Is There Any Hope for L.A.’s Terrible Streets and Sidewalks?

Why our roadways are so bad—and what it’s going to take to fix them

James Howard is sitting in a folding chair outside a convenience store in Watts, charging his cell phone at an outdoor wall outlet. Most days, Wilmington Avenue and 105th Street is a fairly busy intersection from his vantage point, but today it’s filled with heavy equipment and a flurry of road construction. There’s the rumbling of giant asphalt trucks, the grinding of compactors, the beeping of pavers as they roll back and forth, smoothing the way for cars and trucks.

Years have gone by since the stretch of Wilmington between 103rd and 105th streets has gotten this kind of attention, and Howard is part of a small crowd watching the show. “It used to be jacked up because it was a lot of potholes,” Howard says as a friend rolls up on a bicycle, handing him a can of beer. “But it’s almost like Beverly Hills now. It’s smooth.”

Wilmington Avenue was like a lot of L.A.’s roads. About 25 percent of the city’s 28,000 lane miles are in poor condition, according to the agency tasked with fixing them—L.A.’s Bureau of Street Services. It’s the usual tale of deferred maintenance: There’s too much to do and too little money to do it. The snail’s pace of bureaucracy means the city will need 30 years and at least $4 billion to bring them up to speed.

“It’s a poor state of affairs,” says Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch Englander, whose 12th Council District includes a hunk of the Valley. “The roads and sidewalks are in deplorable condition.” Englander has been so outraged by the city’s lack of support for solving the problem that he brought a can of whoop ass to last year’s budget and finance deliberations. (In reality, it was a soup can with an altered label.) Despite his brandishing of said can and threats to open it, the stunt had little effect: The city allocated $149.8 million to road repair for the 2016-2017 fiscal year, pretty much guaranteeing that L.A.’s crumbling roadways will be on full display for the entire world to see even ten years from now, when the Summer Olympics roll into town.

Griffith Park blvd and Effie

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Before getting deeper into the bureaucratic challenges of fixing our roadways, it’s worth backing up and starting with a simple question: Why are L.A.’s roads so embarrassingly awful in the first place? Pocked pavement makes sense in places where there’s snow and ice—actual weather like other cities experience. But it turns out that L.A.’s climatic good fortune is part of the problem. “Sunlight and water are a street’s worst enemy,” says Street Services superintendent Robert Sewell, who is on-site during the Wilmington repaving project. “They degrade everything.” Sunshine causes oxidation that generates cracks, and those cracks worsen when water seeps into them. Yes, water, even in drought-prone L.A. While it doesn’t rain here much, we get enough of the wet stuff from people washing their cars and watering their lawns as well as from leaky sewers.

Of course, the wear and tear stems from something else, too: L.A. has the worst traffic in the world—literally, according to the transportation analytics firm INRIX and its 2017 Global Traffic Scorecard. With Wilmington serving as a major thruway to get from the 105 freeway to Watts Towers, it sees more than its share of cars. Any drivers who had the misfortune of being on that stretch of asphalt a month earlier would have experienced cracks large enough to wrench the steering wheel from their hands and potholes so deep they might have led to China.

It may not be surprising to know that a street in a poor neighborhood was in bad shape. A lot of Angelenos suspect that street maintenance depends on the zip code, with the wealthier areas automatically landing at the top of the city’s waiting list. While those suspicions may have been well founded in the past, that isn’t supposed to happen now that the politicians on the city council have handed the authority to repair roads to the Bureau of Street Services. Sherman Torres, also a bureau superintendent, is the other supervisor overseeing the Wilmington work. Wearing an orange Day-Glo vest over his suit coat and tie, he explains that Wilmington was selected for resurfacing based on actual need, with the help of what’s known as a micro paver. That’s a fancy name for a city van outfitted with high-definition cameras used to analyze every inch of every L.A. road to determine the condition and what sort of maintenance might be required.

L.A. is so big, it takes three years to complete the process for the entire city. “And it’s constant, because once you finish the cycle, you’ve got to start over again,” Torres says as the stench of hot oil wafts over the neighborhood.

The data from the micro paver is used to spit out something called a Pavement Condition Index rating for every block of the city. The PCI then determines whether a road can be brought up to snuff with an inexpensive sealant, or slurry, that creates an eighth-of-an-inch top layer of sand and oil, extending a street’s life up to seven years, or whether a more invasive measure like resurfacing or total reconstruction is in order. Costs per lane mile vary wildly, from $10,000 for a simple slurry job to about $100,000 for a resurfacing that removes and replaces two inches of asphalt to as much as $300,000 when digging out a road to its base layer.

