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.

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

My 2018 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.

Dear Mayor Garcetti and Councilwoman Martinez: Hot enough for ya’?

After a. brush fire broke out near an illegal homeless encampment in Lake Balboa Park last Tuesday, Mayor Eric Garcetti claimed it hadn’t been hot and dry enough to order the camp cleared. It was a curious assertion, considering that during the summer months the mercury regularly passes 100 degrees in Van Nuys. It was doubly curious given that Councilwoman Nurey Martinez, whose district includes the park, claimed today that her office had planned a cleanup of part of the park before the fire. Regardless, to call the park a tinderbox is an understatement. Considering the homeless population with their illegal gasoline generators, electric wires, propane tanks, and camp and cook fires, the city is setting up yet another potential disaster area.

On Sunday afternoon it was somewhat cooler in the ravine along Bull Creek, where homeless people have set up not so much an encampment as a small town. It’s completely separate from the camp where the fire started. It’s a quarter mile away, on the other side of Balboa Boulevard. It is one of at least four distinct camps that remain scattered throughout the park. So far, the city has only tackled one, during a sweep this week in which workers are collecting and hauling out garbage and refuse by the truckload.

The approximate location of five homeless encampments in Lake Balboa Park. To date the city has only started to clear one, the site of last week’s fire.

Only a chain link fence separates bucolic Lake Balboa, where people fish for tilapia, bass, and carp, from Bull Creek, where an encampment of roughly 100 homeless people sprawls across roughly a square mile of what was once a stream teeming with fish itself. Unfortunately, some of the people who live in the encampment all too often use it as a trash dump or toilet. A man who gave his name only as Roberto was raking the ground in front of his camps site, which like most of the sites around the creek was cleaner than others you routinely see around Los Angeles. Indeed, some people spoke proudly of the relative orderliness of their own camp sites. A woman named Leanne said, “If the city would provide some dumpsters or something, we’d clean this place up ourselves. Most of the trash and stuff is from people who were here before.”

Roberto has been homeless for two years, since arriving in L.A. from Utah. He spends his days collecting recyclables. For eight to ten hours of rooting through garbage cans he earns $15-$20 a day, enough to buy food. He’s 38 but looks ten years younger with a lean, tattooed frame. He has family in Jalisco but prefers living here, even though his illegal status makes it difficult to find work. When asked if living in a homeless camp next to a fetid creek surrounded by trash was better than his life in Mexico, he instantly replied, “Yes.”

LAKE BALBOA, Ca (Aug. 4, 2019) A warning scrawled on a footbridge near a homeless camp in Lake Balboa Park. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

Fires are “a fact of life” in the camps

Last week’s fire didn’t faze the folks in the ravine. They’re making a life here, and they take fires in stride. “It didn’t get close enough to bother us,” said a woman who has lived here for two years, who declined to give her name. “We keep an eye out. Fires are just a fact of life around here.”

Roberto says that folks in the camp often put out fires themselves. He describes how a tent caught fire a few weeks ago in the middle of the night. He and several others grabbed a hose and attached it to a spigot in the park. They had the flames doused before the fire department even arrived. He said there are fires once or twice a week, and that, “Most of the time we get them out pretty quickly,” he said. It was not exactly reassuring.

LAKE BALBOA, Ca (Aug. 4, 2019) On a path in a homeless encampment along Bull Creek, an extension cord lays in dry grass next to a propane tank. It was 101 degrees when this picture was taken. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

Suffice it to say, relying on homeless people to extinguish their own fires is not a sustainable long-term solution. A walk through the encampment revealed hundreds of yards of electrical wires running through bone dry grass and undergrowth. Wires ran past propane tanks, through the middle of garbage heaps, and directly into tents and other makeshift dwellings. Outlets lay in overgrown weeds. The next fire is not a matter of if, but when. As a firefighter said to The All Aspect Report last week about the situation throughout California, it’s a game of Russian roulette.

