How the Healthy Streets Initiative Aims to Reshape LA’s Streets and Mobility

Michael Schneider

As cities grapple with the challenges of urbanization, transportation remains a central concern in fostering sustainable, vibrant communities. In this exclusive interview, we delve into the recent passage of Healthy Streets LA (HLA) with two key figures at the forefront of this transformative initiative: Michael Schneider and Yuval Bar-Zemer. In this exclusive interview with VX News, Schneider, a driving force behind the HLA campaign, offers insights into the significance of this ordinance and its far-reaching implications for urban mobility, while Yuval Bar-Zemer, renowned for his extensive involvement in the Arts District and community initiatives, shares his perspective on the campaign and its potential impact on Los Angeles' diverse neighborhoods.

VX: It's an honor to have you both, Michael Schneider & Yuval Bar-Zemer, discuss the passage of Healthy Streets LA (HLA). Michael, could you discuss the significance of this ordinance and what it's meant to accomplish?

Michael: The significance of the ordinance is that the city of Los Angeles will no longer be able to ignore its street safety plan, called the Mobility Plan (2035). By law, the City will be able to implement it anytime they repave or work on the street. The significance of that is huge. It's going to provide many more multimodal options for people to get around town. It's going to save lives, and we just had a two-decade-high pedestrian death count that should start to come down as we implement the Mobility Plan. It's a sea change for Los Angeles.

Can you give our readers a sketch of what is included in that mobility plan, as well as how it might be enforced?

The Mobility Plan has over a thousand miles of bike lanes and over a thousand miles of pedestrian-enhanced districts. This will make it safer just to take a walk. It has over three hundred miles of bus lanes and a huge Neighborhood Enhanced Network, which is designed to make residential streets safer and reduce or get rid of cut-through traffic.

Opponents of Measure HLA suggested that it could nearly bankrupt the city by paying for mandates and promises thereof. What was the response during the campaign?

The number got very politicized. It's a shame that we have a City Administrative Officer, who frankly, up until three months ago, I didn't know existed. The City Administrative Officer is in a very powerful position in City Hall. The City Council goes to the City Administrative Officer to request or approve funds related to a project. They’re supposed to be an impartial view of what a ballot measure should cost.
Unfortunately, they completely politicized it. It was a targeted campaign that claimed it would cost 2.5 billion dollars over 10 years. That was the number that went to the information guide. Then somehow, it went up another 600 million dollars, to 3.1 billion. It's amazing that out of the 3.1 billion, the CEO said that 2 billion of that is to repair sidewalks.

Don't get me wrong. I want sidewalks in Los Angeles repaired, but HLA didn't mandate that. To place 2 out of 3.1 billion dollars to fix sidewalks is simply inaccurate. The other 1.1 billion was for bike lanes at 2 million per mile, so I guess these are gold-plated bike lanes. Someone comes and gives you a massage as you're going through them. They're very fancy, but they're very over-inflated. The actual cost of bike lanes is about 200 thousand per mile, according to LADOT’s report. The whole thing is very overblown.

It's not going to cost 3.1 billion over 10 years. If the city implements it over 10 years, the true cost is more like 280 million with an M. For the City of Los Angeles, that's 20 million a year. Provided that we get over 700 million a year, with local return dollars limited to transportation infrastructure, we can easily afford 28 million a year.

Yuval, provided your extensive involvement in the Arts District and several LA-based community and cultural initiatives, why did you decide to get involved in this campaign?

Yuval: Mostly because Michael asked me to get involved. As you very well know, if you're somebody who heavily relies on government services for his business, and I'm a real estate developer, getting around in the city is not just a matter of convenience, it's a matter of vitality. It's what keeps the city alive.

When Michael Thomas said this plan after 8 years only got 3% of its implementation, that didn’t make any sense. Why would somebody stand in the way of a Measure that got 14 out of 15 City Council members to vote for? The reality was that the system was not working properly, and our council members were very vulnerable to internal pressures from their district. Every time a bike lane is proposed, somebody who doesn’t want to lose a parking spot says there's going to be too much traffic. All they had to do was put a little bit of pressure on the councilmen and they backed off because they had so much discretion– nothing got done.

