Tuesday, November 5, 2019

City of Los Angeles and its Sidewalks: Reconciling Competing Uses and Needs

Co-Authored by:

Jessica Meaney, Investing in Place

Rudy Espinoza, Inclusive Action for the City 

John Yi, Los Angeles Walks


This week the City of Los Angeles Public Works and Gang Reduction committee will hear staff recommendations from the Bureau of Street Services (BSS) on what to do about bus shelters (including trash cans), automated public toilets, and digital advertising panels on sidewalks. The Bureau of Streets Services proposal reads as an effort to commercialize every inch of ADA compliant space on the City’s sidewalks, as opposed to one looking to serve people who ride the bus, or who walk or roll to crucial community assets like schools, hospitals, grocery stores.


Investing in Place asks its partners and supporters to write the City Council and ask them to develop a guiding policy and vision for our City’s sidewalks. We need a guiding vision that leads City Departments and all subsequent policies impacting the public right of way, on the path to becoming a walkable and rollable city with vibrant and inclusive sidewalks serving multiple needs and community uses. Some specific thoughts on the proposal and contact information for the committee members can be found on the bottom of this post.


Currently, the City of Los Angeles has no guiding policy or set of metrics informing the development of a walkable and rollable city with vibrant and inclusive sidewalks serving multiple needs and community uses. The only sidewalk program the city has is one based on litigation settled in 2015 (Willits v. City of Los Angeles), and most recently the “Risk Reduction Program,” which conducts  spot fixes (that are not ADA compliant) on sidewalks with known tripping hazards from previous trip and fall lawsuits. Last year, the City of Los Angeles fixed 18 miles of the City’s sidewalks. It’s estimated over 4,000 miles of the City’s sidewalks are in disrepair. At the rate the City of Los Angeles is investing in its public right of way, it will take over 200 years to have an accessible and walkable/rollable city. And we would argue, simply achieving  compliance of the Willits lawsuit settlement will not result in a walkable and rollable city. Additionally, the program is woefully under resourced and does not require the City to build new sidewalks where none exists – it is limited solely to repair of existing ones. 


The City’s approach to bus shelters hasn’t fared much better than sidewalks. The City’s bus shelter program has been failing since Controller Wendy Greuel’s audit in 2012. While we fully support an effort to increase the provision of  bus shelters, public bathrooms, and wayfinding signage – we believe the current proposal before the Public Works Committee falls short. It is silent on how commercializing the public right of way will serve people who use sidewalks and bus stops. 


Sidewalks serve many purposes in the City of Los Angeles, and without a guiding policy or vision from policymakers rooted in supporting many uses, we will continue to see inconsistent policy decisions and priorities for this critical public, shared space. For instance, it took the City years to legalize street vending, and now as the City works to create a permit program for street vendors(a program also managed by the Bureau of Street Services), advocates are fighting back against proposals that would require vendors to pay $541 to obtain a permit. These initial costs seek to gain revenue for the city, without taking into account how it impacts the livelihoods of low-income entrepreneurs and the elderly who rely on vending to pay their bills. And earlier this year, the City struggled to reconcile policies for people who have nowhere to sleep but the sidewalks, with one proposal from policymakers that sought to make it illegal for people to sleep on the majority of sidewalks.  


Now more than ever, the City needs to pull together the many needs, uses and challenges existing on its sidewalks and public right of way and create a unifying public policy and vision for one of the City’s most important assets and public spaces – sidewalks. 


If policymakers decide to adopt the BSS proposal and commercialize the City’s sidewalks we must ask ourselves: Who will benefit from this proposed revenue source? Given the lack of existing policy and vision, and lack of specifics on how revenue will be used in the BSS report it is unclear to us if funding will be used to build and fix sidewalks, reduce permit costs for street vendors, or provide clean and safe bathrooms. The City’s priorities should be clear and transparent.


We’ve witnessed the power of our allies in the LA Street Vendor Campaign, who have advocated for a just system that allows low-income entrepreneurs the opportunity to use the public right of way in a safe and respectful manner.  And our allies advocating for more shade and street trees continue to sound the alarm about the removal of trees and lack of an urban tree canopy. And we have been a part of sidewalk advocacy Tripping Point Summits and community organizing efforts to see bus shelters installed and more. And lastly, our City’s grappling with a chronic homelessness crisis is making it more and more clear that Los Angeles needs a vision for our sidewalks that unifies marginalized communities and directs Departments to support the historically disenfranchised.  


