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LA campaign to eliminate traffic deaths raises concerns over policing, gentrification

South Los Angeles resident James Harris stands at the intersection of Manchester and Western avenues, two of the most dangerous corridors in the city, according to L.A. Department of Transportation data. He hopes Vision Zero projects will make his neighborhood streets safer.
South Los Angeles resident James Harris stands at the intersection of Manchester and Western avenues, two of the most dangerous corridors in the city, according to L.A. Department of Transportation data. He hopes Vision Zero projects will make his neighborhood streets safer.
Meghan McCarty/KPCC

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The city of Los Angeles' ambitious program to reverse a rising trend of traffic deaths and eliminate road fatalities by 2025 is having unintended consequences in communities sensitive to increased traffic enforcement and mistrustful of street improvements seen as signs of gentrification.

Los Angeles embraced an international initiative to cut traffic fatalities started in Sweden called Vision Zero as it tries to grapple with traffic crash fatalities that have risen by 43 percent between 2015 and 2016.

With an average 6.27 traffic deaths per 100,000 residents each year, L.A. has the highest traffic death rate of any major city in the country. Last year, 260 people died in L.A. street crashes, about 30 fewer than died in homicides in the city in 2016.

Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for children between 2 and 14 in L.A. and kill cyclists and pedestrians at a disproportionately high rate. Despite being involved in only 14 percent of collisions, walkers and bikers make up half of those killed.

While the toll from traffic deaths cuts across all sectors of society, many of the most dangerous streets in the city are concentrated in low-income communities of color like South L.A., home to 16 of the 40 most dangerous corridors identified by the city Department of Transportation.

Local resident James Harris lives near the intersection of Manchester and Western Avenues, two of the most dangerous corridors in L.A, according to the city. He needs no convincing that traffic safety initiatives like Vision Zero are needed.

"It’s an issue. People are dying, people are getting hurt, their lives are never the same. This is another tool to address the violence in our community," said Harris.

Hardly a week goes by that he doesn't see a horrible crash in his neighborhood, he said.

He has a running bet with his neighbors: "That this weekend who can guess the closest number to the cars that’s gonna get crashed on those corridors. Somebody always wins because the number is never zero."

IMPACT ON SOUTH L.A.

So far this year, 13 people have died in traffic crashes in South L.A. City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson's district.

"Black lives matter, right? I think they matter in a lot of ways," said Harris-Dawson, who has championed the Vision Zero effort. 

A graphic from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation presented at community meetings shows the impact of traffic crashes on a section of Manchester Avenue in South L.A.
A graphic from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation presented at community meetings shows the impact of traffic crashes on a section of Manchester Avenue in South L.A.
Los Angeles Department of Transportation

"I don’t want to be here three years from now still getting emails that people are getting killed at the same spot. It’s unacceptable to me, and I think it’s unacceptable to the community," he said.

During recent budget negotiations, Harris-Dawson pushed for more funding for the program that aims to save lives. The council eventually agreed to allocate about $27 million to Vision Zero-related projects, a nine-fold increase over the previous year's funding, but still less than the $80 million that the Department of Transportation said is needed to meet the program's stated goal of reducing traffic deaths by 20 percent this year.

In early June, Harris-Dawson led one of several community open houses held in South L.A. to highlight Vision Zero projects in the area. He invited community members to offer their feedback on proposed safety measures like longer pedestrian signals and curb bulb-outs that force cars to make wider, slower turns.

City officials presented several proposed changes to dangerous corridors at Vision Zero community meetings and asked for feedback on the ideas.
City officials presented several proposed changes to dangerous corridors at Vision Zero community meetings and asked for feedback on the ideas.
Los Angeles Department of Transportation

Harris-Dawson acknowledged there are obstacles to getting buy-in from his constituents. Historically, city planning efforts — building the freeways, for example — have not been kind to neighborhoods like South L.A., and improvements like bike lanes are sometimes viewed suspiciously as the first signs of gentrification.

MORE TRAFFIC ENFORCEMENT RAISING CONCERNS

One major component of the plan is proving especially controversial: increased policing of traffic violations. There is concern that this part of the Vision Zero plan could do more harm than good in neighborhoods like South L.A.

The city is spending an extra $1.5 million to beef up traffic policing on the most dangerous streets, which are concentrated in low-income communities of color.

"For black people, for people in color, if you’re undocumented – there is this feeling of when you get pulled over how that can escalate quickly," said Tamika Butler, the director of the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition.

Her organization is working with the city through the Vision Zero Alliance, a coalition of community groups providing guidance and feedback on implementing the safety program.

Butler has argued that an emphasis on traffic stops will sow more fear and distrust of law enforcement in neighborhoods where relations are already strained.

"That might have a lot to do with the fact that I’m a black person who continues to see people on TV who look like me who have been shot by cops," she said.

Lt. Dave Ferry with the Los Angeles Police Department said if giving tickets is needed to save lives, his department will do that. 

"We’re not gonna pick and choose where we do lifesaving measures like traffic enforcement," he said. The department adheres to a no-bias policing policy and racial profiling is against state and federal law, he added.

Iron fences like these are a regular feature in South L.A. to protect businesses from car crashes, but this one was mangled in a recent collision on Western Avenue near Manchester Avenue.
Iron fences like these are a regular feature in South L.A. to protect businesses from car crashes, but this one was mangled in a recent collision on Western Avenue near Manchester Avenue.
Meghan McCarty/KPCC

But Butler wants to see L.A. go further in addressing community concerns by following the lead of cities like Portland. That city's Vision Zero plans prioritize street redesign and education rather than increased traffic enforcement because of concerns over racial profiling.

In San Francisco, police are directed to focus on the five most dangerous driving behaviors, like running red lights. The department generates monthly reports to monitor the percentage of citations given out for those infractions.

Lt. Ferry said LAPD currently does not have the capacity to do similar tracking in a timely manner because citations are not digitized in real time. However, the department has applied for a state grant that would make such monitoring possible.

Some cities are also using automated speed cameras and alternatives to hefty traffic fines, like education programs or income-based fees, to ease the burden on people with lesser means.

"A small fine for folks in low-income communities is the difference between being able to feed their kids, being able to pay rent," said Butler.

South L.A. resident Harris sees an opportunity in Vision Zero for his community and law enforcement to come together, despite the challenges.

"To get people to agree with the police over here is like pulling a tooth from a 800-pound gorilla," he said. "This just happens to be one of the ones where we on the same page."

One change Harris would like to see is LAPD placing as much emphasis on community policing as traffic enforcement. And, most of all, he wants to see action soon.

"We have so many problems here in South Los Angeles and we always have to be watchdogs on any place where we get a opportunity to reduce violence. We have to jump on it," he said.