Nobody looked at the bigger picture and said this is important for many reasons. We need to get people on bikes for environmental issues, to reduce traffic, health–  just about everything. Michael came up with a brilliant idea to overcome this pressure point on a councilman where the people now say, we want bike lanes to be able to work safely in the city. I'm sorry, but not every councilperson is going to determine the future mobility of the city.

Related to that and as a real estate developer, you’re very conscious, especially since the pandemic, that the commercial corridor is in distress. Getting people back into these retail stores and operations has been a real challenge.

Do you think they have a legitimate concern about what's happening with mobility and how it relates to business interests?

Absolutely not, and it's a contrary thing. Getting people to walk and use a bicycle will enhance their ability to move around and enjoy services. You know, my daughter used to commute from Downtown to the Westside and realized that riding a bike is quicker than driving a car. If we make it a little bit safer, I think we'll find a remarkable amount of people using this very basic option. It doesn't cost you a lot of money, it doesn't pollute the environment, and it keeps you in shape. It makes you a happier person. A happy person is a person who stops for coffee on the way, buys something, or sees something you couldn’t if you were in a car. When you walk or bike, you experience the space in a much different way. It's a natural way of life that gets people out of cars. It’s good for business and it's good for the city.

Let's talk about the actual plan that was not being enforced.

How did the plan come to be, who helped author it, and what did it include or not include?

The plan was created by the LA’s Department of Planning as the city's plan with input from everybody– first responders, LADOT, LAFD, etc. One of the most frustrating things in the campaign, with the backlash from the firefighters’ union, was that actually, both LAPD and LAFD signed off on the Mobility Plan. That was frustrating, but I'm digressing.

Led by the City’s Planning and Transportation Departments, it was created in 2015. I'm gonna correct two things. Yuval said it was very close and the City Council vote was 2 against 13. Somebody was absent but another were two no-votes, so it was adopted by a majority of the city council.

A very comprehensive visionary document for Los Angeles, it mirrors a lot of the changes you've seen in other cities around the world. Starting with Mayor Bloomberg in New York City to Mayor Hidalgo in Paris, who is one of my heroes. Paris looks like Amsterdam, it's just unbelievable. That amount of change in just a few short years. We have Barcelona, London, Mexico City, and the list goes on and on. This document was based on the premise that for LA to grow and support new housing, everybody can't drive a car for every trip. We don't have enough space. It's terrible for the environment, and it’s also dangerous for people outside the car. Let's create a multimodal city where people have safe reliable options other than cars. That was the idea behind the document. It's not a perfect plan. There are gaps, especially in the Westside where Councilmembers placed their finger.
The other thing I wanted to correct was the 3% implementation in eight years– they got up to 5%, so a little bit better, but they turned what's supposed to be a 20-year plan into a 160-year plan at their current rate of implementation. The short answer is the plan is pretty good. It's visionary for Los Angeles, and we're very happy that nearly two-thirds of voters agree they liked the city's plan. They want this to happen and they don’t want any more excuses.

Let me drill down a little bit Michael, what makes it visionary?

Michael: If we had been doing a podcast that existed in the 1930s, we would probably say the next generation’s transportation is a visionary highway plan that's gonna put highways throughout Los Angeles. That started in the 40s, materializing in the 50s and 60s, and as you know, this divided communities in Los Angeles and destroyed homes. There were a couple that weren't built– Laurel Canyon and Beverly Hills freeways, but most of the freeways for Los Angeles got built. It was called the visionary plan at the time and it changed Los Angeles dramatically. I just don't agree with the vision. If you look at European cities, they have highways between their cities, not through their cities– there's just a better way to do this.

