A Long Way from Zero

SHERMAN OAKS — Conor Lynch, a junior at Notre Dame High School, died on his way to cross-country practice.

Lynch was attempting to cross a five-lane road when he was hit by a maroon SUV. He is one of the over 900 pedestrians killed in Los Angeles over the last ten years. Since the start of 2018, there have been 97 pedestrians killed on the city’s streets.

“He was my oldest son,” said his mother, Jeri Lynch. “My other sons are graduating from college and getting into the workforce ... he didn’t get to do that.”

Since her son’s death in 2010, Lynch has become an advocate for safer streets in Los Angeles.

“These are deaths or injuries that did not have to happen,” she said.

This idea was at the core of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Vision Zero initiative. Launched in 2015, he had two goals: reduce citywide traffic fatalities 20 percent by 2017 (with a focus on pedestrian deaths involving older adults and children) and reach zero traffic fatalities by 2025.

At the launch of Vision Zero, road changes were planned for high-risk intersections, with a priority for low-income neighborhoods and areas with high rates of pedestrian, cyclist, child and senior deaths.

Three years later, the city is still a long way from zero, and new policy changes are moving the priority away from pedestrian deaths. Starting in 2019, improvements will be based solely on number of serious injuries and deaths, without weighing for factors like income and pedestrian fatalities.

Angelenos gathered for World Day of Remembrance for Traffic Victims

Los Angeles changes course

The city council is shifting focus, even though Los Angeles failed to reach its 2017 goal. The most recent preliminary data provided by the Mayor’s office shows a 45 percent increase in year-to-date pedestrian deaths since 2015.

According to the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System, there were 98 pedestrian deaths in the city of Los Angeles in 2015. But in 2017, there were 121, higher than any year before Vision Zero was announced.

Pedestrian fatalities in Los Angeles

In a written response to Annenberg Media, the mayor’s office said, “Mayor Garcetti is determined to continue the momentum of Vision Zero until the city eradicates deadly accidents.”

But this momentum has been severely limited, particularly for pedestrians. LADOT’s new methods for determining corridors (stretches of road that need updates) could accentuate this trend. Daisy Villafuerte, the advocacy and engagement manager at Los Angeles Walks, an organization campaigning for safer streets, said pedestrians in low-income neighborhoods are at the greatest risk.

“The people that primarily walk in these spaces are people that don’t have the privilege of really owning a car,” Villafuerte said.

Arcelia Arce, the policy director for city councilwoman Nury Martinez, expressed concerns that the new changes in Vision Zero will result in less investment into low-income neighborhoods.

“What we saw when they took out social equity is [that] there were less low-income districts that were receiving a corridor than before,” Arce said.

Changes have been implemented on one street in her district since Vision Zero started. Arce said the changes on this corridor, including speed feedback signs and left turn signals at intersections, won’t involve major road reconstruction. She said this is because the roads in the San Fernando Valley were designed for cars, not pedestrians, and would require more extensive work.

“We haven’t had many projects in our district that have really changed the built environment or the infrastructure,” Arce said.

This has been a common theme in Los Angeles’ streets during the implementation of Vision Zero, with limited results in reducing traffic deaths. According to the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System, total traffic fatalities have increased by 13 percent between 2015 and 2017.

Year-to-date traffic fatalities by region (as of October 27, 2018)

Oliver Huo, a representative for Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT), said he also hopes to see results in the data soon. Since 2017, LADOT has implemented 1,000 road improvements, including left-turn signals and speed feedback signs.

“Changes take time before we can evaluate them, ” Huo said.

According to city council reports, LADOT will now focus on the highest incidents of killed and seriously injured traffic victims, disregarding pedestrian deaths and income in determining where to make road improvements.

In a report, the city council’s transportation committee wrote “The Department believes that prioritizing projects using this new approach will achieve the greatest reduction of injuries and fatalities.”

