Will firefighters unions in other cities follow suit?
After four years of lane reductions, arterial bike lanes, road diets, and other so-called “traffic calming” measures on the streets of New York, the country’s largest firefighters union is saying enough. The New York Post reported yesterday that the Fire Department of New York’s response times have risen dramatically over the last year, and that the city’s firefighters union – the largest in the country – says that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative is a major cause.
Bobby Eustace, the United Firefighters Association’s recording secretary, told The Post, “Vision Zero is fully intended to save lives from traffic accidents, but by [the city] adding in concrete barriers and flower pots and everything else like that, you’re basically eliminating the ability for emergency service vehicles to get around. Intersections are now gridlocked, and our guys just can’t get around.”
The union’s public statement is a significant development in the national discussion over the future of urban planning and transportation. There are Vision Zero programs in scores of U.S. cities, and virtually everywhere they are having severe impacts on emergency response times. Firefighters, paramedics, and police officers in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Seattle, Oakland, New York, Boston, and elsewhere have confirmed to The All Aspect Report that lane reductions, particularly so-called “road diets,” have increased their response times dramatically. In L.A., for example, operational response times at Fire Station 62, located on the infamous Venice Boulevard road diet, increased by 26 seconds between 2016 (the last full year before the diet) and 2019. In 2016 the station’s average response time was 6 minutes 38 seconds. So far in 2019 it is 7 minutes 4 seconds. As any first responder will attest, those 26 seconds cost lives. And Station 62’s experience is far from unique in the city.
The UFA’s statement comes in response to the release of the annual Mayor’s Management Report, a sort of longform state of the city document. The administration boasted, “The City’s investment in Vision Zero, now funded with over $1.6 billion through Fiscal 2022, has ensured resources will be available to continue an accelerated pace of redesign and reconstruction of New York City streets as well as for enforcement and education initiatives to deter unsafe driving and promote safe walking and biking.”
This “accelerated pace” of change is having devastating impacts on emergency response times. According to the report:
Combined average response time to life-threatening medical emergencies increased 15 seconds compared to 2018.
Average response time to life-threatening medical emergencies by ambulances increased 24 seconds compared to 2018.
Dispatch and travel time only to life-threatening medical emergencies for ambulances and fire companies combined increased 19 seconds compared to 2018.
Dispatch and travel time by ambulances to life-threatening medical emergencies increased 28 seconds compared to 2018.
“We had a company in the Bronx [traveling at night last month] hit one of these barriers going 30 miles an hour, and it almost flipped the rig because they had no idea it was there,” Eustace said. “That was the first they saw it. They were simply trying to go around a person [while] responding to a structural fire, and they smashed into one of these [concrete barriers].-
New York’s experience is typical of Vision Zero cities
The FDNY union is the first to go on the record, but fire departments around the country have been experiencing identical problems for several years. As we reported in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, Oakland, California Fire Captain Henry Holt said that he learned of a road diet half a block from his station one morning when he arrived for a shift. “I wasn’t even sure if I was allowed to drive in those new green lanes,” he said. The city never consulted the Oakland Fire Department, much less his station, before installing a project that dramatically impacts his crews’ dispatch procedures. The road diet has been so bad that at times he’s instructed his drivers to go into what first responders call “suicide mode,” driving down oncoming lanes to get around gridlock. Departments in other cities have reported the same experiences.
The greatest irony of Vision Zero is that in many locations road diets and other reconfigurations have not improved safety for cyclists and pedestrians, as activists and politicians like Mayor de Blasio in New York and Mayor Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles claim. Pedestrian fatalities spiked in L.A. from an average of 84 per year for the 13 years between 2003 and 2015, to 135 in 2017 and 128 last year. The spike coincides with the launch of Vision Zero in 2016.
In Baltimore, a fire crew sent a video to the city council last summer in which a hook and ladder crew demonstrated how a road diet impeded their ability to stage the apparatus on a residential street. Rather than address the issue the city council voted to change the city’s fire code.
Outside New York itself, perhaps nowhere has the impact of Vision Zero been more dramatic than in the small seaside city of Santa Monica. Road diets, bus lanes, and other changes have rendered parts of the city virtually inaccessible to emergency apparatus at times. A senior official in the Santa Monica Fire Department recently told the All Aspect Report that there are times crews literally cannot reach the Santa Monica Pier. And an officer with the Santa Monica Police Department said that the city increasingly is fielding officers on bicycles rather than cruisers. When asked how he felt about swapping his Crown Vic for a Schwinn, he just shook his head and laughed.
Obviously, cities are in a constant state of change, flux, and progress. Vision Zero is not the but-for cause of every emergency delay. Increased density, private construction, the profusion of scooters and ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft, and the overall increase in populations are all contributing factors. Nevertheless, the UFA’s statement, coupled with scores of interviews around the country as well as dozens of pictures and videos, leave no doubt that Vision Zero, “complete streets,” “road diets,” and other anti-vehicle policies are delaying response times and costing countless lives.
It remains to be seen whether firefighter and police unions in other cities will follow the UFA’s lead. Countless thousands of lives depend on it.
There’s a saying that the definition of chutzpah is the man who kills his parents and then asks the court for sympathy because he’s an orphan. Today you displayed that sort of temerity in your letter on the subject of homelessness to President Trump. In what will go down as one of the most shameless examples of buck-passing in the annals of American political history you asserted, “We all agree that homelessness is a national crisis decades in the making.”
You and the rest of California’s political class have been bludgeoning this expired equine for the last year. You push the notion of homelessness as a national problem with ephemeral causes dating back decades not because it’s accurate but because it absolves your Party – which has run California for 40 years – of accountability.
