California homelessness is a humanitarian crisis. It’s time to call in the military

Handing authority over the crisis to Donald Trump is likely too much for most Californians to stomach. They should still consider it.

Meulaboh, Sumatra, Indonesia (Jan. 10, 2005) – A Landing Craft Air Cushion vehicle from the USS Bonhomme Richard delivers desperately needed supplies to the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, in support of Operation Unified Assistance, the U.S. led humanitarian response to the December 26, 2014 tsunami in Southeast Asia. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Bart A. Bauer.

One of the first things you see after a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis virtually anywhere on earth is the arrival a United States Air National Guard C-17 Globemaster relief flight loaded with food, medical supplies, and personnel. Within 24 hours of the devastating 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia the United States dispatched C-17, C-5, and C-130 cargo planes to the region. Guard and regular service personnel immediately began providing relief, food, medicine, sanitation, and search and rescue operations from Indonesia to Madigascar. They were the first wave of what would become Operation Unified Assistance, the largest relief effort since the Berlin Airlift. It involved some 15,000 personnel, two aircraft carrier task forces, a Marine expeditionary unit, a U.S. Navy hospital ship, and countless vehicles and rotary and fixed wing aircraft. Within ten days of the earthquake the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier arrived in the region and began 24-hour-a-day flight operations, including search and rescue. At the peak of the operation the U.S. and a dozen other countries were delivering more than 100,000 pounds of supplies every 24 hours. Less than a year later, some of those same personnel and resources were on the ground in cities and towns throughout the southeastern U.S. providing relief to survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

The military has a long tradition of assisting in and coordinating humanitarian efforts in extreme circumstances, often performing heroically. Historians credit an Army general, Frederick Funston, for saving what was left of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fires. He was deputy commander of the division stationed at the Presidio. Within hours of the quake, his troops were throughout the city fighting fires, establishing relief camps, setting up kitchens to feed the survivors, providing medical aid to the injured, re-establishing sanitation, establishing security (there was a spate of looting), and assisting in search and rescue operations. They saved thousands of lives and prevented the complete annihilation of the city by fire and human mischief.

The military assist not just after disasters but in efforts to prevent them. This summer, the California National Guard has been assisting Cal Fire’s preparations for the 2019 fire season, which has the potential to be one of the worst on record. They’re using lessons learned from the devastating 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California.

The military responds to human-caused disasters as well. Operation Tomodachi was the U.S. response to the March 11, 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. It lasted two months and included 24,000 personnel, 189 aircraft, and the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier task force along with two amphibious carriers, two destroyers, an amphibious dock ship, and other surface vessels. U.S. service members assisted in everything from harbor cleanups to freshwater delivery, search and rescue to decontamination.

YOKOTA, Japan (March 17, 2011) Senior Airman Eva Gaus, left, and Senior Airman Jonathan Jones, assigned to 374th Civil Engineer Squadron, indicate all clear to a C-17 Globemaster III pilot after checking for radiation at Yokota Air Base. U.S. Navy photo by Yasuo Osakabe

The military often is the only entity with the experience, human and material resources, and discipline to respond to major crises, and they often are the most effective resources on the ground. Even as the George W. Bush administration and FEMA bungled their responses to Hurricane Katrina, the disaster was hailed as one of the National Guard’s finest hours for its rescue efforts. Certainly there were hitches, but as with so many other examples the military saved countless lives and properties and prevented the outbreak of mass lawlessness.

The scale of the California homeless crisis demands a national response

It’s time to call in those resources to tackle California’s homeless crisis. The magnitude of the catastrophe, which state leadership has allowed to metastasize for at least a decade, is as dire as any of the examples mentioned above. Officially, some 130,000 people were homeless in the state last year. The official number likely is off by as much as an order of magnitude. According to an authoritative 2014 report by the American Institutes for Research, in 2013 as many as 526,000 children experienced homelessness in California. And that was six years ago, before the crisis truly began to spiral. The report also ranked the state 49th in planning and policies related to child homelessness.

Approximately 1,833 people lost their lives during and after Hurricane Katrina. In 2017, the last year for which numbers are available, at least 2,000 homeless people died in California. Last year 918 homeless people died in Los Angeles County alone. That’s a death every nine and half hours, in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history. It has been widely reported that diseases most people associate with the middle ages – typhus, typhoid, tuberculosis – are spreading in homeless camps across the state. There are legitimate fears of an outbreak of bubonic plague as soon as later this summer. Police officers, firefighters, and volunteers working in homeless communities routinely report all manner of ailments, ranging from inexplicable coughs to influenza. And it’s only getting worse.

Homeless encampments also present terrifying risks of fire. In December 2017 a homeless cook fire got out of control in West Los Angeles and sparked a brush fire that consumed seven houses in Bel Air and threatened the Getty Center and its priceless art collections and research centers. A fire captain in downtown Los Angeles recently told The All Aspect Report that his crews are called to douse dumpster fires several times a day. He said they refer to one of their trucks as “the dumpster fire tender.” Homeless fires are a daily occurrence from the San Fernando Valley to the Bay Area, the state capital to remote Butte County. It’s a literal version of Russian roulette, and it’s only a matter of time before one of those fires gets out of control and becomes the state’s next Camp Fire.

