Mid-City West Begins Discussions of 6th Street Safety Improvements

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Panelists Sarah Dusseault, Tim Fremaux, Scott Epstein and David Somers at last night’s MCWCC Town Hall meeting on 6th Street safety issues

Last night, about 50 stakeholders in the Mid-City West Community Council area gathered at the Korean Cultural Center on Wilshire Blvd. for a Town Hall discussion of traffic safety issues on West 6th Street, between Fairfax and La Brea Avenues.  The event, described as just the beginning of wider community conversations on the topic, was divided divided into three parts – an introduction of issues and a possible city solution, a panel discussion and an audience Q&A session.

The Issues

Josh Paget, Co-Chair of the MCWCC Transportation, Parking and Streetscape Committee , introduced the main safety concerns for 6th Street, which vary with the type of users:

Pedestrians, said Paget, are uncomfortable on narrow (4-foot-wide in most places) sidewalks, which have little or no buffers from the street traffic. They are also threatened by cars that encroach into crosswalks, making street crossings uncomfortable.

Drivers of cars don’t like the overall congestion of the street, find it difficult and dangerous to make left turns at uncontrolled intersections, and bottlenecks form when drivers do attempt left turns, which slows things down further.

And bikers, who don’t always know that they’re allowed to ride either in the street or on the sidewalks, often don’t know where to ride and feel uncomfortable on the narrow, clogged street.

In addition, said Paget, the street has inconsistent parking regulations…and there’s no buffer between the parking lane and traffic lanes, making it dangerous for people exiting parked cars.

Finally, public transit is also an issue, because the street is only partially served by the local DASH buses…and the larger Metro 20 and 720 buses often use the street as a detour route during Wilshire Blvd. construction closures, which clogs things further.

The Data

MCWCC Chair Scott Epstein introduced Tim Fremaux, from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, and David Somers, from the Department of City Planning, who presented a graphic showing the number and severity of reported accidents at each intersection along the corridor in question.  According to the city data, collected for the five-year period from 2011-2015, there were 135 reported crashes on the one-mile stretch of road, with the worst intersections being Hauser, Cochran and La Brea Avenues.  Of the 135 crashes, 34 involved left turns, 14 were due to speeding, there were 11 sideswipe/lane-change accidents, 5 bike collisions, and 12 accidents involving pedestrians (one fatal).

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Portion of graphic showing crash statistics for W. 6th Street, between Curson and La Brea.

Potential Solution:  Road Diet

According to Somers, the main tool the city can offer to help control speeds on the street is a “road diet” – reconfiguring lanes to create one traffic lane in each direction (instead of the current two lanes in each direction), along with a left-turn lane in the center of the road, parking lanes at the outside of the street on both sides, and a bike lane/buffer zone between the traffic and parking lanes.  Somers said this pattern would be easy to create on the section of 6th Street between Fairfax and Cochran, where the street is widest…but because the street is narrower between Cochran and La Brea, it would probably not be possible to include the bike lanes there.

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DOT’s Tim Fremaux explains how a “road diet” could reconfigure traffic lanes on W. 6th Street

The benefits of a road diet, said Somers and Fremaux, are safer left turns and an approximately 29% overall reduction in crashes (based on results in areas where such solutions have already been implemented).  In general, they said, road diets can help reduce three types of collisions – rear end crashes, sideswipes and left turn accidents.  Also, according to city traffic analyses, a road diet on 6th Street between Fairfax and Cochran should not cause any travel delays on that section of the street…and would only reduce travel times by 46 seconds between Cochran and La Brea during peak morning travel periods (and only 4 seconds during peak afternoon travel times). And that would be mostly for westbound traffic; eastbound traffic would be largely unaffected.

Somers reiterated, however, that no decisions – about road diets or any other possible solutions – have been made yet, and that discussions about the issues are just beginning.  He said that as the city looks for ways to implement its new Mobility Plan 2035, it is seeking wide discussion and community input.  Different areas of the city, he said, will have different priorities, especially on whether efficiency (speed) or safety is the number one concern on any given street.  He stressed that coming to a consensus about priorities and possible solutions will require the active involvement of all stakeholders, including residents, the City Council District 4 office, DOT and Planning.

Panel Discussion

In the second portion of last night’s Town Hall, Epstein asked Fremaux and Somers, along with CD4 Chief of Staff Sarah Dusseault, more specific questions about 6th Street, and the potential road diet solution.

Q:  How does a road diet affect traffic flow?

A: According to Fremaux, road diets help reduce speeds, especially in off-peak hours when most accidents happen. (Because traffic is lighter in those periods, speeds and accident risks increase.)  The center turn lane also makes the street more organized and more comfortable for drivers to maneuver.  It also creates space for bicyclists, and room for people to exit more safely from parked cars.

Q: What have the results been in other areas of Los Angeles (and the U.S.), where road diets have been implemented?

A:  Fremaux said the average crash reduction rate is 29%.  In Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles’ Virgil Village, commercial areas have also seen an economic “rebirth” when traffic flowing through the area slows down.  6th Street, he said, could become a much more local street with a road diet, and doesn’t necessarily need to be a major route for cut-through traffic.  According to Somers, road diets are especially good tools for slowing traffic down to a target speed.  And that reduces not only the number of accidents, but the consequences and degree of damage from accidents as well.  The main goal is to reduce (or eliminate) severe and fatal crashes. Another goal is to increase the comfort level of pedestrians.

Q: Could such a project include new “continental” (zebra-striped) crosswalks?

A:  Yes, said Fremaux, that would probably be part of any major redesign.

Q:  Can the sidewalks be widened?

