Matt Tinoco is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Curbed, Mother Jones, Politico Magazine, and others.
In cities nationwide, efforts to redesign streets for bikes and pedestrians can face stiff resistance.
On a rainy March evening in Pasadena, California, about 350 people packed the auditorium of Pasadena City College for a standing-room-only public meeting. The issue of the hour: Reducing the number of travel lanes of Orange Grove Boulevard. Authorities wanted to put the lightly used four-lane thoroughfare on a “road diet.” Two of its lanes would be repurposed; one would be used for a center-left turn lane, the other would become a bike lane.
When staff flipped to a slide that showed how the redesign would only increase travel time along the 2.9-mile stretch of Orange Grove from 45 to 100 seconds, a woman screamed out: “You’re manipulating the data! NOBODY WANTS THIS.”
Moments later, another interruption: “What about the surrounding streets? Where are all the cars going to go? Cut-through traffic will make them into freeways!”
For several hours, opponents voiced their objections into the auditorium’s sound system. Shedding lanes, one said, would be an “unmitigated traffic disaster.” Not only would residents who live along the road never again be able to back out of their driveways, bicycle accidents would increase (because the new lanes would attract more riders). At one point, a city councilmember decided to hold a “voice vote” on the issue. Though several dozen shouted their support for the reconfiguration, their cries were drowned out by hundreds who bellowed their opposition.
The next day, the City of Pasadena announced that a second scheduled meeting on the issue was cancelled. And so ended the road diet of Orange Grove Boulevard.
Pasadena is hardly the only American city having a hard time sticking to its road diets. Nationwide, proposals to shed car lanes in the name of improving traffic safety or adding bike and pedestrian access are often met by fierce resistance.
Such redesigns may be popular with traffic safety advocates—lane reductions have been shown to reduce the total number of crashes by up to 47 percent, according to the Federal Highway Administration. But even though traffic experts and city planners are well aware of the benefits, the process to remake America’s streets from car-dominated to more multimodal “complete” streets is getting backed-up.
“It’s somewhat frustrating,” says Mark Doctor, a safety and design Engineer for the Federal Highway Administration who specializes in road reconfiguration. “Getting community support is a critical piece of the puzzle. I think what’s becoming evident is the goals and objectives of the agencies on the front end aren’t in line with what the community wants, and it makes for a very difficult and uphill push.”
Take fiercely auto-minded and famously traffic-clogged Los Angeles, for example. Though city leaders say they are committed to a Vision Zero goal of eliminating traffic deaths by 2025, and have given their blessings to the “aspirational” Mobility Plan 2035—which envisions a more pedestrian Los Angeles with dedicated bus and bike lanes—the past year has found city leaders, more often than not, balking at opportunities to actually remake the city’s car-choked roads.
Last year, a pilot lane reduction along a coastal commuter route on L.A.’s far Westside attracted a ferocious, talk-radio fueled backlash, led by an advocacy organization called Keep LA Moving, which argued that the road diet amounted to a municipal attack on drivers. Their efforts culminated in multiple lawsuits against the city that said the road reconfiguration violated the California Environmental Quality Act and even spawned an attempt to recall Mike Bonin, the city councilmember who authorized the redesign. That specific road diet was reversed. Since then, city councilmembers have chosen multiple times to veto lane reductions previously proposed by the city’s Department of Transportation (LADOT).
Instead of lane reductions, they’re opting for less-aggressive street treatments, like adding signalized crosswalks, dedicated left-turn pockets, and intersection tightening. (Thanks to the peculiarities of L.A.’s city government, it is the local councilmembers, not the mayor, who has the final say-so over whether or not a project advances.)
The recall campaign against Bonin ultimately failed to gain any traction, but it did succeed in spooking other councilmembers. And court documents indicate L.A. held settlement discussions with petitioners of multiple lawsuits filed against the Westside lane reductions, the results of which are still pending public knowledge.
Learning from the success of Keep LA Moving, groups with similar aims have formed in San Francisco and Seattle. Similar tales of motorist-led public backlash have greeted road diets from California to Oregon to Florida, leading many cities to abandon the projects altogether.
In Naples, Florida, for example, the local city council recently vetoed a proposal to redesign six-lane US-41 after residents voiced concern over increased travel time and traffic diverted to residential streets.