With the Mobility Plan, it was just as visionary. It says the future of Los Angeles is not just for cars. We're not just going to build roads for cars or buildings with an obscene amount of parking, which increases the cost of development and housing. We created a plan where if you wanted to get on a bike for the 50% of trips that are three miles or less every day, it's a great option. You don't have to be in traffic, you don't have to look for parking. We're going to make it safe for ages 8 to 80. Suppose you want to take a walk for a quarter of trips that are less than 20 minutes every day. We're going to make it safe for you to do that. If you want to take public transportation, we're going to accelerate popular lanes as done around the world but it's new for Los Angeles. The bus will go much faster than private cars at rush hour with their own lanes. It took many of the best practices of cities throughout the world and said this is the this is the future for Los Angeles.

That's why I think it was visionary. Honestly, if it was implemented, or I should say when it is implemented, you'll look back on a conversation like this in 10 to 15 years and be like wow, this plan is a sea change for Los Angeles.

Providing legitimacy to this interview, what were the best arguments not to pass this initiative?

Let's take them one by one.

The emergency response arguments saying “If LA passes this and you're having a heart attack, the ambulance will be late, and you could die”... The environmental impact report said that if the Mobility Plan is not implemented at all, emergency response time will get worse over time because traffic will get worse over time. If the mobility plan is implemented, emergency response time will likely decrease because there are hundreds of miles of new turn lanes that fire trucks and ambulances can use and there are new bus-only lanes that of course, emergency vehicles can use.

Secondly was the cost, which we already discussed.

Number three was that no matter how safe you make biking, no matter how fast you make the bus, no matter how much safer you make walking– no one's gonna do that. Everyone just wants to drive. I just don't believe that. Look at CicLAvia as an event that is now every other month and thousands of Angelenos come out with their bicycles that are otherwise collecting dust. They take advantage of the safer streets and shut off from cars for a Sunday. No other city in the world has nearly year-round perfect weather conditions, and we have a pretty flat city whose topography is very kind to people who aren't super strong cyclists. I don't buy the argument that there's something unique about our culture that we can't change. It’s absurd to say we have to drive cars everywhere because nature intended that for Los Angeles.

I just don't believe these arguments have ground and in cities throughout the world that have done this, they’ve seen successes. Those are the main arguments against it and I'm trying to think of any others.

Well, there's also the going to hurt businesses argument. Nothing could be further from the truth. They just completed a complete street for several miles and injuries on the corridor are down by over 30% while foot traffic and sales tax revenue for businesses are up over 44%. People ignore data when they're emotional about something, but if you look at the data and the case studies, there isn’t a legitimate argument for why we shouldn't do this.

You're right, CicLAvia has been a huge hit. Not only in Los Angeles but in many jurisdictions around the world. Maloney formed an argument in the absence of the ones presented as having 4 million people in the City of LA and over 10 million people in the County, this is a huge 4000 square mile County with an almost 600 square mile City.

In terms of getting around, will re-doing the infrastructure in support of bicycle and bus lanes solve the problem for Angelinos?

I’ve been asked four different versions of that question. The argument I always get is, what if I live in North Ridge and I work in Long Beach? My answer is, that you should probably drive. It's not going to be a fun commute, but you don't have any other good options. I'm not trying to convert every single trip from a car to something else– we don't need to do that. If we just convert 10% to 20%, some modest number of trips, the effect on our air, safety, quality of life, traffic time, and travel would be dramatic. You just have to look at the data. I already mentioned some stats. A quarter of all trips in LA are going one mile or less– to the grocery store, picking up dry cleaning, whatever it may be, it’s something near your house. Those are a lot of trips. Half of all trips are three miles or less. That's a 15-minute bike ride or less. Two-thirds of all the cars you see on the road every day are going five miles or less. Those are compelling numbers.

So yes, LA is a huge place. You could fit seven or eight cities in the borders of Los Angeles, but despite our size, most trips are done within a relative local proximity to people's homes. If you are a traveling salesman or gardener going all over, no one's saying you should be on a bicycle and kill yourself. We're saying there are many trips where people are curious but scared to get on a bike, and people would consider public transportation if it was a lot faster at rush hour.