But with such a backlog of projects, streets whose longevity might have been extended with a sealant need far costlier and time-intensive overhauls, according to Englander. “If all we’re doing is maintaining, which is where we’re at right now, not advancing, that creates a further backlog,” says Englander, who has proposed a motion for the city to fast-track street work by borrowing against future income generated through Measure M’s sales tax increase and Senate Bill 1’s gas tax increase. That motion is still wending its way through city council, with a vote expected later this year.

As everybody knows, delaying street repairs costs drivers, too. Road hazards increase emissions (as in, more pollution and greenhouse gases) by slowing traffic, whether from cars trying to avoid the crater in their lane or from accidents caused by that crater. Average L.A. drivers pay an extra $900 per year in wear and tear to their vehicles in the form of tires, brakes, and wheel alignments, according to the nonprofit transportation research group TRIP. And more than a few drivers take the bill right to City Hall, which paid some $33 million for the 2016-17 fiscal year in repair-related accident settlements.

The tab for cyclists can be far higher. Peter Godefroy crashed when he hit a pothole while pedaling through Sherman Oaks, according to the law firm that represented him. Suffering broken bones and traumatic brain injury, he sued. Last fall, the city agreed to pay Godefroy $6.5 million—part of the $8 million-plus it paid in 2017 in suits related to bicyclists injured or killed in accidents tied to cruddy streets.

Rough as L.A.’s streets can be, the sidewalks are often worse. In many places, walking them means running a gauntlet of concrete squares buckled by tree roots. It’s  not uncommon to find yourself navigating around sprouting weeds that create their own stumbling hazards, not to mention the old TVs and printers and other junk that help define the L.A. aesthetic.

“I take it for granted that the sidewalks are kind of crappy. You’ve got to keep your eyes down in order to make it through safely,” says Darren Schroader while walking his dog down Piedmont Avenue in Highland Park on a recent Sunday. Schroader moved to Los Angeles from Denver 11 years ago. Before that, he lived in Salt Lake City. Both areas, he says, were “very clean, very straight. The sidewalks are a little more well cared for.”

A year ago, when Schroader’s sister was visiting from Utah, “she totally turfed it” walking along Figueroa, he says. “She wasn’t even looking at her phone. We were walking and talking, and she just hit so hard that both of her knees were bleeding.”

They didn’t sue, but plenty of others do: City Hall paid out about $6 million last year to settle injury claims from sidewalk issues, according to the city attorney’s office.

L.A. hasn’t had a comprehensive sidewalk repair program in 40 years, says Julie Sauter, the deputy city engineer heading up the city’s current effort for the Bureau of Engineering. The reason dates back decades earlier—to the 1930s, when most of L.A.’s sidewalks were put in by developers. Back then property owners were responsible for sidewalk upkeep. But in the 1970s the federal government stepped in, handing out grants so that local governments could take over sidewalk maintenance.

Then the feds stopped providing those grants. The problem was that property owners had grown accustomed to somebody else footing the bill for public walkways. When injuries resulted from someone tripping and falling, there was legal back-and-forth over who was responsible. So the city council passed a resolution in 2016 to clarify matters. Under the so-called “fix-and-release” system, the city pays for one-time sidewalk repairs next to residential and commercial properties but requires property owners to pay for any subsequent work.

If this was a major step forward, it was nothing compared to what happened a year earlier. That’s when a major class action lawsuit filed on behalf of people with disabilities resulted in what’s known as the Willits settlement. The ramifications are massive: The Bureau of Engineering had to assess the entirety of the city’s sidewalks, all 307 million square feet of them, to determine just how bad things have become. Based on its findings and the terms of the settlement, Los Angeles will have to spend at least $31 million a year for the next 30 years to make repairs, basing priorities on requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To put a positive spin on something that it was clearly unwilling to tackle before the settlement, City Hall has launched Safe Sidewalks LA, which prioritizes repair requests from folks with mobility challenges and offers a rebate program to reimburse property owners for a percentage of their sidewalk repair. But with more than 1,000 requests rolling in each month through the city’s 311 line and the Safe Sidewalks website, nobody should expect immediate satisfaction.

When you live in a city that’s as big as some countries and popular the world over, crummy sidewalks and streets seem to be the price of admission. Or at least part of it. And while patience will get you only so far, it may also be your only option for the time being. “I think people can put on their seat belts,” says Englander. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

RELATED: L.A.’s Worst Streets for Cycling (According to One Busy Biker)

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