Let us be crystal on a few critical points, Mr. Governor. First, no one outside the Sacramento echo chamber buys what you’re selling. While homelessness is by no means exclusively a California phenomenon, this state’s crisis is entirely self-inflicted. You should stop claiming otherwise, because you’re embarrassing yourself and the state in front of the entire nation.
Second, the rot of California’s homeless crisis is a direct result of conscious policy decisions by you and your Party over the last half century. In that way the crisis is decades old, but it’s strictly of your Party’s making, a Party forever finding new ways to make life in the Golden State more expensive and less livable. You impose costs on small businesses with empty gestures like the plastic straw ban, only to turn around and hand out millions of plastic syringes to addicts. I don’t know about you, Mr. Governor, but I’ve never worried about impaling my foot on a plastic straw at the beach, nor have I ever seen piles of straws littering public parks where children are playing. And if you ask Flipper, I’m guessing he’d rather contend with straws than infected needles. Meanwhile, the purported benefits of these so-called “needle exchange” programs – to the extent there are any – have been negated by official incompetence.
Which is one of myriad examples of how your policies and those of your Party created the homeless crisis. For starters, you’ve made it easy for people to destroy themselves with addiction. Thanks to legislation and litigation – not to mention relentless pressure by a hydra-headed confederacy of “progressive” nonprofits, foundations, activists, consultants, lawyers, unionistas, and others – today in California a person can get high in public, wander drunk down the street, and relieve themselves on the side of a school building, all without fearing so much as a sideways glance from a cop. No intervention, no action, move along, nothing to see here.
As a consequence, a person can waste away in a tent on city property without anyone noticing. That’s not hyperbole: Two weeks ago on nextdoor.com, a Hollywood resident posted pictures of a place where that exact scenario played out. A man expired inside his tent in the parking lot of a City of Los Angeles senior services center, literally 25 feet from the front door. I spoke with a number of homeless people in the area, and they told me the person was there for less than a week, and that he never came out of his tent. It was 95 degrees the day I spoke with those folks, meaning it would be at least 120 inside a tent. Yet according to a woman who identified herself as Aquarius, none of the city workers bothered to check on him until he started to decompose. It wasn’t professional responsibility or common decency that prompted city employees’ attention. It was the stench of death.
In fact, Aquarius told me that another homeless person had been camping in the parking lot a couple of weeks earlier. One day she brought him a bottle of water and some food. The staff at the senior center rebuked her and told her that if she continued giving handouts they would bar her from the center. “I can’t help wondering if I could have helped that person,” she told me, nodding at the bouquet of flowers she and a friend had placed at the site. A flash of pain showed in her blue eyes.
In short, as a direct result of your Party’s policies countless thousands of people are slowly dying. Nearly 1,000 homeless people perished in Los Angeles last year, a number that’s sure to increase this year. This is the situation in the richest city in the richest state in the richest country in human history.
Meanwhile, under anodyne-sounding euphemisms like “prison realignment,” your Party has released tens of thousands of felons onto the streets – including violent sex offenders – with no plan for integrating them back into society. Many of them have ended up homeless, contributing to an epidemic of criminal behavior.
Or at least, their behavior used to be criminal, but your Party took care of that, too, didn’t it? Rather than acknowledge the catastrophe of policies like AB 109 you and your Party have effectively decriminalized dozens of felonies. You unilaterally put a moratorium on the death penalty, and now you’re pushing for parole reviews for murderers serving life sentences without the possibility. The chaos on our streets is a mystery to no one but you, Mr. Governor.
Your Party has imposed other outrageous policies like “Complete Streets,” which have contributed to snarled traffic and gridlock that, again, impose the greatest costs on the state’s most vulnerable. I’m a lawyer and a journalist, Mr. Governor. I can make $500 an hour sitting in my car taking phone calls. The Mexican immigrant in the pickup over in the next lane? Not so much. He’s trying to get from his house in Pacoima (the only place he can afford to live thanks to the state’s outrageously warped housing policies, another Democrat gift) to his landscaping gig in Brentwood. The 90 minutes he’s on the road is nothing but wasted time and extra expenses. At some point those added burdens could break him.
And that’s the central point you and your Party have missed: Every traffic jam costs you support. Every smashed window, every night of disturbed sleep, every assault, every tax increase, every trash pile, every wildfire, and every petty indignity is another Californian walking away from you and your Party. Every new homeless encampment, our very own Newsomvilles, weakens you and your Party. Eventually the people will revolt. If the election of Donald Trump has taught us anything it’s that conventional political wisdom is no longer a reliable indicator of outcomes, much less the public’s attitudes.
If I were you, that idea would keep me awake at night. We know you don’t lose sleep over the issues affecting actual Californians – that much has been clear since your feckless turn as San Francisco mayor (Brittanie Mountz, Mr. Governor, really?). When you were a supervisor you saw a mayor in the mirror, when you were mayor you saw a governor, and now that you’re governor you see – God help us – a President. If I were you I’d be staring at the ceiling at 3a.m. terrified that tonight will be, excuse the pun, the last straw. That tonight will be the night reality catches up with you and your Party. That tonight will be the hundred thousandth smash and grab, and that will be the tipping point. Or worse, that tonight will see an atrocity even worse than the ones you and your Party already have unleashed.
Last week I wrote that California is a failed state. I was not being hyperbolic – after a half century of virtual one-party rule nearly every public institution is collapsing from within, from our schools to our streets to our courts and our jails. Atop it all sit you and your Party, surveying the devastation and then begging help from a President you openly loathe.
