How L.A. Became Such a Deadly City for Cyclists
And how a small group of increasingly political riders is trying to change the congested driving culture, one bike path at a time
On a sunny April afternoon in south central Los Angeles, 22-year-old Frederick “Woon” Frazier went for a bike ride that ended his life.
Like most days in L.A., the weather was perfect for cycling: temperatures in the mid-80s and a light breeze clearing out the smog. Even in a city dubbed “the hit-and-run capital of the nation,” Frazier usually traveled by bike, a rider on streets built for drivers. He had just turned onto the far right side of Manchester Boulevard, pedaling between parked cars and the flow of traffic, when a white Porsche SUV came speeding behind him. Security cameras at a nearby building later revealed the vehicle actually accelerated before impact, plowing down the gutter lane while attempting a right-hand pass.
The security video didn’t record the impact that killed Frazier, but public photos of the crime scene show that the collision snapped his bike in half. After dumping Frazier in the middle of a busy street, the SUV’s driver sped away—marking the first of four hit-and-run or DUI crashes to kill pedestrians and cyclists in South L.A. over a six-day stretch.
At a memorial 24 hours later, fellow cyclists briefly blocked traffic in the intersection where he died. Motorists grew angry, then turned violent. One woman mowed through the crowd and sent a friend of Woon’s named Quatrell Stallings flying. Once again, the driver took off, leaving Stallings severely injured. LAPD announced the arrests of both drivers in early June, charging Stallings’ attacker with attempted murder and saying that Frazier’s killer was being considered for a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.
But according to L.A. bikers, the drivers aren’t the only ones responsible. Many cyclists blame their local representatives for repeatedly prioritizing street speed over safety in the world’s most congested city. Spurred by the crashes, the biking community is mobilizing to convince city council members that more bike lanes are needed, even if protecting people who ride means slowing down people who drive.
At a bike shop community action meeting a few weeks after Frazier died, Michael MacDonald, co-founder of advocacy group BikeTheVote, told his fellow cyclists, “We need the city to see that there’s an epidemic going on out there.”
Mayor Eric Garcetti seemingly addressed street-safety concerns in his annual budget proposal, setting aside a record-high $38 million for his signature traffic program Vision Zero. Now in its third year, the ambitious plan aims to eliminate all road deaths by 2025. “Fatalities are not a tolerable byproduct of transportation,” Garcetti said when he launched Vision Zero in August 2015. “Loss of life and severe injuries resulting from traffic crashes are unacceptable outcomes that we can address.”
April’s rash of hit-and-runs, however, show how the city’s Vision Zero program has gotten off to a rough start. The past two years of analyzing data and installing small-scale safety measures like curb extensions and high-visibility crosswalks have been the deadliest in more than a decade: 253 died in 2016 and 245 died in 2017. Last year more than 60 percent were hit and killed while walking or riding a bike—a 5 percent increase from when Vision Zero began.
Of course, Los Angeles isn’t the only city trying to combat street danger. According to the National Safety Council, America’s leading road-safety organization, roughly 101 Americans die in traffic every day. Pedestrians are the most at risk, but biking is also disproportionately dangerous. Cyclists make up less than 1 percent of all vehicle traffic but comprise nearly 3 percent of road fatalities nationwide. An estimated 45,000 cyclists were injured in crashes in 2015, though research suggests the actual number may be much higher because many injuries are never reported.
While other cities’ Vision Zero programs have demonstrated marked improvements—in New York, pedestrian fatalities dropped by a third last year—Los Angeles’ project has struggled to rein in rising death totals. When the program officially launched in 2015, studies showed the most dangerous intersections and streets tended to fall in L.A.’s historically underserved neighborhoods, including arterial roads like Manchester Avenue, where Frazier was hit.
