TRANSIT TALK--In my circles, there has been a lot of discussion swirling around Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times article, “Billions spent, but fewer people are using public transportation in Southern California,” by Laura Nelson and Dan Weikel. 

The Times’ authors cast a disparaging light on recent downturns in ridership: “Despite a $9-billion investment in new light rail and subway lines, Metro now has fewer boardings than it did three decades ago, when buses were the county’s only transit option.” The article further asserts a number of causes for declining ridership, including “a changing job market, falling gas prices, fare increases, declining immigration and the growing popularity of other transportation options, including bicycling and ride-hailing companies,” and also immigration patterns and new drivers licenses for the undocumented. 

The internet has already responded to the Times

  • Steve Hymon at Metro’s The Source, responds citing national trends and touting transit’s promising future, though Hymon ultimately concludes that Metro can do better. 
  • KCRW’s Which Way L.A.? hosted a discussion with Loren Kaye, Denny Zane, and Brian Taylor. Taylor blames a lack of agreement on policy goals that results in a “distorted” system that favors cheap car travel. 
  • Railtown author Ethan Elkind notes that the Times graphic misleadingly emphasizes Metro’s 1985 peak ridership.  
  • Jarrett Walker criticizes the Times for identifying an “accelerating” trend out of what is actually “very noisy” but largely flat ridership data. Walker emphasizes that the current one-year decline in ridership is not a “trend” yet; labeling it one is presumptuous. 
  • Matt Tinoco at LAist echoes Elkind and Hymon and questions the role of changing demographics, including gentrification in L.A.’s core.  
  • Eric Jaffe at CityLab points to new research that disputes the article’s claim, made by transit critic James E Moore that, “It’s the dream of every bus rider to own a car.” 

At yesterday’s Metro board meeting, CEO Phil Washington asserted that transit ridership is cyclical and that LA’s decline is in line with national trends. He also stated that he would be responding via a planned Times guest editorial. 

There are a lot of keystrokes already stricken on this, but, nonetheless, I’d like to weigh in with some ideas and some questions, and to further hear from SBLA readers on what you think. Like the Times list, I don’t think that there is one smoking gun cause, but plenty of interacting and overlapping factors that influence ridership.  

Overall Investment – Transit vs. Cars

My first thought upon reading the article was to blame declining ridership on a disparity of investment between transit infrastructure and car infrastructure. The U.S., California, and Los Angeles continue a long pattern of spending huge budgets to support driving, and not so much for transit. Governmental regulations, including parking requirements, also require massive private investment to serve cars, with little to no provisions for transit. 

Collectively, we pay people to drive, and so people drive a lot. I am skeptical that even Measure R’s significant transit investments will move LA County toward a greater transit share because Measure R also provides billions of dollars for highway and road expansion. 

Yonah Freemark touches on these disparities in his study showing that light rail investment did not increase transit mode share. Freemark concludes: “But spending on new lines is not enough. Increases in transit use are only possible when the low costs of driving and parking are addressed, and when government and private partners work together to develop more densely near transit stations. None of the cities that built new light rail lines in the 1980s understood this reality sufficiently. Each region also built free highways during the period … These conflicting policies had as much to do with light rail’s mediocre outcomes as the trains themselves — if not more.” 

Compared to steep bus ridership declines in neighboring Orange County, Metro’s success in keeping ridership declines minimal can be seen as a success story. Metro was able to stave off more severe service cuts and greater fare increases due to Measure R. This brings to mind the futility in the Red Queen’s statement to Alice in Wonderland: “Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Metro is expanding rail transit (and highways) as fast as it can, but its bus service remains largely unchanged, and therefore declines as public subsidies prioritize other modes. 

Too Soon To Judge Measure R

The Times article does review earlier events, but the article names and critiques Measure R (2008) and a future R2.1 which is expected to go before voters in November, 2016. It is possible to be critical of Metro’s priorities, but probably not Measure R itself. At least not yet. There is a long lag time for massive capital projects, so the rail that Measure R is building is just not done yet. The first Measure R-funded rail line will open in March, and the second opens in May. 

Metro has been operating under earlier sales tax measures – Prop C (1990) and Prop A (1980). There is a longer-term case to be made that when Metro focuses on rail building (since the mid-1980s) that other modes suffer, more on this below. 

Buses Matter – Fares and Service

The unacknowledged elephant in the room is Metro bus service. The Times notes correctly that 75 percent of Metro’s ridership is on the bus. Overall transit ridership has been largely flat since Metro began building rail in the 1980s, despite three successful property tax measures. The Bus Riders Union and others have shown that huge capital projects tend to divert Metro resources away from their core bus service. 

The Times acknowledges this in this quote from Brian Taylor, the director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies: “There’s been lots of focus by transit agencies on shiny new things, sometimes at the expense of bus routes which serve the primary constituencies of transit agencies: low-wage workers….lots of resources are being put into a few high-profile lines that often carry a smaller number of riders compared to bus routes.”

Since at least 2008, when Measure R passed, the push to expand Metro rail has meant that bus service has been flat, slightly declining through twice-yearly “service adjustments” and declining slightly in proportion to population growth. Especially since 2008, Metro’s top priority has been an accelerated rail construction schedule. This has, as I say, sucked the air out of the room. Bus service has declined slightly since 2008 (with no new rail mileage yet), resulting in a corresponding slight decline in ridership. 

If Metro is not going to expand its bus service (I wish it would, but that will take political will), then it will need to run bus service as efficiently and effectively as possible. Public transit expert Jarrett Walker stresses the importance of running a frequent service network, which will “serve more people without more money.” This is exactly what Metro is planning to do this June, with its Strategic Bus Network Plan. There are a lot of details still to be finalized, but that should be a small positive step forward for bus ridership. 

Another huge bus ridership factor is fares. Metro’s peak ridership periods correspond to periods of low fares. The last year of declines is in part attributable to September 2014 fare increases.  

If Metro’s goal is solely to expand ridership (and it isn’t) then Metro needs to go back to basics and pay as much attention to its core bus service as it does to its “shiny new” rail service. It is not possible to lower fares and greatly increase service, but if the agency is prudent fiscally, it can and should incrementally grow its bus service, keep fares as low as possible, and reap increased ridership. 

Gas Prices

Metro’s budget analysis showed very little correlation with gas prices. Other analyses finds a greater correlation. With gas prices currently in unusually strong decline, this previously weak factor is likely helping pull ridership downward, too. 

The Future of Metro Ridership

Metro ridership is in decline due to a host of factors. Some of these are outside Metro’s control, including gas prices and national transportation funding. Some of these are controlled by Metro, including fares and service. 