Which raises the final critical question: Even if the federal government were to open its till and send you the billions you request, why should anyone in California – much less the rest of the country – have a scintilla of confidence that you and your Party will spend the money effectively, much less wisely? Looking at the Democrats’ handiwork in the state – Failed school systems, mass poverty, rampant crime, crumbling infrastructure, public corruption, out-of-control living costs, illegal immigration, the destruction of the middle class, crushing taxes and regulations, bloated bureaucracies – how can you expect us to believe that you’ll solve a homeless crisis you created? When we look at the nearly $2 trillion in debt and public liabilities for which you and your Party have us on the hook, why should we have any faith in your policy discipline? In short, how can we possibly believe that after 50 years you’re finally going to get it right on this one?
The answer, of course, is that we don’t. Which is why a reckoning is coming to Queen Califia’s land, Mr. Governor. There are already innumerable examples of citizens taking what’s left of the law into their own hands. Trust me when I tell you that vigilante justice is already here, and it’s entirely understandable and rational under the circumstances. You and your Party have lost control.
You can only push people so far – every tin pot dictator in history eventually learns that lesson. You will, too. Only it will be too late for your political career. You’ve already lost the center, the right was never in play, and now you’re even losing the left. The only question is how it will end: Recall, electoral defeat, legal action. Perhaps a full-on revolution.
Meanwhile, the rest of us can only pray it won’t be too late to rescue what’s left of our once beautiful state. California deserves so much better.
The Summer of 2019 may go down as the moment the Golden State slipped into the abyss
The image is virtually unspeakable: In the middle of the night a toddler stands barefoot amidst garbage and needles in an illegal Venice Beach homeless camp, while a few feet away her mom and a friend lie on cardboard boxes getting high. A local resident took the picture across the street from an office building owned by Google, a $300 billion company.
This is life in California in 2019.
We should be asking, where is the outrage? A picture that should have incited a mass response provoked hardly a whimper. It garnered minimal local coverage and nothing at the state, much less national level. To their credit, KABC and KFI radio ran segments. Yet it seems that as far as the majority of the media are concerned, a naked toddler in a homeless encampment is the new normal in California, not worth so much as a remark. No big deal, nothing to see here, move along.
Can any sane human being, anyone with a scintilla of decency and empathy, look at that picture and not be moved? Have we already fallen into the abyss?
Everyone here feels it, the unreality permeating life in the Golden State these days. The California dream has become a nightmare: Shuffling corpses populate our streets, parks, and neighborhoods. Transients are replacing children on playgrounds. We wake in the night to the wails of lunatics battling demons only they can see, to the screams of assault victims, the crashes of criminal vagrants breaking into car windows. We endure physical battery, property damage, theft, and more. We navigate our children past excrement and hypodermic needles in public spaces, hoping that today won’t be the day we have to explain what that man near the jungle gym was doing under his sleeping bag.
We go through our days haunted by a vague and disconcerting sense that no one is really in charge anymore, that no one in power is up to the task. We live with the feeling that we’re on our own, that we’re already living in anarchy. It’s just that most people hadn’t noticed until recently.
What will it take for things to change?
Californians from Siskiyou to San Diego are asking themselves the same question: What is it going to take? When will our state’s political and bureaucratic classes realize they have lost control?
The most obvious and visible, indeed inescapable manifestation of the state’s failure remains the homeless crisis. The staggering human costs are on display in every neighborhood, on virtually every corner, on nearly every block.
Make no mistake: Officials from Governor Gavin Newsom to the lowest level bureaucrat are encouraging hundreds of thousands of people to come to California and destroy themselves. They’re making it easy, in fact. They hand out those free syringes while decriminalizing many drug offenses. In California you can get high in public, wander drunk down the street, and relieve yourself on the side of a school building, all without fearing so much as a sideways glance from a cop. You can die in a tent on city property and no one will notice. Countless hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, are slowly killing themselves on the public dime. They’re taking the rest of us with them.
Just two weeks ago, the body of a homeless man was discovered inside a tent on city property, barely 50 feet from the entrance to a city facility that provides services to low income seniors. The staff had walked past the man’s tent several times a day but did nothing. It was only when his body began to decompose and reek that anyone thought to check on him. Many of us thought that would be enough. It wasn’t.
And so, here in the Summer of 2019, Californians are asking: What will it take for things to change?
In April of last year a father was sitting on a restaurant patio with his five-year-old daughter on his lap. Out of nowhere a transient walked up and stabbed him in the neck, killing him. The transient had been known to local authorities, who did nothing. Many of us thought that would be enough. It wasn’t.
Starting in February of this year, local media outlets – most notably Dr. Drew Pinsky on KABC 790 – began sounding the alarm over outbreaks of medieval diseases in homeless camps, including typhus, typhoid fever, dengue fever, and tuberculosis. More recently there has been talk of bubonic plague and leprosy. Many of us thought that would be enough. It wasn’t.
In April of this year, a report by Kaiser Health said that more than 900 homeless people died on city streets in 2018, a spike of 76% over 2017. Many of us thought that would be enough. It wasn’t.
Earlier this summer several homeless people were burned alive inside their tents in a spate of attacks. At least two died. Many of us thought that would be enough. It wasn’t.
If murder, medieval plagues, and mass deaths aren’t enough, what possibly will be? If an infant left to fend for herself in a homeless camp in the middle of the night, amidst criminals and lunatics and addicts isn’t enough, what is? At what point do we acknowledge the inescapable truth, that California is a failed state, where the most vulnerable suffer and die on a daily basis while the elites cloister in gated communities, fete themselves at self-congratulatory fundraisers, and send their children to private schools that cost more than most universities?
The very building blocks of civilization are crumbling
Human beings learned the basic elements of civilization thousands of years ago: Clean water, stable food supplies, roads, education, public health, waste disposal. In modern times we added electricity, communications, modern medicine, and mass transportation. Thanks to decades of official neglect, incompetence, corruption, and waste, those fundamental building blocks are crumbling in California.