But some safe-street advocates say the new approach for determining road changes doesn’t address what they see as lacking: funding and citywide support.

Steps toward road changes

According to Arce, the policy director for councilwoman Nury Martinez, Vision Zero is not the top priority. “The council needs to be serious about funding the program,” Arce said. “Homelessness is really the priority for the council right now.”

Last year the city allocated $27 million to the program, compared to $176 million toward homelessness-related measures. The city has increased the Vision Zero budget to $37 million this year, according to the mayor’s office statement to Curbed.

Deborah Murphy, an urban planner who’s worked in Los Angeles for over 30 years, says there needs to be a broader base of support for Vision Zero in addition to funding.

“The only department who’s really focused on this is Department of Transportation,” Murphy said. She believes the departments of Street Lighting, Engineering and Street Services need to be involved as well.

“It needs to be a more holistic approach to the streets,” Murphy said.

The Bureau of Engineering, which is involved in more comprehensive road changes, declined to comment for this story, deferring all questions to the Department of Transportation.

LADOT has done a few major road reconstructions, including four scramble crosswalks, which allow pedestrians to cross in all directions. But the majority of projects have been smaller measures, like speed feedback signs and reminders to watch for pedestrians.

“You see lots of speed feedback signs and paddles that tell people to yield to someone crossing the crosswalk ... that should be basic,” Emilia Crotty, the executive director of Los Angeles Walks, said. “To us, Vision Zero should be life-altering, they should be transformative projects along with the bread and butter everyday items that cities should be putting down as standard practice.”

Types of road changes implemented in 2017

But these transformative projects come at high cost, and oftentimes without community support. Crotty said she knows road changes aren’t popular with everyone.

“I think our greatest challenge in street safety movements is really just fighting the status quo. People fight really hard to keep things the way they are,” Crotty said.

One group fighting against road changes is Keep LA Moving. The group rallied against Los Angeles Councilman Bonin, who approves road changes for his district, after LADOT replaced a traffic lane with a bike lane, known as a road diet, in Playa Del Rey. Amidst mounting political pressure, the city reversed the changes.

“I’ve seen the way that Mike Bonin, our councilman in LA, just very arbitrarily made this road diet.” said John Russo, the co-founder of Keep LA Moving. “I wouldn’t want to see anything in our public space done that way,”

According to LADOT, changes are aimed to ease vehicle congestion and lower traffic fatalities. But this can be a complicated balance, as statistics show.

Most recent data from the Los Angeles Police Department shows a seven-percent decrease in total year-to-date traffic collisions since 2016. Improvements that still have not translated for pedestrians.

A vision for the valley

This is particularly true for the San Fernando Valley, which refers to 34 Los Angeles neighborhoods including Sherman Oaks, Burbank, and Sylmar. This region has seen steadily rising pedestrian death rates over the past ten years, with 33 pedestrians killed in 2017.

Part of the valley is within the 6th council district, where Arcelia Arce is policy director. She said the area was constructed for cars, not pedestrians.

“I think for the valley, you have to slowly introduce changes like this because it is a different mindset out there with cars, people wanting their cars,” Arce said. “The valley was built with long and wide boulevards.”


But some community members hope to change things. Mike Browning is on the Van Nuys neighborhood council, he hopes to make his neighborhood more pedestrian friendly.

“I think that there is a lack of crosswalks on the major streets. And so what folks tend to do is to cross the streets to find a median and kind of wait there until the traffic clears,” Browning said.

He added that his committee, parks and recreation, is planning to work with the council office to achieve changes more quickly in the region.

There are two main throughways in the valley that will be updated in 2019 under Vision Zero: Sepulveda Boulevard and Woodman Avenue, the five-lane street Conor Lynch died on eight years ago.

His mother said she hopes the city will work quickly, in hopes that other families won’t have to experience the pain that she has.

“I feel there’s such an urgency ... there really is no reason that anybody has to lose their life crossing the street,” Lynch said.