Cyndi Otteson has a long track record of impassioned community advocacy that includes helping to launch Miry’s List, a group that advocates for refugees and works to protect them from xenophobia. Otteson also has a record of supporting safe streets as vice president of the progressive Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council. However, what stands out to Bike The Vote is her determined effort to build an equitable and forward-thinking transportation platform by engaging with local advocates, participating in community-driven projects like Slow Yosemite, and speaking out at a recent Vision Zero call to action at City Hall organized by safe streets advocates Andres Quinche and Tom Carroll.
In her strong response to Bike The Vote’s questionnaire, Otteson demonstrates that she clearly understands what is at stake when it comes to making streets safer, and who is to blame for L.A.’s lack of progress. Her response on an ongoing discussion around bus rapid transit (BRT) in Eagle Rock was a little less determined than we would have hoped for, but she has publicly supported quality transit and taken on the difficult task of engaging with BRT-skeptics in Eagle Rock’s business community. Bike The Vote feels strongly that Otteson will make for a bold and thoughtful leader that will value the voices of the safe streets community and prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable in decisions about our transportation system.
UPDATE 2/14/2020: Acknowledging Otteson’s development of her transportation platform over the past month, her announcement of support for an on-street alignment of BRT within Eagle Rock, and her effective communication of the benefits of active transportation at numerous candidate forums, Bike The Vote L.A.’s CD14 committee has decided to raise Cyndi Otteson’s grade to an “A.” We thank her for her continued engagement and development of her transportation platform.
Bike The Vote L.A. 2020 Primary Grade: A
(See below for full candidate questionnaire response)
1. Transportation remains the largest source of greenhouse gases in California, and neighborhood oil extraction has been shown to pose significant health and safety risks to residents. Heavy spending by oil and gas companies in local elections casts doubt on whether voters can trust their elected leaders to protect them from these and other impacts. Will you pledge to refuse any donations, whether to your campaign or officeholder account, from the fossil fuel lobby?
Yes, I pledge to refuse any donations from or affiliation with the fossil fuel industry. As a grassroots candidate running on small-dollar, individual contributions, advocating for clean energy, I am not their horse in this race.
The history of fossil fuel extraction in the City of Los Angeles is a history of social and environmental injustice. Most Angelenos don’t think of our city as an oil and gas field, and would probably be shocked to learn just how many active oil wells and gas drilling facilities still exist in our residential neighborhoods. As one of the largest, most progressive cities in California we can take a stand on righting this historic wrong, and cleaning up our communities.
Our city and our City Council can and must do more; as a candidate who firmly rejects fossil fuel money whether in the form of campaign contributions or behested payments – I will hold us to a higher standard. Families and Neighborhoods first is the guiding principal of my campaign and I will work to protect our neighborhoods from further pollution by the fossil fuel industry. That means giving equitable attention to all neighborhoods in CD14, no matter the socioeconomic demographics or perceived political power, because environmental justice and economic injustice go hand in hand. In my work as a member of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council (ERNC), I have already taken a stand on this issue. We voted to oppose fracking in the City of L.A. and the creation of a new power generation facility at Scholl Canyon Landfill on the border of Eagle Rock. We voted strong support for STAND-L.A. whose mission is to shed light on and eliminate oil drilling in the city of Los Angeles.
At City Hall, I will redouble those efforts, identifying vulnerable neighborhoods, educating community leaders, and organizing resistance to new dirty businesses while cleaning up and removing legacy fossil fuel extraction facilities. I will rally my fellow Council members to join our efforts to move Los Angeles away from its inequitable, industrial past, and into the future as a green leader in clean energy generation, utilization, and innovation.
2. 242 Angelenos were killed in car crashes in 2018, a 32% increase from 2015. Clearly, L.A. has failed to make significant progress towards Vision Zero. Despite proven success in reducing the severity of crashes, road diets have been removed from Vision Zero projects on the high-injury network across LA. Why do LA’s streets remain so deadly by design? Would you commit to implementing road diets across the high-injury network to reach Vision Zero’s goals?