The reality in Lake Balboa Park also raises troubling questions, in particular about the efficacy of cleanup efforts. Clearing one camp often just scatters inhabitants to nearby locations. As has been widely reported in local media a huge proportion of L.A.’s chronically homeless population simply refuse services and shelter. What good does it do to clear a camp when the practical effect is to disperse people to other places where they maintain the same lifestyle and living conditions? How does it address the massive threats to public safety posed by these illegal encampments and activities?

The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t.

A sense of order, of sorts

The colony at Bull Creek is relatively orderly, by the standards of illegal homeless encampments. Unlike the sheer anarchy of Skid Row homeless camps and the lawlessness of the ones in Venice and Santa Monica, it exudes a sort of order. A walk around the perimeter of the camp triggers the camp’s sentries. A half dozen men on bicycles shadow anyone who isn’t known to the community.

In a loop of the entire camp and its scores of individual campsites (one man called his place a “homestead”) there weren’t hypodermic needles, which are of course a staple of other camps. There were no signs of other drug paraphernalia, and only a handful of empty liquor bottles. There was no evidence of rats or other rodents, though ants crawled everywhere. With the except of a single, tragic looking young woman whose skin was covered by meth scabies, no one was openly intoxicated. Indeed, everyone seemed to be in decent health. Several people had dogs who also seemed healthy, in contrast to the flea and mange covered specimens in camps elsewhere.

It’s the sort of place where people know each other, socialize with each other, and look out for each other. They refer to each other as neighbors. Many of the camp’s inhabitants are undocumented, illegal immigrants. Leanne, one of the few native Angelenos encountered in the camp, said, “The folks along this stretch of the wash, they’re pretty good. We look out for each other.” Another person said, “These are good people. They’re not the stereotype of homeless. I wish people knew that.”

If fires are regular occurrences in a relatively stable community, what can Angelenos expect elsewhere?

Moreover, the order doesn’t suggest the camp is not filthy – it is, relentlessly so, despairingly so. The creek, which feeds into Balboa Creek on its way to the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, is fetid beyond saving. Yet compared to other camps around Los Angeles, in terms of personal safety it feels almost out of harm’s way – so long as you don’t do anything that attracts the sentries’ attention.

LAKE BALBOA, Ca (Aug. 5, 2019) A Teddy bear was discarded in an illegal trash dump along Balboa Creek. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

The camp – and the three others like it that remain in Lake Balboa Park – is a hazard to the park, the neighborhood, the community, and perhaps most of all to the people who live in it. As noted, the city cleared the first camp starting on Monday. Under the relentless sun city workers loaded and trucked out several loads of garbage.

LAKE BALBOA, Ca (Aug. 5, 2019) A county truck hauled away garbage from one of the homeless encampments in Lake Balboa Park. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

The cleanups are notoriously ineffective. Similar efforts in Venice Beach, Mar Vista, and Skid Row have yielded no permanent improvements. Indeed, camps usually reappear within hours of a cleanup. As soon as the police and city employees are gone, the streets return to the vagrants’ domain.

LAKE BALBOA, Ca (Aug. 5, 2019) A homeless couple with their belongings wait a half block from a cleanup site. They likely were back in one of the encampments in Lake Balboa Park that night.

All of which raises a question for Mayor Garcetti and the City Council: If one camp is enough of a hazard to clear, why not all the rest? Will it take more fires, more loss, more risk? Will it take innocent lives before the city’s political class get serious about solving the crisis once and for all?

These questions have many Angelenos wondering when the heat will rise enough for our political class to get serious about the crisis. So, Mayor Garcetti and Councilwoman Martinez: Is it hot enough for ya’?

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

Ignoring a dedicated bike lane, a cyclist dangerously splits lanes down San Vicente Boulevard in West Los Angeles in mid-day traffic.

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.

Videos and pictures show how dangerous and deadly many “road diets” are

The “road diet” on Foothill Boulevard in Sunland-Tujunga, CA severely exacerbated gridlock as people fled the 2017 La Tuna fire.

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. 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.

The trend in L.A. isn’t good.

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?