The leadership needs to come from the top, Metro’s board of directors, and its CEO. Phil Washington makes a very promising statement in the Times article, telling the reporters, Metro’s goal is to convert 20% to 25% of the county’s population into regular transit riders. 

Unfortunately, according to Census data (specifically, American Community Survey data), LA County transit commute share hovers just above 7 percent. Metro should be setting mode share goals (what percent of transit riders do we want?), reporting on them, and tailoring investments to realize goals. This is difficult to change abruptly, with lots of road funding embedded in Measure R, but the agency does have discretionary funds, and can shape the next sales tax measure with Washington’s stated goal in mind. 

(Joe Linton is the editor of StreetsblogLA.  He founded the LA River Ride, co-founded the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, worked in key early leadership roles at CicLAvia and C.I.C.L.E., served on the board of directors of Friends of the LA River, Southern California Streets Initiative, and LA Eco-Village.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

 

LA WATCHDOG--Although the mayoral primary for the City of Los Angeles is over 400 days away, two credible candidates have surfaced to challenge Mayor Eric Garcetti in the March 7, 2017 election. While their chances of ousting an incumbent who has hauled in over $2.2 million in campaign contributions through June 30, 2015 are remote, they will certainly raise questions about Garcetti’s record of kicking the can down the road over the last 31 months.   

The first to announce his intention to run was Mitchell Schwartz, a Democratic fund raiser and a committed environmentalist who is concerned that the City is not dealing effectively with the homeless epidemic, increased crime, our failing streets and deteriorating infrastructure, and out of control real estate development.  

Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Charter Schools, is also considering a bid as he is frustrated by Garcetti’s unwillingness to address the mess at LAUSD out of fear of offending the politically powerful, campaign funding teachers unions. 

Even though the election is more than a year away, it is not too early to start holding Mayor Garcetti accountable for his lack of progress in solving many of the pressing issues facing our City.  

In August, the Los Angeles Times gave Garcetti a Gentleman’s C, saying that he “remains as appealing and articulate as ever, but his inclination to avoid tough or controversial decisions is undermining his ability to address the very serious problems facing the City.” 

In July, Columnist Steve Lopez of The Times also went after the “smooth at the podium” Garcetti for “waffling” on a number of key issues facing our City, including our streets and sidewalks, real estate developers, mansionization, and, of course, our Department of Water and Power.

Garcetti will also have to address the financial issues facing the City, including how the budget deficit over the next four years ballooned to over $400 million as a result of the new labor contract with the civilian unions.  

The Mayor has also failed to develop a financial and operational plan to efficiently repair and maintain our lunar cratered streets and broken sidewalks despite his “Back to Basic” promises. 

Equally disturbing is Eric’s failure to endorse the recommendations of the LA 2020 Commission which called for an “Office of Transparency and Accountability” to oversee our cash strapped City’s finances and a “Commission on Retirement Security” to review our City‘s retirement obligations in order to develop “concrete recommendations on how to achieve equilibrium on retirement costs by 2020.” 

There are a number of ballot measure facing our waffling mayor, including the reform of our Department of Water and Power which will require voter approval of the $220 million Transfer Tax, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative that is opposed by campaign funding real estate speculators and developers, the County’s proposed half cent increase in our sales tax to fund even more transportation projects, and a possible $100 million bump in our real estate taxes to finance the City’s homelessness plan, an amount that approximates the increase associated with the new labor contract with the City’s civilian unions. 

Garcetti will also have to tell the voters if he is willing to serve as mayor until 2022 if he is reelected or whether he will be out on the election trail if he runs for Governor or Senator in 2018. 

Hopefully Mitchell Schwartz, Steve Barr, and other qualified candidates as well as the press will ask the tough questions and demand concrete answers over the next 400 days. 

Let the debate begin. 

 

(Jack Humphreville writes LA Watchdog for CityWatch. He is the President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and a member of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.  Humphreville is the publisher of the Recycler Classifieds -- www.recycler.com. He can be reached at:  [email protected])

-cw

 

REPORT FROM SKID ROW-As a homegrown Angeleno, I’m proud to see my fellow Angelenos have the conscience and desire to make sacrifices to help those of us who are down on their luck. Unfortunately, I can’t understand why these same Angelenos “go unconscious” when it comes to discussing the “Homeless Count.” 

Exactly why do you count homeless people during the Homeless Count? The common answer seems to be, “Because I want to help the less fortunate.” 

In hopes of furthering the conversation, we need to probe the topic a little deeper. 

Let’s start by establishing that if you volunteer to count the homeless, you’ll find that the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) and all of its employees and non-profit community partners will be getting paid to stand around and watch you do their jobs for them. 

Think about it. What would they do if nobody volunteered? You guessed it, they’d have to do it themselves. 

As a Skid Row resident and community activist, I have to question why LAHSA counts homeless folks in the middle of the winter instead of in the middle of the summer when homeless persons and families step out from their nooks and crannies and become more visible – something that automatically helps create a more accurate homeless count. 

You may remember a few years back how ridiculous Home for Good’s questionable marketing scheme called “Walk with Kobe Bryant and End Homelessness” sounded. Yet every year, tens of thousands of folks truly believe they’re doing the right thing. We in Skid Row sadly shake our heads as we watch folks “go unconscious,” thinking they can somehow “walk” and another person’s homelessness will magically go away – and they don’t even “walk” in Skid Row or in places where homeless people live! 

We contacted Kobe Bryant and told him not to taint his legacy by taking part in this fallacy. He listened and no longer participates. 

We’ve also been extremely outspoken about the numerous flaws in the Homeless Count. Why is it that this used to happen only every other year, something that strongly suggests that there’s no sense of urgency whatsoever? This year they will begin counting the homeless every year. We are making a difference in how “they” operate. 

Another flaw in this system is that the Homeless Count has occurred during the last week of January, but the actual numbers usually weren’t released until October. We complained about this and in 2015 they released “early indicator stats” much sooner. Think about it: the homeless you count who are living in tents on the sidewalks, in encampments under freeway overpasses or in abandoned houses or other deserted areas in January, probably won’t be there in October of that very same year. So what’s the good in counting them? 

It’s just plain lazy for Angelenos to brag about how they “helped” count the homeless -- as if this makes a difference. But exactly how does this make a difference? And what happens after you turn in your clipboard? Right, you go home -- ironic indeed! Yet the homeless remain homeless and once again you’re “allowed” to clear your conscience. 

LAHSA staff gets paid to create this “escape from obligation” for you. It’s a win-win for everybody except for the homeless folks continuing their struggle to survive. Wow. 

