One of the central arguments officials and advocates proffer in favor of “road diets” and other traffic calming measures is that they improve safety. Unfortunately, in too many places nationwide the reality is the opposite of the rhetoric. Over the past several months people around the country have documented the impacts of these projects in their communities, particularly when it comes to emergency response times. Many have shared images and videos with the all aspect report.
Moreover, traffic calming measures often increase rather than decrease accidents, injuries, and fatalities. For example, after three years of road diets and other projects under Vision Zero in Los Angeles, pedestrian fatalities have almost doubled.
As we’ve noted previously, in November 2018 “road diets” in Paradise, CA contributed to gridlock during evacuations from the Camp Fire, the largest in California history. Demonstrating just how far the anti-car ideology has gone in the Golden State, the Butte County Association of Governments (BCAG) brazenly ignored a 2008 Butte County Grand Jury report recommending that roads in Paradise be widened and otherwise improved for evacuations during wildfires. The pictures speak for themselves (notations ours):
Tragically, the steps BCAG took to reduce road capacity contributed to mass gridlock as people fled the Camp Fire in November, 2018. That conflagration was the biggest in California history, destroying some 15,000 structures and leaving at least 88 people dead. Numerous interviews with survivors in the immediate aftermath (we joined the first evacuees to be allowed back into the fire zone on November 22) confirm that the narrowed roads made it harder for people to flee. As one resident put it, “Even before the fire we wondered what the hell they were thinking.”
The main picture above was taken during the fire, and it shows cars struggling to pull right as fire engines race toward the flames. There can be no more definitive evidence that traffic calming, when done without due regard for public safety, not only impedes evacuations but also the ability of first responders to reach the scene. It’s a lose-lose.
Frighteningly, counties throughout California are reducing lane capacity by installing traffic calming devices and “road diets” in fire evacuation zones. For example, the Shasta Living Streets initiative calls for lane reductions on roads that served as major evacuation routes during the 2017 Carr Fire. Sonoma County is narrowing roads used during the 2018 Tubbs Fire. Oakland has installed numerous road diets on streets that are actually officially designated emergency routes, many of which served as critical lifelines during the deadly 1991 firestorms. Captain Henry Holt of the Oakland Fire Department says, “I found out about a road diet in front of my station when I arrived for a shift one morning.”
On a more quotidian but no less distressing note, residents in Mar Vista, CA and Queens, NY have captured dozens of pictures and images of fire engines, ambulances, and police cars slowed by road diets on Venice Boulevard and Skillman Avenue, respectively. Both projects have been the focus of intense community opposition. Again, the videos speak for themselves.
Off the record we have spoken to dozens of first responders nationwide. Almost without exception they express frustration and disgust with these politically motivated projects. Example after example, study after study after study confirms that traffic calming devices increase emergency response times with deadly results.
When will officials and advocates wake up and realize they’re threatening lives every day?
There’s a remarkable essayin a recent issue of the Socialist Forum, a publication of the Democratic Socialists of America. “Socialism Against Sprawl” is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the new crop of radicals and the ideas they have for the country. Considering that Bernie Sanders a top Democrat presidential hopeful, and given that the Democratic Socialists elected some 40 national, state, and local candidates in 2018, including overnight political celebrities like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Talib, for better or worse they’re a political force. Their ideas warrant critical evaluation, and the Socialist Forum is a small but growing outlet that offers a window into their ideological agenda. It is a largely fact free environment.
A defining aspect of the Democratic Socialists’ message is their claim that, to paraphrase the late George H.W. Bush, they’re a kinder, gentler breed of socialists. The realities of proposals like the “Green New Deal” are shaded, cloaked in anodyne euphemisms and linked to climate change as if they are the only possible means of arresting a coming global cataclysm. They assure Americans that they envision a benevolent, Scandinavian style communitarianism (an audacious assertion considering that actual Scandinavians are all over the record disavowing socialism, including former Danish and Swedish Prime Ministers).
Never mind that one of the Democratic Socialists’ most influential outlets is Jacobin Magazine, approvingly named for the 19th century French political party that guillotined as many as 40,000 ideological opponents during the Reign of Terror. But not to worry: Bernie Sanders has said, “To me, when I talk about democratic socialism, what I talk about are human rights and economic rights.” In the New York Times Jamelle Bouie recently assured usthat “there’s not much fear to monger.” Some, apparently, but not much. Over at Vox, Dylan Matthews intones that what we’re talking about is “social democracy” that will achieve its ends through small-d democratic processes as opposed to revolutionary means. And here’s a piece from jalopnik.com entitled “No, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez isn’t Coming to Take Your Cars Away,” in which the writer eloquently concludes, “All the hysterics are, in case it’s not obvious, bulls***” (That last headline at least is accurate insofar as the Congresswoman isn’t going to show up personally in your driveway with a tow truck. She’s too busy zipping around in labor exploiting Ubers, ozone depleting airplanes, and gas guzzling SUVs).