LOS ANGELES, California (December 7, 2017) Angelenos’ evening commute became a harrowing ordeal during the Skirball Fire, which was sparked by a homeless cook fire (screen capture from KNBC report)

The fires are just one aspect of the lawlessness that California’s homeless crisis has created. Vandalism, assault, drug sales, public intoxication, disturbing the peace, public defecation, even prostitution and attempted murder all have become terrifyingly commonplace. Most crimes aren’t even reported anymore – why bother calling 911 when you know no one’s coming?

If the scope of these issues doesn’t justify federal intervention it’s hard to see what would.

Services are overwhelmed and officials are incompetent

It has been clear for several years that state and local authorities are overwhelmed, and political leaders are incompetent. As previously reported in these pages, under Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “bridge housing” plan the City of Los Angeles is spending an average of $55,000 per bed for temporary dormitory style housing. Accepting the official count of 36,900 homeless in the city, it would cost more than $2 billion to provide shelter to every one of them. The shelters also cost an average of $50,000 per bed per year to operate, meaning the city would spend $2 billion to construct the shelters and then $2 billion a year to maintain and operate them. These are not real numbers

The official response becomes even more absurd with permanent housing. When pitching Measure HHH to L.A. voters, Mayor Garcetti promised the city would build 10,000 units over the next ten years at a cost of $1.8 billion. That wouldn’t put so much as a dent in the crisis. Moreover, in reality those permanent units cost an average of $450,000 each. That’s $4.5 billion, two and a half times the mayor’s original promise, to house less than a third of the city’s homeless over the next decade. These are not real solutions.

In contrast, consider that an Army mobile hospital and shelter can be set up for a few hundred thousand dollars in a matter of hours. These facilities provide a range of emergency and supportive services, including sanitary and medical facilities, triage, accommodation, security, kitchens, pharmacies, storage, and communal gathering places. In a fraction of the time that city and state governments spend dithering over what color to paint a new bridge facility, the National Guard and other military elements can have shelters operational, helping people, saving lives, and rescuing communities.

LOCATION UNKNOWN – A typical military field hospital and relief camp.

Moreover, the National Guard and regular military branches have facilities and bases all over California, meaning that much of the usual red tape, bureaucracy, and litigation could be avoided. The Guard could, for example, set up a relief camp at its recruiting station in West Los Angeles. That station is less than a mile from the Westwood VA Hospital, meaning it would be an attractive option for homeless veterans, who are among the most underserved in the population.

Last but not least, the military branches collectively possess countless years of experience in confronting all manner of humanitarian disasters. Who better to solve California’s homeless crisis than the men and women who have been on the ground in places Paradise, New Orleans, Haiti, Indonesia, and hundreds of other crisis points? Would Californians rather continue to trust that the likes of Gavin Newsom and Eric Garcetti will figure it out, eventually and given enough money? No – it is time to call in the professionals who have demonstrated time and again their capabilities under the most challenging circumstances.

Potentially thorny legal and constitutional questions

The President has authority to deploy military units domestically for certain purposes. Under the Posse Comitatus Act the military can conduct non-law enforcement operations including humanitarian missions. They cannot act as a police or quasi-police force but they can assist with a wide range of activities.

The National Guard is a closer question. Guard units can be activated (that is, put on orders) by the state or federal government. The differences are in who foots the bill and who’s in charge. When a state deploys its National Guard, the state pays and the governor serves as commander in chief. In contrast, the President or Secretary of Defense can call up units to support overseas military operations, in which case the federal government pays and is in command. Guard activation also can be a hybrid: Federally funded to perform duties while remaining under state control, such as during Hurricane Katrina and the Camp Fire.

Suffice it to say it is highly unlikely that Governor Newsom will activate the Guard at the state level to respond to a homeless crisis he himself had a hand in creating. It would be to admit the failure of state and local efforts to address the crisis. Moreover, in the current environment of Democratic politics it simply would be untenable: Before the first tent was erected the cries of “concentration camps” would begin from the party’s newly dominant Left wing.

Then again, Californians probably don’t want Newsom in charge under any circumstances – he’s done enough harm. To be sure, removing authority from feckless bureaucratic amateurs would be an improvement, but ultimately the same people would be in charge. Newsom would determine where the relief facilities go up, how they would be staffed, and the minutiae of their operations (and if there’s one thing about the governor, he loves to dive into minutiae, whether he comprehends it or not).

Precedents in the Civil Rights Era

There is at least some precedent for Presidents using the military and even calling up the National Guard without a state declaration, under extraordinary circumstances and even in defiance of state government. For example, the President can use the military and activate a state’s Guard units when citizens’ civil rights are threatened by state action. The most famous example was when President Dwight D. Eisenhower took control of the Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi National Guards to enforce desegregation efforts, over the objections of those states’ governors.

