With one of the worst fatality rates in the nation for people who are walking and bicycling, Los Angeles County is moving forward with a massive transportation rebuild that includes improvements such as repairing streets and sidewalks, improving traffic flow, and expanding public transit and improving connections, is likely to help the county lose that notoriety, and not only increase the safety of its citizens, but also their ability to be more physically active.
The investment is the result of a ballot initiative approved last year by the voters of Los Angeles County. Known as the Los Angeles County Transportation Improvement Plan – or Measure M – the ballot measure is projected to raise more than $120 billion over the next four decades via a half-cent sales tax.
The measure included language to also provide funding for better and safer walking and biking environments, which when combined with other investments, could result in sidewalks, street crossings and bike lanes receiving literally billions of dollars over the project period.
Erik Jansen, interim executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, says that a coalition of walking, biking, transit, community and other groups is working together to make sure that improvement projects designed to increase safety for people walking and biking are implemented as promised under the initiative.
“We are focusing our efforts on the dollars that will be returned to each city and dedicated to local projects,” says Jansen. “Because the funding is population based, those dollars can range from tens of thousands to millions.”
Jansen says that community-based engagement not only includes having local stakeholders involved in the process but, because many cities don’t have dedicated staff who have expertise in active transportation, also providing advice on projects and opportunities to leverage additional dollars. Voices for Healthy Kids is providing funding for on-the-ground organizers to help assure a portion of the dollars go to active transportation.
Jansen says that many communities have never made significant investments in projects such as bike lanes, safe sidewalks and street crossings and ADA compliant infrastructure – elements that are fundamental to Complete Streets. Complete Streets principals are centered on the belief that everyone, regardless of age, ability, income, race, or ethnicity, should have safe, comfortable and convenient access to community destinations and public places–whether walking, driving, bicycling or taking public transportation.
“The roads belong to everyone, and should be safe for everyone,” says Jansen, who adds that the majority of serious injuries to people who are walking or bicycling occur where there has been a lack of investment in active transportation.
Attention to these locations is also critical from the standpoint of health equity in that many tend to be economically challenged and whose residents have increased rates of chronic diseases often linked, in part, to a lack of physical activity. For youth, it’s a problem that is compounded by the fact that many schools don’t have physical education requirements.
The coalition of health and active-transportation advocates who worked for inclusion of funding for safer walking and bicycling projects in the transportation improvement plan will play a key, long-term role in making sure walkability and bikeability truly improves throughout the county as the concrete and asphalt gets poured now and into the future. It’s a role that many organizations such as the Bicycle Coalition and others have eagerly pursued.
AARP California, which has members in Los Angeles County’s 88 cities, has also reached out to its grassroots members asking them to become part of a county-based transportation advocacy team designed to alert seniors about opportunities to engage in efforts to shape how dollars raised through the initiative are spent in their communities.
Like many coalition members, AARP became engaged in the ballot initiative to make the streets and sidewalks in the cities of Los Angeles County safer for their constituency – seniors. They endorsed the initiative stating that the county needed age-friendly transportation.
“Measure M means real possibilities for people of all ages to be better connected to their family, friends, social activities, and health and wellness services in Los Angeles County,” the organization stated in September of last year.
Josh Brown, grassroots advocacy director for the American Heart Association in California, not only sees grassroots participation as critical for assuring that dollars raised through the initiative are spent with Complete Streets principles in mind but also for helping to foster a continual spark of interest in the benefits of improved bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in not only Los Angeles County but also the state of California as a whole.
“My hope long term is that these ballot measures start a wave across the state and ultimately across the nation,” says Brown. “By investing in these projects, more people will be out of their cars and on bikes and foot. The end result will be multiple benefits to individuals and to society as a whole through a healthier and more active public.”