Waiting for the bus in the punishing sun on a 100-degree day, biking down the street only for the bike lane to abruptly end, or navigating broken or nonexistent sidewalks — existing outside of a car can be brutal in Los Angeles. 

Hypothetically, the City of LA already mapped out how to fix some of these issues. But despite already having a comprehensive mobility plan, the City of Los Angeles has made very little progress in the last decade. 

Now, with the election in March, voters will head to the ballot to decide if the city should be forced to follow its own plan to make streets safer for people walking, biking, and rolling.

Measure HLA, also known as Healthy Streets LA, would require the city to implement Mobility Plan 2035 every time it repaves 1/8 mile of street or repairs 1/8 mile of sidewalk. If it fails to do so, any resident of the city of LA can sue to force compliance.

If passed, the measure could change how the city designs and builds transportation infrastructure. But it could also change the city’s identity as a sprawling metropolis built for cars — where everybody drives and nobody walks, bikes, or takes the bus unless they have to.

The plan to nowhere

Mobility Plan 2035 is an element of LA’s general plan, a guiding document for how the city designs and improves its streets. It contains plans for thousands of miles of bike lanes, bus lanes, pedestrian-enhanced districts, and a vehicle-enhanced network. There’s only one problem: the City of LA has only implemented 5% of the plan since it was passed nine years ago.

It’s a plan that city staff have called “aspirational.” With the rising tide of traffic deaths and escalating climate crisis, advocates say that Healthy Streets LA will save lives.

Last year in LA, 179 pedestrians died in car crashes and more people were killed by traffic violence than were victims of murder.

“I think the mobility plan passed so easily in 2015 because City Council knew there was no implementation mechanism. So they didn’t have to do this,” said Michael Schneider, founder of Streets For All, the organization behind Measure HLA.

Currently, each councilmember can effectively veto projects in their district, catering to whichever political groups or interests they choose. This has disastrous consequences for the network effects of transportation and getting people out of cars.

So far, Measure HLA has won the endorsement of six councilmembers, including 80% of the transportation committee, climate and mobility justice groups, labor unions and even composer Randy Newman. In addition, 40 neighborhood councils have passed letters of support.

On Wednesday, Councilmember Traci Park and the LA firefighters’ union announced a campaign against Measure HLA, saying that it will slow down emergency response times. 

Christopher LeGras of Keep LA Moving believes that not only will Measure HLA make traffic worse, it will also make streets less safe. 

He lives in Santa Monica where last year the city repaved part of Ocean Avenue, turning it into a “blank slate of asphalt.”

“And I realized this is the safest street in LA, right? Because when there’s no bollards and stripes and green lanes and parked cars and all this other stuff, I can see that cyclist four blocks ahead of me.”

Pedestrian deaths are at an all-time high in the U.S. and experts blame a number of factors, including the increase in over-sized vehicles. There are numerous studies showing that slowing down cars and providing safe infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists increases safety for all road users.

Jamie York, president of the Reseda Neighborhood Council, refuses to cross certain intersections on Reseda Boulevard because it’s so dangerous. The street is part of LA’s High Injury Network, the 6% of LA streets where 70% of pedestrian deaths and severe injuries occur. LADOT is currently implementing a Vision Zero complete streets project along Reseda, but York says it took “a lot of deaths” to make it happen. Between 2009 and 2019, 110 people died or were severely injured.

York hopes that prioritizing the mobility plan could push through needed improvements for the community.

“Actions like [Measure HLA] come out of people’s frustration with the status quo with the things that won’t change, with the problems that they see that aren’t being fixed, and what they feel is, generally speaking, an unserious answer by our government to our very serious problems.”

A bus stop in Reseda. Photo courtesy of Sharon Brewer.

How does repaving currently work?

The city departments operating in the public-right-of-way are notorious for not working well together due to overlapping jurisdictions and competing priorities. The primary goal of StreetsLA, says Schneider, is to maintain pavement conditions, or the Pavement Condition Index, at a certain level. The mission of the LA Department of Transportation, on the other hand, is to “deliver a safe, livable, and well-run transportation system,” according to its website. Neither agency agreed to an interview, provided a statement, or answered questions about its process in time for publication.