The short answer is yes, I will commit to implementing road diets across the high-injury network to reach Vision Zero’s goals. But I also need cooperation to shift the conversation. The idea that our streets should work for everyone, not merely drivers in single-occupancy vehicles, has become unnecessarily contentious and fraught with headline-grabbing disinformation. Hearts and minds are not changed overnight, but with the right framing and intelligent implementation, the desperately needed improvements to our City’s transportation infrastructure in ALL of our CD14 neighborhoods can be accomplished.
L.A.’s streets remain deadly by design for a number of reasons, mostly because of the historical disconnect between urban development and transportation. That disconnect is compounded by fear, disinformation, short-term thinking and the increasing politicization of urban planning, fueled by big money from real estate developers. Our city’s leaders, from the Mayor to the City Council, run for office on elevated concepts like Vision Zero, but fail to implement these programs when met with resistance whether by the film industry, Chambers of Commerce, longtime residents or business owners operating under the false idea that free parking and unrestricted car access equals a strong economy. Too much rests on the sitting Councilmember in each district, and his or her personal and political calculations about the benefit — or drawbacks — of saving lives. The real question is, how do we reshape the dialog in a city where car is king?
First we need to understand where and how this dialog happens, who has a seat at the table and who is excluded. City departments like DOT shoulder some of the blame, as their outreach methods fails to engage people in a meaningful way. Community meetings, primarily attended by those who have the time and income to participate, allow stakeholders to dig their heels in rather than build constructive dialog. Muffled are the voices of those who need change most: young families and renters, the mobility-challenged elderly and children who attend local public schools. Facts also get lost along the way, including the simple truth that the existing model for Los Angeles, where every car gets a “free” parking space on a public street is unsustainable. Widening streets and freeways to simply make room for more people in cars is unsustainable. Electing leaders who are afraid to champion complete streets and traffic calming is unsustainable.
At the same time, our City’s planning and development of buildings has historically been disconnected from that of our transportation infrastructure, leading to streets that are incompatible with the neighborhoods they serve. In CD14, Figueroa, Spring and Main Streets in the Downtown neighborhood are an example of the political winds blowing toward innovation: this small area of CD14 has been a testing ground for practically every new safety- and mobility-conscious street configuration. Meanwhile, you only have to look at Yosemite Drive in the CD14 neighborhood of Eagle Rock to see how the history of tone-deaf planning in the City of Los Angeles continues to cause preventable injuries and mayhem due to the gross incompatibility of street design to the built environment — a disaster that’s been a century in the making.
The buck always stops at our Councilmember’s door. From City Hall to local Field Offices, we need to be smarter about the way we talk about changing our roads and saving lives. We also need to be far more nimble when it comes to talking honestly about implementing changes, and the inevitable, short-term inconvenience that is part of making long-term change. The fact that calming a deadly thoroughfare in one part of a neighborhood may increase traffic on little-used side streets should not be hidden or minimized; it is a necessary step toward equity.
The stalled road diet on Temple Street in Rampart Village and Historic Filipinotown is a prime example of elected leaders caving to political pressure, and further disenfranchising our families who walk, bike and bus our busy avenues. Although I am not opposed to the package of incremental, life-saving improvements being implemented on this street, imagine how much more successful it could be if handled as part of a well-thought-out, long-term project that moved toward the non-negotiable phasing in of a road diet. Continuous engagement, such as regular community outreach and statistical updates about improved safety would ease the community into the new normal while countering the anecdotal, headline-grabbing claims of increased commute times and reduced business activity that cause politicians to panic.
