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LA's focus on reducing traffic deaths running into 'road diet' congestion concerns

A ghost bike marks the spot on North Figueroa Street where 31-year-old Jose Luna was killed while riding his bike in a hit and run crash on June 26, 2015.
Meghan McCarty/KPCC
FILE: A ghost bike marks the spot on North Figueroa Street where 31-year-old Jose Luna was killed while riding his bike in a hit-and-run crash on June 26, 2015.

A recent hit-and-run crash that killed a 51-year-old woman is heightening concerns over traffic deaths in Highland Park and focusing attention on the city's plan for safety improvements in the area.

But officials' strategy to eliminate fatalities by slowing traffic is dividing the community and delaying efforts to address the neighborhood's long-standing problems with pedestrian and bicyclist accidents.

Irma Yolanda Espinoza-Lugo was struck while walking through a crosswalk on North Figueroa Street at Avenue 55 on the night of Sept. 18. She died from her injuries two days later.

"I feel so angry," said Laura Montiel, a longtime friend, who attended a vigil for Espinoza-Lugo last Friday. "We have to do something to prevent another tragedy like this."

Cutline: Family and friends of Irma Yolanda Espinoza-Lugo gathered for a memorial vigil on North Figueroa Street on Sept. 25. (Meghan McCarty/KPCC)

New approach to road safety

A new initiative looks poised to address her call. In August, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed an executive directive to eliminate traffic deaths in the city over 10 years as part of an international initiative called Vision Zero. It's also part of the city's long-range transportation plan, Mobility Plan 2035, passed by City Council last month.

The idea of planning for zero traffic fatalities started in Sweden in 1997 and has expanded throughout Europe to several major American cities, including New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

"Getting around town safely should be an expectation that we all have," said Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the L.A. Department of Transportation who is spearheading the Vision Zero effort.

More than 200 people die every year in road collisions in L.A., making its traffic fatality rate one of the highest among major cities in the United States and the world. 

The Vision Zero philosophy conceives of road traffic much like air travel, so safety becomes the top priority. Officials work off the assumption that humans will make mistakes, but that with proper checks and balances in place, the results don't have to be fatal.

This differs from traditional transportation planning models that give priority to traffic flow on streets and emphasize personal responsibility when it comes to road safety.

L.A.'s approach to Vision Zero will include public education, changes to traffic enforcement focusing first on infractions like speeding or failing to yield to pedestrians, and redesigning roads specifically to keep bikes and pedestrians safe.

North Figueroa Street has been identified as one of a handful of corridors that see the highest concentration of serious crashes, known as the High Injury Network, that will get priority for safety redesigns.

The plan sounds fairly uncontroversial until you delve into one of the main strategies for achieving all this: slowing car traffic down, often with a so-called road diet, which narrows lanes of traffic or replaces some car lanes with bike lanes.

Battle over bike lanes

On North Figueroa, controversy over a plan to install bike lanes has been raging for years, foreshadowing some of the likely challenges to implementing Vision Zero across the city.

In 2014, North Figueroa looked ready to get a bike lane: an environmental impact report had been completed, it was considered a high priority project under the 2010 bike plan and it was funded under Measure R. But incoming City Councilman Gil Cedillo put it on hold after hearing concerns from some in the community about how the bike lane would affect traffic.

"To me, it is impossible to have bicycle lane on Figueroa," said Jesse Rosas, a longtime Highland Park resident who has a notary business on North Figueroa and doesn't want to see car traffic held up there.

He collected about 250 signatures from businesses up and down the street to block the bike lane. His concern is that slower traffic would increase congestion and hurt his business. He said fundamentally he believes cars are an inescapable way of life in Los Angeles.

"They think this is Europe," he said. "It's not. Europe is different."

Rosas isn't alone. Last month, a Westside community group sued the city over the Mobility Plan, which proposes expanding bike lanes throughout L.A. over the next 20 years.

Reframing the debate

Reynolds at the Department of Transportation believes the issue doesn't have to divide communities. 

"The conversation around biking in particular has become really polarizing and we have to find a way to get beyond that," she said. She points to other issues like smoking or drunk driving around which public opinion has generally coalesced.

Councilman Cedillo said while the bike lane project is still on hold, he's working to get other safety measures implemented on North Figueroa, including several new traffic lights, one at the intersection where Espinoza-Lugo was struck and killed.

For her friend, Laura Montiel, the issue is not about city traffic policies or political rhetoric. She just wants to see steps taken so that no one else loses a loved one.

"There doesn't need to be another one before the government does something," she said.