The Homeless Count has taken place every other year since 2005, which means there have been six counts total to date. 

Last year’s count concluded that there has been a 12% increase in all homelessness in LA County since 2013. Yet, how many new low-income housing units have been built in the interim? And how many homeless folks have been “helped” out of homelessness since 2013? Exactly. 

Will the Homeless Count show an increase or decrease this year? Let’s look at it this way: If there aren’t any new low-income housing units coming online, how could the “count” show a decrease? 

The only way this year’s Homeless Count could show a significant decrease in numbers is if the non-profit “community partners” evict recently housed folks in big numbers to make room for the current homeless folks. And since evictions are not counted, we have no way of getting to the bottom of this. Just know that this concept creates an ongoing cycle which benefits everyone who collects paychecks connected to homelessness. 

If you’re counting and not asking these probing questions, you will end up being part of the problem. You need to ask yourselves exactly why you count the homeless? And who are you helping?

 

(General Jeff is a homelessness activist and leader in Downtown Los Angeles.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.)

EDUCATION POLITICS-The annual commemoration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King -- a national holiday that most employers except the government ignore – is marred by a glaring disconnect between the rhetorical “feel-good” civil rights dream of Dr. King and the stark underachieving reality of Black America. This is accentuated when juxtaposed with the incessant illegal behavior of local, state, and federal legal authorities who do little to address the injustice imposed on Black communities. 

Some injustices are a result of civil negligence, resulting from an unintentional act or omission when there is a duty to act. Worse, however, is criminal negligence that results when there is a clear and unambiguous illegal action such as what happened in Flint, Michigan with the city's water supply. This happened because of a reckless disregard of an easily ascertainable truth, namely, when the city connected the Flint municipal water supply to the known polluted Flint River, something that amounts to assault, battery, and probably worse criminal acts. Until those responsible for this see the inside of a prison cell, these actions to save money will continue unabated, no matter how many people of color have their lives destroyed in the process. 

It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about the execution-style killing of a non-threatening criminal subject caught on police video in Chicago (and covered up for over a year by public officials including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who was more concerned with his re-election than seeing that justice was done,) or Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s appointment of Emergency Manager Kevyn D. Orr, who, while charged with saving Flint, a city in fiscal despair, wound up poisoning it with a polluted water source not fit for human consumption. These cases and myriad of others like it will never result in long prison terms for such criminal behavior. 

What adds insult to injury is that the American ruling class is never held accountable for its crimes. An additional affront is the fact that our corporate-dominated government will have to pick up the cost of this ever increasing criminal behavior – behavior that those guilty of these crimes should be forced to pay for both monetarily and criminally. 

Building a Belmont High School on an irremediable toxic waste dump is soon forgotten as long as innocent predominantly Latino children are the ones who go to school on the site. And O'Melveny and Myers are not held accountable for their conflict of interest in representing both LAUSD and the developer of this public works project designed to screw the public. Yes, fundamental to all of these public scandals are the conflicts of interest – cases where the career and financial well-being of a few powerful people is systematically placed over the needs of the public. The only fiduciary duty these government leaders seem to have is to themselves, their corporate cronies – and never the public. But has it always been this way? 

And of course, the granddaddy of these kinds of illegal and dangerous schemes, in terms of their sheer magnitude, remains the credit default swaps and sub-prime scams. The corporate criminalsin those cases not only got the government to bail them out; they got them to pay their bonuses. 

(Leonard Isenberg is a Los Angeles observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He was a second generation teacher at LAUSD and blogs at perdaily.com. Leonard can be reached at [email protected]) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

SPORTS POLITICS--When I was growing up in Mexico, I rooted for a scrappy, financially troubled soccer team named Atlético Español that ultimately broke my heart by being relegated to a lower division and fading out of existence. I envy Mexican friends who can still root on the same teams they did as kids (and as I am still able to do in the NFL—Go Steelers!).

The power of sports fandom can at times seem irrational, especially to those who, blessed with an immunity to this potent virus, can utter those devastatingly inhumane words: “It’s just a game.” As the novelist Nick Hornby wrote in the opening of Fever Pitch, his wonderful memoir of growing up an Arsenal fan in England: “I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.”

Sitting in a Phoenix sports bar watching the Carolina Panthers utterly dismantle the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game, I witnessed this pain of which Hornby spoke, and which I had felt in my core the previous week when the Denver Broncos knocked my Steelers out of the playoffs. The atmosphere in the bar went from celebratory to funereal over the span of two quarters. By the end, we were at a wake, talking in hushed tones, awkwardly reaching for some reassuring words of consolation for each other.

“Well, they had a good season” sounded a lot like the variants of that line you often hear at funerals: “He led such a full life.” At least no one said: “It’s only a game.”

So why the depth of passion among so many sports fans? Part of it, to be sure, is our appreciation and love for the sport being followed, and that sport’s central role in the sliver of our lives we can devote to leisure and entertainment. But I think that is only the tip of sports fandom’s iceberg.

The depth of our passion and commitment as sports fans comes from our sense of identity, how we connect to our past selves, and how we remain connected to the meaningful places in our lives, and to the people around us. Sports fandom, like religion, is fueled by nostalgia and a yearning for permanence in a world that is inherently impermanent.

Which is what makes the disappearance of Atlético Español so traumatic for me—the fatal version of the disruption alluded to by Hornby, alongside the pain. When I tune into Liga MX and see so many of the other teams Atlético used to play against still around, it’s as if I’ve been edited out of a picture I thought I was in, as if the moorings tying me to my childhood in Mexico have been irreversibly cut.

Back in America’s version of football, many people are stunned that, after a deluge of scandals in the last couple of years (brain injuries, star players involved in off-field crimes, allegations of cheating, franchise owners eager to bilk cities for sweetheart stadium deals), the NFL’s ratings continue to spike. Ratings for this past regular season and playoffs are up from a year ago, at a time when audiences for almost everything else keep fragmenting.

When NBC launched Sunday Night Football in 2006, the telecast ranked ninth in primetime ratings for the season. Ever since 2011, Sunday Night Football has been the undisputed primetime leader. A remarkable 14 of the 15 most watched TV shows last fall were football games, and the six highest-rated broadcasts of all times are Super Bowls (the M.A.S.H. 1983 finale is clinging to the seventh spot).

The NFL has done a brilliant job of leveraging fans’ nostalgia and desire to remain identified with the places they’ve moved away from. Hence the need to keep franchises in places like Green Bay and Buffalo, even if many of their fans cheer them on in warmer climates, and for a business model that makes all franchises competitive.