Gregg Strakaluse, who heads the Naples Streets and Stormwater Department, says that the city has wrestled for decades over what to do about the six-lane highway that, as he says, “divides” the city in two. The state plans to tear up the street and overhaul the storm-drain system beneath it over the next few years, giving the city an opportunity to redesign it. The city’s transportation department presented an updated “road toning” plan, shrinking the six lanes to four but leaving intersections configured to move lots of vehicles, minimally affecting travel-time.
“We went through the whole presentation about how that could work out even better, but city council’s final call was to tell DOT that they didn’t want to reduce the number of lanes,” said Strakaluse. “But they did want to see improvements made to pedestrian connectivity, multi-modal activity, and bicycle activity.”
In other words, adding bike lanes or sidewalks is fine, as long as no car lanes get touched. Unfortunately, the laws of physics usually require such trade-offs.
Other recent Florida bike-lane battles follow a similar script. Last month, city officials killed a plan to add a pair of bike lanes to Bay-to-Bay Boulevard in Tampa, which would have removed one automotive traffic lane from the heavily trafficked thoroughfare. In defiance of an engineering study that determined the lane reduction would have made the roadway safer without adversely impacting overall traffic volume, the city—which boasts one of the worst pedestrian safety records in the country—elected to eliminate bike lanes from the $1 million resurfacing after a fierce outcry.
In Los Angeles, where traffic congestion continues to grow, road diet efforts have become battles royale throughout the metro area, as residents rise to voice their fears of cut-through traffic diverted to neighboring side streets and commuters panic over the prospect of increased travel time. High-volume streets that serve communities with more affluent homeowners tend to be particularly resistant to change. “A lot of the projects that have been done could be described as low-hanging fruit. They were more obvious projects, and I think there were fewer of them in more privileged communities,” said Madeline Brozen, an associate director at the UCLA Lewis Center and Institute for Transportation Studies. “Now we’re getting to ones that are more contentious, where there is more traffic and speeds are higher. But the severity of crashes and need for change is higher as well.”
John Russo, one of Keep LA Moving’s organizers, bristles at this safety argument. “It makes me laugh when people say we’re anti-safety. You’d have to be a psychopath to be anti-safety,” he said. “We’re here to remind the city how most Angelenos use the road. Overall, we don’t think it’s a bad idea to take a step back and think long and hard about how Vision Zero is being implemented in Los Angeles.”
Sometimes, however, the anxieties of road-diet foes ease after the new lanes are striped. A 2013 redesign of Rowena Street in the increasingly trendy neighborhood of Silver Lake initially attracted ire, but residents have grown to appreciate the changes. Assisting that transition is a local advocacy organization, “Keep Rowena Safe,” which says crash data from before and after the road diet emphasizes improved traffic safety on Rowena Street.
In addition to these kinds of grassroots efforts, UCLA’s Brozen is looking for more assertive leadership from the city’s political class. And so far, she’s not seeing it. “There’s a little bit of a void in the pro-transportation change space in L.A., and it seems like this anti-change backlash is filling that void,” she said. “There’s a lack of understanding as to why these projects are needed. Without that understanding, it gets really personal and very nasty very quickly.”
Brozen cited a road diet in the West L.A. neighborhood of Mar Vista, which shrunk a short stretch of Venice Boulevard from six lanes to four lanes and added a parking buffer to the street’s existing bike lane. Though she says she used to frequently ride along Venice when she was a graduate student at UCLA—one of her favorite coffee shops is in the neighborhood—she found herself increasingly hesitant to negotiate the road on a bike. “It wasn’t until they put the protected lane in that I felt safe again,” said Brozen, who shared this story at a community meeting. “After I made that comment, this woman told me, ‘Go to a coffee shop in your own neighborhood.’”
Speaking to a local radio station earlier this year, the general manager of L.A.’s Department of Transportation, Seleta Reynolds, said the fundamental questions for L.A. are the ones one that many cities are grappling with: Are city streets for the residents who live in the immediate neighborhood, or the commuters who use them to get somewhere else? And which users should get priority—the ones behind a steering wheel, or a handlebar? “Is it acceptable,” asked Reynolds, for the commuters who “use the streets to cut through to endure some additional delay [if that returns] safety, livability, economic, and public health benefits to the neighborhood?”
Doctor, the federal road diet expert, echoes this sentiment, and says that the job of transportation agencies is to determine the appropriate balance. “Sometimes a road diet is an agency’s attempt to rebalance the quality of service that a roadway provides for its users,” he said. “The community engagement and education component is crucial in order to find that proper balance.”