We see so much organizing and interest from community members to have their sidewalks meet the needs of their communities. But the report posted from Bureau of Street Services last week is silent on these community efforts and how advertising revenue will address the myriad of issues faced by Angelenos, especially those in low-income communities. While the report does look to the future by calling out the 2028 Olympics, we believe that it’s not enough. Our public spaces should serve the needs of Angelenos, not sporting events.  


It’s time for the City of Los Angeles to adopt a guiding policy and vision that improves the public right of way for all Angelenos and their needs, but especially the most under-represented and marginalized. Los Angeles deserves sidewalks that are accessible, safe, and vibrant.


What’s in the BSS Staff report and being decided?

BSS staff is recommending that Los Angeles City Council reject  Outfront Media/JCDecaux proposal to extend their existing street furniture contract, and let that contract expire on 12/31/2021.  

  • Negotiate the sale of existing street furniture or direct Outfront Media/JCDecaux to remove all existing street furniture. 
  • And BSS seeks authorization to begin working on requests for proposals (RFP)  to secure a new program through the Board of Public Works that will:
    • Do a request of information to inform BSS RFP process on best practices.
    • Explore business models and options for the City to share a portion or 100% of the capital expenditure to maximize revenues for the City. 
    • At a minimum, provide shelters in each Council District to achieve 75% transit ridership coverage with priority given to “districts with the highest needs.” 
    • Eliminate Exclusive Advertising
    • Provide expanded advertising opportunities.

Bureau of Streets Services/Streets LA also is seeking approval to: 

  • Work with the Department of Convention and Tourism Development. 
  • Create a sidewalk, parkway and roadway inventory of all street furniture – coordinating with other LA City departments, Metro and other municipal transit providers to develop the inventory. 
  • Maximize the the street furniture program and revenues for the 2028 Olympics and ParaOlympics.
  • Create a streamlined process for installing street furniture based on approval of a development plan one year at a time. 

The City Council Public Works and Gang Reduction Committee is chaired by Councilmember Bob Blumenfield and includes Councilmembers Joe Buscaino, Nury Martinez, David Ryu, Mitch O’Farrell and Monica Rodriguez. Emails on this proposal can be sent to the committee staff member, Michael Espinoza at Michael.Espinosa@lacity.org. Printed copies of the email will be in the packets handed to Councilmembers and forwarded to Council staff.

Here are some points to highlight in your email:

  • NEED FOR A CITYWIDE SIDEWALK GUIDING POLICY AND VISION, among City Departments and all policies impacting the public right of way that sets the City on the path to becoming a walkable and rollable city with vibrant and inclusive sidewalks serving multiple needs and community uses.
  • WHAT HAPPENS TO FUNDS RAISED BY THIS PROPOSAL – When advocates approach the City of Los Angeles to fix its sidewalks and expand its small sidewalk repair program, we hear, “it’s too hard, let’s downscope and try pilots, let’s focus on spot fixes.” Any money raised by commercialization of a public space should be used to improve our public spaces.
  • HOW DO WE BUILD AND MAINTAIN “NON REVENUE” BUS SHELTERS – This proposal has one whole sentence dedicated to the need to provide bus shelters that don’t increase revenue for the city. While this new program is a great, and much needed, idea it raises a lot of questions about transparency and equity. If the BSS is serious about creating a new program in the public’s right-of-way it should be the focus of more than just that one sentence. A real place would include goals, metrics, accountability, transparency, funding sources, and more.
  • HOW DO WE MAKE SURE EVERY PART OF THE CITY IS GETTING ENOUGH BUS SHELTERS – One of the recommendations for the program states, a goal of providing bus shelters to “At a minimum, provide adequate number of bus shelters in each council district to achieve 75% transit ridership coverage with priority given to District with highest needs.” How will this program define High Need? Is it lifting up the work done in previous City departments to do this and align programs?

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