Crossing to Safety

The City Has an Ambitious – and Costly – Goal of Reducing Pedestrian Traffic Deaths to Zero

By Zara Abrams

Los Angeles is girding for a difficult and costly battle to neutralize one of the most lethal elements of city life: zeroing out pedestrian fatalities, which numbered 186 in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available.

The plan is called Vision Zero, and it aims to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2025. Pedestrian deaths, which have hovered consistently near 200 for years, make up more than one third of the city’s traffic fatalities, more than double the national average.

Launched 20 years ago in Sweden to address annual worldwide traffic deaths numbering more than one million, which is still the case today, the initiative has since spread to other countries such as the Netherlands, England and Canada. Fourteen major U.S. cities, including New York and LA, are now on board.

With limited public transportation to accommodate its millions of commuters, LA is packed with both walkers and drivers. And as one of America’s most densely populated cities, this means there are plenty of opportunities for collisions.

Hollywood Boulevard is one of the most dangerous stretches. In September, a car making a wide turn at Hollywood and McCadden plowed into the sidewalk, hitting a woman and her young daughter, who both survived the crash with moderate injuries. The driver, suspected to be drunk, was fleeing the scene of another accident at Hollywood and Las Palmas.

Ryan Beltran, a firefighter at the Hollywood fire station, says he’s seen a number of automotive-pedestrian collisions, or autopeds, in Hollywood, but the September crash stood out. Given the degree of speeding and driver aggression he sees on a daily basis, "it’s surprising there aren’t more."

With so many deaths and such limited funding, it’s an uphill battle for the city’s Department of Transportation. They are attempting to combat the menace through a data-driven approach to target the most dangerous spots. The data they reference, which are publicly available, are provided by the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System, or SITRS, and cover all collisions between 2009 and 2013. The tools they use are a combination of engineering and design.

As they sort through the data, they create a scorecard to decide which intersections to tackle first. “We gave extra weight to the total number of people that were killed, and then added that to the total number of severe injuries at a particular intersection,” explains Brian Oh, a transportation planner at the department. Points are also added if the victim of a collision was a child or senior citizen.

The department’s scoring system also gives special consideration to areas with high foot traffic, as well as dangerous intersections that are located near schools and transit stops.

The factors that make intersections dangerous vary from one place to the next. "Each intersection has its own personality," says Panos Prevedouros, a traffic engineering expert at the University of Hawaii.

Crossings in Hollywood are particularly unsafe due to the high speeds and volume of cars. For example, the intersection of Hollywood and Highland has long been Los Angeles’ most dangerous intersection for pedestrians, according to SITRS data. When traffic signs and barriers are old or damaged, or visibility is impaired, the probability of a collision increases.

Most repair strategies focus on separating auto traffic from foot traffic. Scramble crosswalks halt automobiles to let pedestrians cross an intersection from all sides simultaneously. Bump outs, or protruding portions of the sidewalk, reduce conflicts by shortening the amount of time pedestrians are in the street. The Department of Transportation also repaints lanes and crosswalks, clarifies signage and enhances bike lanes.

But these updates are costly. Scramble crosswalks, one of the least expensive modifications, cost up to $100,000 each.

At the other end of the spectrum is grade separation, arguably the most effective modification available. Grades separate traffic flow onto different planes—for example with pedestrian overpasses. Prevedouros says these can rack up $50 million each in fees for engineering, installation and materials.

This year’s internal budget for Vision Zero is just over $3 million, which must cover the costs of research and education on top of road repairs. LADOT may obtain additional grant money from CalTrans, but acknowledges that financing these modifications is a barrier.

So LADOT focuses on one project at a time, such as the recent installation of a scramble crosswalk at Hollywood and Highland.

Between 2009 and 2013, there was an annual injury rate of thirteen injuries per year, says Oh, the LADOT planner. Combined with high foot traffic, the injury rate triggered the city to flag the intersection for repair.

Since the installation, no one has been injured or killed at the intersection. Oh says the department is crossing their fingers for one hundred percent safety in 2016.

The Department of Transportation says they want to hit the hotspots, but sometimes a neighborhood with clout can become the squeaky wheel, drawing scant funds away from danger zones.

Prevedouros, the traffic expert from Hawaii, says that cities struggle to balance the two, and that sometimes, political influence can steer funds and necessities outside of true regional black spots.

Black spots, or particularly dangerous intersections, often exist near convention centers, which draw significant foot traffic. But these areas aren’t residential, so they lack neighborhood councils that can voice concerns about safety and advocate for change.

Pedestrian Danger Zones

If LADOT hopes to eliminate 100 percent of traffic deaths in just nine years, they’ll need to stay focused on the data.

They’ll also need millions, if not billions of additional dollars tacked onto Vision Zero. It’s an ambitious goal, but making LA’s streets safer for pedestrians will pave the way for a healthier urban society.