A:  Technically, yes, Fremaux said, but it would be expensive, and the city doesn’t currently have the budget for that kind of work.  Somers added, however, that there are opportunities for the city to apply for grants for projects like that, so it’s important to start working on the overall visioning process now, with all stakeholder groups, so the city knows what it needs and is ready to apply when grant windows open.

Community Q&A

After the panel discussion, the floor was opened to questions  from audience members, who had the following concerns:

Q: Due to subway construction on Wilshire Blvd., detour and cut-through traffic on 6th Street has turned it into a “mini-Wilshire,” so it would not be a good idea to restrict traffic flows, add bike lanes or do any construction on 6th Street until that pressure is off.  How would the proposed changes mesh with the subway construction schedule?

A: According to the panelists – and Mindy Lake, from Metro’s Construction Relations Office, who was in the audience – the Wilshire Blvd. construction and detour patterns will be changing over the next months and years.  There will be 22 full weekend closures of Wilshire Blvd. beginning on June 10, and at other times, Wilshire traffic will be maintained at two lanes in each direction.  Buses during the full closures will be diverted to 3rd Street (there’s not enough room for them on either 6th or 8th Streets).  Detour routes (which will be discussed further at Metro’s Community Construction Meeting , 6:30 p.m. tonight at John Burroughs Middle School) will be evaluated on an ongoing basis during the 22-weekend period.  But while the road diet construction would be very brief – only a matter of days or weeks to complete – the planning and approval process takes a lot longer, so any actual construction on 6th Street would probably not begin until after the 22 weekend closures of Wilshire are completed.

Q: Are most traffic lanes wider than necessary, which encourages faster than optimal speeds?

A: Fremaux said there is some data that shows narrower lanes slow traffic.  10 feet is about as narrow as lanes get in Los Angeles.  Center turn lanes can be 9 feet wide, and parking lanes only 7 feet.

Q: If a road diet slows traffic by increasing congestion slightly, where does the extra traffic go? (8th Street is already “insane” with the subway construction on Wilshire.)

A:  According to Fremaux, some of the traffic would inevitably move to other streets, but studies would need to be done to determine volumes and potential routes for the overflow.  Also, reiterated Somers, to prevent angering residents in the potential overflow areas, it’s important to including everyone in the planning discussions, and to take a holistic approach to the planning process, looking at surrounding parts of the community and not just 6th Street itself.

Q: Would a 6th Street road diet need to be “leapfrogged” over other already-prioritized Mobility Plan 2035 projects?  And what about the 5-year planning process outlined in the Bike Plan the city was working on a couple of years ago?

A: Somers explained that the old Bike Plan has been absorbed into the new Mobility Plan, and the city is now looking at all aspects of transportation planning at the same time. It’s also trying to engage communities in a more comprehensive visioning process…which includes re-thinking implementation priorities and schedules for all projects.

Q: Do you have current speed data for 6th Street?

A: Fremaux said there were likely studies done in the past (if there has not been a study, LAPD is not allowed to enforce speeds with radar detection), but the studies will be re-done at some point.

Q: Have solutions other than a road diet been considered for 6th Street?

A: According to Somers, the major complaints the city has heard so far have been about traffic speeds, and a road diet is the most effective tool for that problem.  If residents would like a more holistic approach, the city can also consider things like protected turn lanes, lights, etc.  Somers also explained that the city does not have the authority to set speed limits – state law says limits must be set to 85% of prevailing speeds on the street – so speed limits could actually increase after a new traffic study.  The only way to dictate slower speeds, he said, is through street design.  Things like street width, congestion, and the presence of people and activity are the things that truly dictate travel speeds for cars.  According to Epstein, this jibes with comments heard on a recent kids and families tour of Miracle Mile: parents said they will no longer walk with their kids, or allow kids to walk or bike, on 6th Street sidewalks, because there is so little buffer between the sidewalk and traffic.  But if there are no pedestrians in sight, car drivers feel more comfortable going faster than they would if the sidewalks were filled with people.  Somers agreed, saying that a “shared social experience” on the street is very important in slowing things down, and creates an entirely different orientation for the street.

Q: Would a road diet affect the ability of emergency vehicles to use the street?

A: Epstein said none of the measures discussed so far would restrict emergency vehicle access, and that center turn lanes often become de facto lanes for emergency vehicles.

Q: Why not just re-paint existing crosswalks to make them more visible?

A: The city only adds or re-designs crosswalks when a street is being re-paved or worked on, said Fremaux.  Dusseault added that it’s not just a matter of paint, since often an intersection must be “re-signalized” to accommodate the new crosswalk – so it’s not as simple as it might sound at first.  Just re-painting existing markings is do-able, however, she said, and residents who would like to request new paint for existing crosswalks can contact her at City Council Member David Ryu’s office.

Q: There are no good options for bikers traveling from Fairfax to La Brea.  Can you make the bike lane “not disappear” in the proposed road diet between Cochran and La Brea?

A: Fremaux said bikers can use 4th Street (which is a designated bike street), but because 6th Street narrows considerably between Cochran and La Brea, there’s no room to add a bike lane there in a road diet reconfiguration.

Q:  Residents in the La Brea-Hancock neighborhood, along 6th Street east of La Brea, are also concerned about the same kinds of issues on that segment of the street.  Is there a way for that neighborhood to “piggyback” on any eventual plans for the section of the street west of La Brea?

A:  Epstein said it will be important for neighbors east of La Brea to organize too on this topic, to make sure they are part of the conversation from the beginning.  Dusseault said that CD4 represents neighborhoods both west and east of La Brea, so district staff members are definitely interested in both portions of 6th Street, and can definitely work with stakeholders in La Brea-Hancock as well.

Finally, Epstein again reminded meeting attendees that the Town Hall was just the beginning of the 6th Street safety conversation, and invited people to attend MCWCC Transportation, Parking and Streetscape Committee meetings, where the discussions will continue.

 

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