Parity means most teams will have moments of glory, enough to deepen an entire generation’s engagement with their ancestral NFL tribe. But the league puts its long-term success at risk when it lets teams move around for short-term gain, as it recently did when it allowed the Rams to leave St. Louis for Los Angeles.

We live in an age when we share fewer narrative threads in common, and when fewer narrative threads endure throughout our lives. Holidays help, including the upcoming observance of Super Bowl 50. I remember my mother in her later years turning on the NFL on Sundays to have games on in the background, because she liked to hear “the sounds of fall,” or because it connected her to her son if the Steelers were playing, or to her beloved Boston if it was the Patriots.

The Star Wars cultural phenomenon springs from a similar nostalgia and yearning for recurring shared narratives in an age of impermanence. Its fandom feels sports-like. I took my 11 year-old son to see The Force Awakens on opening weekend, with a lump in my throat at the realization that he is the exact age I was back when the first (or fourth, if you insist) Star Wars came out. Naysayers who complained that the plot of the new film too closely mimics the original Star Wars completely miss the franchise’s appeal. I don’t begrudge successful Steeler seasons because I have seen them before; I thrill at quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown following in the footsteps of Steeler greats Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann. And so it is with Rey’s journey echoing Luke Skywalker’s.

We all yearn to tap into these stories and memories that have defined us. As the Red Sox-obsessed protagonist in the Hollywood adaptation of Fever Pitch, played by Jimmy Fallon, asks his less-devoted-to-Fenway girlfriend:

Do you still care about anything you cared about years ago?

(Andrés Martinez writes the Trade Winds column for Zócalo Public Square, where this column was first posted. He is also Zocalo editorial director and  professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and a fellow at New America.)

-cw

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-Concerns over LA’s mounting infrastructure problems are everywhere. Is it structures that will fail in El Nino floods? Coastal facilities that cannot withstand the rising seas caused by climate change? Sidewalk repairs that will cost $1.5 billion? A proper urban forest whose bill is close to $1 billion? 

Or is it street repairs estimated to cost $3 billion?  Several billions of repairs scheduled for LAX? Or is it $15 billion to repair century old water mains and sewer pipes that burst with alarming frequency? Perhaps it’s the 405 Freeway widening that cost about $1.3 billion? The $250 billion in across-the-board infrastructure categories that are certain to fail within minutes of “The Big One”? 

The answer is that this and much, much more is the basis for LA’s growing infrastructure and public services crises. Furthermore, these crises extend into public facilities such as fire stations, libraries, and schools – structures that can hopefully be replaced before they become unusable or even crumble, much like the recently shutdown apartments at the Pacific Beach in San Francisco. 

These are some of the reasons why the Hollywood United Neighborhood Council presented a panel discussion on the linkages between infrastructure and the Los Angeles city budget at its Wednesday meeting. 

Hopefully other CityWatch writers can give us the lowdown on what Zev Yaroslavksy, Kevin James, and Ron Galperin had to say on this topic. Until then, I will write about what they should have said, but probably did not. 

Established process to link infrastructure and budgeting: To begin, Los Angeles, like all California cities, has an established process for connecting the planning, construction, maintenance, and monitoring of public infrastructure to the City’s budget. On paper, at least, it begins with the city’s legally required General Plan. In its entirety, its different elements should address all infrastructure categories. Furthermore, some cities also prepare an optional, Public Facilities and/or Infrastructure Element to make sure nothing is left out. Once upon a time LA did prepare these optional elements -- but that was in the 1960s. Fifty years later, those elements are ready for the planning museum. 

In addition, all General Law cities in California must monitor their General Plan through an annual report. Los Angeles, which is a Charter City, is not subject to this State requirement. Nevertheless, LA has legally committed itself to a comparable monitoring program and annual report through the General Plan Framework Element and its Final Environmental Impact Report. For those who care to look, the contents of this mandated report are described in great detail in the Framework’s Chapter 9, Infrastructure and Public Services.  All of the city’s infrastructure categories are listed there, as well as specific instructions on how the City should monitor each of them through its annual report. 

Since the General Plan, especially Chapter 9, carefully describes and analyzes LA’s anticipated infrastructure capacity and needs, it should be the guiding North Star for any discussion of infrastructure and budget. As most of know, however, LA’s General Plan desperately needs updating, especially the elements and chapters dealing with infrastructure and public facilities. Instead of infrastructure, however, the current, minimal General Plan update process focuses on zone changes for private real estate projects through appendices to new Community Plans. 

How infrastructure and budget should be linked: This is what the Los Angeles City Charter actually has to say about the General Plan, and it reinforces the State of California’s requirements that this document must carefully address infrastructure and public facilities, including the role of each City Department.   

Sec. 554…The General Plan shall serve as a guide for:

   (1)   The physical development of the City;

   (2)   The development, correlation and coordination of official regulations, controls, programs and services; and

   (3)   The coordination of planning and administration by all agencies of the City government, other governmental bodies and private organizations and individuals involved in the development of the City. 

While we know the Department of City Planning must prepare the different elements of the General Plan, these documents must then be subsequently reviewed and approved by the City Planning Commission. The final step, the City Council’s review and adoption, is really a prelude to the next steps, which are the implementation of the General Plan and then the monitoring of the rollout and impacts of the General Plan. 

In terms of implementation, each City’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP) is one form of implementation. According to California’s new, draft General Plan Guidelines: 

“Many cities and counties prepare and annually revise a 5- to 7-year capital improvement program (CIP). The CIP projects annual expenditures for acquisition, construction, maintenance, rehabilitation, and replacement of public buildings and facilities, including sewer, water, and street improvements; street lights; traffic signals; parks; and police and fire facilities.” 

The CIP should, therefore, be considered an important implementation program of the General Plan: 

“Capital facilities must be consistent with the general plan (Friends of B Street v. City of Hayward (1980) 106 Cal.App.3d 988). The network of publicly owned facilities, such as streets, water and sewer facilities, public buildings, and parks, forms the framework of a community. Although capital facilities are built to accommodate present and anticipated needs, some (most notably water and sewer facilities and roads) play a major role in determining the location, intensity, and timing of development. For instance, the availability of sewer and water connections can have a profound impact upon the feasibility of preserving agricultural or open-space lands.” 

To ensure consistency with its General Plan:

“Each year the local planning agency is required to “review the capital improvement program of the city or county and the local public works projects of other local agencies for consistency with their general plan” (§65103(c)). To fulfill this requirement, all departments within the city or county and all other local governmental agencies (including cities, counties, school districts, and special districts) that construct capital facilities must submit a list of proposed projects to the planning agency (§65401).65103.” 