(Yuval’s addition to the same question)

It’s not in the context of why yes or why no. Michael articulates arguments in a very convincing and precise way. I look at it by considering behavior change. What is the threshold of getting somebody driving a car for 20 years, to consider a different mode of transportation?

For me, that's an interesting challenge of behavior, and that should be the challenge in front of the elected. What are we doing to get people to make a difference in behavior? It starts with the need to feel safe. If we can provide a safe environment, the expectation or the question of why would you do it is not relevant. Currently, there is no fair option for another mode of transportation, so I see this as a major point of change in urban planning.

What would happen if overnight, you could get anywhere in a neighborhood just by jumping on a bike within 15 minutes? You've covered the entire district. That means people would start saying I'd like to live there, and I'm going to make sure that my job considers my bike ride because it's part of my quality of life. You start changing people's behavior because that is a preferable way of life. Unless you work on these things from a safety perspective, they'll never happen.

(Michael adds to Yuval)

Let me add one more thing if I might, David.

Why change? Why can't we just keep going the way we're going? Our city is fine. If you think that and if you look at the economic cost of lost productivity, it's over $10 billion a year. Angelinos are stuck in traffic and they can't get to work, now they’re late for a meeting, etc. Look at the human cost of a pedestrian killed once every two days and injured once every five hours. Just looking at the level of happiness, one of the main things that suck the lifeblood out of people is long commutes being stuck in their car. Frankly, car prices are also getting more expensive. Insurance is going up, and gas is going up. It's really expensive to own a car– nationally and more in California. The average cost to own a car is now over $10,000 a year.

When you look at all of this, we need to change. Do we want Los Angeles as a place where only wealthy people can afford to live? I don't want that. If we agree that housing costs are too high and we need to build more housing, what would happen if we built 50,000 new housing units and put two parking spaces for every unit? That’s 100,000 new cars on the road, so that doesn't work well either. We have to change to move forward as a city. The air has gotten better.

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. It's gotten cleaner but it's still not that clean. The city is as dangerous as ever because cars are getting bigger and housing is going through the roof. If you're not a homeowner, you're kind of out of luck right now. These are the reasons we need to change.

Let me interject here because you’ve won the debate, and we passed the ordinance. I want to get into the execution issue, turning to Yuval. You've been the patron saint of the Arts District for 30 years now. The Arts District is probably the oldest industrial area, and least interconnected to the city's transportation grid that I can think of.

After the passage of this message, do you see people approving or using a new grid that biases itself towards the active transportation model incorporated in the master plan?

Yuval: There are a lot of inaccuracies in your question. I've been in the Arts District only for two decades– two decades and two years. We enjoy a very close proximity to downtown. If you own a car, you’re actually next to five major freeways. There's a beautiful bike lane on Sixth Street, with a bike lane planned on Seventh Street into downtown. I don't feel isolated in that capacity and compared to 25 years ago when we got here, things did improve and for those reasons, there are a lot of new residents, constituencies, and businesses that need to get around. When Seleta Reynolds was still the manager of DOT, I proposed to use the Arts District as a pilot for a neighborhood without any cars.

We have enough parking structures, everybody can park in a parking structure and use other modes of mobility to get around within the neighborhood. It's pretty easy to isolate. We were small enough that we could agree on it, and then she said she wanted to try it differently, but it was a good place to start piloting the future.

I think the constituency is now here to solve logistics and plan for deliveries in the early hours of the morning. It's time to try a different model in Los Angeles, and being radical today is not even radical in my opinion– It's a necessity.

Where's the money going to be, and what impact are we to see in the next five years as a result of such an overwhelming passage of this measure?

