Here’s an Alternative Response to Collision Lawsuits in L.A.
6:57 AM PDT on October 30, 2017
Earlier this month, L.A. City Councilmember Mitch Englander introduced a motion directing that "bike lanes be closed or removed" and that "no additional bike lanes be installed" on streets which have poor pavement conditions. Though the Englander motion aims to reduce city liability to lawsuits, it relies on several misguided assumptions and could make the city's liability situation worse.
A somewhat similar August 2017 motion (15-0719-S17) from Councilmember Paul Krekorian responds to cyclist lawsuits, directing the city to inspect its bike lanes and paths, and to report on remedying deficiencies.
The Englander motion (17-1142) begins "In the past few months there have been several high profile lawsuit settlements involving accidents that occurred in City of Los Angeles Bike Lanes - that have either killed or rendered cyclists paralyzed or with severe brain damage." (emphasis added) Englander is wrong about where these crashes took place.
Since late 2014, the city of Los Angeles authorized $22 million in payouts to injured cyclists in six cases:
- 17-0951 settled October 2017 - $7.5M to William Yao cycling on Reseda Blvd at Brasilia Dr
- 17-0899 settled September 2017 - $6.5M to Peter Godefroy cycling at 13650 Valley Vista Blvd
- 17-0452 settled May 2017 - $4.5M to Edgardo Gabat cycling on Colorado Blvd, east of N. Figueroa St
- 16-1186 settled November 2016 - $125,000 to Steven Correa cycling on Grand Ave between 5th and 6th Sts
- 16-1039 settled September 2016 - $3M to Shelaim Furst hit by car while cycling on Victory Blvd at Orion Ave
- 14-1481 settled December 2014 - $360,000 to Adam Driscoll hit by truck while cycling on Bundy Drive and Dorothy Street
Four of the six cases took place on streets with no bike facilities. Yao crashed in a bike lane on Reseda Blvd. A car crashed into Furst on a bike route on Victory Blvd. None of these crashes took place on bike paths or protected bike lanes.
For Englander's "past few months" timeline, there were not "several" that occurred in bike lanes. Of three 2017 settlements, only one, Yao, actually occurred in a bike lane.
It appears that Englander is assuming that most L.A. bicycling actually takes place on a bike lane network much more robust than actually exists. Most L.A. bicycling, hence most bike collisions, takes place on streets without any bicycle facilities.
It also appears that Englander assumes that removing a bike lane would lessen the city's liability risk. In studies, bike lanes have been shown to position cars and bikes in ways that are safer for cyclists. SBLA has not received a legitimate legal opinion, but it seems like removing an existing bike lane (a safety feature) could likely make the city more vulnerable to lawsuits, especially those resulting from cars crashing into bicycles. While this type of crash was not among the three 2017 settlements (Yao, Godefoy, and Gabat were all solo cyclist crashes with city liability attributed to pavement conditions), earlier cyclist lawsuits were from car and truck crashes. Imagine a lawsuit brought against the city in a case where a car crashes into a cyclist on a street where a bike lane existed but was removed by the city. Would city liability be greater?
Overall, though, the most distressing assumption behind the Englander motion is that the way to solve a cycling safety problem is to remove the cyclist. Instead of making L.A. a safe place to bike, Englander seems to assume that cyclists will somehow stop riding on streets if the city removes bike lanes. This solution is sadly analogous to L.A. removing pedestrians from Vista Del Mar, which L.A. Walks critiqued as "a solution in which the very presence of pedestrians is seen as a problem that needs solving. Instead of making walking safer, we try to address safety by removing the walkers." Bike lanes do not cause cycling. Cyclists are already riding on streets all over Los Angeles. Bike lanes acknowledge that cycling is already happening and that the city has responsibility to make streets safe for current cyclists.
With motions from Englander and Krekorian attempting to fix the issue of seemingly excessive liability to cyclists, they are ignoring much larger liability issues related to street safety. A week after Englander's motion responded to three bicyclist settlements totaling $18.5 million, the city authorized a $15 million settlement for "dangerous conditions" that resulted in a pedestrian hit by a car in a crosswalk. Neither Englander nor Krekorian responded with any kind of motion that would curb unsafe driver behavior.
Reviewing records from FY 2015-16 to present, city lawsuit payouts include the following: (Note that these totals may be partial, as requests to the City Attorney's office went unanswered at press time. To view data SBLA compiled, see Google spread sheet.)
- solo bicyclist: $18.6M
- bicyclists hit by car: $3M
- solo pedestrian sidewalk trip-and-fall: $4.5M
- pedestrians hit by cars: $50.7M
- car/truck/motorcycle crash: $48.1M
Sure, unsafe pavement conditions result in some serious solo cyclist and solo pedestrian injuries. Since mid-2016, these have cost the city $23 million. But the big numbers are from crashes involving cars. Since mid-2016, these have cost the city over $100 million. So, if Englander and Krekorian are interested in reducing city liability, they should focus on where the real danger comes from on L.A. streets: drivers.
What should Englander and Krekorian do to respond to millions of dollars spent settling lawsuits stemming from unsafe streets?
Here are three recommendations:
- Support Vision Zero: The city's Vision Zero program is, of course, already working to end traffic crashes causing deaths and serious injuries. While Englander and Krekorian have supported some Vision Zero policies and funding in the past, they have not championed Vision Zero. Especially regarding streets in the Valley (which appears to be over-represented in these car-crash lawsuits), Englander and Krekorian should get behind engineering and enforcement efforts. Instead, Krekorian has impeded projects that would have made Lankershim Boulevard safer. Englander championed Reseda Boulevard Great Streets improvements and should get behind extending these from Parthenia to Victory as identified as a priority segment in the Vision Zero Action Plan. All councilmembers should respond to crashes and lawsuits by making streets safer for all users.
- Stop Widening Streets: Despite an estimated $3-4 billion backlog for L.A. City street maintenance, the city continues to widen streets that it cannot afford to maintain. Widening is bad for numerous reasons, including increasing speeds which increase crash severity and liability. Similar to what was approved for downtown, the council should pass a citywide moratorium on automatically widening streets, instead widening only on an as-needed basis.
- Coordinate Paving To Maintain Safe Bicycle Facilities: Krekorian's motion acknowledges that "[b]ecause of cyclist's increased vulnerability, the City should ensure that street conditions are maintained, to the greatest extent possible, in sufficiently good repair to reduce hazards, especially in bike lanes." The city actually already approved this policy, as part of the city's approved 2010 Bike Plan. The plan (Policy 2.3.5 - p.92) commits the city's Bureau of Public Works to "Maintain safe bikeways through regular inspection and maintenance" including "prioritize paving on [bike] Network streets" and "repair/removal of potential hazards, including... potholes, railroad crossings, inappropriate/unsafe storm drain grates, and gutter cracks," and even to "Make the annual street paving schedule public and easily accessible on the Bureau of Street Services’ website." This policy was approved by the city, but has not been implemented.
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