After this annual review is completed, City Planning should then submit it to the City Planning Commission (CPC) for review and approval. It is the CPC’s job to confirm that the Capital Improvement Program is, in fact, consistent with the General Plan. In LA, however, their load has been considerably lightened because the Planning Department does not appear to have undertaken any reviews of the City’s capital projects, including those consolidated into the CIP. There is, therefore, no staff report for the CPC to consider regarding infrastructure. Case, unfortunately, closed. 

Capital Improvement Program: Applying all of this information to the City’s budget, which is prepared by the City Administrator’s Office and the Mayor’s office, is the next link in the chain. But, how would this even be possible, if the City Planning Department and the CPC do not comply with State requirements to review and approve the City of LA's Capital Improvement Program? This document compiles the separate capital budgets of each of the City’s departments that either construct or maintain the city’s infrastructure. 

The planning and related budgetary challenge is to therefore integrate these totally separate capital budgets into one comprehensive document. Since most cities suffer from a “silo” phenomena in which each City department has, in effect, a separate planning, budget, and monitoring process, we cannot underestimate the role of City Planning to integrate this material together through the General Plan’s elements, annual monitoring reports, and annual CIP evaluations. 

To be clear, the three annual infrastructure reports that City Planning prepared in the late 1990s should not be confused with either of the two reports that the City Planning Commission and the City Administrator’s Office need to make detailed connections between municipal infrastructure and municipal budgeting. 

To begin, the CIP review report is not simply an inventory of infrastructure projects. It compares those budgeted projects to the General Plan’s growth forecasts, including scheduled and necessary maintenance, as well as changes in user demand. Whatever their other virtues, the old reports never touched on these issues.

In addition, the General Plan Framework obligates the City Planning Department to prepare another report for the City Planning Commission. This annual monitoring report could include the previous CIP report, but it also needs to review the General Plan’s demographic assumptions for population, housing, and employment. And it also needs to inventory and evaluate the roll out the programs that implement the goals and policies of the General Plan. 

While this is a tall order, it is exactly what is necessary if LA’s planning process is to comply with the law and serve as a guide for the City’s budget, including how it addresses infrastructure and public services. Without this information, the city is, essentially, flying blind. 

Consequences of poor planning: How could the City Planning Commission possibly assess the city’s infrastructure needs without the annual monitoring report mandated by the General Plan Framework? In addition to a report on municipal infrastructure, that report should address maintenance schedules, changes in user demand for public infrastructure and services, available infrastructure and services to support private development, the rollout of General Plan programs, the success or failure of these programs, and any changes in the General Plan's underlying demograpahic assumptions. 

This is certainly a tall order, but over a century ago, a famous American architect and city planner, Daniel Burnham, spelled out this challenge with a quote that has withstood the test of time. 

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” -- Daniel Burnham 

 

(Dick Platkin is a former LA City Planner who writes on local planning issues for City Watch. He also serves on the boards of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association and the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council Planning Committee. He welcomes questions, comments, and corrections at [email protected].) Cartoon: LA Daily News. Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

WHOSE ROADS ARE THEY ANYWAY?--Sixth Street in Mid-City Los Angeles is, plain and simple, a dangerous street. From Fairfax to Rossmore, it’s four lanes with no center turn lane and few left turn pockets. Motorists use it as an alternative to Wilshire and, as most of them are typical scofflaws, they speed, swerve, and blow lights with abandon. Several pedestrians have died on that stretch, many have been injured and light poles have been regularly knocked down by out-of-control cars. It is common to pass by debris fields indicating a recent wreck -- all along this stretch. 

I know this. I live on a block abutting Sixth Street and, most days, I travel it several times a day, usually on foot or by bike, sometimes in a car. I have seen bodies lying in the street. I have seen drivers speeding at over 70 mph on this neighborhood collector. 

The city’s approach to Sixth Street has been unequivocally hypocritical: a road diet has been planned for it -- but only from Fairfax to La Brea. One LADOT engineer I spoke to about this several years ago stated that, east of La Brea, Sixth was “too narrow” for a road diet..

But yesterday, during a personal survey of the road, I noted that the entire stretch from La Brea to Rossmore forbids parking entirely, thus making that segment of the street effectively wider. 

In other words, it would be very easy to install a 4-to-3 road diet with bike lanes on the entire distance from Fairfax to Rossmore, and thereby win the road design trifecta by: 

1) Slowing speed-demon drivers with a narrowed lane space

2) Moving the numerous left-turning drivers out of the way of through-travelers 24/7

3) Providing an alternative to driving by making bicycle travel more comfortable through the district 

Road diets, as has so often been shown, will often increase the average speed of motor traffic on a street, even if incrementally; and it will vastly increase its throughput of foot and bike traffic. This is no longer a matter of hope or conjecture; it has been measured repeatedly. Average speed is what counts. Peak speeds between traffic clots mean nothing – that is, except danger and delay. 

So what is happening with Sixth these days? Ha! The road diet has been put on hold because of fears that subway construction on Wilshire will send “too much traffic” over to Sixth. Yes, rookie Councilmember David Ryu has wrapped himself in the mantle of term-out Tom LaBonge by declaring that cars shall be your only god in the Miracle Mile. So he continues to hold back a simple painting project that could add capacity to this deadly street while preventing the carnage that has become typical in my neighborhood.

It’s a damn shame, especially in a city that loudly proclaims its adherence to the principles of Vision Zero. 

Perhaps Ryu and the rest of the council’s Neanderthals think that that means zero cyclists on the road with no one ever crossing the street on foot. You could be excused for thinking so. This “malign neglect” of Sixth Street is but one more example of LA’s backwards thinking.

 

(Richard Risemberg is a writer. His current professional activities are centered on sustainable development and lifestyle. This column was posted first at Flying Pigeon.)  Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

MY TURN-History does repeat itself. This is why scholars and smart politicians review episodes in history to help them find answers for today's challenges. Even though the issues we face today may appear different...they are just basically the same with some new twists. 

Given all the chatter surrounding the California Coastal Commission and its effort to discharge its current manager, I thought I'd talk with one of the Commission’s initial proponents, former City Councilmember Joy Picus. (Photo: ribbon cutting ceremony at Griffith Observatory in 2006) 

The California Coastal Commission was a grass roots effort initiated in part by the American Association of University Women, League of Women Voters and other civic organizations. They gathered enough signatures to get Proposition 20 on the ballot in 1972 and it passed. Picus was one of the more involved activists. The main goal was to save the California coastline from over-development and to preserve its beauty for future generations. This early interest in the environment would play an important role during her public life. 