Undoing the historical disconnect between development and transit and the car-is-king paradigm will take time and dedication. There will be bumps in the road where people want to halt progress because of short term inconveniences. As a true community leader who won’t be influenced by real estate developer money or the film industry lobby, I will make informed, data-backed decisions, and stay with the community through the necessary but worthwhile hardships of road closures and construction that leads to vibrant streets for all. I will not cave to false fears or political pressure. Creating safe streets and prioritizing truly green transit will put our city on a path toward ecologically sound, sustainable growth. As we start on this long road together, there are a few key changes I will work implement immediately after I am elected:
- Change the way we talk about complete streets in the city of Los Angeles. One of the things I saw in my time on ERNC is that some phrasing automatically puts communities on the defensive, and “road diet” is one of them. It may be accurate in the language of urban mobility experts nationwide, but it evokes a sense of loss. We need to shift people’s thinking and reframe the narrative. If we can get people to understand it’s a “lifestyle change” versus “a diet,” which will improve overall health, we can shift the paradigm so people aren’t defensive, but rather collaborative in providing a beneficial outcome for everyone. We need to nurture a collaborative mindset, around equity and complete streets for all, that will truly advance the issue.
- Bring awareness to fault bias. New reporting on two recent pedestrian fatalities – one a teen in Elysian Valley, and the other a 4 year old girl in Koreatown – focused on how badly the driver felt, and refer to the vehicle itself as the cause of death, not the person behind the wheel. Driving a car is part of life in the City of Los Angeles, and that won’t change even when we have complete streets and reliable transit. However, we can make drivers, as a group, more aware of their responsibilities for the lives of others on the road — and in the crosswalk, and on the sidewalk. That simple attitude shift would go a long way to mediate the death and destruction on our roads while we wait for the long-term infrastructure changes to manifest.
- Grab the low-hanging fruit. No Right Turn on Red regulations save lives. School crossing guards save lives. RRFB crosswalks and pedestrian lead times save lives. All of these cost practically nothing in the grand scheme of the City’s, and a Council District’s budget. When I am Councilmember, these programs and improvements will be lobbied for, funded and fast-tracked.
- Involve everyone in the conversation. So much of the dialogue around street safety, on both ends of the political spectrum, presumes that it’s a battle between the Poor Who Walk (and Bike / Take the Bus) vs. the Rich Who Drive. That’s just not true, and the more chances we can get everyone together to talk about shared goals, the more we can get stakeholders to agree that we all have the same goal of happy, healthy, prosperous neighborhoods — opening the door to a lively debate about the different ways to get there.
3. Los Angeles’ traffic woes are compounded by the reality that roads around schools are frequently unsafe. This discourages parents from allowing their children to walk or bike to school, and makes the health benefits of active transportation inaccessible for most Angeleno youth. If elected councilmember, how would you prioritize student safety and active transportation options around schools?
We must create laws and transit structures that protect the most vulnerable in our communities while improving air quality and quality of life. To get there, we must take on the complex work of bringing together the many departments that hold the key to creating safe routes to school including both the Department of Transportation and Sanitation, our police, and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) itself.
I walk my kids to our LAUSD neighborhood school every day, and have a vested interest in street safety around schools. Alongside fellow parents, I have experienced first-hand the harrowing ordeal that is crossing one of our city’s many busy boulevards during rush hour – everyone speeding to work while kids are walking to school. As parents we have enough to worry about without fearing our child will be seriously injured or killed in a crosswalk on what should be a routine walk to school. The city needs to prioritize the safety of these constituents – because they are exactly that, constituents — and demonstrate that their lives have value.
Many effective solutions as outlined in my answer above, could be put in place quickly, and with very little cost: No Right Turn on Red signs save lives. School crossing guards save lives. Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon (RRFB) crosswalks and pedestrian lead times save lives. They are cheap, and the community conversation about them should be short, as there is no evidence-based reason not to install these life-saving improvements. Just as with the sidewalk repair program, a district-wide blitz of these improvements could start around our neighborhood public schools. From a political perspective, this would acclimate residents to seeing (and obeying) life-saving constraints on dangerous driving in their daily lives. From a practical perspective, it would protect some of our most vulnerable residents, and makes our neighborhoods immediately safer and more family-friendly.