This part is personal. When I first started tutoring Leon*, he was living with his mom, older sister, and two older brothers in a homeless shelter in Inglewood. He was 14 and going into seventh grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Leon loves music, computers, and video games. He dreams of a career as a music engineer. He’s got a mischievous side and is a bit of a prankster. He loves paper airplanes. He also loves history. Whether it’s Genghis Khan or Easter Island, the American Revolution or the Industrial Revolution, he can’t get enough. He has a remarkable ability to focus. Give him a set of math problems and the world vanishes until he’s solved the last one. It’s a thing to behold. One day I gave him a set of 10 math problems on the computer. After nearly ten minutes passed I asked him how many he had left. “Only eight,” he replied. My heart sank into the floor until I glanced at the screen and realized I’d made a mistake: I’d given him 50 problems, not 10. He was grinding away with fierce determination.
Leon’s ability to focus is all the more remarkable given the deafening noise in his world. He speaks with a pronounced stutter that started after his best friend was killed in a random drive-by when he was eight (the murder is among the 50% of homicides that go unsolved each year in Los Angeles, the majority in South L.A.). He talks about the demons he sometimes sees in the walls at night, which he says are the ones that killed his friend. They crawl out of the air ducts and window cracks. He keeps them at bay by praying.
Leon’s life is similar to that of the more than 17,000 homeless students in the LAUSD, a number that has tripled in the last three years. Kids who when the 3pm bell rings go to emergency shelters, motels, even cars and sidewalk tents. Overall the Los Angeles Office of Education estimates there are 72,272 homeless children in the county. That number has jumped by 25% in the last three years.
California has among the very worst schools in the country. Though the state is home to roughly 12% of the U.S. population, it has nearly half of the worst performing schools. In 2017 barely a third of students met or exceeded math standards each year, and fewer than 40% did the same in English Language Arts. In poor areas like Compton the rates were 6.6% and 11.8%, respectively. High schools routinely graduate thousands of high school seniors who are functionally illiterate – young adults who lack the skills to fill out a fast food job application. This is reality for kids like Leon in California’s public schools.
Crumbling roads, bridges, and dams
Over this year’s July 4th weekend millions of people in Southern California were reminded how perilous our existence really is: An earthquake swarm culminated in a July 4 foreshock that measured 6.4 on the Richter Scale and a main quake of 7.1 in the early hours of July 6. Fortunately the tremblers were remote enough and deep enough that they did not cause major damage.
Which was profoundly lucky, because California – the birthplace of the freeway – has some of the worst roads, bridges, and overpasses in the country. Politicians have thrown billions of dollars on a bullet train to nowhere, light rail no one rides, and “multi-modal urban transit networks” (whatever those are) while utterly neglecting the actual streets, roads, and highways that actual Californians use. As a direct result of the political class’s neglect it will cost $150 billion over the next ten years just to “to bring the system back to a state of good repair.” Deficient roads costs Californians $61 billion annually due to congestion-related delays, accidents, and increased vehicle wear and tear caused by poor road conditions.
In February 2017 the spillway of the Oroville Dam in Butte County partially collapsed, prompting the evacuation of nearly 200,000 Californians. Not to worry, though: State officials sprang into action and saved millions of fish. We’ve reached a point where salmon rank higher than children on state officials’ list of priorities.
Crumbling water supply
A May 2019 infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state an overall C-. The report also noted, “Googling ‘water main breaks’ in California will unfortunately yield a very long list of infrastructure failure stories covered by the media, and many more occur every day that don’t receive media attention.”
State testing has found lead in the drinking water of 17% of public schools. Overall, according to a previously undisclosed report by senior officials at the California State Water Resources Control Board more than 1,000 water districts, accounting for more than one in three, may be failing to deliver potable drinking water. These reports come on the heels of stories last year out of south Los Angeles, where the Sativa Water District in Compton became California’s very own Flint, Michigan. Meanwhile, at least 678 dams are considered to be high-hazard potential. In February 2017 the Oroville Dam collapsed, forcing the evacuation of more than 180,000 people.
An economic time bomb
Yet in 2019 this state, with its abundant natural resources, enormous reserves of human capital and creativity, and ideal climate is on the brink of collapse. Decades of political mismanagement and malfeasance have decimated the state’s budget and business environments. More than half of Californians (and nearly two thirds of Millennials) say they would leave if they had the chance. If not for immigration, much of it illegal, the state would have lost population over the last 20 years. Unchecked spending, particularly in the form of generous pay, benefits, and retirement packages for government employees, has put the state on the hook for some $1.5 trillion in unfunded future liabilities. No one has the slightest idea where the money will come from, yet that isn’t stopping the state’s political class from spending more.
The list goes on and on. When will we acknowledge the inescapable truth, that thanks to decades of progressive experimentation, mismanagement, corruption, and basic incompetence, California is in a death spiral?
Then again, perhaps a more salient question: Is it too late to save us? As of the summer of 2019, the answer may well be yes.
*Not his real name. Details of Leon’s life have been changed to protect his privacy as a minor.
How many more people have to die or get injured on the streets before officials recalibrate?
The headlines from around the country are grim. “Vision Zero desperately needs help,” saysSan Francisco Weekly. In Oregon the Willamette Weekdeclared, “Blindsided: Portland spends millions to stop cars from killing people. It’s not working.” According to the Austin, Texas Statesman, “Austin traffic deaths up 30%, police say.” At the end of last year The Washington Postreported, “D.C. Mayor Bowser unveils reset of her Vision Zero campaign as traffic deaths surpass 2017 total. The Los Angeles Times reports, “More People are dying on L.A.’s streets despite a push to eliminate traffic fatalities.” Up in Toronto, an editorial in The Globe concluded, “Toronto’s road safety program, Vision Zero, is a failure.”