Perhaps the most salient example is President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to federalize the Alabama National Guard in 1965. Johnson had been deeply troubled by images of peaceful civil rights protestors being attacked by police dogs, doused with fire hoses, and tear gassed and beaten in the streets of Selma on Bloody Sunday. Infuriated after the state’s governor – the noxious Democrat segregationist George Wallace – reneged on a promise to use state authorities to protect the protests, Johnson activated 10,000 Alabama Guard troops and dispatched them to the city. From March 20-25, 1965 some 3,000 Guard and regular Army troops escorted Martin Luther King, Jr. and 50,000 protesters on their march from Selma to Montgomery, where King delivered one of his most famous orations, “How Long, Not Long.”

SELMA, Alabama (March 20, 1965) A soldier protects Civil Rights activists on their march from Selma to Montgomery. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

The 1965 example is particularly applicable because Johnson’s legal and constitutional justification for taking control of the Alabama National Guard was a civil rights crisis. Not unlike the Freedom Riders of the 1960s, today’s homeless are subject to routine civil rights and constitutional deprivations by the very authorities charged with preserving them. Hundreds of thousands of Californians live on the streets, in beat-up campers, in abandoned buildings unfit for human habitation. Hundreds of thousands of children languish in similar and sometimes worse conditions. Millions of innocent citizens also have their rights trammeled every day, from the handicapped little girl who can’t get down the sidewalk in Venice in her wheel chair because dozens of tents block her way to the average Jane or Joe who has to navigate sidewalks covered in human excrement while wondering if today will be the day the plague arrives.

It will require diligent research by constitutional scholars. A process may look something like this: President Trump could declare a national state of emergency over the homeless crisis (while California is by far the worst, states nationwide are grappling with their own versions of the catastrophe). He could demand that governors in the worst affected states call up their Guard units to begin immediate humanitarian operations. When those governors invariably refuse, the President could activate their National Guard units as a necessary to the preservation of millions of people’s rights and safety.

Of course, for many in this deep blue state the idea of giving Donald Trump authority to do anything is a non-starter. There would be inevitable comparisons to the President’s decision to send troops to the southern border. Then again, military professionals haven’t been shy about shutting down Trump’s more jingoistic tendencies in that arena. Moreover, Californians would do well to look at the Camp Fire as an example. Despite the occasional (and characteristic) inflammatory Tweet the President stayed out of the Guard’s way and let them do their job. That is what should be expected of federal efforts to deal with homelessness in the state.

It’s time for Californians – and Americans – to acknowledge the state’s abject failure to solve the homeless crisis. It’s time to acknowledge that the bureaucratic amateurs had their chance and only made things worse.

It’s time for the President to declare a state of emergency in California. It’s time to send in the military.

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Bike lanes can’t save cyclists who won’t protect themselves

Ignoring a dedicated bike lane, a cyclist lane dangerously splits lanes down San Vicente Boulevard in West Los Angeles in rush hour traffic. At least he was wearing a helmet.

The video out of Brooklyn, New York on July 1 is as gut wrenching as it is heart wrenching. A cyclist speeds down the sidewalk and into a blind intersection, against the light, without slowing down. Tragically, she tries to cross the street just as a cement truck enters the intersection. She swerves at the last second, but it’s too late – she hits the front of the truck, falls off her bike, and is crushed under the truck’s back wheels. A surveillance camera caught the accident (warning, the video is extremely graphic and will be disturbing to some readers). The victim was a 28-year-old woman named Devra Freelander, an artist who lived in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.

In Manhattan on June 24th, a 20-year-old bicycle messenger collided with a delivery truck in morning traffic. Robyn Hightman was riding in traffic when they* hit the truck from behind. The driver, who continued to drive several more blocks before being flagged by a taxi driver, claimed he never saw them.

The accident occurred near the intersection of Sixth Avenue (aka Avenue of the Americas) and 24th Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. Ironically, in response to pressure from bike activists, in 2016 the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) installed a protected bike lane on Sixth Avenue between 8th and 33rd Streets. In December of that year Streetsblog NYC gushed that “the new protected bike lane on Sixth Avenue … has turned one of the city’s most stress-inducing bike routes into one of its best.”

The protected bike lane, left, on Sixth Avenue at 24th Street, near where a cyclist was killed in an accident on June 24. The cyclist wasn’t using the lane at the time of the collision.

According to CBS affiliate WKTR, “police determined [Hightman] was not in the bike lane and was traveling between vehicles when they were struck.” Likewise, the New York Post reported Hightman “was pedaling between cars” when the crash occurred. Eyewitnesses, including the cab driver who stopped the truck driver, confirmed that Hightman struck the Freightliner truck from behind. Images of the scene show a mangled bicycle in the middle of the street, several dozen feet from the bike lane.

The response to the accident was predictable to anyone familiar with bike activists and their radical agenda. Rather than using the tragedies of Freelander’s and Highman’s deaths as a teachable moment New York’s bike activists (all 37 of them) went into full outrage mode. Instead of taking a hard look at the circumstances, they raged about “reckless truck drivers,” “dangerous drivers,” and of course, “traffic violence.” These are the same cohorts who gleefully boast about bike rage, and howl about evil school bus drivers (seriously). They even claim to be an “oppressed class” (again, seriously).