Given that the bureaucratic roadblocks to the implementation of these changes are not difficult to overcome, it’s been incredibly disappointing to watch some Councilmembers fail our communities in this regard. Where others have shied away from anything with a whiff of controversy or inter-agency discord, I will stand firm and build alliances. The city’s crossing guard program, for example, was paused during the recession, and is now a sticky nexus of LAUSD and LADOT red tape made worse by outmoded requirements. Breaking through the mess to achieve real results on the ground is not impossible. I will put in the hours and make the calls to save kids’ lives and create a healthier, vibrant community where more of us feel we can leave our vehicles behind and take our feet to the streets.
It’s also high time to take an honest look at the schools themselves – public, private, and charter – as a holistic infrastructure network, rather than as a series of independent islands. Only then can we begin to have a real conversation about equity. There was a time in the City of Los Angeles when street vacations (private use of a public right of way) were given to private schools, while public schools were left to calm their own traffic during school-drop-off with haphazard array of cones and ad-hoc traffic diversion devices. This DIY approach is basically all we have in our toolkit at public schools during peak traffic times in the hour before school begins and hour after it ends. When I am Councilmember, I will take a survey of all schools in CD14, and reach out to Principals to find out the one change or program that will improve safety the most during those golden hours, to ensure that the lives of all our schoolchildren are equally valued.
We can move aggressively on finding programs to make each school safer per its unique set of needs, but on a day-to-day basis, the most useful role local government can play in regards to our schools is to create a livable city where families can afford to live near schools, where free public transportation is provided to public school students and staff, and where we secure affordable housing for school employees so they can live in the neighborhoods where they work. When more people walk, bike, and take the DASH to their neighborhood school or workplace, the more they come together as a unified community of voices that can be heard in the often exclusive corridors of power.
4. In 2016, over 70% of Los Angeles County voters supported Measure M, a ½ cent tax to improve mobility options for Angelenos, including a number of bus rapid transit (BRT) lines such as the North Hollywood-Pasadena Transit Corridor. The project sees widespread support from transit users, Northeast Los Angeles residents, students, and environmentally-focused non-profits. What are your views on Metro’s proposal to have dedicated bus lanes on Colorado Boulevard through Eagle Rock?
I support any infrastructure improvement that increases the safety, prosperity, and beauty of our neighborhoods in Council District 14 and throughout our city. I also believe that if a public agency comes to your door bearing a gift of hundreds of millions of dollars, you open the door and listen — and when the time comes, you negotiate an even better deal for your constituents that is tailored to their neighborhood’s unique lifestyle and needs.
Personally, I want my own kids to one day be able to navigate their neighborhood and their city without a car. And, since I plan to grow old here, I hope we have an accessible and efficient public transportation system that will keep me mobile long after I’ve surrendered my driver’s license. At the same time, I recognize that cars are part of L.A.’s history, and will be part of its future. And yet, that doesn’t mean we can’t change our thinking and our streets, to accommodate new and better ways to move people around the city.
Streets change, just like cities and neighborhoods do. Colorado Boulevard began as a dirt road traversed by horses and Model T’s. Later, it hosted a streetcar that was well-used and efficient. Then, it was widened to serve as a substitute freeway between Glendale and Pasadena, with roadside diners and auto servicing businesses. Now, it is the main thoroughfare of a diverse, growing and prosperous neighborhood with residents that shop local, send their kids to neighborhood schools, and also want to be connected to the rest of the city.
Colorado Boulevard is poised for a reimagining that meets the needs of today’s residents, and their children and grandchildren. Along with $12 million in improvements already in the pipeline, and an earlier road diet that resulted in a 42% reduction in traffic collisions, Measure M and Metro are now presenting Eagle Rock with an opportunity for an all-expenses-paid way to fashion Colorado into the street of Eagle Rock’s future. But our residents need both the imagination and will to work for what they want, and a Councilmember’s job is to facilitate that work. We can only move forward by respecting all segments of the population, educating where necessary, providing perspective, and always listening to the voices of our community – both loud and soft.