Proposition 20 gave the Coastal Commission permit authority for four years. Then the California Coastal Act of 1976 extended the Coastal Commission's authority indefinitely. This state authority controls construction along California’s 1,100 miles (1,770 km) of shoreline. The Commission is composed of 12 voting members, 6 chosen from the general public, and 6 appointed elected officials. The panelists are neither paid a salary nor a stipend for their work; it is a very political body with various degrees of interest in preservation. 

Picus was a native of Chicago and started her political science studies at the University of Wisconsin. She and her long-time husband, Gerald Picus, a physicist, then moved to Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley. 

She became active in the Parent-Teacher Association and League of Women Voters and served as president of the Valley branch of the American Association of University Women. She was also employed for three years as community relations director for the Jewish Federation Council. 

In the late sixties and early seventies women were pretty much relegated to the" back benches." Picus, like many other women, was influenced by Betty Friedan's 1964 book, the Feminine Mystique

Her political career began in 1973 when she challenged the incumbent City Councilman, Donald Lorenzen, in LA Council District 3. Lorenzen won in a tight election that demanded a recount; the vote was 27,575 for Lorenzen and 27,027 for Picus...a matter of 548 votes. 

She took on Lorenzen again, and though he kept referring to her as a "wild-eyed environmentalist”... she won! "The big surprise was that this middle class democratic woman beat the incumbent in a district that voted 80% for Ronald Reagan," Picus told me. 

She was the first woman to hold a City Council seat in the San Fernando Valley. District 3 covered the southwest corner of the Valley, including Woodland Hills, Tarzana and parts of Encino, Canoga Park and Reseda. 

She remains the longest serving City Councilmember... a total of sixteen years. Because term limits came into play soon after she left office, that record of longevity still holds. 

I asked her what it was like being a female politician in those days. She said that there were several women on the City Council during her sixteen years. She became accustomed to the double entendres and occasional outright propositions by both city officials and the public. A recall campaign against her was started by the fire and police unions since she was thought to be "anti-labor." But she said that she was able to have a collegial relationship with most of the men and the women went out of their way to help each other. 

In 1981, the Los Angeles Times wrote about District 3: 

Although the district is largely white and middle class, it is complicated and anything but homogenous. A study in contrasts, it has expensive ranch homes in Woodland Hills that are minutes away from shack-like dwellings in Canoga Park, a largely Hispanic barrio dating from the early 1900s.” 

Picus became a "hero of local conservationists" since she pushed builders to provide more open space for parks. She also supported transportation projects, called attention to the need for waste recycling, and opposed oil drilling in the Pacific Palisades. 

Those were heady days in Los Angeles politics that produced more than its fair share of political scandals. Armand Hammer, the multimillionaire industrialist, wanted to drill oil off the Pacific Palisades Coast. But the Palisades had always had a strong community organization and they convinced Picus to fight the drilling. When it came up before City Council it passed 9 to 6. The big surprise was that the new Mayor, Tom Bradley, vetoed it. In order to over-ride the veto, they needed ten votes. 

She recalled fondly that all of the sudden she became very popular and was invited to all the Armand Hammer social events; everyone was putting pressure on her to change her vote. He finally stopped inviting her and drilling off the Pacific Palisades never happened. 

Developing policies and programs on behalf of working parents and their children was another priority for Picus. She authored the city's Child Care Policy, which made Los Angeles one of the first cities in the country to hire a full-time child-care coordinator. 

She also spurred the opening of a child-care center for Civic Center employees in Downtown Los Angeles, financed by the city and federal governments. In 1989, she persuaded the City Council to create preferences in city contracts for companies that offered child-care benefits to their employees. 

The City Hall South Children’s Center was named the Joy Picus Learning Center in 1996. 

Picus was named "Woman of the Year” by Ms. Magazine in 1985, a result of her successful drive to include an historic "pay equity" plan in the city's collective bargaining agreement with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME.) She was the only politician to receive the award that year. 

Also known as "comparable worth," the effort refers to upgrading pay rates for jobs that were paid lower wages because they had traditionally been held by women. The magazine credited Picus with "helping bring about a $12 million pay equity agreement between the City of Los Angeles and 3,900 of its employees, most of them women." 

According to an old Los Angeles Times interview, Picus was dubbed by some as a "Mary Poppins," because of the " 'flighty impression' she sometimes conveys." She replied that her "preparation for political life came from activities primarily with other women," and so in the beginning she was not "taken as seriously" as were the men. She emerged, the reporter wrote, "as a woman of enormous ego and drive, with tremendous energy and determination." 

Today Joy Picus remains active and involved. She is still serves on the boards of several civic and cultural groups. She keeps track of what goes on in the City politically. She notes that some of the things she and her colleagues tried to change are still status quo

The point of this article is to not just revisit the past, but to remind our City Councilmembers that great things have been accomplished in the past by prior City Council colleagues. 

The job is not just about fixing potholes or passing zoning changes – it’s about having the vision and persistence to tackle the big challenges. And much more than worrying about the next election! 

As always comments welcome…

 

(Denyse Selesnick is a CityWatch columnist. She is a former publisher/journalist/international event organizer. Denyse can be reached at: [email protected]) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

 

EASTSIDER--First, hats off to Chen (a landlord) and her attorneys, Rosario Perry, Steven Coard and Lisa Howard for legally proving what we all knew to be true -- Airbnb’s are illegal in LA City residential zones. They took this case all the way through the Appellate Division, no inexpensive undertaking. As a result, the Appeals Court Decision is certified for publication; it is now case law for the City of Los Angeles. 

Of course, this is Los Angeles City where nothing is as it seems. The fly in the ointment is mostly City Attorney Mike Feuer who has consistently refused to prosecute Airbnb zoning cases. Under the Charter, he gets to make the call -- not the Council Offices and not you or me. One can only hope that Airbnb has already given mightily to his next election campaign. 

So now, Mr. Feuer has a choice: to enforce or to pretend to enforce. Based on his prior actions, I’m afraid he will continue to put impediments in the way of enforcement, citing excuses such as, “we can’t prove it,” or, “there is not sufficient first hand evidence by a city employee” -- and so on. As a result, I give him a vote of no-confidence since he has refused to take on any of these cases. Clearly, he has the legal authority to do so. And thus the moniker, “Feckless Feuer.” 

Courtesy of the City Charter, here’s how it works. In most large cities, a separate attorney handles legal advice for the elected body; another attorney functions as prosecutor. In LA County, you have the District Attorney who prosecutes and the County Counsel who acts as legal advisor for the Board of Supervisors. Makes sense. 