A fire engine and ambulance stuck on the Venice Boulevard road diet in Mar Vista, CA
A police car slowed by the Venice Boulevard road diet in Mar Vista, CA (note the bicyclist on the sidewalk)
A fire engine stuck on the Skillman Avenue road diet in Queens, NY
A fire engine crashes into parked cars on the Skillman Avenue road diet in Queens, NY
A fire engine stuck on the Skillman Avenue road diet in Queens, NY
A fire engine stuck on the Skillman Avenue road diet in Queens, NY
A police car slowed by the Venice Boulevard road diet in Mar Vista, CA
An ambulance stuck on the Skillman Avenue road diet in Queens, NY
A fire engine slowed by the Venice Boulevard road diet in Mar Vista, CA
A fire truck and ambulance slowed by the Venice Boulevard road diet in Mar Vista, CA
An ambulance stuck on the Skillman Avenue road diet in Queens, NY
A fire engine and ladder stuck on the Venice Boulevard road diet in Mar Vista, CA

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

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

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 of 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. National Guard and regular service personnel immediately began providing shelter, clean water, 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 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, among others.

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 typhus. 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. California has hit rock bottom.

Local and state services are overwhelmed, and officials aren’t up to the task

It has been clear for several years that state and local authorities are overwhelmed. 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 rudimentary shelter to all 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 current homeless population over a 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 could have shelters up and running statewide, helping people, saving lives, and rescuing communities.

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

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.

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 politicians will figure it out, eventually and given enough money? It is time to call in the professionals who have demonstrated time and again their capabilities under the most challenging circumstances.

Potential 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 so long as they do not act as a police or quasi-police force. Likewise, National Guard units can be activated by either their state government or the federal government. The differences are in who pays the bills 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 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. There is, however, another alternative.

Precedents in the Civil Rights Era

There is at least some precedent for Presidents using the military and 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 examples were President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s use of the Guard to enforce public school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 and President John F. Kennedy use of the Alabama and Mississippi National Guard to enforce desegregation efforts in those states in the early 1960s. In all cases presidents acted over the strenuous objections of 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 March 7, 1965, known as “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 unilaterally 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 civil rights. Albeit in a different context, 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 wheelchair 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 civil 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 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.

“Vision Zero” is a public safety menace

A tiller rig in Baltimore wedged in a road diet.

The fire crew in Baltimore were trying to make a point. Last summer they sent a nine-minute video to the city council, which subsequently was leaked to local media. According to a story in The Baltimore Fishbowl, the video showed the crew struggling to stage a tiller (hook-and-ladder) truck on a street that had been given a road diet. The city had reconfigured Maryland Avenue and Cathedral Street with protected bike lanes – meaning parallel parking spaces are offset from the curb as buffers. In theory the configuration makes it safer for cyclists.

In reality these sorts of configurations create huge public safety hazards. Speaking on condition of anonymity members of the BFD said that not only did their warnings go unheeded, the crew who made the video received an official rebuke. Astonishingly, the Baltimore City Council subsequently voted to scrap provisions of the fire code related to street clearances for fire apparatus. Those provisions are based on the International Fire Code and are the standard in the vast majority of cities and states.

The Baltimore crew aren’t alone: First responders around the country report that road diets are making their jobs harder, and sometimes impossible. In New York City, firefighters speaking off the record are adamant that road diets make it impossible to stage heavy equipment such as turntable ladders, towers, and tillers. A firefighter in Queens, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that thanks to road diets on Skillman Avenue and 43rd Street, “If you’re on the fifth or sixth floors, we can’t get to you.” And a senior official from the Los Angeles Fire Department said, “Taking away traffic lanes, and drivers’ ability to pull right, impedes emergency response times.”

People around the country have posted images and videos to social media showing emergency equipment bogged down on streets supposedly reconfigured for safety. In one video from Queens a woman exclaims, “It’s been four minutes since my last video, and he hasn’t moved!” In Los Angeles’s Mar Vista neighborhood, these kinds of delays happen literally every day, often multiple times.

What’s more, even as road reconfigurations increase emergency response times they may also be causing more pedestrian deaths. Since Mayor Eric Garcetti launched Vision Zero in L.A. pedestrian deaths have nearly doubled, from 84 in 2015 to 135 in 2017. New York has seen a similar increase in roadway fatalities.