Four years into one of the most radical experiments in the modern history of transportation and public safety, Vision Zero – which, as its name suggests, promises to eliminate traffic fatalities – is failing nationwide. So are similar initiatives with euphemistic names like “Complete Streets,” “Livable Streets,” “Safe Routes to Schools,” and others. In fact, a compelling argument can be made that those initiatives not only aren’t saving lives as promised by politicians and activists, but are costing them. Innocent pedestrians and cyclists are dying on the alter of progressive ideology.
After hitting a 49-year low in 2011 annual traffic deaths in the United States have increased every year since, topping 40,000 in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Coincidentally, those were the first full years of Vision Zero in scores of cities and towns. Even more distressingly, Vision Zero not only has failed to staunch the rise in pedestrian deaths, it seems to be accelerating it. After a steady 20 year decline, pedestrian fatalities have spiked more than 20% since 2014, the year cities began rolling out the program in earnest. Over the last three years more than 6,000 pedestrians have been killed on the streets, for the first time since 1990.
The dangers are in the deltas
The activists and politicians offer various explanations for the dramatic increases in traffic fatalities. They point to factors like distracted driving/cycling/walking, the presence of more and bigger cars on the road, substance abuse, and road rage. While those factors obviously cause and contribute to accidents, they don’t explain why the increases in pedestrian and cyclist deaths around the country have happened so suddenly. If they were the culprits one would expect to have seen a gradual, sustained increase in accidents and fatalities. After all, smart phones have been around for more than two decades, the country’s vehicle fleet grew by a quarter in that same period, and states have been loosening their marijuana laws for nearly as long. In fact, despite the increasing pervasiveness of smart phones, SUVs, and legalized pot, and even as the number of miles Americans drive skyrocketed, the overall number of traffic fatalities had been dropping nationwide for decades. Until recently.
A more plausible explanation is the simplest one: Collisions are more likely and frequent when different vehicles traveling at different speeds share the same road. The safest state is a uniform, constant velocity for as long as possible. Bike lanes, bus lanes, road diets, and other physical modifications allow for a variety of vehicles to share space. Thanks to Vision Zero and other similar programs major thoroughfares now carry not only cars, trucks, and buses but bicycles, e-bikes, standing scooters, sitting scooters, pedestrians, even skateboards. All of them travel at different rates of speed and according to different patterns. These variations, which engineers call deltas, radically reduce drivers’, riders’, scooters’, and walkers’ margins of error.
Worse, many traffic calming features give the most vulnerable of those cohorts a false sense of safety, encouraging unsafe behavior. Bikes and scooters have become commonplace even on major thoroughfares that lack any accommodation for them, as seen in the picture below. Worse, cyclists routinely flout even the most basic traffic laws (like stop signs and red lights) with sometimes tragic consequences. In July a cyclist riding down a sidewalk in New York City sped into an intersection against the signal and was hit and killed by a cement truck. No amount of bike lanes can prevent those kinds of terrible decisions. Bike lanes can encourge them, though.
A 15mph scooter ridden by a teenager without a helmet listening to music on wireless earbuds has no business on a state highway, at any time of day or night. Likewise, forcing bicycles and scooters to coexist with cars, trucks, and buses on major thoroughfares is inherently dangerous. Yet Vision Zero not only encourages but mandates that coexistence. Coupled with the increasing aggressiveness of cyclists (which is well-documented even in pro-Vision Zero publications) and the reasons for increased traffic fatalities start to come into focus.
Even when everyone obeys the law, accidents are inevitable when so many kinds of vehicles are vying for road space. Earlier this year a teenage cyclist was hit by a Santa Monica city bus, suffering a broken jaw. As a Los Angeles firefighter told The All Aspect Report, “Green paint won’t stop a metro bus.”
Well-funded special interests are obstructing critical appraisals of Vision Zero
L.A.’s experience is depressingly typical of cities that have experimented with Vision Zero. A relatively flat data curve of pedestrian deaths for 14 years turns into the proverbial hockey stick in 2016, the first full year of Vision Zero, with pedestrian deaths nearly doubling between 2015 and 2017. Likewise, 2016 and 2018 saw the largest number of cyclist deaths in at least 15 years, with 21 riders killed.
It’s clearly time for cities to reexamine Vision Zero, the philosophy behind it, and its execution. Unfortunately, the necessary conversations are frustrated by the bike activists and other pro-Vision Zero groups who dominate the conversation (and the search engines). Collectively they have adopted the no compromise position of “all bike lanes, all the time, cars are evil, drivers should be in jail.” Suffice it to say, it isn’t the best way to win hearts and minds. Yet because groups like the Los Angeles Bike Coalition, the San Francisco Bike Coalition, Bike Baltimore, the Bike Alliance of Minnesota, and literally hundreds of others are funded by some of the country’s wealthiest corporations, foundations, and individuals, they can drown out opposing – or even slightly contrarian – voices. To cite one of innumerable examples, here is a Complete Streets “Implementation Plan” from Smart Growth America and the Florida Department of Transportation. The plan was produced with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. The Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition has received more than $750,000 in the last four years from a billionaire hedge fund manager in New York, Aaron Sosnick. Through his La Vida Feliz Foundation he also has contributed millions to Transportation Alternatives, a New York organization that effectively sets the city’s transit policies.
Organizations like the Vision Zero Network and Safe Routes to Schools, along with outlets such as Streetsblog and Curbed, routinely demonize the 90% of Americans who by necessity or choice get around by car. They call for the elimination of traffic lanes, congestion pricing, and, ultimately, the elimination of cars. Activists even suggest that parents to treat toy cars like toy guns. This one-sided assault sets the entire movement back and creates conflict and enemies where there should be cooperation and allies.