But in Los Angeles City, of course, that would make too much sense, so instead we have a situation where the Office of the City Attorney is both prosecutor and legal advisor to the LA City Council, as well as to the Mayor and city departments. 

Historically, the City Attorney’s Office has a symbiotic relationship with the Council in the way it performs these two functions. They are all part of the elected officials “together” club. But this has not always been the case. Mr. Feuer’s predecessor, ’Nuch’ Trutanich, was famous both as a loose cannon and for publicly refusing to do the City Council’s bidding. I loved him because he shed a bright light on who inside City Hall had power over what. He made for great stories! 

Unfortunately, in the case of Mr. Feuer and Airbnb, I suspect that the City Attorney and the City Council are in quiet agreement not to prosecute short-term rental cases. That way, the Council gets to pretend that they want to enforce the zoning laws -- which we all know is a farce, since they only do that when it helps developers – and instead, blame inaction on the City Attorney who then gets to adopt a bogus policy to tank these code violations. He can tell the council exactly what they want to hear: “No prosecution on zoning cases because we can’t win because…fill in the blank.” 

In support of my jaded outlook, let’s see who actually made the motion to adopt rules and regulations (including taxation) of short-term rentals (aka Airbnb): Council President Herb Wesson and Mike Bonin. Hmmm. Herb never met a dollar he didn’t covet and he’s an absolute master at behind-the-scenes dealing. The motion was seconded by CD 11’s Mike Bonin. As Bill Rosendahl’s Chief-of-Staff, he has been involved in the district for a while…even as Venice turned from a cool neighborhood with affordable housing into a strip of Airbnb hotels

Mr. Bonin wasn’t too interested in this problem until the axe had already fallen on all the under-represented renters. So it’s fair to question how vigorous his advocacy will be now -- other than to move forward in obtaining taxes from all the dot.com app folks. 

Even though Mrs. Chen and her attorneys did us all a service by proving that the Emperor has no clothes, there are at least two ways that Feuer can still do us in during the process of enacting a Short-term Rental Ordinance. First, his weapon of choice to date, as previously discussed, has been to decline to prosecute violations of the zoning regulations. 

Second -- and get ready for this one -- it will be the City Attorney who will handle the actual drafting of the short-term rental ordinance. Anyone want to guess how many ways there are for him to “fix” the issue by exempting Airbnb from any liability? 

You can help, though, because sooner or later, there will be a draft ordinance that magically appears and will be vetted through the Council Committees. So ignore the summary information and read the Ordinance language! The details of what’s really going on will be buried in there somewhere. 

Show up at hearings, write or email your Councilmember. Generate so much heat that even the Los Angeles City Council will have to listen to its neighborhoods. Maybe then they will have to represent the citizens, instead of outside special interests. 

Stay tuned. 

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.) Photo: LA Times.

GUEST WORDS-In the City of Los Angeles, apartment buildings built before October 1, 1978 are under rent-control. All across Los Angeles there are people living in one-bedroom apartments paying around four hundred dollars a month in rent when, in reality, the fair market value of that apartment is twelve hundred dollars a month or more. As of 2016, the citywide average fair market value rent for a one-bedroom is $1,950. 

Around the year 2000, the Los Angeles Housing Department decided that landlords are a great source of revenue for the City. All of the sudden, landlords were under attack by the LAHD. Housing inspectors would visit apartment buildings and cite landlords for the most minor code violations such as little bits of peeling paint. And the city started collecting lots of money from landlords. 

If the city is limiting a landlord’s cash flow through rent-control, it is very hard for that landlord to pay the mortgage, the real estate taxes, the utilities and then, after all those expenses, properly maintain the building. But the housing department was not concerned about what was fair because they started to prosecute landlords; many went to jail for not spending money they didn’t have and were even held back from collecting. 

As the years went on, it became common knowledge among landlords that one could go to jail and lose one’s property if the LAHD came after them via the City Attorney’s Office. Once landlords saw the writing on the wall, they started selling their properties in large numbers. These older properties were gobbled up by developers who in turn evicted the tenants, tore down these older buildings and built condos that would generate a higher cash flow. After selling their properties here, landlords began investing their money in cities that were business friendly. Since 2000, more than 200,000 affordable housing apartments (older buildings) have been torn down and replaced by expensive units. 

The tragedy here is the many of LA’s working poor, the elderly on fixed income, the disabled and families on public assistance were losing their low-rent apartments. Once a person loses his or her four hundred dollar a month apartment, and that person cannot afford to pay at least double or triple that rent he or she will become homeless. 

So now the City of Los Angeles wants to raise $100 million to fix a problem caused by the LAHD. If you own any type of business or if you own real estate, there are people in City Hall planning to create a new tax or fee that will take more of your money away from you. You need to be aware of what they are discussing in the Budget Committee and the Housing Committee. If they start taking your money to clean up their mess, you must remember them and vote them out of office in the next election. 

If you want to receive updates on this matter, so you can call LA City Councilmembers directly and tell them your opinions. Also, for more information check with The Fair Housing Coalition 

 

(Bill Hooey is President of The Fair Housing Coalition in Los Angeles. His email is: [email protected].) Photo: KABC News. Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

GUEST WORDS--Westwood Boulevard 2.0: where bicyclists ride in their own lane beside wide and smooth sidewalks, shaded outdoor patios surround fully occupied restaurants and shops, and exercise stations, small library stands and charging docks stand on street corners.

This upgrade is possible. Mayor Eric Garcetti put in place the “Great Streets” program in order to recreate and take advantage of an often-underrated asset in Los Angeles, our streets. In April 2014, Westwood Boulevard was one of the first 15 streets chosen to receive grant opportunities and access to different resources through the mayor’s office in order to get quick improvement results. The opportunities are smaller in nature — like free-standing exercise stations or parklets — but ultimately do contribute to a street’s overall appeal.

But these projects are set back and held off because different departments involved do not list Westwood Village as a priority. This is especially true of two institutions: the Westwood Neighborhood Council and the Westwood Village Improvement Association, also known as BID.

Currently, BID is working with the WWNC in bringing to life an up-to-date boulevard central to their community, but the latter is holding the former back and not aiming to reimagine a better Westwood.

The “Great Streets” program is not being taken advantage of as it should be. Westwood community leaders are hindering improvements that could potentially revive the Village. These institutions should work to find compromises that could recreate Westwood Boulevard as a distinct street in Los Angeles.

