on the streets that haven’t seen any Vision Zero improvements at all. Which is most of them.

Oddly, traffic also sucks on most, if not all, LA-area freeways, which have yet to see a single bike lane or road diet.

The reason LA traffic is getting worse is a population that’s growing by an estimated 50,000 a year, with most of the new arrivals bringing cars with them, or buying one as soon as they get here.

Along with countless kids who receive or buy a car as soon as they’re old enough to drive, resulting in four or five cars cramming the driveways of many family homes. When they’re not out helping to cram the streets.

Combine all that with a record number of miles driven in the US last year, as lower gas prices encouraged more people to drive more. Something that’s reflected in dropping ridership on LA Metro, as more people switch from buses and trains to private vehicles — adding to the traffic LeGras complains about.

And no, LA air quality is nowhere near 1980 levels.

Then again, he also seems to confuse normal traffic congestion with gridlock — defined as a situation in which drivers are unable to move in any direction.

If you can get through a traffic light in two or three cycles, or turn in any direction to get out of it, it ain’t gridlock.

It’s traffic.

By my count, that’s six false statements in just two paragraphs. Unfortunately, he didn’t stop there.

Nothing succeeds like the successes of Vision Zero

Like the next paragraph, where he somehow concludes that light rail lines have anything to do with Vision Zero. (Hint: they don’t.)

Or the following one, where he implies that Vision Zero projects in the Big Apple have failed to make significant improvements. Even though, after five years of Vision Zero, and countless road diets and other safety projects, New York traffic fatalities are at their lowest level since motor vehicles took over the streets. And pedestrian deaths are at their lowest level since 1910.

While bicycling fatalities have gone up in New York, that’s more reflective of a massive 150% increase in ridership as more people feel safer on the streets.

And rather than leading to increased traffic congestion, the changes have actually improved traffic flow.

While individual firefighters may complain that bike lanes delay response in emergencies, as LaGras claims, the facts don’t bear that out.

In fact, more fire departments are realizing that safety improvements on the streets reduce the need for dangerous emergency responses. Which means fewer people they have to scrape up off the streets and try to patch back together.

Meanwhile, more enlightened cities are deciding that is better to build fire engines that fit the streets, rather than widen streets to fit the fire engines.

The myth of the Foothill Blvd evacuation disaster

Then there’s this.

During the 2017 La Tuna Fire, the biggest in Los Angeles in half a century, a road diet on Foothill Boulevard the in Sunland-Tujunga neighborhood bottlenecked evacuations. After the fire a neighborhood association voted to go off the road diet. The city ignored the request and instead added another one to La Tuna Canyon Road.

That’s a myth that has been circulating in the anti-road diet, traffic safety denier community for some time.

While the road diet on Foothill has unfairly gotten the blame, the real problem stemmed from the closure of the 210 Freeway further up the road. Traffic backed up from that closure down to, and through, Foothill Blvd — not from Foothill back.

Officials never considered it a serious enough problem to remove the bollards protecting the bike lanes, or to introduce other emergency measures, including contraflow lanes, on Foothill.

I’m told that an engineer involved in the evacuations said that people on Foothill were never in danger. And fire officials said they had no problem getting through.

With or without a road diet, relying on private motor vehicles to evacuate any population center will always be problematic, as cars break down and run out of gas, and fallible human drivers try to squeeze in and turn around without sufficient space to do so.

LeGras is correct, however, that a road diet was implemented on deadly La Tuna Canyon, following the near fatal crash that left Keith Jackson in a coma for three weeks.

One of the few things he got right.

But rather than reducing road space, it merely reduced the amount of traffic lanes in places — leaving exactly the same amount of space available in the event of an emergency as there was before.

He closes this way,

It’s noble to want to make America’s streets as safe as they can be. But government officials shouldn’t impose projects on communities that don’t work, inconvenience residents, hurt businesses and impede emergency responders in the process.

Had he bothered to do the slighted bit of research, he might have discovered that most people like the Complete Streets that result from the implementation of road diets and bike lanes.

And that road diets and bike lanes have proven good for businesses across the US. And Canada, too.

Emergency response times tell the real tale

As for impeding emergency responders, let’s go back to that 65-year old Mar Vista woman with the broken leg.

A ten minute response time in any emergency should be unacceptable. But countless things can take place to delay emergency responders that have nothing to do with road diets.

It took far longer than that for paramedics to arrive when my father-in-law suffered a fatal heart attack. And that was in a residential neighborhood, in the afternoon, before Vision Zero and road diets were a gleam in Eric Garcetti’s eye.

Responders can be delayed by the same sort of traffic congestion you’ll find on any other major street in Los Angeles, with or without road diets or any other form of traffic calming or safety improvements.

Never mind motorists who don’t have the sense to pull to the right like the law requires. Which seems to be the majority of LA drivers these days.

But if there was a significant problem, it would show up in the fire department’s response times. Yet the average response for Mar Vista’s Station 62 is just four seconds slower than the average EMS response for the city as a whole.

Four seconds.

I sincerely hope Renee Khoury’s mother Rebecca recovers completely from her broken leg.

As for Mr. LeGras, it’s probably a good thing he’s not practicing law anymore, if he built his cases on such flimsy, easily disproven evidence.

