There is a lot of talk around the neighborhood regarding the new striping of Wilbur Ave. on the 2 mile stretch between Chatsworth and Nordhoff St. Many people who have a stake in the neighborhood were bewildered to see the appearance of two wide bike lanes, a contiguous center turning lane, and the disappearance of 2 travel lanes. This configuration is known as a Road Diet and it is a federally approved design engineered to "calm" traffic. You can read the official federal explanation here, and the Wikipedia entry here.
Many people have asked why did Wilbur need a Road Diet?
The answer relates to many issues. But the biggest reason is embedded in the fight in 2009 to save the crosswalks at Prairie and Superior. The LADOT had posted signage stating that they were going to remove them. But the residents revolted against that idea. Paul Kirk, collected 600+ petition signatures stating that the residents WANT their crosswalks! This prompted the LADOT to respond by making Wilbur a safe street to cross. Be engineering a reduction in average speed, the road diet has made it safer to cross.
Average speeds along the road that under the old 4 lane configuration typically broke the 40mph speed limit - a limit which one could argue is quite high for a residential area with 3 schools within a block or two of the street. With non peak hour traffic speeds easily reaching 60, 70 even 80mph the situation was quite dangerous for people pulling in and out of their driveways, for people crossing at marked and unmarked crosswalks and for the drivers negotiating the natural bottlenecks that occur at Plummer and Dearborn.
For the residents of the area, everyone knows just how typical it was to see serious collisions at the major cross streets such as Plummer, Lassen and Dearborn. As a long time resident, I've personally witnessed many over the years and have myself experienced a car rear ending my vehicle with such force that it launched the car up the curb and onto the front yard of our house. This was due to a speeder who lost focus and did not recognize that our vehicle was in the process of slowing and signaling a turn into our driveway. From talking with neighbors I know my experience is not rare.
Traffic Collision Stats
According to Alex Thompson, LAPD Bike Task Force member and Bikeside chairman, the CHP's SWITRS database reports 200+ serious collisions and 5 deaths along that stretch of Wilbur from 2000-2008. This is simply unacceptable for any street let alone a residential one such as Wilbur Ave.
Since the implementation of the Road Diet last September, the flow of traffic has become much more civilized. It is now less likely that speeders reach 50mph as the single lane configuration has done it's job of inspiring drivers to slow down. The psychological impact of the lane constraint has proven to calm drivers.
Benefits of the Road Diet.
Home values go up in neighborhoods with calm people friendly streets. Calm civilized traffic makes for a deterrent to those who would use the street as their "cut through" street or "Speedway" as LA Times columnist and Porter Ranch resident Sandy Banks recently referred to it as. Reduced cut through traffic improves the quality of life for local residents. As pollution and noise decline people come out of their homes, go for walks, enjoy their neighborhood more...
Better neighborhood connectivity occurs when people feel like they can cross the street safely. In the case of the road diet, cars are still reaching speeds above the 40mph limit, however now there are only 2 travel lanes to negotiate rather than 4.
Safe routes to schools. With the newly re-striped and better visible crosswalks at Prairie and Superior, cars are more likely to yield to pedestrians many of which are simply looking for a way to walk to the area schools. Remember the days when kids used to walk, bike and skateboard to school? I must be old.
Yes. There is back up.
According to two separate counts there is no denying that back up occurs. The counts done by the LADOT immediately after the Road Diet's implementation showed that during a 15 minute period from approximately 7:35-7:51AM the traffic line at the Devonshire south light backs up towards Chatsworth. This is due to Nobel Middle School drop off. A second count was done recently that shows the same scenario occurring. This is an issue that is causing parents frustration and to choose alternate routes to school. The fact is, that there was always back up and traffic has always been unruly during school drop off. A simple solution would be for parents to drop their kids off a few blocks from school or even encourage their kids to bike to school. After all, there are brand new bike lanes to be used. Still, the desire is strong to drive kids right up to the school and it is a hard fight to convince them otherwise. The days of parents being able to brag to their kids about walking six miles in the snow uphill in both directions are long gone. This generation will have no such stories. Instead, this generation may actually brag about how difficult it was to avoid the alarming obesity trend that is befalling our nation.
The Wilbur Working Group Ad-Hoc Committee.
