Playa del Rey’s road diet debacle is a teaching moment for future L.A. transportation policy

By Todd Dipaola, Brooke Eaton, Jim McCafferty, Nancy Brown and John Russo

The authors served on the Playa del Rey Safe Streets Task Force and are writing in response to “The Bully’s Playbook” (Opinion, Nov. 30), which criticized tactics used by road diet opponents to shape public debate. Eaton and Russo have been active with Keep L.A. Moving, which sued to reverse traffic lane closures in Playa del Rey.

Safe streets and daily commutes don’t have to be mutually exclusive. So why is Los Angeles pursuing policies that create such a divide?

Over the past few months, we’ve watched a travesty unfold in Playa del Rey. A well-meaning but trigger-happy city government abruptly embarked upon sweeping changes to lifeline connector roads. There was no discussion of goals, no discussion of options, no discussion of impacts. The folks in charge didn’t care about deliberative democracy or, apparently, want their ideas critiqued. They behaved like a dictatorship — and what they got was an uprising.

City Hall took several miles of roadway offline in Playa del Rey, cutting its vehicle capacity in half overnight. In the wake of these changes, the public heard constantly evolving stories about short-term test
periods, unsupported claims about the need for extreme urgency, and excuses for a lack of thoughtful engineering behind the roadway reconfiguration.

Watching accident after accident happen on these newly “safer” roads, local citizens felt something was wrong and, upon further investigation, concluded that safety wasn’t the real priority driving the changes.

Ultimately, the legendary engineers at the L.A. Department of Transportation revealed that they were just following orders and, furthermore, that rather than being conscientiously designed, the new bike lanes were installed as an excuse to justify taking away car lanes. In the words of LADOT Assistant General Manager Dan Mitchell, addressing an angry public at a meeting in June: “We didn’t do studies. We just did what they told us to.”

“They” referred to a small group of NIMBYs — 155 individuals — who wanted to prevent non-resident drivers from using the roads of Playa del Rey. Inexplicably, the city went along with them, bending facts and claiming that extraordinary measures were immediately required in order to circumvent the public vetting required by law.

As a result — and with clear intent — California’s CEQA laws were broken. CEQA requires studies and public hearings when changes are proposed for roads, and LADOT’s standard is that such studies are required for roads with 16,000 or more vehicles per day. In filing for a CEQA exemption, the city stated the daily car count on Pershing Drive was “only 7,200 cars per day,” while LADOT data shows it was actually 23,000 cars per day.

Furthermore, when we examined accident rates and contributing factors, it became clear to us that a road diet was not the correct engineering solution. Our statistics show an average of 11.6 accidents
per year before the changes, compared to a startling 53 for the four months the road diets were in place — a startling 350% jump.

Add to that increased commute times and impacts on local businesses. Customer feedback and a survey of 62 business owners documented devastating revenue losses as high as 40% below expectations.

As members of the task force assembled to address these issues, we are glad that the current engineering solution makes sense for pedestrians, cyclists and cars. However, there is a cautionary tale in the broken process it took to get us here — and the tax dollars spent to constantly re-edit street configurations, leaving the asphalt in poor condition. All of this could have been avoided with a few public meetings to understand the options and make smart tradeoffs.

All cities will need to continue evolving their streetscapes in response to modern mobility needs, but they should use evidence-based and democratic methods to do so.

Innovation means it doesn’t have to be about commuters vs. safety. For instance, the current setup in Playa del Rey reduces high-speed traffic through town, enhances pedestrian access and bicycle use, and allows commuters the bandwidth to flow slowly but surely through rush hour.

Once the roadways got a proper examination, the situation went from being one of “us vs. them” to a question of smart engineering that addresses contemporary concerns. We hope this unfortunate situation can serve as a case study in both “how not to change a street” as well as “how you can change a street without major adverse impacts.” As Southern California continues to evolve, this can
be a teachable moment.