Social media histrionics and fake news have corrupted the road diet debate

By Peter Flax

Flax is a writer and editor who bicycles through Playa del Rey during his daily commutes from Manhattan Beach to the Westside. An advocate for cyclist and pedestrian safety, he served on the Playa del Rey Safe Streets Task Force until it was disbanded in October.

The battle over road diets in Playa del Rey and Mar Vista has done more than reveal polarized opinions on how to configure our streets — it has exposed fundamental problems in our civic discourse. Many who follow Beltway politics now understand how fake news, agenda-driven lobbyists, and aggressive social media activity can poison the political process and national conversation. Unfortunately, these same issues plague the very public dispute over road diets on the Westside.

I saw these problems firsthand as a member of the task force Mike Bonin created to find common ground in Playa del Rey. I have no doubt that this group would have enjoyed a higher likelihood of success had it been convened before roadways were reconfigured, but that does not excuse the tactics of some members of the task force and the organizations they represent, who went to extraordinary lengths to undermine the process.

The leadership of road diet opposition group Keep LA Moving and its allies played several cards at once — relentlessly using social media to argue the composition of the task force (which was numerically balanced) was stacked against them while constantly bullying the agenda so safety issues never got a proper discussion; simultaneously deriding the task force meetings as secret while pushing their agenda hard in that format and organizing clandestine meetings to bulldoze public officials to their ends.

One unpublicized meeting spelled the end of the task force and the Playa del Rey road diet. In league with outside forces, lower Playa business owners — among them prominent members of the LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce, already applying public pressure — demanded an audience with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. People familiar with the proceedings tell me the group confronted Garcetti with a narrative that the road diet was destroying local businesses and made explicit threats to undermine the mayor’s political ambitions. These strong arm tactics set off a chain of events that led to the near-complete reversal of traffic-calming measures on Culver, Jefferson and Pershing.

This was just one piece of a campaign to disrupt a fact-based conversation about the impacts of the road diets in Playa del Rey and surrounding communities. A few weeks before the process broke down, the task force had been given extensive historical traffic data by LADOT that finally provided a quantitatively accurate sense of how the reconfiguration of roads in Playa del Rey had impacted travel times. The INRIX data showed quite clearly that after the initial weeks of chaos, the traffic just wasn’t as bad as social media histrionics suggested. In September, for instance — a time when Culver had been reconfigured with two lanes going northbound, but still had one heading toward the beach — the total year-over-year delay imposed by the road diet on travelers driving southbound on Culver from the 90 Freeway to Vista del Mar was two to five minutes during the evening rush (and zilch the rest of the time).

Suddenly, after months of screaming about traffic, the leaders of the fight against the road diet didn’t want to talk about traffic data. Instead, the conversation pivoted to high-pitched stories about businesses in crisis. Lisa Schwab, owner of Cantalini’s Salerno Beach, an old-school Italian restaurant in Playa del Rey, articulated a dire narrative in which her business was collapsing due to the road diet. The group was given no actual data and thus had no ability to analyze Schwab’s serious-sounding claims —whether or why her business was failing, whether revenue had been declining before the road diet, or how reducing the westbound trip by two to five minutes would resuscitate her restaurant. Task force members who tried to ask aloud if the problem might largely be due to the perception that traffic was far more horrible than the data indicated were shouted down aggressively.

In short, rather than debate facts about impacts to traffic and commute times or pursue a consensus approach to address both congestion and safety, we got sidetracked into a persuasive, data-free, urgent, subjective conversation about impacts on businesses.

This was a savvy move: Everyone cares about the health of small businesses in the community. As an advocate for pedestrian and cyclist safety, I will admit that I’m comfortable if peoples’ commutes get a few minutes longer if it makes our streets less dangerous, but I don’t want local merchants to suffer. Nobody does, and a perception that road diets harm local businesses could shift public opinion in a major way. Dozens of studies conducted in major U.S. cities have concluded that traffic calming efforts ultimately boost business, but that certainly hasn’t stopped opponents from arguing that these dynamics don’t apply in L.A.

Now this mess is playing out in Mar Vista. The organization Restore Venice Blvd is recording and aggressively socializing videos of a few local business owners articulating how the road diet is harming their businesses. The most widely shared video focuses on the plight of John Atkinson, the owner of Louie’s of Mar Vista. In his video testimonial, he claims that the road diet cut his revenue by one-third and drove him out of business in just four or five months.

This is a compelling narrative, but it is at best incomplete and at worst completely misleading. Atkinson’s video doesn’t mention how his business had been temporarily shut down by the L.A. County Health Department for a vermin infestation the same month the road diet was enacted. Nor does it mention that he reconceived the restaurant from a homey eatery serving value-priced Southern fare to a trendier spot serving $13 avocado toast, which led to scores of horrible Yelp reviews, angry threads on Reddit and longtime regulars abandoning their former local favorite. In an environment full of polarized opinion and devoid of substantiated facts, the narrative of a business going under because of the road diet is fuel on a fire.

The absence of facts is a defining problem in the public conversation about our roads. This cannot simply be blamed on one side of this dispute. Part of the problem is how poorly our politicians and transportation officials as well as the city’s dominant news outlets have communicated inconte-stable facts to people who live and drive in L.A. The mayor has been painfully silent.

This has created a void that allows a free-for-all on Facebook and Nextdoor, where people on both sides can essentially make up their own facts — about travel times, accident rates, business impacts, the laws governing speeding and jaywalking, the scientific underpinning of Vision Zero, and so on. Rather than form opinions about what to do on Venice Boulevard based on substantiated traffic or accident data, published studies on road diets, or an unbiased analysis of business impacts, the public has wound up getting informed and misinformed by social media, where people who are angry about traffic freely dismiss INRIX and LADOT data as #fakenews and then create memes with data they prefer.

And now these same groups are trying to warp and leverage the stories of businesses that are failing. In the hysteria over road diets, the people who are fighting hardest to put everything back the way it was don’t appear to realize how they are amplifying the problem. The reconfiguration of roads in Playa del Rey and Mar Vista begat a nuclear response that surely scared away occasional visitors — with lawsuits, an opportunistic recall effort, boycott proposals, and exaggerated stories of 24/7 traffic jams. Now the very interests who have portrayed shopping districts as war zones paralyzed by traffic (even though data says otherwise) and openly discussed boycotts are broadcasting fictionalized stories of distressed businesses to sway public opinion. It’s fake news writ large.

The ultimate losers in this strange battle are people who get hurt and killed trying to cross the street. The conversation over safe streets has degraded to the point where people discussing pedestrians who have been killed by speeding cars regularly engage in victim blaming — comments about teenagers who were jaywalking or a shopkeeper wearing dark clothing or crashes after midnight.

Putting aside the fact that many people are killed in broad daylight by speeding or distracted drivers, I’d like to live in a city in which I can cross the street in a black T-shirt without fear, a community where teenagers who make mistakes don’t have to face the death penalty.

Our streets are not safe — roughly 300 pedestrians and cyclists died on L.A.’s roadways last year, more than any other city in America — and we should be able to discuss facts as a community to figure out how to solve that.