Approximately 37,000 U.S. residents die in road crashes every year. In Los Angeles, the situation is quite serious: the city has the highest per capita rate of traffic deaths in the country, around twice that of New York City. In 2015, 186 people died due to car crashes, and in 2016, 260 lost their lives. So far in 2017, the numbers just keep climbing. The city is running a campaign to eliminate all traffic-related deaths by 2025, and one of the official solutions — eliminating car lanes to encourage drivers to slow down — hasn’t won over local residents. In fact, it’s made them so mad that they’re trying to recall a city councilman who supported the project.
The concepts supported in LA’s “Vision Zero” campaign have been adopted by 22 other U.S. cities and countless others abroad in response to rising traffic deaths. There are many contributing factors, including increased distracted and drugged/drunk driving behaviors and lower gas prices. Rising car sales play a part too; although the average car on American roads is 10.8 years old, more people are buying vehicles now than in recent years. But Seleta Reynolds, the chief of LA’s Department of Transportation, tells LA Magazine that those factors alone don’t account for how deadly the city’s streets have become. She believes that it can be explained by increased speeds and LA’s unique congestion issues.
LA is well-known for being in constant gridlock, which might seem in opposition to the speed theory. But Reynolds explains that the congestion leads to aggressive driving behaviors. In addition, the city’s wide streets may be psychologically influencing drivers to treat local streets like highways. Reynolds might be right, considering that the LADOT has flagged 460 miles of the city’s total 7,500 miles of road as being extremely dangerous, particularly for pedestrians. Therefore, she wants the department’s focus to be on altering those streets to force drivers to slow their roll.
So far, they’ve amended speed limits on 80 miles of road and have synchronized traffic lights to reward drivers who go the speed limit with a string of green. Some major intersection crosswalks now feature signals that allow only pedestrians to proceed. They’ve installed bump-outs, which extend curbs into the intersection and force cars to slow down when they make turns.
But road diets are among the most controversial of changes, as they eliminate entire car lanes and add protected spaces for cyclists. While it might increase commute time by a small amount, officials feel it’s worth it.
“What we see is that when cities redesign roadways to send the message to the driver of a lower speed, more often than not, it works,” says Leah Shahum, founder of the nonprofit that promotes Vision Zero. “If you narrow the lanes, put trees in the middle, it’s proven that these street designs slow people down.”
But a lot of residents don’t seem very willing to make these compromises. Locals say the decision has made bad traffic even worse, and some are in support for the recall of City Councilman Mike Bonin, a supporter of the project. In their effort to oust the councilman, residents hope to spark additional outrage and get the traffic lanes restored. While the change could spare 16 people every year from severe car crash injuries, critics of the project point out that the narrower streets could actually be more dangerous for those who live in the area. The increasing traffic has forced non-locals to navigate on more residential streets, which could present a safety concern (and overall nuisance) for many families.
But for now, Bonin will remain where he is. The LA Times pointed out that any recall efforts can’t take place during the first three months of a councilperson’s term; his critics will have to wait until October to submit any paperwork. Bonin noted in a statement that he “won re-election with 71% of the vote, earning more votes than any council candidate in Los Angeles.”
While the results aren’t yet in on how effective the Vision Zero changes will be, Los Angeles residents might need to start asking themselves which is more important to them: potentially saving a few minutes in travel time, or potentially saving someone’s life?