Perversely, politicians and activists use these numbers to argue for more road diets and more bike lanes. They are doubling down on these deadly ideas even as firefighters, cops, and EMTs speak out against them. It’s all the more outrageous considering that many fire departments, including L.A., New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and elsewhere, are being actively silenced by elected officials who’ve imbibed the Vision Zero kool-aid.

It isn’t just first responders. Residents around the country are pushing back against the program. The list of communities resisting Vision Zero grows seemingly by the day. Coalitions include Queens Streets for All in New York, Keep Waverly Moving in Iowa, Save 43rd Avenue in Seattle, and Restore Venice Boulevard in L.A., to name a few. With virtually no funding – in contrast to the deep-pocketed activist groups and politicians behind Vision Zero – they are giving voice to the people. Indeed, the resistance to Vision Zero has become a rare example of unity in our divided times, bringing together Manhattan progressives, midwest libertarians, and southern conservatives. Opposition to road diets bands together people who voted for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with those who cast ballots for Chuck Grassely.

Vision Zero zealots claim the program saves lives and reduces accidents. The actual data tell quite a different story. For example, the Los Angels Department of Transportation claims that the road diet on Venice Boulevard has reduced accidents. Data from the California Highway Patrol SWITRS database debunks that claim: Accidents actually have increased. They were up 19% in the 12 months after the road diet when compared to the 12 months before. Injury accidents were up by a staggering 25% in the same time period. Using the Federal Highway Administration formula to account for the drop in traffic volume attributable to the road diet, accidents increased by 36% and injury accidents increased by 44%. Looking back 5 years accidents were 24% higher than the historical average. Injury accidents were up by a whopping 33% over the 5 year average. Numbers from other cities are similar.

A series of fires ravaged Paradise, Magalia, and surrounding communities in northern California in 2008. As 40,000 residents fled, evacuations ground down to gridlock. Some 600 structures burned and at least one death was attributed to the fire. In the aftermath, a Butte County grand jury recommended widening roads in the area. Unfathomably, the Butte County Association of Governments (BCAG) released a report called the Skyway Corridor Study, which recommended a series of road diets in Paradise. Instead of widening roadways the County narrowed all the main evacuation routes, including the only four-lane highway connecting the mountain communities with the city of Chico.

The result was as tragic as it was foreseeable. During last year’s Camp Fire, the largest in California history, road diets turned Paradise into a kill zone. Interviews with dozens of survivors confirm that thanks in part to the reconfigurations, thousands of people became trapped on the roads as they tried to escape. Jennifer Porter, an emergency room nurse, relates a horrific scene in which she had to abandon her car and literally run through the flames. A woman who had seen it all in her job broke down in tears describing watching several people burn alive in their cars. Paradise city councilman Michael Zuccolillo had spent two years before the fire trying to reverse the road diets, to no avail. Another survivor said of the road diets, “We wondered what on Earth they were thinking.”

The Camp Fire was the perfect firestorm, and road diets were not what lawyers would call the “but for” cause of deaths. Survivors agree, however, that the narrowed roads absolutely contributed to the carnage.

In the face of overwhelming evidence and statistics politicians and activists nevertheless continue their Vision Zero campaign in the name of safety. In Sonoma County, California, officials have approved a series of road diets on the very thoroughfares thousands of people used to escape the 2017 Tubbs Fire. Shasta County is dieting roads used as evacuation routes during the Thomas Fire. Perversely, the program is called “Shasta Living Streets.”

There is a war for the streets of America. On one side are firefighters, cops, EMTs, small business owners, and average citizens. On the other is a tiny but extravagantly funded cabal of paid activists, politicians, property developers, and corporations. Under the mantle of progress they want to revert the country – for that matter, the world – to 19th century modes of transit like trains and bicycles. Yet the outcomes of their ideology are precisely the opposite of what they promise. Instead of safety they cause death. Instead of reduced emissions they create pollution and smog. Instead of mobility they cause gridlock.

People around the country are waking up to the reality of Vision Zero. It’s a bad idea whose time will be fleeting. The only remaining question is how many more people will suffer.