It was almost a mantra and used by every candidate for the first City Council election – although I believe the phrase was the creation of John Heilman. Nevertheless, it summed up in a way our naiveté and our hopes as the new city of West Hollywood took shape. The phrase was: “A walkable city, an urban village.” Time and the weight of change has put the phrase on the shelf.
Thirty-five years later few can recall that we once had such a design for West Hollywood, let alone a slogan. But concerns for pedestrians remain – more so every day.
Being on foot in West Hollywood — a pedestrian — is not for the faint of heart. In spite of the establishment of well-marked (not all) crosswalks in many locations, which require vehicle operators to observe and stop when they are occupied by a pedestrian, they actually seem to be the very places where pedestrians are most likely to be injured or killed. There are a number of reasons for this odd turn of events, and they range from driver distraction, excessive vehicle speed, pedestrian lack of common sense and misjudging conditions for a proper crossing.
Driver distraction is especially important as a cause of pedestrian / automobile collisions. Anyone simply watching traffic go by can attest to the fact that many drivers seem to be texting or otherwise using their hand held phones. Even those with a Bluetooth connection can be distracted. Years ago, when I was conducting car safety classes for the National Safety Council, I was instructed by the Highway Patrol that nearly 20% of all drivers were distracted by either legal or illegal drugs, anxiety, anger or other emotional distress. Add now cell phones. But, there’s a lot more to consider than crosswalks.
For a long time, pedestrian traffic was not at a high level in West Hollywood except on the more commercial streets. Now, more residents are out for exercise or dog walks or strolling with children, and daytime commercial residents park on the side streets from which they walk to their jobs. Certainly not hordes of people, but there’s more of a steady stream on foot.
The city’s survey of vehicular traffic on Westside streets indicates that most of the vehicles travelling through West Hollywood are commuters, often directed to side streets by WAZE or some other transit app. They are not particularly concerned with rules regarding speed, stop and regulatory signs, bicycles or people on foot wishing to cross the street. A mixture of conditions ripe for trouble.
Our major intersections are a good place to observe the parade. One of my favorite intersections is Robertson and Melrose, where any pedestrian not a sprinter must be brave and especially careful in crossing in any direction. A few obstacles other than speeding cars also must be faced. One is the extra high curb at the northwest corner, where older people must pause to adjust their step to get up on it and more limber folk may take a hop up. Across, on the northeast corner, is visible evidence of the dangers of standing too close to the curb: black tire marks on the curb indicate that perhaps one should stay a couple of feet away from the crosswalk while waiting for the light to change – if you were able to push the signal button in time. Once out in the intersection, from any angle, the pavement itself offers an uneven surface over which only the nimble can easily tread. Of course, turning cars and an insufficient crossing time make this intersection a true adventure in walking. Since I do not get out very far any more I cannot comment on other crossings, but there must be others like this one. (I believe that this intersection is also a junction in the utility corridor, or underground utility lines which crisscross the city.)
Crossings are not the only impediment to safe walking. As out city ages, many are finding our sidewalks too narrow and not always well-lighted at night. (Perhaps the city’s recent acquisition of streetlamps from SCE will bring some change to this situation.) In far too many instances, uneven, broken or tilted driveways add to the need for extra care in placing one’s feet. We also face bikes and scooters on the sidewalks, often operated by riders who seem particularly insulated from reason as they require pedestrians to step aside for them. Then, there are the usual other urban obstacles: dog droppings, trash, flopped scooters, homeless sleepers and people who are lacking in simple pedestrian manners by walking three abreast and brushing aside opposing walkers. All these things are what we must contend in our “urban, walking village”
Cars Are Now the Master, We Are the Serfs….
We are not alone with our growing pedestrian safety and access problems. Every city of note in the industrialized world is having the same problems related to increased growth and car ownership. For too long traffic engineers have been obsessed with ‘level of service’ (LOS) designs for our city streets. “Level of service” means that cars must be kept moving come hell or high water – or residents’ complaints. But, current urban designers are wising up and expanding designs to accommodate other modes of city travel: walking, cycling, plentiful public transit.