Unfortunately, for the time being the politicians and activists have the loudest voices. They shout out anyone who dares point out the obvious: Different modes of transportation require different types of infrastructure, and they cannot coexist in the same places at the same times. Unless and until reasonable voices prevail thousands more people will die.
The political class is lost, and that means more pain is on the way for residents and homeless alike
The beginning of the end of the Garcetti Era in Los Angeles may be a portable toilet. Angelenos have known that a reckoning was coming to our city’s homeless crisis, that things cannot continue on their current trajectory. We didn’t, however, expect one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse to arrive in the form of a humble, temporary commode. What fate lacks in a sense of humor it more than makes up for with symbolism.
On or around August 19 a work crew from a city contractor called Bali Construction, Inc. began cutting into the sidewalk and pavement on the northwest corner of Venice Boulevard and Globe Avenue in Mar Vista, the start of a two-week DWP project in which the crew will install underground connections for a portable shower that the city will bring in once a week to serve the people who live in a nearby homeless encampment beneath the 405 overpass. The camp already has become a flashpoint in the city’s spiraling homeless crisis. It’s a known location for drug deals and prostitution. Vandalism and other petty crimes are commonplace, and it goes without saying that the site is a public health menace. In February a man was shot in a drive-by.
Yet rather than clean up the camp and remove the accumulated detritus, L.A. city officials are moving to make it permanent. It’s just one example of how the city’s political class is starting to normalize street living. It doesn’t seem to matter that their abject failure to get a handle on the crisis already has pushed neighbors and business owners in the area to the breaking point. They’re pushing even harder.
The DWP project is no small undertaking: The crew have to cut through the asphalt and concrete then dig approximately eight to ten feet underground to access the city water and sewage mains. They’ll then tap new valves into each, lay the necessary pipes for fresh water and wastewater, then seal the whole site back up and repave the sidewalk and street. The cost is unknown, but according to people familiar with similar projects it easily could exceed $500,000 (The All Aspect Report has submitted records requests to DWP related to the cost).
The new desperation
Officials are overwhelmed. Whether they lack the capacity, the courage, or both the city’s political class resembles a group of blindfolded children swinging at a pinata, desperately hoping to at least make contact. In the process they spin, spin, spin.
Think of the Mar Vista homeless shower as a manifestation of the new desperation. L.A. spent more than $600 million on homelessness last year only to see the population spike by 16%, to more than 36,000. That’s the official number, anyway. Even Mayor Garcetti – not otherwise noted for his vice-like grip on reality – has quietly acknowledged the official numbers are the “tip of the iceberg.” There are likely closer to 100,000 homeless people in the city, with nearly a million more who will experience some degree of housing insecurity in the course of a year. Speaking of icebergs, calling the official response insufficient is like calling the Titanic disaster a mishap.
These overwhelmed officials are starting to panic. Earlier this year, CD11 councilman Mike Bonin, whose district includes Mar Vista, was quoted in the Hollywood Reporter as saying, “I can’t accept the idea that there is an inextricable link between crime and homelessness. It is wrong, it is not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy.” This kind of denial in the face of overwhelming evidence should send chills down every Angelenos’ spine. It takes ten seconds on Google to disprove Bonin’s assertion, with stories from last year and this year consistently reporting massive increases in crime connected with vagrancy. The victims are often homeless people themselves, such as a man who was burned to death in his tent on Skid Row just last night. And again, those are just the incidents that get reported.
Bonin isn’t alone. Mayor Garcetti, who should be running around with his hair on fire, instead delivers anodyne speeches and interviews in which he refers to the need to help our “homeless brothers and sisters.” As if the violent addicts roaming the streets at night just need a little TLC to get back on their feet, maybe a hug and a shower. The lack of urgency is all the more shocking given that Garcetti can look out his office window (where he spends more time since announcing he wouldn’t be joining the clown car known as the Democratic primary) and see the carnage every single day.
To be sure, there’s a superficial flurry of activity, a benighted sturm und drang, signifying nothing. LAHSA and the mayor’s office spew statistics like glitter from confetti guns. Every few months there’s a new initiative, an Office for Homelessness Initiatives here, a multimillion dollar state of the art Unified Homeless Response Center there. The plans inevitably fizzle.
Normalizing street living
If you can’t solve a problem, enable it. At least that seems to be the approach officials in L.A. have adopted. They increasingly seem to be attempting to normalize homelessness and street living. The water fountain and shower on Venice Boulevard are far from unique. For the last several years the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power has quietly installed temporary water fountains near homeless encampments around the city in tihe summertime. In July 2016 DWP installed seven fountains on Skid Row to provide homeless people with drinking water for about a week during a heat wave.
It was, of course, billed as a temporary measure. They are all temporary measures. When an elected or appointed official in L.A. says something is temporary, or a pilot, or a test, there’s an easy translation: They’re slowly normalizing something that would otherwise seem outrageously unacceptable if done to scale. They’ve taken the same approach with bike lanes: So-called “road diets” are wreaking havoc with traffic around the city. Virtually every one of them is billed initially as a “pilot,” with officials promising to listen to community feedback before determining whether to make it permanent. Which is, of course, a bald-faced lie. The showers and drinking fountains likely are just the start of a new wave of facilities that will make it easier to live on the street.
And sure enough, this year the number of DWP water fountains is up to 21. What’s more, according to a July 16 tweet from Mayor Garcetti, six are slated to become permanent. This is how it starts. No grandiose announcements, no blue ribbon commission, no Office of Homeless Initiatives, no Unified Homelessness Response Center (yes, the City really built one of those – it resembles the world’s saddest police command center). It starts innocuously, almost benignly. A water fountain here, a shower there. A few locals may speak out, but they’re easily dismissed as NIMBYs.
