In an April 29 Los Angeles Times article titled, “More dying on L.A. streets,” Laura Nelson reported on Mayor Garcetti’s Vision Zero plan and the City Council’s corresponding Mobility Plan 2035 so far.
Vision Zero intended to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2025 through street system management. Echoing its vision of improving accident safety as the primary criterion for transportation investments, Mobility Plan 2035 is a 20-year initiative to remove automobile lanes, reducing car carrying capacity and speed, create more bus and bike lanes and improve pedestrian safety.
Unfortunately, after three and a half years, Vision Zero has been far from a success in achieving its interim benchmark (a 20% fatality reduction by 2017). While there has been a slight decline in fatalities over the past two years, Nelson reports that fatal car crashes are now almost one-third higher than in 2015, when the program began (although the city measures progress since 2016, the deadliest traffic year in L.A. history, in a questionable effort to bolster claims of success).
Despite failing to meet its goals, so far, Vision Zero supporters are still on board, though given the electoral costs to political careers of admitting errors, that is hardly surprising. They repeat claims that the program is fine, except it doesn’t do enough, or that it will work once all its proposed changes have been completed, even though it misses the benchmarks backers chose as “proof of concept.”
As uninspiring as the traffic fatality results Nelson reports are, however, the effects of the city’s policies on safety are actually worse. The progressively increasing automobile congestion the plans are designed to cause in the name of safety will slow emergency vehicle response times. And that will cost still more lives, an effect program supporters overlook.
The city’s Mobility Plan 2035 environmental impact report admitted that would cause “unavoidable significant adverse impacts” on automobile congestion. It would leave 36 percent of intersections heavily congested (graded F) during evening rush hours — double the proportion when the plan was first implemented and far higher than the 22 percent forecast in absence of the plan. And that is crucial, because vehicles trapped in gridlock cannot clear the way for ambulances or fire trucks on emergency calls.
The worsened congestion would be especially life-threatening in cases of sudden cardiac arrest, which requires rapid medical intervention. Even delays measured in seconds can have deadly consequences. Mayo Clinic physician Roger White told USA Today: “A one-minute decrease in the call-to-shock time increases the odds of survival by 57 percent.” Shortening the response time by three minutes improves a victim’s chance of surviving almost four-fold.
In 2003, USA Today estimated that a 14 percent increase in survival rates for sudden cardiac arrest in Los Angeles would have saved 104 additional lives (out of 739 incidents)—greater than the number of pedestrians killed in the city in some years. Therefore, even if Mobility Plan 2035 were to eliminate all traffic fatalities, which is not credible, more Angelenos could die from delayed emergency treatment. And looking at the effects of other emergency delays would raise the body count.
Researchers who have considered the effects of response-time delays also support this conclusion. Randal O’Toole, who has written extensively on urban transportation issues, wrote that “Studies have shown that for every pedestrian whose life might be saved by traffic calming, more than 30 people are likely to die due to delays in fire trucks and paramedics.” Ronald Bowman, former project director for the National Bureau of Standards laboratory in Boulder, Colo., found that one traffic mitigation plan there cost 85 lives for each one saved.
The traffic safety proposals initiated by Los Angeles’ mayor and City Council are already huge failures, judged by the interim benchmark they set for themselves. And there is little real hope that doing “still more of the same” will transform them into successes. In fact, doubling down could well increase fatalities, because the main mechanism relied on to accomplish that goal is further worsening regional congestion, which would extend the adverse effects of emergency vehicle delays even more widely. Perhaps instead of moving forward, city leaders should take more seriously their mandate to base decisions on “substantial evidence,” since they are failing on their own terms, even while ignoring other deaths their proposals would cause. After all, residents don’t want to read future stories titled “Even more dying on L.A. streets.”