I’ve been writing about the 710 Freeway expansion project since 2013 and in those five years, one thing is clear: the expansion is not just a random, asphalt-driven undertaking; it is one of the largest infrastructural proposals in the region and it comes with consequences—which is why it has taken over 15 years to design, propose, and analyze.
Repeat: The build-out has consequences, including possible displacement of some families.
And those consequences largely fall on marginalized communities that are already facing increased air pollution—hey there, West Long Beach!—and increasing traffic in already-congested outlier cities like Huntington Park, South Gate, and elsewhere.
But outside of those consequences are millions of dollars being doled out for so-called community enhancements. These enhancements will be geared toward arterials and roadways that meet or are near the 710—and these enhancements are the first thing to be done in the massive undertaking, even before beginning expansion work on the freeway itself.
Take, for example, Huntington Park’s recent presentation to the 710 Technical Advisory Committee earlier this month about the “community enhancements” the city is set to receive as part of the expansion packet proposed by Caltrans.
Cheering on the expansion of Slauson Avenue, the presentation explicitly refers to Level of Service, often just dubbed LOS in traffic documents. LOS is a form of measurement used in archaic traffic projects—California has slowly began ditching the metric—that basically focuses on one thing: How many cars can be through any given point. If it decreases the amount of cars that can go through, the project is bad. If it increases, it is good.
While it sounds great for anyone behind a wheel, it widely ignores whether other humans—particularly those on foot or a bike or in a wheelchair—benefit from the road enhancements. And since the focus is on cars, it has created a road system that is detrimental toward anyone outside of a car.
So a city has just admitted that it wants to focus solely on cars for its “community enhancements” rather than others. (The sole city to propose expanded sidewalks, shorter pedestrian crosswalks, and increased amenities for bicyclists was the City of Maywood.)
And it’s not just Huntington Park that will be affected. It will be Long Beach as well.
Here’s the thing with freeway expansions in dense places: They don’t just affect the freeway itself but the roads and overpasses in the cities it surrounds—and the Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report/Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (RDEIR/SDEIS) for the proposed 710 expansion project screws over two communities in particular: the already-marginalized West and North Long Beach neighborhoods.
RDEIR/SDEIS (along with their older brothers, EIR and EIS) are reports that tell a community what is being proposed and how it will affect communities—and they’re tricky beasts because they’re long, jargon-ridden and complex, complete with thousands of pages of appendices.
In the case of the 710, the RDEIR/SDEIS put forth last year by Caltrans and Metro is one-thousand-eight-hundred-and-seventeen pages long, prompting people to search for soundbites before moving on.
For instance, this little bit of loquacious, supposedly great news found on page 30 the evaluation:
The project would improve pedestrian facilities (sidewalks) by replacing the old ones that will be removed as part of the project. Bike travel would also be improved by providing new pavement on the arterial bridges that will be replaced over I-710 and the Los Angeles River, as well as new bicycle/pedestrian crossings. In many cases, existing interchanges will be replaced with diverging diamond interchange configuration interchanges. Bicyclists and pedestrians are a consideration in the design of these types of interchanges and appropriate treatments are applied to balance vehicle, bicycle, and pedestrian use[…] Because sidewalks will be improved, bikeways and trails will be maintained, and bicycle and pedestrian connectivity will be enhanced, the I-710 Corridor Project would improve conditions for pedestrian and bicycle travel, thereby resulting in a beneficial effect to public health considerations related to congestion and mobility.
See, in that wonderfully prolix paragraph talking about how great the project is for pedestrians and bicyclists—there’s some deep irony there because increasing ways for car capacity inversely increases traffic, pollution, and congestion—they bring up diverging diamond interchanges, which are what self-described “recovering engineer” Charles Marohn calls “insanity” when it comes to making complete streets that cater to pedestrians, bicyclists and safety.
And these diverging diamonds will be the first of their kind in California should the project go through.
But the ultimate concern here is the perceived increase in safety derived out of these diamond interchanges and how they allow traffic engineers to check off boxes in the new age: ADA compliance, something for the walkin’ folks, something for the bikin’ folks. Check, check, check followed by a pat on the back and some sturdy high-fives to each other. “We did it, guys! A complete street!”
Here is what, according to Appendix O, the diverging diamond at Anaheim Street will look like:
There are plenty others: PCH, Willow…
Yes, pedestrians and bicyclists will have to cross four crosswalks to get across the street. I really want you to imagine that (and, if you’re feeling really compassionate, imagine you’re disabled and approaching this configuration).
I smell something perturbingly sour in dubbing diverging diamonds as “community enhancements” since diverging diamonds, at their core, are nothing short of propaganda that fuels the idea that we are creating complete streets when in reality, we are creating streets that cater and continue to give power to the almighty vehicle.
On the surface, they eliminate vehicular left turns having to cross traffic—and for drivers, this is good news: left-hand turns become right-hand turns. For pedestrians and bicyclists, sure, it accommodates the come-hell-or-high-water folks who are intent on getting from one side to the other but in all honesty, for the everyday folk who use this, it makes matters worse by bluntly telling them that the space isn’t for them. It acquiesces the needs of, if not outright shrugs at, pedestrians and bicyclists: “Sure, here ya go.”
Here is what a generic diverging diamond looks like in action (minus the proposed bike lanes Caltrans and Metro have going on):
And let’s just get into the dark reality that expanding roadways increases traffic, pollution, and congestion.
In fact, according to research from the National Center for Sustainable Transportation that was supported by Caltrans, noted that “numerous studies have examined the effectiveness of this approach and consistently show that adding capacity to roadways fails to alleviate congestion for long because it actually increases vehicle miles traveled.”
(Want more studies, all of which are nonprofit, nonpartisan, academically-sound research? Here’s one. Here’s another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. Don’t even get me started on Metro’s claim in a meeting last December when, during a presentation, they said not expanding the 710 will result in a higher cancer risk, found on slide 6. I repeat: Metro claimed not expanding the freeway will increase cancer risk.)
The ultimate point here is that, even as they decide to move forward with community enhancements rather than the expansion itself, this isn’t just a freeway expansion. This project will now see increased traffic and congestion in multiple neighborhoods—most of them communities of color and low income families—while decreasing healthier, safer modes of transportation, increasing danger for those most at-risk on our streets, and widening a further gap between West Long Beach and the rest of our city.
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