On the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) website, the party states that “At the root of our socialism is a profound commitment to democracy, as means and end,” and that “we believe that social and economic decisions should be made by those whom they most affect.” Yet on the very same website “Socialism Against Sprawl” speaks approvingly of government seizure of private property: “The expropriation of all land in the suburbs…will facilitate a shift in population distribution from suburban and rural areas into urbanized places.”
It would be interesting to hear Bernie Sanders or AOC explain how forced expropriation of tens of millions of homes in suburbs across America is a democratic means of letting people make their own economic decisions.
It gets worse:
“If many more people are to fit into an urban environment, the city must densify–that is, reduce the acreage allocated to each person who lives there.”
“Urbanization will also force residents to transition away from the private lawns of suburbia and toward shared public green spaces.”
“Urban communities can encourage widespread use of mass transit while practically eliminating use of the private automobile.”
“Seizure.” “Expropriation.” “Force.” “Elimination.” None of it sounds very democratic, but it is awfully socialistic. Green New Deal pogroms – excuse us, programs – will “remind all residents of a city at every turn that they are part of a society, and that their individual lives cannot be divorced from those of their neighbors.” Big Brother will be watching and reminding us of our proper places and roles. Only instead of Little Red Books the vanguard will be brandishing copies of the Green New Deal. Green is the new Red.
Finally the essay reaches the endgame: ““[C]ities can develop an urban environment where residents of a neighborhood are able to live a full and enriching life without ever traveling more than a few blocks from home” (emphasis ours).
Re-read that sentence, then re-read it again. Burn it into your memory, because the truth is that “democratic socialism,” like every other manifestation of history’s most destructive and murderousideology, ultimately is about control. Period. End of discussion. Even the Bolsheviks started life as superficially benign democratic socialists promising to free the benighted urban industrial proletariat (a tiny proportion of Russian workers at the time) from the shackles of capitalism. The only fluidity in socialism is the nomenclature; its goals have never changed
The essay quotes a 1973 missive in which New Left theorist Andre Gorz asserted that “an ideological (‘cultural’) revolution would be needed to break this circle [of dependence on automobiles].” Chillingly, he wrote those words as the actual Great Cultural Revolution was claiming lives, careers, and families by the million
But what about cars? “Socialism Against Sprawl” spells it out in black and white (or rather, bright red): “Reducing or totally eliminating private car ownership is a critical step towards combating climate change. If private cars stick around at all, they’ll only work as a mode of transportation if their use is strictly limited.” (emphasis ours)
So, yes, the socialists are coming for your car. And your house. And your front lawn. And your barbecue. “Socialism Against Sprawl” is one of the few honest missives outlining where the brave new Left wants to take this country. The problem is, besides mega developers and the activists and politicians who serve as their useful idiots few Americans want to swap their Subarus for Schwinns or their front lawns for communal green spaces maintained by corrupt local governments. Home ownership remains the heart of the American Dream. And a car is one of the first major purchases most people make when they have a few dollars. It’s human nature: The urge to wander and the desire to have a place of one’s own are elemental.
And of course, as with virtually every Leftist ideology the hardest hit will be the lower classes, working poor, and immigrants. Consider that for millions of immigrants a secondhand car or truck, while expensive, is their central economic lifeline. That’s true of lower income people generally. According to a 2010 paper in the journal Urban Geography, “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 ours).
As we have previously written in these pages, a 2018 UCLA study commissioned by the Southern California Association of Governments – one of the leading governmental boosters of density, transit, bike lanes, and the rest – notes that over the last 15 years in Southern California “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, “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” (emphasis ours).
Indeed, even the Utopians tacitly acknowledge these realities, which is why states like California issue driver licenses to illegal immigrants and soften requirements such as registration fees for low income people. When it comes to economic mobility and opportunity the individual automobile remains unsurpassed.
