It was the last week in May when I received the news I’d be waiting to hear: slow streets will be deployed that weekend in Koreatown. I was thrilled that my park-poor neighborhood will finally get some relief. There are very few places for residents to safely enjoy the outdoors while social distancing so slow streets had the potential to return the public right-of-way to the community.
I had other reasons to be excited by slow streets in my community. I sit on the steering committee of Streets For All, the transportation advocacy group that led the charge to advocate for the slow streets program. My colleagues and I spent two months making phone calls to council offices and city agencies asking for slow streets. Weekends were spent emailing neighborhood councils requesting they pass a motion of support for the program. Not only were my efforts coming to fruition, but I’d be able to see them come to life within my own community.
On opening weekend, I went out to check out the slow streets network with my friend and partner in community activism, Jose Antonio Garcia (“JAG,” as he is known to most), who is the point of contact for the slow streets sponsored by KIWA. We spent some time near the intersection at 4th & Kenmore asking folks how they liked slow streets. Many people biking through weren’t familiar with the program but supported any effort to make their experience safer. One man in a car stopped to thank us for doing this. He said that drivers do doughnuts in the intersection near his home and hopes slow streets would deter this behavior. Another man pulled over his car to ask us more about slow streets. This man told us he loves to ride his bike and keeps it in his trunk for the moments he finds a safe place to ride.
JAG has been collecting survey data from Koreatown stakeholders regarding slow streets. The responses have been overwhelmingly positive, even asking that slow streets be made permanent. He has also organized an army of volunteers who ride or walk the slow streets network to maintain the signage and help with enforcement. But despite the community enthusiasm for slow streets, the implementation in Koreatown has been rocky.
Joe Linton of StreetsblogLA has criticized Koreatown’s slow streets here and here, and for valid reasons. Despite the dedication of slow streets volunteers, the flimsy sandwich boards are easily knocked over by light wind and cars. Drivers disregard the signs and continue to use slow streets as cut-through corridors. The signage is also only in English. To the credit of the drivers in this predominately immigrant neighborhood, it’s possible that many of them don’t understand the program.
The slow streets program was developed in a way to encourage community enforcement. LAPD is not monitoring slow streets for compliance, nor is any other law enforcement agency. This is a good thing. As we’ve seen throughout history, law enforcement has a track record of racial profiling. Slow streets should be a way for us to reimagine the way enforcement is done. However, it’s unreasonable to think that volunteers like JAG and me are in a position to redirect cars off slow streets. For as long as cars dominate slow streets, families will not feel safe using them.
And just days ago, I received a notification from the public safety app Citizen with dreadful news. A cyclist was hit by a vehicle on San Marino St, which is part of the slow streets network.
What can we do to make slow streets successful in Koreatown? As we have seen, it is not enough to have a volunteer-run network of slow streets marked with temporary English-only signage in Koreatown. Far more drastic measures are needed to shift the culture away from being car-centric. The city should consider deploying Rec & Parks staff to enforce slow streets in park poor communities the way these employees oversee parks like the Silver Lake Reservoir to enforce social distancing. Los Angeles needs to make slow streets permanent and divert vehicle traffic to major corridors. Navigation apps like Waze and Google Maps should support slow streets programs by routing drivers away from slow streets. Koreatown should not give up on slow streets or the fight for safer streets simply because this effort was not enough. Holistic change is needed and slow streets is just one component.