In short, they do everything but take responsibility for their own lives.

Yet the simple fact is that cyclists often are their own worst enemies. They routinely blow through red lights and stop signs. They lane split in rush hour traffic while listening to music and checking texts. They ride the wrong way down one-way streets. They ride at night with no lights or reflective gear. They bait and taunt motorists. These are all incredibly risky actions yet they are the norm for far too many cyclists. If cyclists don’t take responsibility for their own safety, there’s little the rest of us can do. Indeed, in the name of speed and convenience many riders routinely ignore roadway features specifically intended to protect them.

A memorial gathering for Hightman the night of the accident was a prime example of the activists’ warped ideology. What started as a (relatively) peaceful vigil quickly turned into a protest that ultimately erupted into an Antifa-style riot. Several activists dragged two men from their car and beat them in the street. They also damaged the men’s car along with multiple others. Nothing calls sympathy to a cause like intentionally, violently assaulting innocent individuals (not unlike the Antifa riot in Portland last weekend that left journalist Andy Ngo with a brain hemorrhage).

This man, with visible injuries, claims he was attacked by rioting bike activists.

Despite the activists’ self-righteous outrage and violence, Freelander’s and Hightman’s deaths are tragic illustrations of how bike lanes cannot prevent every single accident and death, particularly when cyclists themselves don’t obey traffic rules. A reporter from the New York Villager visited the scene of Hightman’s death a few days after the accident. He observed, “several cyclists…veering out into car lanes near the intersection to avoid heavy pedestrian traffic and slower bicycles, and then turning back into the bike lane midway up the block.” Cyclists swerve out into traffic in order to maintain their preferred speed rather than slowing for pedestrians (as required by law). That, in a word, is unsafe. If they won’t prioritize their own safety, Vision Zero and all the bike lanes in the world can’t help them.

Activists often point to confounding factors like cars, trucks, and buses parked illegally in bike lanes. They point out that some drivers are simply oblivious to bicycles and sometimes overtly hostile, with dangerous consequences. Those are valid points. Again, however, the law requires bicycle riders to observe the rules of the road. If a driver encounters a double-parked car, the solution isn’t to swerve into the oncoming lane without slowing down. Given their inherent vulnerability cyclists should be even more cautious. If they encounter a slower rider ahead of them they have to slow down themselves until it is safe to pass. These are the rules of the road.

Alas, a drive through most any downtown core these days involves navigating among a constant scrum of law breaking velocipedians. As bike lanes and other “bike infrastructure” proliferate nationwide, attitudes among cyclists have shifted from self preservation to privilege. Even though they comprise a vanishingly small proportion of road users (with the exception of few college towns no U.S. city has a bicycling rate higher than 4%), they wield outsize influence in city planning offices and even city halls. Groups like New York’s Transportation Alternatives are extremely well-funded and dominate the narrative over traffic safety. In their narrative, cyclists are never responsible for their own actions, much less their own safety.

If someone decides to drive drunk and ends up crashing into a tree and dying, we don’t blame the tree. Yet in every single cyclist death the activists blame everyone and everything but the cyclist, even when that cyclist flouted traffic laws intended to protect them.

A cyclist ignores the protected bike lane and weaves through traffic on Spring Street in downtown L.A.

The fact that riders like Freelander are responsible for their own accidents doesn’t make it their fault. Even when they’re 100% responsible, they’re still victims. Victims of an increasingly entitled and aggressive lobby of bike activists who blame everything on cars and drivers even when the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. It’s the only message young people like Hightman have ever heard. They have grown up in an era in which American cities collectively added tens of thousands of miles of bike lanes, routes, and paths, giving riders a sense of primacy. Cyclists are taught to ride aggressively rather than cautiously and defensively. The ultimate tragedy is that it’s the bike activists themselves who lure innocent people to their doom by imbuing them with a false sense of priority and safety.

The fact of the matter is, choosing to ride a bicycle is choosing to take certain risks. Cycling on city streets, particularly major thoroughfares, is an inherently dangerous act, one made inestimably more dangerous by many cyclists’ own conduct and decisions. When it comes down to it there’s nothing between a rider’s body and the pavement.

Unless and until the bike activists are willing to acknowledge so much as a scintilla of these realities people will continue dying on the streets.

  • *Robyn Hightman went by the pronouns they/them.

When it comes to economic opportunities and personal freedom, the automobile remains supreme

My Chevy Volt: A thing of beauty.

California officials have declared war on the individual automobile and the single family home. The former is the bugaboo of environmental correctness; the latter, we’re told, the source of economic and racial inequality. In reality, like politicians and activists around the country California’s political class has declared war on prosperity. They’ve also signaled their opposition to economic opportunities for low income and immigrant Californians.