“Socialism Against Sprawl” isn’t idle theorizing. Policymakers in cities and states around the country already are doing everything they can to force people out of their cars and ratchet up the burden of private property ownership. California is proposing a 70% tax on estates worth more than $3.5 million ($7 million for couples). Anyone who lives in L.A. or the Bay Area can attest that a $3.5 million estate, including the value of a home, hardly establishes you as rich. The real goal is to make inheritance of real property as burdensome and expensive as possible for the middle class. New York’s 2019-20 annual budget includes “congestion pricing” in Manhattan, tolls charged to drivers to enter certain parts of the borough. Progressives hail the idea as a mechanism for reducing driving and hastening the arrival their car-free Utopia. Again, it’s middle class commuters who’ll be hardest hit. These are just two of hundreds of examples.
The question, then, is what happens if policies like estate taxes, congestion pricing, Vision Zero, and all the rest fail to convince Americans to radically change their way of life? What if people just really, really like their cars, to the point that no amount of gridlock is going to pry them out? What if millions of Americans continue to dream of owning their own home one day, with a front lawn, a backyard, and a barbecue? What if we’re willing to shoulder all the cost, inconvenience, and uncertainty that government can throw at us just for the chance to enjoy a glass of wine on the back porch after work?
History does not suggest pretty answers. The fatal flaw in socialism is that it requires everyone to agree. Which is why Bernie is nothing but a Bolshevik reboot and Occasio-Cortez is just a wannabe Castro with better fashion sense. Like every other attempt in history, “democratic socialism” is just another way of saying social engineering.
The stench of the homeless camp hits you from blocks away. It’s an indescribable combination of decay, decomposition, detritus, and death, the kind of odor you would associate with a third world slum or a World War I battlefield. It invades your nostrils even through a protective mask. After a few minutes you’re wearing it on your clothes, your shoes, your skin. It stays with you long after you leave.
Yet as suffocating as it is the stench doesn’t prepare you for what you see inside the camp itself. Even for Angelenos, who have become tragically accustomed to such scenes, the encampment on Oxford Street in Van Nuys shocks the conscious. For a hundred feet the garbage is piled shoulder high. Every step is hazardous: Rats and mice scurry in all directions, shards of glass litter the ground, and broken meth pipes are common. There are decomposing rodent carcasses amid piles of dog, rat, and human excrement. Walking through the camp one tries not to consider how many infectious diseases may be present. This is the place some 50 people call home.
Despite the hazards, dozens of volunteers from all over Los Angeles converged on the camp on Saturday to clear away thousands of pounds of garbage. Starting at 7a.m. they put themselves in harm’s way to accomplish a task the City and County of Los Angeles seem incapable of doing: They cleaned up a homeless camp. In the process they helped the neighborhood, local businesses, and the camp’s inhabitants themselves, some of whom joined the effort. By early afternoon the place was unrecognizable. The clean-up’s organizer, Scott Presler, said they had hauled away 50 tons of garbage.
Walking through the thrum of activity, one cannot help but ask why the Garcetti administration and City Council cannot accomplish the same feat, given the billions of dollars they’ve spent over the last five years. How is it that untrained citizens, armed with nothing but shovels and moxy, can do more to help our city than the people supposedly in charge of it? Why hasn’t anyone in city or county government hit upon the idea of organizing mass volunteer clean-ups like the one a private citizen put together from three thousand miles away?
The volunteers came from all over the southland and reflected the region’s diverse character. There seemed to be a little bit of everyone. One man said he’d taken the bus to the camp, while a woman rolled up in brand-new Mercedes. Teenagers worked alongside members of a church group in their 70s. One woman said that she and her boyfriend had left their Orange County home at 5a.m. so they could arrive in time to join the first wave. One camp resident walked back and forth between the far end of the camp and the dumpster, hauling two shopping carts’ worth of refuse at a time with dogged determination.
In the face of the overwhelming human misery confronting them the volunteers displayed a hearty esprit de corps as they donned hazmat suits and masks and waded into the mire. At one point a woman screamed and jumped as a rat tried to run up the leg of her suit. Her scream turned to laughter as her fellow volunteers good-naturedly mimicked her motions. They briefly seemed to be dancing.
The generosity on display was overwhelming. People brought pizzas and donuts, boxes of bottled water and juices. The hazmat suits, masks, and shoe covers were donated. Javier Perez, owner of Perez Disposal in Granada Hills, provided a large roll-off container along with a hauling truck and a Bobcat mini tractor. By noon he said that his crew already had hauled the container to a nearby landfill twice, both times filled to the top with 30 cubic yards of trash. When asked how much the day was costing his business Mr. Perez shrugged and replied, “About $3,000. But who cares? It’s the right thing to do.”