Just as I don’t believe that outside public agencies know what’s best for a neighborhood, I also don’t believe that a neighborhood should shut down a conversation with any agency because of prejudice, individual financial interests, or fear. If Eagle Rock residents are willing to see the BRT as an opportunity to create a more beautiful, prosperous, and safe Colorado Boulevard, and are open to a far future where Colorado’s gas stations and mini malls are replaced by new housing and other transit-oriented development, then that gives me as a Councilmember the authority to drive a hard bargain with Metro to get them exactly what they want — and more.
5. Over the past year, we have seen increased use of privately owned electric bikes and scooters throughout Los Angeles, particularly in Downtown. Unfortunately, without a network of bike lanes or on-street storage space for these vehicles, vital pedestrian space is sometimes negatively impacted by sidewalk riding and storage for dockless e-scooters and bikes. Would you direct LADOT to reallocate curbside car parking for dockless scooter and bike corrals? In order to reduce conflicts between scooter/bike users and pedestrians, would you implement a cohesive network of bike lanes on all streets Downtown?
The micro-mobility world of dockless scooters and electric bicycles is evolving as we speak: we do not know what the future holds, but as a City we can prepare for it by being more flexible and innovative than we are right now. Scooter company accountability is problematic, but I want those who find these modes of transportation useful to have safe access to them, especially if it solves the first mile/last mile problem of taking transit.
We need to take a smart approach to allocating under- and unused public space for scooter and bike parking, with curbside car spots in the mix, but as a last resort. There is plenty of “dead space” on our streets already, from inactive driveway aprons to rogue green zones painted by businesses. Following a “desire path” model, we should install bike/scooter corrals where they are needed and will be most used, and be nimble enough to move them to new locations as technology and demographics change. To accomplish that common-sense task requires the steady hand — and voice — of a Councilmember to order city departments to do the heavy lifting, and to explain patiently, yet firmly, to neighborhoods that the loss of a parking space is a net gain in their quality of life.
If we truly want to get e-bikes and scooters off the sidewalks, we need a network of protected bicycle lanes so that people feel safe enough to ride in the street instead of the sidewalk. A cohesive, citywide network of protected bike lanes was supposed to be implemented beginning in 2012, long before scooters were the darlings of Silicon Valley. Councilmembers’ fear of political blowback and pandering to unfounded fears coupled with complex departmental dialog has prevented these protected bike lanes from coming to fruition. The City Council can turn that around and make these long-promised lanes a reality if we work together, and speak honestly among ourselves and to our constituents.
6. The previous CD14 administration made some important progress towards providing safer streets through projects like Spring and Main Forward as well as York Blvd. and First Street bike lanes. But much work is still required to provide safe streets for all road users. Please respond to the following questions regarding specific CD14 issues and projects:
6A. My Figueroa opened in 2018, providing dedicated bus lanes and protected bike lanes between Expo Park/USC and Downtown. Will you direct LADOT to secure funding to extend these bus lanes, protected bike lanes, and pedestrian improvements up to Cesar Chavez/Sunset Blvd during your term?
Yes, I will absolutely work for these extensions — a big project that requires not only lots of money, but extensive community outreach and buy-in. With your help, and that of residents and business owners committed to a future of Los Angeles that is safer, healthier, and better for our families, we can reach this goal and other mobility-related changes that will improve our city in the long run.
6B. With the construction of the Wilshire Grand project, $9.175 million was set aside to improve transportation along 7th Street. What is your vision for use of these funds?
When it comes to reconfiguring a street, $9.175 million buys only so much, but there are some interesting things in this private-public partnership: Among the best proposals for 7th Street are fully protected cycle tracks, sidewalks that are widened to as much as 22 feet, and scramble crosswalks at Figueroa and Flower, like those in Old Town Pasadena or Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing. The pedestrian improvements are the most interesting to me, since this is an opportunity to rebrand L.A. as a city full of pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods, rather than its old image as a daisy-chain of suburbs accessible by automobile.