As with the Soviet central planners who are their political mater and paterfamilias, at the core of the new Utopians’ schemes are densely populated cities connected and interconnected by transit systems and encircled by open space. The Central Committee had its imperious Moscow Metro and V.I. Lenin Leningrad Metro systems; the politburo in Sacramento will have their light rail and (some day) bullet train. For that matter, at least the Communists did their transit in style, compared to the post-apocalyptic hellholes of systems in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

A metro station in a repressive, impoverished dictatorship where people had no hope.
A metro station in the richest nation in human history, where opportunity is everywhere.

The fact is that in the vast majority of American cities and towns reliance on mass transit, much less cycling and walking, as one’s primary means of getting around limits economic opportunity. Consider a recent immigrant from Mexico trying to gain a foothold in his new land. His first job likely will require him to travel considerable distances. He may find work as a gardener, a field worker, a day laborer. At first he’ll be dependent on others to get around, so he’ll hook up with workers who already have vehicles. Then, at the earliest possible time he’ll purchase a second- or third-hand car or truck of his own, and like that the gates of opportunity will open wider: In that vehicle he can visit multiple work sites every day, haul around his equipment, and transport others to work sites. He can supplement his income with odd jobs (go to any Home Depot and out front you’ll see the guys with their pickups offering hauling and removal services).

For millions of immigrants and lower income people (often one and the same) that secondhand car or truck, while expensive, is their central economic lifeline. A 2018 UCLA study commissioned by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) notes that over the last 15 years in the region “vehicle ownership has grown particularly sharply among subgroups most likely to use transit, such as the low-income and the foreign born from Latin America.” Moreover, “compared to Americans at large, the poor use transit more but like it less. The typical low-income rider wants to graduate to automobiles, while the typical driver might view transit positively but have little interest in using it.” And, “With very few exceptions, acquiring an automobile in Southern California makes life easier along multiple dimensions, dramatically increasing access to jobs, educational institutions and other opportunities.

A 2010 paper in the journal Urban Geography, reached the same conclusion: “Studies of mostly welfare populations have suggested that while public transportation is not unimportant, the automobile is a critical factor in moving from welfare to work.” (emphasis added) Indeed, even the Utopians implicitly acknowledge this fact, which is why states like California issue driver licenses to illegal immigrants and soften requirements such as registration fees for low income people.

To you and me, an old Chevy. To a recent immigrant, hope.

The individual automobile has been the single biggest driver (pardon the pun) of economic prosperity in the last 100 years, unlocking opportunities simply unknown to past eras. After World War II the auto industry helped lift tens of millions into the middle class. They bought cars, built cars, sold cars, and repaired cars. Families were able to move away from crowded urban cores to the space and affordability of the suburbs. By the 1950s the automobile was as central to Americans’ identity as baseball and rock and roll.

The car also was central to desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement. In his landmark 1944 study, An American Dilemma, Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal observed, “the coming of the cheap automobile has meant for Southern Negroes, who can afford one, a partial emancipation from Jim Crowism.” Travel by car overcame the segregation blacks endured on public buses, trolleys, and trains. Sociologist Arthur Raper, studying race in rural Georgia in 1936, noted that “opportunities provided by the automobile provide a basis for a new mobility for whites as well as Negroes, based upon personal standards rather than upon community mores – upon which the individual wants to do rather than what the community does not want him to do” (it’s quite ironic that bike activists want to precisely reverse this arrangement). Behind the wheel, southern blacks discovered a freedom unknown on public conveyances. The “green book” travel guide indexed service stations, restaurants, and inns that would serve them, further weakening Jim Crow. During the Civil Rights Movement both black and white activists devised an ingenious – and completely autonomous – transportation system based on individual vehicles.

To this day there simply is no comparison between cars and transit in terms of economic mobility and personal freedom. Consider again our recent immigrant. He’s not going to be carrying his landscaping equipment on a Metro bus or a bicycle. It’s a personal vehicle or nothing. Indeed, the cohorts that most support transit are overwhelmingly white, college-educated Millennials. These are folks for whom riding a fixie to their start-up in San Francisco every morning is a virtue-signaling lifestyle choice.

Yet the Utopians want to eliminate cars for the rest of us. They want everyone on trains, buses, bikes, and their own two feet. Of course they never explain how manual laborers will get to work, how a worker living in Pacoima will get to her housekeeping gig in Brentwood. They cannot account for the lost hours spent walking to, waiting for, riding on, and walking from the bus or train. No matter the mode, transit generally takes twice as long as driving.

What’s more, assume for a moment cars and transit are equal. It still will take decades to build out systems, along with the dense housing they’re supposed to serve. Yet already policymakers are acting as though the whole thing is a fait accompli, so they’re removing car lanes everywhere you look. In this way they are putting the cart precisely before the horse, expanding transit before the built environment exists to support it. The vast majority of Angelenos, for example, still have to drive everywhere. The result is traffic and gridlock at an historic scale and with it billions in lost economic activity and, ironically, increased emissions and pollution. So much for the Green New Deal.

Never mind, though, for the Utopians have seen the enemy, and it is us. At least those of us who wish to travel and live where we want, when we want, and how we want. If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, best of luck taking transit to your favorite trailhead.

What remains to be seen is whether society will accept their increasingly draconian diktats, or if California will experience its own version of perestroika and restore some sanity.