Westwood Village used to be the go-to spot after dark, with its numerous theaters, playhouses, restaurants and shops. Today, locals dressed for a night on the town would trip and fall on their walks down the dimly lit and cracked Westwood sidewalks. The bar scene is weak, with Santa Monica and West Hollywood grabbing all the limelight. And vacancies line the streets, with homeless individuals using the abandoned storefronts’ roof for shelter.

Yet even given this, some are hesitant to change. Jerry Brown, president of the WWNC, said that he does not think that Westwood Boulevard should have been chosen as a “great street” and that the council does not have any specific proposals with regards to making a better boulevard, besides basic upkeep such as fixing sidewalks and tending to the vacancy issue.

This means that BID is limited to practical plans due to the WWNC rejecting its more creative ideas. While the plans do address specific issues on the boulevard such as these cracks and vacancies, these plans do not reimagine it into the one-of-a-kind boulevard that it could be.

Instead of shutting down these ideas, WWNC should be open-minded to the idea of temporary implementation of the projects, so that they can later be assessed as successful or not.

And this isn’t something new. In the past, WWNC rejected BID’s proposal for a bike lane, even when presented in the context of this initiative, on account of traffic and safety concerns. Additionally, it rejected a compromise for share arrows, in which signs would be put up to remind drivers and bicyclists to share the road.

Addressing maintenance, as the WWNC wants to do, is only part of the problem. Westwood Boulevard is the gateway to what used to be a popular Mediterranean-themed village. The goal of any Westwood officials should be to bring back the city to what it used to be.

To deny Westwood Village’s heyday period and not aim to go above and beyond in restoring such a history is unfair to the citizens who elect these leading officials, as well as the students who live within and around the village itself.

The effects of the “Great Streets” program peek in and out of Westwood Boulevard’s image, between Wilshire Boulevard and Le Conte Avenue. A solar-powered bus bench with a USB charging station, newly painted crosswalks and installed parking meters for bikes were all added with the help of the program and the mayor’s office.

This initiative is an opportunity to breathe new light into Westwood Boulevard, and possibly, the entire Village.

Shani Shahmoon writes for the Daily Bruin… where this piece was first posted.) Graphic credit: Kelly Brennan/Daily Bruin

-cw

GELFAND’S WORLD--This is the next in a series of articles about emergency preparedness. We stress the attempt to bring the public up to a level of preparation that will be required should we have to deal with a major earthquake. 

The Emergency Preparedness Alliance met again last weekend, this time to discuss disaster communications. Some of what we heard involved technical sounding stuff like the organization of two-way radio networks. Some of it involved learning about sending emergency messages up and down the line through organized chains of command. 

It turns out that there is plenty of room for us civilians in the emergency communications process, provided we make the minimal effort to get an amateur radio license. We learned about programs that train people in as little as a day. There is also the Family Radio (FRS) system which does not require a license, and will be ideal for getting emergency messages out over a range of perhaps a few blocks. The goal is to have a few thousand of us equipped at the FRS or ham radio level so that we can provide ultra-local eyes and ears in the event of a true emergency. 

We then considered an everyday example of emergency communications and their intersection with the emergency response system. The example we heard about is the 911 phone system. In particular, we heard about some of the issues that 911 operators have to deal with. A lot of the time, they take calls from people who are not very good at communicating clearly and tersely in times of stress. That turns out to be most of us. 

We considered the 911 operator because the emergency telephone connection is an example of one node of a complicated system of interacting parts that will also be a crucial element in responding to a larger disaster. The system that starts with your 911 call includes phone operators, ambulances, police, fire fighters, and hospitals, just to mention a few. In short, it represents part of the system that we will have to ramp up when problems are widespread. 

But the daily travails of the 911 operator illustrate in microcosm the sorts of problems we might face on a much wider scale if a real disaster should hit. 

Where are you?

Yes, I know you're at home. What's the address?

Yes, I know it's your mother. What is the problem? 

These are the sorts of conversations that 911 operators get into. There is a certain amount of information that is critical for the responders to have before the system can do anything for you or your sick mom. Your location is obviously one of those things, but some people have a difficult time getting the information across. This is particularly true when the emergency is away from the caller's home address. "I'm on Sepulveda" is the beginning of an answer, but it's just a beginning, because you could be in the San Fernando Valley or you could be in Westwood. "I'm on Sepulveda about half a block north of Vermont on the Westside" is better. 

What is the age, condition, and gender of the sick or injured person? These are particularly important data to get across, but most people don't know to explain in detail at first. They have to be walked through things point by point by the operator. And that's just the start because then the operator has to put the right people in motion. 

These points were explained by Jonathan Zimmerman, who works with the LAFD Auxiliary Communications Service. In conversation, we agreed that training the public in how to explain things to the 911 operator would be of help. It wouldn't have to be extended training, just a bit of advice about taking a deep breath and summarizing to yourself the most important points to get across. It will be almost like that old journalistic formula, "Who What When Where Why." In describing an automobile accident that just occurred on La Cienega and Olympic with two people possibly injured, you've already got most of it said, and you are only a few seconds into the call. 

The same advice applies to major disasters. There won't be time for idle chatter. 

Emergency Communications under conditions of disaster 

Now imagine having to ramp up the 911 system by a factor of hundreds because lots of people need help. Buildings are collapsed. Gas mains are leaking. This will require participation by civilian volunteers. We won't have the equipment and phone lines that the 911 system has, so we will have to use our own hand-held radios (or whatever else we have). 

The most important lesson that came through in this week's session was that getting a communications system like this up and running will require having the right kind of organization. It will also involve training us volunteers in how to participate in that organization. 

Let's get specific. Imagine a serious earthquake, and further imagine that you become aware that one or two of your neighbors are injured badly enough to require medical attention. The information comes to you because you are the local volunteer radio operator. You summarize the information in the fewest number of words and tell it to the next level up, which will be at your local fire station. The local fire station contact can then send you help if it is available, or if not, your message will be sent further up the line to a regional center. 

You, the local volunteer, will take the place of the 911 emergency phone system in the event of a major, region-wide emergency. You will work with an efficient and effective chain of other volunteers and well trained professionals. 

In this way, local problems that can be handled on the spot will be dealt with immediately. Problems which require more substantial efforts will go further up the chain. At the top of the chain is the Emergency Operations Center, which will be dealing with citywide issues including logistics and capabilities. The people at the top of the chain will have access to statewide and national aid. 

An important consideration for state and federal agencies will be knowing just where in your neighborhood to send critical help and supplies. That is another reason that the local (you and me), regional (professionals such as the LAFD and LAPD) and citywide responders are so important. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]

-cw

 

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