Councilman Greig Smith, in an effort to alleviate complaints from people living to the North of the road diet, has set up the Wilbur Ave. Working Group Ad-Hoc Committee. This committee was to be comprised of 3 members from Northridge West Neighborhood Council and Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council. Each of the members were to be appointed by each NC's president. Unfortunately for the residents of Wilbur Ave, NONE of them were included as a voice in the process and only one person living south of Devonshire where 80% of the road diet exists, was included on the committee. Recognizing that imbalance I sought to alert the residents of the working group and petitioned to be included on the committee as a representative of the residents who actually live on the street. Shouldn't they have a say in this? As it turns out, I gathered 55 signatures from nearly every home I could get an answer from one Sunday afternoon. I brought the signatures to the councilman's office where I was flatly denied inclusion on the committee by Smith Chief of Staff and council candidate Mitch Englander. I did my best to plead the case that the residents on the street should have a say in the matter and at every turn of the conversation it was obvious that Smith's office had no intention of letting me in.
I left the office dismayed, wondering what the next step was. Fortunately, I was notified by Smith's office that I would be allowed to attend the second and third meetings but by then the design was already decided upon.
As I found out in the second of the 3 (known) committee meetings, the revised "compromise" plan presented by the LADOT based on feed back from the 1st meeting included a painted merge rated for speeds of 45mph that culminates at Mayall south of Devonshire. It was quite obvious to myself and Paul Kirk - the only other member of the committee who lives south of Devonshire that this merge presents a similar issue that the road diet solved for the bottle necks at Dearborn and Plummer both sites of numerous high speed crashes over the years... Only with the newly proposed bottleneck the drag race starts with the green light at Devonshire, the finish line being the unmarked crosswalk at Mayall. Pedestrians at Mayall who wish to cross, will have to deal with distracted drivers speeding towards them and looking to their left mirrors as they negotiate their place in line before the upcoming lane merge.
We need a crosswalk not a finish line!
The final two meetings of the Wilbur Working Group Ad-Hoc committee were basically back and forth talk sessions that lead to no changes what so ever to the proposed design. It was frustrating not to get answers from the LADOT about the traffic counts and the cost of the re-design itself. Every time I attempted to corner an answer from the LADOT about the cost, Mitch Englander interrupted and changed the topic. At one point Englander answered "It's within budget" to which I asked "What is the budget?" to which Englander replied, "it is not known."
The final vote.
From the beginning, the process outlined by Councilman Smith was never clearly defined. How exactly was the voting process to occur between the two Neighborhood Councils? Would it be a cumulative vote or would each board vote separately? What if there was a tie? Where would the vote be held? NONE of these questions are answered as of yet. There have been proposals to hold the meeting at the Porter Ranch neighborhood council... but why should a matter that occurs completely within the Northridge West district be decided in Porter Ranch? Fortunately that idea was discarded and things are looking like they will be held at Nobel Middle School.... The next issue is whether this is a joint cumulative vote or will each board vote on it's own. As we speak, the powers that be are pushing for a joint vote. I ask... Why? Porter Ranch has completely different interests in this matter than Northridge West does.
Porter Ranch Interests - MORE Cut through streets
It is no secret, Porter Ranch needs traffic outlet channels. It is a relatively new and growing development and with all the new residents there is great pressure to open up streets like Wilbur to MORE cut through traffic. But that degrades the neighborhood that has existed intact for decades with more and more car traffic. We've all seen streets in the valley which not long ago had a neighborhood character to them only to become shut off homes, walled off with side entrances becoming main entrances as residents retreat from their polluted noisy front yards. It's sad to see neighborhoods carved away by traffic.
Looming in the Future - Connecting Wilbur North to Wilbur South via an at grade track crossing at Parthenia.
Wilbur is the last stand and the Road Diet has helped to cement the neighborhood together. Looming in the future? An at grade crossing that will connect Wilbur South with Wilbur North. The plans have been designed but are currently shelved due to budget constraints. But beware, train tracks are under different jurisdictions and the money can pop up at any time. Once the street is connected, Wilbur will become a major thoroughfare across the valley. Expect Wilbur traffic to double and triple. At that point the neighborhood will cease to exist, cut in half and crusted at the seems by constant traffic. Home values will drop through out the neighborhood not just for the residents who live on the street. The existence and preservation of the road diet creates a less than feasible scenario making the at grade crossing less likely to become a reality.