The Journal of Urban Design notes that the idea of LOS impediments – such as pedestrians and the newer transit modes – is being rethought. The city of Denver is in the process of spending to increase and improve sidewalks and to ”bring frequent public transit within a quarter miles of most residents.” Some European cities, Oslo, Madrid, Paris, even those with very good public transit, are banning cars from core areas and increasing access to pedestrians, bikes and scooters.
Think about what that means in terms of public health if fewer polluting vehicles not only reduces the flow of small particle air pollution but also frees up parking spaces, an average of 350 square feet. Some parts of the world are changing faster than others by adopting such measures as banning vehicles from certain areas. Cities continue to require affordable housing, and if more of that necessity is built, in conjunction with good transit, residents will not need to own cars, thus freeing up money for other purposes.
Consider how many acres of land are used for downtown parking lots and for parking garages. By one estimate just the open-air lots in central Los Angeles command as much area as Manhattan (part of New York City). Minneapolis is hard at work implementing a voter-approved measure to revamp its building codes in residential areas to allow duplex and triplex houses on single-family lots. In what I believe is an incorrect measure (LOS!), the City of Los Angeles has increased allowable speeds on quite a number of streets. This will mean more difficulty for pedestrians wishing to cross intersections. Perhaps we’ll see more cars crashing into buildings or jumping curbs to strike pedestrians and an increase in the already ridiculous number of fatal hit and run accidents at crosswalks.
An additional impact of more pedestrians is the possible reduction of street crime. In the Park Labrea News of January 24, 2019, publication of its Police Blotter, I noted seven assaults by “unknown persons” at all hours and many places throughout the city. Surely, this sort of criminal activity is a deterrent to strolling, walking dogs and children and should happen far less with more people on the streets.
The city has gone to much expense to tackle the problems of the huge numbers of vehicles that pass through the city each day. Since I get out seldom, it was only two days ago that I saw the extraordinary measures (lines of traffic cones, a flashing sign and two enforcement cars) taken to prevent cars from turning left off San Vicente and into Rosewood to avoid traffic lights and intersections on Beverly. My block, about 150 meters long, sees (according to the city survey) something like 700 vehicles a day – combined east/west travel. If cars are not stopped – gridlock – as far as the end of the street, they are speeding well above the limit allowed. It is futile to call Code Enforcement or the Sheriff because neither will act if they do not witness the event. Of the traffic-calming devices I have seen, only the roundabouts are worth the expense. Alternate cul de sacs? No left turn signs? Right turn only signs? Speed humps ? Let’s get original and make crossing the street less of an adventure.
“It is a highly efficient means of transit, as well as one of the great under-rated pleasures in life. “ That’s the lead sentence in a recent New York Times article about pedestrian life in that city. The examples of cities taking back the streets for pedestrians come from cities that have large metropolitan areas that they pretty much control. Los Angeles, as Woody Allen once commented, “is like a piece of lace,” a barely regulated conglomeration of cities, towns and unincorporated districts. If the City of Los Angeles changes the urban rules for cars, the entire county will be affected. Right now, the Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michael Moore has introduced a Pedestrian Safety Initiative. He stated at the presentation conference for the program that pedestrians accounted for 107 of the 200 traffic fatalities in the city.
Instead of citing violators of crossing rules, such as jaywalking, they will be given a reflective vest and an LED light for visibility. (Famers Insurance donated these items) If it seems wrong to some people to reward bad behavior, consider the alternatives. Can West Hollywood add to its “Tips for Pedestrians” something similar as a Pedestrian Safety Initiative? At least, the city can start to monitor the results of L.A.’s program and come up with a program of its own.
Furthermore, Los Angeles County should be looking deeply into pedestrian safety and providing funds to smaller municipalities to help them adopt pedestrian safety initiatives of their own. So, whatever happens in the City of Los Angeles affects every other jurisdiction in the county. But we cannot wait for the Los Angeles County’s process to snail pace the way to an answer.
Our pending City Council election has brought out 11 candidates for three seats. Somewhere in that group should be a person with a platform that contains a major concern for pedestrian safety in West Hollywood. This issue is also one that affects traffic, use of space, public safety, zoning and just how pleasant we want West Hollywood to be as our home.