You can almost see the workers deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy, gazing at their CAD terminals as they point and click locations where they think toilets and showers and water fountains ought to go. A generation raised on SimCity is getting its chance to play the game for real, experimenting on tens of thousands of poor people.
Creating a new class of semi-homeless
Without sufficient housing, without the money to build enough units of supportive housing at $700,000 apiece, it’s easy to imagine the emergency of an entirely new class of dependent Californians: The semi-homeless. They’ll live in tents and lean-to’s and caves and bunkers like they do today. Only the city will provide access to basic necessities like water, toilets, and showers.
Officials are quite literally laying the groundwork for a category of human existence that hasn’t been seen in this country outside a few years during the Great Depression. Tent cities and permanent encampments have become L.A.’s version – Eric Garcetti’s version – of Hoovervilles.
This is the emerging new normal in Los Angeles, the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country in human history. Officials constantly seek more money for the crisis but the reality is all the money in the world won’t help.
L.A. is dying, or, more accurately, the political class is killing it.
How much does a bed cost? In Los Angeles, it’s more than $50,000. Having defeated a lawsuit brought by residents of Venice Beach, the city will startconstruction as early as this week of a so-called “bridge housing” facility located at a former Metro bus yard at 100 Sunset Avenue. The facility, which when finished will provide beds and some services to 100 adults and 54 children, costs $8,000,000, which works out to $51,948 per person. That’s in addition to the annual cost of maintaining and operating the facility.
The per bed cost is consistent in bridge facilities citywide. The Schraeder shelter in Hollywood cost $3.3 million to construct and has 72 beds, or $45,833 per bed. The first bridge housing facility to open, in downtown L.A.’s historic El Pueblo district, contains 45 beds and cost $2.4 million, which works out to $53,333 per bed. And a recently-opened bridge housing facility for 100 homeless veterans on the West Side cost $5 million, or $50,000 per bed. What’s more, that facility is temporary and consists of two “tension membrane structures” as well as modular trailers. Translation: Los Angeles spent $5 million on two tents and some campers.
The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) recently released the results of the 2019 homeless count. To the surprise of no one besides Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city council (who were shocked, shocked!) the number of homeless people in the city increased over last year, by 16%. Officially that means there are nearly 36,300 homeless in the city, though the actual number is much higher. If studies from organizations like the Economic Roundtable are accurate, the number of people experiencing homelessness – and therefore needing a bed – over the course of a year in Los Angeles is closer to 100,000 (even that number may be low; according to a 2014 report from the American Institutes for Research, that year as many as 130,000 children may have experienced homelessness in L.A.).
Even accepting the official number, existing bridge housing projects reveal how utterly unserious L.A.’s political class is about solving the homeless crisis. Assume the average cost per bed is $50,000. To provide $50,000 beds for 36,300 people would cost more than $1.8 billion. And if the Economic Roundtable is correct it would cost $5 billion to provide beds to everyone who will experience homelessness for any amount of time in L.A.
Bridge housing by definition provides temporary shelter for people awaiting permanent supportive housing, meaning that $1.8 (or $5) billion would fund only an interim solution. Which is bad enough. But where you really see the rub is in the city’s approach to permanent housing for the homeless. Contrary to politicians’ promises during the campaigns for Measure H and HHH, the city is spending between $400,000 and $500,000 per unit of permanent supportive housing. To provide housing to 36,300 people at an average of $450,000 per unit would cost $16.5 billion.
Construction costs are only the beginning of the tally. While annual operating costs are difficult to come by – perhaps by design – the L.A. Daily Newsreported in 2016 that permanent supportive housing costs $22,000 per resident annually, meaning that annual costs to support 36,300 people would be $800 million. Once again that number may be on the low side: Last month L.A. Downtown News reported that the cost of LAPD patrols at the El Pueblo facility run to $96,171 per month, or more than $1.15 million annually, in addition to annual operating costs of $1.3 million. And that’s just one, small facility with 43 temporary beds. That works out to $56,976 per bed per year. Annual operating costs at the Schraeder shelter are $4.7 million, or $65,277 per bed. For perspective, that’s nearly two and a half times the average annual rent in the City of Los Angeles. It works out to $5,440 per month. That’s how much it costs to rent a 1,500 square foot, two bedroom new construction apartment four blocks from the beach in Venice.
These aren’t real numbers. Only in the bureaucracy-addled imaginations of politicians do they even begin to make sense. To be sure, bridge facilities offer general services for the homeless, not just to the people staying there. Nevertheless, the construction and operating costs are eye-watering. Yet no one seems to be asking where the money is going to come from.
Not every one of the city’s homeless people will need permanent supportive housing. But given that the city’s official count is a massive underestimate it’s reasonable to use 36,300 as a working number. If the real number is closer to 100,000 it’s fair to assume that a third will need some form of permanent support in perpetuity. Indeed, according to the Economic Roundtable’s report, of the 100,000 people estimated to experience homelessness in L.A. in a given year, a third will remain homeless for a year or more, meaning they likely will need a permanent solution.
Like so much of life in Eric Garcetti’s Los Angeles, the more the city spends on homelessness the worse the problem gets. Two and a half years after voters did their part by overwhelmingly approving Measure HHH, not a single unit of supportive housing has opened. The first are expected in December, which will be more than three years since the vote.
Then again, perhaps we should have read Measure HHH more carefully: It promises to deliver 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing over the next ten years, for $1.8 billion. A thousand units a year won’t even staunch the bleeding. 10,000 units is enough housing for less than a third of the city’s current chronic and hardcore homeless population (the real number, not the city’s fanciful official one) over a decade. Apparently we’ll get to the other two thirds at some later date.