L.A.’s political class isn’t serious about solving the homeless crisis. Cost of Venice Beach “bridge housing” proves it.

The official rendering of the planned bridge housing site in Venice Beach.

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 start construction 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.

This is what $100,000 buys in Eric Garcetti’s Los Angeles.

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 News reported 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.

In L.A., $5,400 a month gets you either this….
…or this.

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.

What kind of a sanctuary is this?

Officials and activists in Portland celebrated the opening of a new road diet. Hours later, a pedestrian was struck and killed in it.

The Foster Boulevard road diet in Portland, OR.

Vision Zero is premised on the notion that there are no such thing as traffic “accidents.” Instead there are “collisions,” or “crashes.” The theory goes that accidents are random occurrences that cannot be prevented. Collisions, on the other hand, are foreseeable and therefore preventable through roadway design, engineering, big data, and enforcement. It may seem like a vague argument over semantics, and it is. Nevertheless, the vaporous non-distinction is central to the whole Vision Zero endeavor. If a collision is just one sort of accident, by definition the whole house of cards falls apart. If, as Elvis Costello sang, “Accidents will happen,” Vision Zero is premised on a lie.

Every lie is eventually laid bare for all to see. The Vision Zero lie has been exposed repeatedly around the country, from West Los Angeles to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was exposed yet again, in the most tragic way possible, on the evening of June 13. An 82-year-old woman from Portland, Oregon named Louanna Battams was hit by a car while crossing the street in her neighborhood. She later died of her injuries in hospital.

Her accident and death came mere hours after officials and bike activists celebrated the city’s newest road diet, on Foster Road in the southeast part of the city. The road diet had been planned for several years, yet like so many in the country it had been held up by resistance from some members of the community who worried about impacts on traffic and safety. Turns out their concerns were well-founded.

According to news reports Mrs. Battam had lived in the area for many years. Her son said she was likely crossing the street to get a newspaper. Could it have been that the sudden reconfiguration of a familiar roadway contributed to her death? Local news reported that Mrs. Battam was struck while crossing the street in an “unmarked crosswalk.”

A what?

We have seen road diets sow confusion and traffic chaos in countless places. The new configurations rarely conform to standard road markings and often are made up as planners go along. Markings change from block to block, confusing drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians alike.

This is not a safe street. This is chaos.

Road diets can even confuse first responders: As we previously have reported, Oakland, California Fire Captain Henry Holt said that he found out about a road diet one block from his station when he arrived for a shift one morning. “I wasn’t even sure if I was supposed to drive in the new green [bike] lanes myself,” he said. Firefighters around the country have expressed similar frustrations, including Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman. Indeed, road diets often are more dangerous than the configurations they replace. A firefighter with the Los Angeles Fire Department who is a self-described bike nut told the all aspect report off the record that, “The one place I never ride in L.A. is in a bike lane.”

It remains speculation at this point, but based on stories from around the country it is reasonable to ask whether the Foster Avenue road diet contributed to Mrs. Battam’s death. She had crossed that street for years without incident. At the very least, the “safer” configuration wasn’t safe for her. If a road diet – in Portland, of all places, the bike capital of the country – can’t protect an elderly woman, then what are we doing?

Of course the activists will accuse us of victim-blaming, or worse exploiting a tragedy (then again no one knows more about exploiting traffic deaths than the activists, with their “ghost bikes,” memorial rides, and candle light vigils).

But the simple fact of the matter is that Mrs. Battam’s death is just the latest example of Vision Zero’s unintended consequences nationwide:

  • Denver: Since the city launched its Vision Zero program in 2016, traffic deaths have spiked, reaching a 13-year high in 2018 despite aggressive implementation of road diets and other changes.
  • San Francisco: A recent headline in the San Francisco Chronicle declared, “Traffic fatalities soaring despite effort to make city streets safer.” Three years into Vision Zero the city is on pace to record the highest level of pedestrian and cyclist deaths in 12 years.
  • Los Angeles: After three full years of Vision Zero projects, pedestrian deaths are up by more than 80%. Overall accidents have increased more than 10%.
In Los Angeles, Vision Zero is failing, and more people are dying.
  • New York: The Big Apple initially saw a substantial drop in traffic fatalities under Vision Zero (though hit-and-runs increased). The trend reversed this year, with a 30% increase in traffic fatalities over the same period in 2018.
  • Washington DC: Thanks to law enforcement’s focus on drunk driving and seat belt use, DC reached an all-time low of 19 traffic fatalities in 2012, down from 70 a decade earlier. However, since the city rolled out its Vision Zero program in 2013 traffic fatalities have increased each year, nearly doubling to 34 last year.
  • Austin: The Austin Police Department reported last month that traffic fatalities are up 30% compared to last year.
  • San Antonio: 26 pedestrians and cyclists have been killed so far this year, up from 22 at this time in 2018. The local Fox affiliate called it, “A noticeable trend going in the wrong direction for Vision Zero.
  • Denver: Since the city launched its Vision Zero program in 2016, traffic deaths have spiked, reaching a 13-year high in 2018 despite aggressive implementation of road diets and other changes.