Just as the addition of more freeway lanes inevitably leads to more car traffic to jam those lanes, the installation of wide, beautiful sidewalks in an area that is already conducive to pedestrian activity leads to more people on those sidewalks. That is simply a happy collision of human nature and economics. The Bloc (DTLA mixed use retail, living and event space) is already notorious for its expensive and fraught underground parking and mayhem of car drivers (including Uber and Lyft services) double parking in bike and bus lanes to pick up passengers. Increasing pedestrian convenience and safety to maximize full use of The Bloc’s dedicated public transit hub, can push L.A. toward a real pedestrian future, at least in this small part of the city.
6C. In response to recent collisions harming area students, The Eagle Rock Association (TERA) has initiated “Slow Yosemite,” a project aimed at providing a safer Yosemite Dr. serving Eagle Rock High School and Rockdale Elementary School. Will you commit to continue support for this project in collaboration with TERA?
Yes. I attended the first Slow Yosemite event and have many friends who live on and around this street. I look forward to working with TERA and the Eagle Rock community, from high school students and the elderly to the occupants of the apartment buildings and homes on and around Yosemite, to make this street safer for everyone. Yosemite is an example of what happens when a century of development occurs with no thought to the way people move through a neighborhood; the result is a street that is too fast in places, too slow in others, and seemingly designed to cause traffic crashes. Injuries and accidents on Yosemite are nothing new, and the lack of effort by City departments, from LADOT and LAUSD to LAPD, over the decades to do anything to ameliorate this glaring problem is a stain on Council District leadership — and in my estimation, is tied to the perceived political and economic power of the constituents affected by it. That is a CD-14 “tradition” that will change on Day 1 of my administration.
6D. The stretch of North Figueroa in CD14 between York Blvd. and Colorado Blvd. is a treacherous one, taking the lives of Ervin Garcia and Manuel Alonzo in 2017. Do you think a road diet is possible on North Figueroa? As councilmember, would you dedicate staff resources towards getting community support to reduce speeding and provide a safer street for drivers, people on bikes, and pedestrians?
Not only is a road diet possible on North Figueroa, it’s been on the books since at least 2012, as part of the citywide bike plan that led to traffic calming and bike lanes on Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock, and the subsequent increase in safety and prosperity that has bloomed there. Unfortunately, this part of Figueroa in CD-14 connects with the stretch of Figueroa in CD-1, and the CD-1 Councilmember has a diametrically opposed philosophy about street safety and progress. Political deference in this area has denied CD-14 improvements that would save lives, increase housing values, and nurture economic activity. This stretch of Figueroa has all the infrastructure needed for a bustling shopping area, but none of the foot and bike traffic that brings customers to a shop’s door.
When I was on the ERNC, LADOT dipped a toe in public outreach for this part of the bike plan (about 5 years ago) but appears to have been scared off by the loud voices of a few anti-mobility naysayers. When I am Councilmember, I will revive this project, along with the planned road diet for the eastern end of Colorado Blvd, which has stalled for similar political reasons.
With Bike the Vote’s help, I’d like to shift the language about traffic calming and complete streets: I look at the work of James Rojas of the Latino Urban Forum, who worked for years at Metro. In his workshops, he suggests that planners ask the wrong questions – e.g., “What are your concerns,” rather than helping people envision a street that works for all of us. I would take a creative approach to this and other stalled projects, with interactive workshops that forgo the divisive town hall/podium speaking approach. Once we get people imagining what they really want, they begin to realize that they have the same goals for their neighborhood, but they may disagree about how to get there. That is a great place to start a conversation, and can end with a result that makes real progress. It’s just a matter of asking the right questions.
6E. TERA, in collaboration with CD14, recently secured $16.3 million in Metro funding to implement “Rock The Boulevard,” a remaking of Eagle Rock Blvd. oriented towards the people, with protected bike lanes, curb extensions, and increased trees and green space along the boulevard. Will you commit to help making this community vision for a people-oriented street a reality?
Absolutely. I look forward to it. Rock the Boulevard is the sleeper hit of the year. Few residents in Eagle Rock know how much these improvements, if implemented, will change the street’s design and utility for the better. Eagle Rock Blvd has so much potential to become one of L.A.’s great streets.