Nat Gale, the head of Vision Zero at L.A.’s Department of Transportation, explains that the city’s solution has been to focus first on things they can design and implement within a one-year time frame. These small-scale improvements target signage, traffic signals, and high-visibility crosswalks all over town. Cyclists, however, say the phased rollout allows city council to tiptoe around large design changes. In his first term, the mayor has added just 81 bike lane miles to the city’s network of roughly 6,500 road miles—approximately seven of which were recently removed, months after being installed, due to pushback from drivers.
“If we’re concerned about people dying and people getting severely injured, then we’re concerned about speed,” says Lyndsey Nolan, policy coordinator for the nonprofit L.A. County Bike Coalition. “And if we’re concerned about speed, you have to talk about how the roads are constructed.”
“We spent the last 50 or 60 years designing Los Angeles almost strictly for cars,” says Ted Rogers, the founder of BikingInLA.com who has ridden L.A.’s streets for 28 years. “We built these ridiculous six- and eight-lane boulevards to channel traffic as fast as we can, with no thought given whatsoever to bikes or pedestrians. It was just assumed that everyone would drive.” Rogers’ website catalogs all the cyclist deaths in the area; he calls himself the “death master” of Southern California cycling.
“Drivers get angry if someone slows down to make a right turn and doesn’t get the hell out of their way fast enough,” he says. “Even walking on Sunset Boulevard at rush hour, I take my life in my hands.”
Drivers also get angry when the city’s Vision Zero plan strays into large-scale road redevelopment. Consider the instance of city council member Mike Bonin, a vocal Vision Zero supporter who approved road diets in his district that added several protected bike lanes last summer. Cyclists were thrilled, but drivers started a campaign to recall the councilman. Eventually the pressure forced the city to reverse course: LADOT tore up the bike lanes and restored the natural, car-focused order of things.
Months later, another council member, Mitch O’Farrell, followed suit, backing out of a different road diet closer to downtown. After a year of planning to revamp a corridor where motorists have caused five deaths and 21 severe injuries over the past eight years, O’Farrell quashed the project, saying he opposed the road diet “unless there is significant, widespread outreach and support.”
Unlike New York, where the mayor’s office can override council members’ objections to projects in their districts, L.A.’s weak mayoral system means each local representative acts as a “little king in his district,” Rogers says. “No one in the city has the power to overrule the council member,” he says. “The entire council can and should be able to do it, but they won’t vote against one of their members out of fear that guy is going to turn around and vote against them on something.”
Those who prefer life at bike speed are quick to point out the city actually has the funding to make bold changes. County voters passed Measure M in 2016, which added a half-cent sales tax expected to generate $120 billion over the next 40 years and included, for the first time ever, dedicated funding for active transportation like walking and biking.
But after Frazier died on a street where bike lanes have been recommended and never implemented, many cyclists are vocalizing their concerns to their representatives. A movement called Woon Justice for South L.A. is gathering steam, with a stated goal of getting a bike lane installed on the stretch of road where Frazier died.
The group has already scheduled a meeting to persuade the local councilman, and members agree local businesses and stakeholders must be included if they want to avoid community backlash. During the first bike shop activist meeting after Frazier’s death, MacDonald encouraged his fellow bikers to believe they can spearhead the improvement of L.A. streets, saying, “There are more people who bike in this city than who vote.”
Later, someone at the shop took a poll: Who has been hit by a car in Los Angeles? More than three-fourths of the room raised their hands. Who has been the victim of a hit-and-run? Half the hands stayed up.
When discussion ended a few minutes later, the group of about 30 people returned to their bikes. Head organizer Edin Barrientos, a friend of Frazier’s, said he loves to ride, especially at night, despite having been hit himself three times. Already wearing his helmet on his way to lead his weekly Monday night group bike ride, Barrientos admitted that he does sometimes drive in the safety of his car. “But I prefer the bicycle,” he said.
Outside, his friends slipped into the eerie glow of L.A. at night.
“I just think the people it attracts make one of the most beautiful crowds in Los Angeles.”