Vision Zero, road diets, “complete streets,” “livable streets,” and all the other euphemisms cannot airbrush the reality that more people are dying on our streets. In fact, according to a report last week by PBS, overall pedestrian deaths in the United States are at a 30 year high.

No wonder more and more locales are reexamining and even rolling back their Vision Zero programs.

The children Los Angeles has abandoned

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A decrepit hallway in an LAUSD building

Leon* is going into seventh grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He’s 14 and 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 the last one’s solved. It’s a thing to behold.

It’s all the more remarkable given the deafening noise in his world. He lives in a homeless shelter in Compton with his mom, three older sisters and older brother. Leon and his siblings are among the estimated 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, RVs, and sidewalk tents.

The numbers are eye-watering.

While overall homelessness increased by 19% in L.A. County last year, child homelessness exploded by 50%. That’s on top of a 50% increase in 2018. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Education as many as 71,727 children experienced homelessness countywide. Even that number may be a significant undercount: According to a study by the nonpartisan American Institutes for Research, in 2014 as many as 130,000 children may have experienced homelessness that year. Moreover, that was five years ago, before the crisis truly began to spiral out of control.

130,000 homeless children, in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history. How does this happen? How have we allowed it to happen? Why do we continue electing the same politicians responsible for creating the crisis, in the vain hope they’ll solve their own mess?

Violence is a fact of life for children like Leon. He speaks with a pronounced stutter that started after his best friend was killed in a random drive-by when they were eight. The murder is among the nearly 50% of homicides that go unsolved each year in Los Angeles, the majority in South L.A. He and his siblings regularly alter the route they walk to and from school because patterns are dangerous. His school is relatively safe, but fights are common. His oldest sister has been suspended multiple times and is now home-schooled. It’s harrowing to imagine how many obstacles he faces just to be a normal little boy. He never will be.

He’s 12 years old, and as a society we’ve given up on him. This is life in Eric Garcetti’s Los Angeles.

It’s impossible to acclimatize to the new reality in Los Angeles, to normalize to the notion that for children like Leon life isn’t much different from that of a child in a war-torn developing country. For that matter, Leon is receiving a third world education. He’s going into the eighth grade and he can’t define a noun without prompting. He reads and writes at a third grade level, maybe. He can’t do multiplication tables beyond 5 without a calculator.

Yet Leon lives in the world’s fifth largest economy. His shelter is three miles from Playa Vista and the billions being invested in Silicon Beach. A twelve minute drive down Centinela Boulevard might as well be a twelve hour flight.

Again, Leon is tragically typical. LAUSD public education outcomes are among the worst in the state, making them among the very worst in the country. Though California 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. LAUSD graduates thousands of high school seniors annually who are functionally illiterate – young adults who lack the skills to fill out a fast food job application.

The state of public education in Los Angeles is all the more troubling given the direct connections between education and poverty. Ending poverty starts with the next generation, with kids who are three and four years old. The public school is the foundation for the community and where you find good schools you find strong communities. Where you see bad schools, you see broken ones. If our city is to ever see a decrease in poverty and homelessness, it will follow a reemergence of our schools in a very profound way.

There are reasons for cautious hope. Even as officials dither, individuals are realizing this is an all-hands moment. People are having conversations they weren’t having even a couple years ago. Hundreds of private organizations, nonprofits, and faith groups are putting resources into the fight. They’re leveraging technology and modern behavioral and cognitive science. They crowdsource and harness social media.

Gerald is a father whose seventh grade daughter is enrolled in a program called School on Wheels, which provides tutors and mentors to homeless children in southern California shelters, libraries, schools, and other places homeless families gather (full disclosure: I volunteer with the program). He says that in the last year or so, services have been more visible.

Time will tell if these efforts will coalesce meaningfully. Whether California writ large will heed a call to action. The futures of millions of children like Leon depend on it.

* Not his real name. Details of Leon’s life have been changed to protect his privacy.

Bike lane reversals are slivers of sanity reflecting a growing national trend

Bike lanes can’t cure stupid, but they can disrupt communities.

In response to community outcries, officials in cities nationwide are recognizing reality and starting to remove some of their more ill-advised bike lane and road diet projects while shelving plans for others. The elimination of traffic lanes on major thoroughfares has proved disastrous not only for commuters, but also local businesses and emergency responders. Cities reconsidering such projects include include Baltimore, San Antonio, West Palm Beach, Des Moines, Annapolis, Akron, Columbia, San Rafael, Memphis, Boise, and elsewhere. In countless other communities, from Tahlequah, Oklahoma to Los Angeles, California, opposition to certain bike lanes and other bike facilities have reversed road diets and stopped others in their tracks. And in still more cities and towns, from Waverly, Iowa to New York City, individuals and community groups are coming together to confront the seemingly overnight transformation of their neighborhoods. A group of business owners in The Bronx recently obtained a temporary restraining order against a proposed road diet on Morris Park Avenue (full disclosure: I have provided legal research and other assistance to the plaintiffs). Lawsuits also are pending in Los Angeles.