The numbers aren’t real. The money isn’t real. The time frame is utterly unrealistic. And all the while tens of thousands of people languish in post-apocalyptic conditions, with more joining them every single day. Thanks to Eric Garcetti and the feckless, corrupt city council this is life in the wealthiest city in wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history.
In Edgar Allen Poe’s The Mask of the Red Death, Prince Prospero hosts a hedonistic masquerade while outside his ramparts the population succumb to a gruesome plague. The prince installs garish, grotesque décor in his castle’s seven interconnected halls. He provides revelers with music and wine, dancers, clowns, buffoons, and “dreams.” As far as the prince and the nobility are concerned, beyond their debauched bacchanalia “The external world could take care of itself. Meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.”
It’s a classic trope, Nero fiddling while Rome burns. Literature and history are replete with let-them-eat-cake moments. In the 21st century California’s political class has joined the sad cortège. They have their own Prosperos in the likes of Gavin Newsom and Eric Garcetti, les élues whose keeps are gated communities in Marin County, bastioned manses in Palo Alto, compounds in Bel Air and Malibu. They most assuredly aren’t thinking about, much less grieving for, the external world.
While hundreds of thousands of homeless decay on the streets of the state’s once-great cities, California’s elites cloister in their rarified confines, perversely feting themselves for their enlightened benevolence. While some 6 million of their fellow Californians languish in poverty they refuse to return so much as a farthing; indeed, the extract ever-more tribute. While millions of children languish in some of the country’s worst schools they host fundraisers for their own children’s exclusive acadamae, lavish events at which they auction gold earrings and Tahoe vacations. Their concern for the commoners is but a pretext.
All the while they assure themselves that thanks to their sagacity, outside the battlements all is prosperity and contentment. And why would they not? Their own vaults runneth over.
At least, in theory. In reality California already is bankrupt. The state has at least $1.5 trillion in outstanding bonds, loans, and other long-term liabilities, along with unfunded liabilities for post-employment benefits (primarily public sector retiree healthcare), as well as unfunded pension liabilities. And that’s just amount we know about: California politicians are infamous for flubbing numbers. The “bullet” train is Exhibit A. Add to that number the hundreds of billions that will be necessary to repair and maintain the state’s crumbling infrastructure. Meanwhile the state’s tax receipts have been declining for years. Maybe that’s why Prince Gavin is proposing that the state tax drinking water.
These are not the qualities of a prosperous, successful state. They are harbingers of horrible things to come. Not that the political class notices.
Newsom’s patrons are among the eldest of California’s nobility: the Gettys, the Fishers, the Pritzkers. He wasn’t born rich, but his family was well-connected. His father William was a state appellate judge and trustee of the Getty family fortune. When John Paul Getty III was kidnapped in 1973, William Newsom served as bag man with the ransom. Gavin was raised safe within the palace. As a consequence, his contact with average Californians always is fleeting, ephemeral, a sort of half baked, modern day noblesse oblige. He plays his part with a cheery gusto that is gruesome in light of reality. Like Prospero he is “happy and dauntless and sagacious.”
We have our Prosperos. The plagues outside their walls are Poverty, Addiction, Mental Illness, Ignorance, Hopelessness, Helplessness. The first victims already are dying in the streets – Los Angeles has experienced more than 1,200 homeless deaths since 2017. The victims are addicts wasting away before your eyes, lunatics being devoured from within by demons only they can see and hear, people who have given up on life. They live in mile after mile of tent cities, from Skid Row to Santa Monica and all points in between Unreported crime is rampant. We’ll never know how many homeless women will be raped. Broad swaths of L.A. and San Francisco have been reduced to near-anarchy. Entire neighborhoods resemble ghost towns and entire towns resemble the End of Days. In such places Third World conditions would be an improvement. Unimaginably, conditions are even worse in the Central Valley and northern counties.
The plagues afflicting California are not just metaphorical: Typhoid fever, typhus, hepatitis, and tuberculosis all have been identified on our streets. There are increasing fears of a full blown outbreak of bubonic plague.
You see the first victims also in our public schools: The thousand-yard stare on the face of a South L.A. middle schooler whose best friend was shot in a drive-by when they were children. The high school graduate wandering lost through a world she was never taught to navigate, lacking so much as the ability to fill out a fast food job application. In 2018 alone child homelessness spiked by 50% in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Outside California’s one-great cities, entire counties are being consumed as people sickened by one or more of California’s plagues abandon their neighborhoods. As the older generation passes no one is there to take their place. In the Central Valley hundreds of communities resemble shantytowns. So too in places farther south like Palmdale, and in the far north like Siskiyou; these places are previews.
The political class whisk past and tut-tut and remind their minders to remind them to mention it in their next address.
Poe’s tale has a final, crucial element: A clock. Within one of the chambers in the castle is an enormous ebony clock that on the hour chimes a peculiar, and peculiarly chilling chime that freezes the revelers in place: “While the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation.”
reminds them that the whole garish, phantasmagoric affair is a lie. They are
going to die the same agonizing death as the commoners.
We’ve begun to hear the chimes of Prospero’s clock in California. We hear it in a hundred car windows being smashed by vagrants every night in San Francisco. We hear it in the screams of the insane in the streets, the wail of a siren in the middle of the night racing to resuscitate a drug overdose victim.
In the end,
of course, the Red Death reaches the nobility. In the end the only difference
between Prince Prospero and the lowest commoner is the opulence of his demise
(and, perhaps, his ultimate destination).
change, Prospero’s clock will soon be tolling for every Californian.