A camp resident named Robert, who described himself as the camp’s “sentry, city councilman, and mediator,” said the day was the happiest since he arrived five months ago. “Living like this,” he says, pointing to his tent where his girlfriend was cleaning up, “I get so tired. So tired. But today gives me hope. I mean, look at these folks. They don’t have to be here. They don’t have to spend a Saturday away from their families to help us out. But here they are. God bless them.” As he talked a spider crawled across his face and around his right ear. He didn’t even notice.
Clean-up organizer is a controversial figure
It may surprise Angelenos to learn that the clean-up’s organizer isn’t from L.A. He isn’t even from California. Mr. Presler is a Washington D.C. native who lives in northern Virginia. Even more surprising (to Angelenos) is that Mr. Presler, who is gay, is an avid Trump supporter and conservative activist. When he’s not organizing homeless cleanups he’s sponsoring and leading voter registration drives around the country. Yet using only with Twitter and Facebook he was able to accomplish more in a few hours than the Garcetti administration accomplishes in a year. He says that over the last few months he’s organized two clean-ups in Baltimore, as well as in Virginia Beach and Newark. He has one planned in Philadelphia in two weeks. He said that he was drawn to the Van Nuys camp in particular after hearing that there are a number of veterans among the inhabitants. Both his father and grandfather are retired Navy officers.
Mr. Presler has received negative coverage because of his politics. After his first Baltimore clean-up in early August, the Baltimore Sun ran an op-ed suggesting the event was a political publicity stunt designed to embarrass U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings. The paper dismissed the clean-up as, “not really that remarkable of a concept,” and huffed that, “Mr. Presler’s presence in Baltimore reinforces the tired image of our failing urban cores.” Angelenos (and probably more than a few Baltimoreans) might respond that, well, yes, it does. Because that image is accurate.
Mr. Presler previously worked with a group called ACT for America, which the Anti-Defamation League has called the largest anti-Muslim group in the country. In past interviews Mr. Presler said that as a gay man he was motivated to address Islamic extremism after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida (the killer had sworn allegiance to ISIS and targeted the gay venue). In 2017 NPR reported that Mr. Presler cancelled a planned event in Arkansas when he learned that the organizer was a white nationalist. He has since distanced himself from the group.
To be sure, if Mr. Presler knowingly associated with a hate group he should be accountable. The mere fact that he helped organize events like the “March Against Sharia” will churn some stomachs.
Yet considering what he has accomplished in L.A., Baltimore, and elsewhere on behalf of homeless people of all races and creeds it would seem forgiveness is in order as well. In speaking with Mr. Presler, you don’t get the impression of a man who’s out to marginalize, malign, or divide. He speaks passionately and sincerely about his desire to help people. “This isn’t about politics,” he says. “I consider the clean-ups to be apolitical.” Moreover, it’s hard to square claims of bigotry with the diversity that was on display at Saturday’s clean-up, and the diversity of the camp residents his efforts helped in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the country. If Mr. Presler is a bigot, he’s not very good at it.
It’s tempting to search for a broader significance to the fact that a full-throated Trump supporter and conservative activist did more in a day to help the homeless in Los Angeles than the city’s progressive elected officials manage in a year. And perhaps there is. But that’s a conversation for another time.
For now, the story is the dozens of Angelenos who spent a Saturday in withering heat quite literally shoveling excrement to help their fellow human beings. They weren’t serving meals at a soup kitchen; they were risking their health, even their lives, in one of the worst places in Los Angeles. All to help people who’s names they will never know. That’s worth dwelling upon in these hyper-divided times.
Thanks to Mr. Presler, for a few hours the best of Los Angeles, the best of California, and the best of the United States were on display. If it took a few MAGA hats to accomplish that task, then so be it. Los Angeles is a little bit better off today thanks to Mr. Presler’s efforts. Hopefully he will be back soon.
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. 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 forced Flipper to choose, 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 and propaganda from 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 public 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 man was there for less than a week, and that he never came out of his tent. It was 95 degrees the day I talked 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 they noticed a smell. It wasn’t professional responsibility or human 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 the man who died,” 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 alone 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 money sitting in my car talking on the phone. 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 your Party 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 nearly half a century California Democrats will finally 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. It’s only going to accelerate as more and more people lose faith in you and the government you oversee.
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. Californians deserve 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.