But I do hope he continues to write.

Judging from this op-ed, he should have a fine future in fiction.

Thanks to Alissa Walker and Felicia G for their help in researching this piece.

15 comments

  1. Ed Rubinstein says:

    Ted,

    Well written piece decimating LeGras’ op ed in the WSJ. Have you asked the WSJ to publish your rebuttal? If so, what was their response?

  2. Jeffrey Phillip Weinstein says:

    Subject: Maricopa Hwy ATP project- Letter to the Editor re: “Paradise narrowed its main road by two lanes despite warnings of gridlock during a major wildfire”

    Dear Ojai City Council, City Manager and Public Works Director, County of Ventura government and fire officials, Caltrans and Cal Fire,

    Dear all, please see my Letter to the Editor at Ojai Valley News (attached above and reproduced below) regarding the City of Ojai’s plans to replace a vehicular lane in each direction on Maricopa Hwy with a bicycle lane separated by a parallel lane of trees and parking, plus 13 curb extensions between the ‘Y’ and El Roblar Drive. Also attached above is the November 21, 2018 New York (and Los Angeles) Times article about the Paradise, CA wildfire that reports:

    “After the 2008 wildfire, a Butte County grand jury report noted the difficulty residents had in evacuating, and advised that the authorities find ways to make it easier for residents to escape.Instead, the authorities narrowed Skyway in the center of town to improve pedestrian safety, reduce traffic and promote commerce — a decision that is sure to be scrutinized in the aftermath of the Camp Fire.”

    I have contacted City and County government officials, as well as Cal Fire and Caltrans, in hopes that we can reach a compromise that maintains 2 lanes of vehicular traffic in each direction on Maricopa Hwy with separated bike lanes. It is my understanding under the State of California Streets and Highway Code, the City must present evidence showing that a street is unnecessary for public use before vacating it. Given the gridlocked evacuation in Paradise, CA last month, the City of Ojai’s decision (with Caltrans approval) to vacate vehicular lanes on Maricopa Hwy is a dangerous and unnecessary plan that will put our community at risk and City in legal jeopardy. After having spoken with certain Caltrans officials and legal representation, in my opinion, the City will ultimately be unsuccessful defending their position in court.

    Consequently, I urge City and County government officials to re-evaluate their position, and reach out to the local community actually affected by this “traffic calming” and “road diet” plan for Maricopa Hwy. I look forward to further discussion in early 2019. Happy Holidays to all, Jeff

  3. Jeffrey Phillip Weinstein says:

    Sent: Fri, Jan 11, 2019 3:07 pm
    Subject: 12/7/17 photo of fire engines lined up along Maricopa Hwy

    Dear all, please see attached photo from 2018 Winter issue of Ojai Valley Visitor’s Guide, showing firetrucks lined up as far as the eye can see along Maricopa Hwy during the December 2017 firestorm in Ojai. The article states there were 30 VCFD engines involved plus “dozens more from Cal Fire, the cities of Ventura and Santa Paula and others, but it wasn’t nearly enough”.

    With Maricopa Hwy reduced to just 1 lane in each direction (to be replaced with two (2) Class IV bike lanes separated by parking and trees) as recommended by the Ojai City Council, the ability to fight and contain the next firestorm will be severely impacted. Where will the fire engines line up then, how will residents evacuate when the single lane is filled with VCFD engines?

    Will someone please explain why are we sacrificing the PUBLIC SAFETY and WELFARE of Ojai Valley residents for 2 bike lanes and a parallel parking buffer with trees? Thank you, Jeff

  4. Thank you for taking the time to layout the facts. Here’s another reason traffic isn’t better than proposed:https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/01/los-angeles-public-transportation-tax-measure-m-metro/580609/

  5. Re the response time to the 65 YO woman.

    Sure there might be a fire station with an ambulance less than a mile away as the crow flies, but how many superblocks are between the fire station and the injured person that have restricted numbers of access points? What would be a few minutes of time on a grid system turns into a much longer time after negotiating the mazes of a superblock system. In short, don’t blame a bike lane that would not be needed in a grid system when the actual culprit is the street layout from when the area was developed 30, 40, or 50 years ago when preventing criminals from escaping interception was the primary design motivation over ease of emergency vehicle access.

  6. Esta Dormida says:

    Ted,
    Well written piece decimating LeGras’ op ed in the WSJ. Have you asked the WSJ to publish your rebuttal? If so, what was their response?

  7. Allen Marin says:

    Great fact-based argument, Ted. Can you clarify whether you are writing a rebuttal or letter to the WSJ? I’m going to share on Twitter beyond LA to get more exposure and possibly others to write to the WSJ.

  8. Joe Linton says:

    Great piece – thanks for writing this!

  9. Peter Flax says:

    Really strong piece, Ted!

  10. Tom McCarey says:

    Traffic “calming” absolutely is killing people. A Denver study found that for every 1 life saved by “calming” 85 others were lost. “Calming” slows EMT and fire equipment to the point that people die from heart attacks and strokes and houses burn to the ground.
    The definitive article on “calming” is “Problems Associated With Traffic Calming” by Kathleen Calongne, available at
    motorists(dot)org/issues/traffic-calming/problems/

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