Michael: A lot of it depends on the city. The measure was crafted to mandate the Mobility Plan’s implementation phase during repaving, but not to mandate repaving. The repaving is still up to the city. In general, the City repaves about 6% of its streets every year, which is about 500 miles a year. Not every street is on the Mobility Plan. If the city got motivated, organized, coordinated, and continued that pace of work, we could have every bus and bike lane with most of the neighbor-enhanced network done in the next 10 years. If the pace slows, let's say 15 years.

I think the 2028 Olympics is a huge motivator. You said let's talk about implementation– the implementation is now all up to the city. I might as well move on. I can go to the beach and retire, but it's not quite like that. We have to make sure the City holds these promises, and the last thing anybody wants to do is sue for compliance. We want the City to do what the voters asked them to do. We want them to implement and they’re going to have to reorganize a little bit. They're going to have to change the repayment schedule, giving more control to LADOT. They'll have to provide resources that prioritize this.

It remains to be seen how quickly they can move forward these next five years, especially leading up to the Olympics. I think the bus lanes are going to be completed quickly. They opened a longer one on Sepulveda, and that’s the first bus lane in the valley. I'm not worried about the bus lanes. The bike lane network is usually the most contentious part of this and we got painted with an estimate so factually inaccurate, that they said 3 billion dollars for bike lanes is a bad idea. Of course, it's not $3 billion for bike lanes. The point is the city has under-invested in its infrastructure for so many years. They're going to have to prioritize it more based on the measure.

The City’s budget is seeing a great deficit this year, likely to be in budget deficit next year.

Factoring that into account, are we talking 10 years?

The beauty of Measure HLA is that it is close to free. I told you a bike lane costs $20,000 per mile. That number reflects starting from scratch, like going on the street, scraping everything up, and putting in a bike lane with expensive paint. When your pavement is just black, it is close to free for the city to stripe it differently. For the implementation of HLA, the budget deficit almost doesn't matter. Unless the city stops repaving completely or draws that backlog, of course, the implementation will go slower.

I'll just make something clear. There have already been things happening for the Games, and the city is in a heap of trouble, mostly over raises they gave to different departments. Maybe well-deserved raises, but they couldn't afford them. They didn't budget for them and now we have trouble, so this is honestly pennies compared to the bigger problems of the city. The last thing I'll say is that it's really expensive for the city to not do this because it pays out tens of millions of dollars every year to people who were hurt on our streets. That money could have been saved.

So this measure won in almost every District in the City– some are probably more contentious than others but in regards to the involvement of Councilmembers, who stood out, and what impressed you?

We were endorsed by six of the city council members: Hernandez, Raman, Yaroslavsky, Harris-Dawson, Hutt, and Soto-Martínez, and I don't think it was a surprise. I'll tell you a story– and I don't know if I've said this publicly.

There was a meeting at City Hall about a month and a half ago and with the Transportation Committee, maybe two months ago. These meetings were about the City’s version of Healthy Streets LA, before the election. Councilmember Hutt wanted someone to explain why only 5% was implemented in eight years. The head of LADOT started talking, then the head of Streets LA, then the city planning people… and they were pointing at each other without a straight answer. She never got a straight answer, and requested they tell her why. She called me after that meeting knowing she needed to decide on HLA, and endorsed it. She recognized that the City needed to be told to do this by the State Department. They weren’t going to voluntarily do it and I'm so grateful for all their support.

I will say that Councilmember Yaroslavsky really impressed me. She stuck her neck out politically. She got behind it and cared about it. She created a story video she put online with her kid's pictures, talking about how almost every day, she has to yank them back in the crosswalk because a car is about to turn and hit them. It was a very personal thing for her. She sits on the Metro board, and she represents CD 5, which is a pretty conservative council district. When you look at all of them, she backed us 100%. Her voters and CD 5 were right behind her, according to the numbers that came in. I'm very grateful for all of our council support and impressed by the political courage.

"With the Mobility Plan ... It says the future of Los Angeles is not just for cars. We're not just going to build roads for cars or buildings with an obscene amount of parking, which increases the cost of development and housing."