Perhaps the most surprising reversal has come in Seattle. To hear the bike activists (or “non-auto mobility advocates”) tell it, Seattle ought to be a premier bicycling city. It’s one of the country’s most progressive locales, with substantial populations of Millennial and Gen Z folks who are the most likely cohorts to use bikes and other alternative transportation. The metro area is fairly compact, with a downtown core and other dense pockets like Ballard, and it’s well-served by transit. It’s increasingly expensive to own a car, and traffic is getting worse all the time (of course much of that congestion has to do with all the bike and transit infrastructure). The city even has a former mayor nicknamed “McSchwinn” (not intended as a compliment, mind you).

But to the extent there ever was one, the city’s love affair with the velocipede is proving short-lived and tempestuous. A recent Seattle Times/Elway poll revealed that barely 40% of city residents support the continued expansion of bike infrastructure, while 56% oppose it. Most revealingly, slightly more urban Seattlites “strongly” opposed more bike lanes. To be sure, like any poll there are flaws with this one, in particular its over-reliance on homeowners who are more likely than renters to own cars. Still, it reflects a national trend of cooling enthusiasm and even outright opposition to the mindless expansion of bike facilities at the expense of drivers and bus riders, not to mention first responders. And alternatives to cycling such as ride sharing, car sharing, e-bikes, and scooters continue to proliferate, giving people more attractive options than old-fashioned pedal bikes.

The bike wars came to a head in the Emerald City over a proposed “road diet” on 35th Avenue. Part of the city’s Bicycle Master Plan, the project would have reduced the street from four lanes to two, with protected bike lanes in both directions. Two competing groups, Save 35th (opposed) and Safe 35th (in favor) spent the last 18 months engaged in a sometimes ugly clash over the proposal. The city even hired a mediator to try to find a compromise, to no avail. Eventually the city announced that it would move forward with the project, but sans protected bike lanes.

Despite a decades long push by a small but well-funded, well-connected, and above all noisy cohort of activists the proportion of Americans commuting by bicycle is decreasing. According to the Census Bureau, between 2016 and 2017 bicycle commuting dropped by 25.8% in Oakland, 19.9% in San Francisco, 24.1% in Austin, more than 13% in Atlanta, and more than 12% in Boston. According to the League of American Cyclists, during that same period the overall number of people who regularly commute via bicycle declined in 30 of the 50 states. Reason Magazine reported similar statistics last year. Only four cities – Davis, Santa Cruz, and Palo Alto, California as well as Boulder, Colorado – cracked double digits, barely, and those are all locales with considerable populations of students and other young people.

Of course, these trends could just be blips. After all, overall cycling increased by nearly 43% nationally between 2000 and 2016. Bolstered by federal highway funds hundreds if not thousands of cities and towns across the country, from New York, New York to Waverly, Iowa, continue to invest untold billions in infrastructure, lanes, and other improvements for bicycling. And, of course, one year hardly makes a trend. Then again, while the increase sounds significant in percentage terms the number of Americans for whom cycling is their primary mode of getting around remains vanishingly small.

Regardless, considering those billions of dollars that federal, state, and local agencies collectively have spent on bike infrastructure (at one point the City of Seattle was willing to spend as much as $12 million per mile on dedicated bike lanes) these reversals amount to a stunning rebuke. Commence the activists’ gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.

It’s the activists’ standard operating procedure to smear anyone who so much as questions the wisdom of bike lanes as anti-bike, anti-safety, even anti-children (at a presentation regarding the safety implications of the Venice Boulevard road diet in Los Angeles, we were accused of caring so much about cars that we don’t care if kids are killed; you can’t make this stuff up).

The fact that you don’t support a particular bike lane in a particular place doesn’t make you anti-bike. Wanting to balance the interests of cyclists and pedestrians with those of motorists, local businesses, and emergency responders doesn’t make you a frothing climate change denier. Pointing out that some bike lanes and road diets make things worse rather than better doesn’t make you a muscle car driving Neanderthal.

If common sense prevails scenes like this will soon be bad memories….

Yet that’s the attitude of advocates (and, unfortunately, a lot of local politicians). Bike lanes, Vision Zero, Complete Streets, transit, and density comprise a religious fundamentalism that brooks no dissent and enforces a strict orthodoxy. Show an activist videos of ambulances, fire engines, and police cars trapped on gridlocked road diets in Queens, Mar Vista, or Oakland and they will respond with straight faces that it’s proof we need more road diets. Suggest that perhaps bike lanes are best on secondary roads and you’ll get an earful about how cyclists deserve direct routes as much as anyone else. There is simply no compromise.

Suffice it to say, aligning themselves against emergency responders, mom and pop business owners and average citizens is not a winning strategy. If even Seattle is reconsidering its bike policies the activists – not to mention elected officials – may want to recalibrate and actually listen to alternative viewpoints.

Don’t hold your breath. Zealotry is intoxicating. Activists have convinced themselves they’re doing nothing less than saving the world. They are addicted to the high of their own self satisfaction.

Facts? Where they’re going, they don’t need any facts.