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Mon, May

Mobility Plan 2035 and the Rowena Road Diet, or … The Law of Unintended Consequences Enters “The Twilight Zone”

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MIRACLE MILE MOBILITY- According to the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, “The law of unintended consequences, often cited but rarely defined, is that actions of people -- and especially of government -- always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. Economists and other social scientists have heeded its power for centuries; for just as long, politicians and popular opinion have largely ignored it. 

When the City of Los Angeles approved Mobility Plan 2035 earlier this year it not only unleashed the law of unintended consequences, it thrust us into a missing episode of The Twilight Zone called, “The Rowena Avenue Road Diet.” This episode could also be coming soon to a street near you.
 
Unraveling why and how the Rowena road diet came to be -- and trying to understand what it is supposed to accomplish – is to cross over into another dimension…a place where good intentions and political agendas engage in hand-to-hand combat with common sense and reality -- and all sides lose.
 
Let me back up and try to provide a sensible explanation of how we have found ourselves lost in space. The Mobility Plan 2035 is a new transportation plan for the city that is touted by its creators as aspirational – a poetic word to candy coat the many bitter pills it contains. Of all the so-called remedies prescribed by the plan, road diets are one of the hardest to swallow.
 
Prior to the adoption of the new Mobility Plan, the Rowena road diet was installed after the tragic death of a pedestrian who was stuck by a vehicle while crossing that street late one night. Rowena is a poorly lit street and doesn’t have signaled crosswalks. The community and then-Councilmember Tom LaBonge attempted to come up with a plan to protect pedestrians, including the children attending Ivanhoe Elementary at Herkimer and Rowena.
 
Neighbors lobbied for what they thought was a common sense solution: a signalized cross walk. But they did not get one. And this is where we begin to cross over into The Twilight Zone, because it appears that the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) rejected a signaled crosswalk. They believe crosswalks give pedestrians a false sense of security. I use the word “appears” because there is very little documentation available from the city on how any of this came to be. 

And furthermore, the logic of LADOT conceiving of crosswalks as a threat to pedestrian safety is equally obscure.
 
So instead of getting the signaled crosswalk that they wanted, the Rowena community got a road diet that was implemented with little to no outreach by the city and no studies performed to measure its impact on the neighborhood. This is when the law of unintended consequences comes into play.
 
The Rowena road diet changed the street from four traffic lanes, with two lanes in each direction, into three-lanes with one lane in each direction and a shared center turn lane. The space left over was used to create bike lanes. And, you guessed it, no new signaled crosswalks were installed.
 
The traffic engineers anointed the center turn lane as a “refuge lane” – a place for pedestrians (particularly the less nimble ones, like the elderly, the disabled, or a mom pushing a stroller) to pause when traversing the street. How this can work when the lane is stacked up with vehicles waiting to make a left turn isn’t clear to me, but it evidently makes abundant sense to traffic engineers. Obviously, they like to keep pedestrians on their toes.
 
The city argues that road diets make streets safer. Taking away traffic lanes creates congestion, which means vehicles will be going slower and any accidents that do happen will be less harmful due to reduced speeds. The argument that lowering vehicle speed lowers the severity of injuries makes sense – but, on the other hand, purposely exacerbating congestion to achieve this goal evokes the law of unintended consequences. This is the case of the Rowena road diet: it has created cut-through traffic on parallel streets and moved the danger there. 

In short, the city reduced the risk on Rowena by transferring it to adjacent, much narrower, residential streets.
 
The Rowena road diet has proven to be no different than any kind of diet – people find ways to cheat. The cars that used to travel on Rowena now attempt to avoid the new congestion by using Waverly Drive and Angus Street. These streets have been overwhelmed by bumper-to-bumper traffic. 

Residents are unable to back their cars out of their driveways. Frustrated drivers are running the four-way stop signs. Ironically, some blocks of these streets have no sidewalks. Pedestrians must dodge impatient motorists as they walk along the edge of the street with their children and dogs.
 
How this complies with the city’s “safe routes to schools” strategy defies imagination. Now parents living along Waverly or Angus who used to let their children walk to school have wisely taken to driving them. How’s that for a Mobility Plan with the express purpose of getting people out of their cars?
 
You don’t have to take my word for the traffic chaos and road rage created by the Rowena road diet. Here’s a video posted by a resident on YouTube. This is what the law of unintended consequences looks like. This is why the residents living along the Rowena corridor are so understandably outraged.
 
Could the unintended consequences of the Rowena road diet have been avoided? It would be hubris to think that we are that smart, particularly when implementing radical change. But many of these problems could have been anticipated and possibly mitigated had there been a rational process to determine whether a road diet was called for or not. 

There were no real studies done before Rowena was restriped. LAPD and the Fire Department were not asked about the effect on emergency responders. LAUSD was not asked about the welfare of their students. No one from the city knocked on doors along Waverly and Angus to ask residents about their concerns.
 
How could the Rowena road diet happen without any due diligence or extensive public input, you ask? Again, absent a paper trail, it’s hard to figure that out. Here are my hunches. Tom LaBonge is a good man, but he always liked to take quick action – whatever the situation may be. 

I don’t doubt that the death of the young woman crossing Rowena deeply moved LaBonge, and for good reason. But it probably made him especially vulnerable to the bike lane proponents who constantly work City Hall to promote their cause. Cyclists have done a brilliant job of selling bike lanes as the answer to every question. Hence, road diets are their mantra. It’s a simple equation for them: reducing traffic lanes adds bike lanes.
 
In September, I participated in a well-attended town hall meeting at Ivanhoe Elementary to gather public input on the Rowena road diet (photo left). Several members from Councilmember David Ryu’s office were present and they heard both sides of the argument.
 
My comments to the council office at the time were that Councilmember Ryu needed to make certain the installation of the road diet followed the law and all applicable rules – something that was apparently not done when LaBonge created the road diet by fiat.
 
I know that Mr. Ryu is genuinely interested in listening to all sides before making a decision. However, first things first: he needs to determine if the Rowena road diet was installed legally. If not, it must be removed and the proper rules should be followed to reinstall it – if indeed it is appropriate to do so.
 
In order to make that decision, he needs to review the required traffic and safety studies, as well as the meeting notices regarding this project, the agenda(s) of all public meetings where this road diet was discussed, notices placed in local newspapers notifying the public about the project and any other requirements required in order to install bike lanes. 

Getting the required information from the city departments in order to make an informed decision was one of the points Mr. Ryu agreed to when he signed the candidate pledge during the primary election. The councilmember is a smart man and I’m sure he will get to the bottom of what happened and do what needs to be done based on the law and the pledge he signed.
                                                            
In the meantime, even with its road diet, accidents continue to happen on Rowena Avenue. On Sunday evening, October 11, a gentleman was struck while crossing the street. His condition is unknown at this time. I pray he recovers quickly.
 
The moral of this particular story is, be very careful what you ask for from the City of Los Angeles. You might just find yourself in The Twilight Zone.

For additional information:  read this article in The Eastsider LA, Silver Lake Pedestrian Hit Crossing Rowena.

 

(Jim O’Sullivan is president of the Miracle Mile Residential Association and is one of the founders of fixthecity.org.)  Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

  

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 84

Pub: Oct 16, 2015

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