StreetsLA, also known as the Bureau of Street Services, repaves about 200 miles of the 6,500 miles of roadways and 800 miles of alleys every year through its Pavement Preservation Program.

The funds allocated for the program are split between 15 council districts. Which roads are repaved and when depends on a number of factors — a process that Schneider calls “opaque.” The city allocates 80% of funds to improving roads that are graded acceptable or better and 20% of funds to repairing the worst roads. The rationale: repairing the worst streets costs exponentially more, so investing in maintaining streets that are already in good condition will ultimately save money down the line.

StreetsLA did not answer a list of questions from LA Public Press, but in a letter to the city council and Mayor Bass, the agency expressed concerns that the city’s version of Measure HLA would slow down the Pavement Preservation Program.

Measure HLA would force StreetsLA to coordinate with the LA Department of Transportation to implement mobility plan projects. While StreetsLA does not do community engagement when it repaves a street, LADOT can spend several months to over a year holding workshops and doing community outreach for projects that improve safety and comfort for pedestrians and cyclists.

The letter from StreetsLA indicates that unless LADOT and StreetsLA drastically change their priorities and how they collaborate, StreetsLA will not be able to maintain the same pace of repaving.

Schneider acknowledges that Measure HLA could slow down the repaving program. But he hopes that LADOT will rethink its community engagement process, streamlining implementation.

“Does safety matter to [StreetsLA], and if it does, and you acknowledge there’s a two-decade high of pedestrian deaths, how much more slower implementation of repaving streets is acceptable if it might save lives?”

What would implementation look like if the measure passes?

Mobility Plan 2035 is a “complete streets” approach to transportation and mobility. “Complete streets” is a term coined by nonprofit Smart Growth America in 2003 to describe streets designed not just for cars, but for everyone.

LA’s mobility plan — and slow as molasses pace in implementation — is not unique.

“That is a fairly common case that we see across the country,” said Dustin Robertson, program manager for Smart Growth America. “There are a lot of cities that, you know, they pass a policy, pass a plan, [but] have difficulty really turning it into action.”

This is not to say that change is not possible.

Robertson points out that there are over 1700 cities and towns that have adopted a complete streets policy. 

“A lot of times cities will just think, ‘Oh, well, we’re just this special case — we’re so specific and we have such weird rules or we have such a unique history. I’ll tell you, everybody has weird rules and has a unique history.”

If Measure HLA passes, LA’s process for implementing the mobility plan might look something like Seattle’s approach. Seattle passed its complete streets ordinance in 2007, requiring that all new projects (functionally, all projects over $500,000) accommodate people outside of cars. Crucially, the city not only passed an ordinance, it also found a way to pay for infrastructure improvements through the Levy to Move Seattle, a property tax that funds about 30% of the transportation budget.

A report from the City Administrative Officer estimates that Measure HLA could cost over $2.5 billion over 10 years. The CAO further estimates that delaying the repaving process could cost an additional $73 million to $139 million per year of delay.

Streets For All believes that the numbers for implementing the mobility plan are over-inflated. One example: the CAO’s numbers assume that all 560 miles of sidewalks included in the plan will need to be repaired, for a total of $1.4 billion. The organization estimates that the measure will cost $28.6 million per year. 

While city officials and bureaucrats agree that safety is important, Measure HLA is a challenge to LA’s car-dominated politics and to policies and budget priorities that maintain the status quo.

LeGras draws a line between street calming measures and traffic deaths but stops short of saying that bike lanes and curb extensions are killing people. 

“We don’t actually disagree with the goals and objectives of Measure HLA,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who’s not a certified psychopath who says, ‘Yeah, I want more death on our streets,’ right? I mean, that’s insane.”

The “Welcome to Reseda” sign. Photo courtesy of Sharon Brewer.

In Reseda, drivers have shattered bus shelters, splintered utility poles and mowed down a sign that says “Welcome to Reseda.” Drivers hit the sign twice, York says. The first time, they knocked over the sign. The second time, a driver ran into the concrete block at the sign’s base.

It has yet to be replaced.

“We need more protected crosswalks. We need better street crossings and like I said, I’m not talking crap about the Great Streets Reseda Boulevard project. I think it’s really great. I think it’s really necessary. But it’s a start. It’s not the answer.”

Maylin Tu is a freelance writer covering transportation, mobility and equity in Los Angeles.