Seven years ago, the City Council adopted a goal to get to zero traffic fatalities in Long Beach by 2026, but with that date rapidly approaching, deaths are trending up, with officials pointing to changes in drivers’ behavior during the pandemic and projects lagging behind schedule, in part because of a lack of funding.
Long Beach issued an update to its “Vision Zero” goals as part of its Safe Streets initiative last week in a 30-page report that details some of the successes the city has achieved, the work left to do and the nearly 200 people who have died in traffic incidents in the city since 2020.
The city’s official count for fatal collisions since 2020 is 139, however, that doesn’t include deaths that happened on freeways, on private property or on Caltrans streets. When those deaths are included, 197 people were killed in traffic incidents in the city during that span.
In 2022, the city reported 45 people died on its streets compared to the 36 people who were murdered in the city that year. Long Beach averaged 27 traffic deaths per year from 2013-2019, according to city data.
Public Works Director Eric Lopez said that Long Beach has tracked with other cities across the country that saw similar increases and attributed some of those deaths to drivers going faster because of fewer people driving early in the pandemic.
“As we better understand the data and we start to normalize, I think you might see some of those numbers come down,” Lopez said. “But it’s not going to happen on its own.”
The department has dozens of projects intended to increase roadway safety in various stages of design and planning. Some, like the makeover of Artesia Boulevard that will slow down drivers with medians and eliminate some left turns to increase pedestrian safety, are already under construction.
Other projects that will install curb extensions and “pedestrian refuge islands” in the middle of some Downtown streets and the overhaul of Studebaker Road, which will include protected bike lanes and narrower spaces for vehicles, are still being planned.
Many of these projects are reliant on grant funding, and the report noted that federally funded projects can take at least four years to implement once that funding is awarded. Artesia Boulevard was in planning for about eight years before it broke ground.
Studebaker has taken equally as long to get to the point of almost being construction-ready, which has helped drive up the cost to $38 million.
Lopez said when the city is awarded grants, they are managed phase by phase, with state or federal government having an opportunity to chime in on the project at each phase.
“But they’re paying millions of dollars toward it, so we don’t really complain,” Lopez said.
Paul Van Dyk, the city’s traffic engineer, said that the city has a number of education campaigns to help stress to drivers how to safely share the road, some of which will now have slower speed limits thanks to a new state law that allows cities to reduce speeds.
This week, the city will begin putting out new signage for some of the over 100 street segments that were authorized by the City Council in 2022 to have their speeds reduced. Things like curb extensions, something the city is expanding the use of, will help keep pedestrians more visible to drivers, which helps heighten driver awareness, Van Dyk said.
“Really, the most effective tool is in the hands of people in our city; paying attention and driving the speed limit,” Van Dyk said. “People have the power to make our streets safer.”
But Van Dyk acknowledged that setting speed limits is not enough, and the city is working on augmenting roads to physically enforce slower speeds for traffic and make them safer for all users, something advocates say is badly needed.
Steve White, who lives in Belmont Heights, pointed to a speed sign at the intersection of Broadway and Belmont Avenue that blinks when drivers are going over the posted speed limit of 25 mph. White said drivers regularly go 35 or even 40 mph because the lanes are wide enough to allow for it.
“It’s letting you know you’re going fast, but it doesn’t do anything to slow you down,” White said.
People are torn on whether the city’s support of a state bill that could install speed cameras throughout the city is the right move. The city has endorsed the bill and could be part of a pilot program, but there are concerns over expanding the city’s surveillance network.
White noted that the report indicated that the position intended to lead the Vision Zero effort within Public Works is unfilled and said that the city likely made an unrealistic goal of zero deaths by 2026 when it wasn’t backed up with significant funding from within the city.
“If you don’t put your money where your mouth is, you’re never going to meet those plans,” White said.
Matt Wehner, who lives Downtown, said Long Beach is definitely better than a lot of places but said it does feel dangerous sometimes, and he has weekly encounters where he’ll see someone driving unsafely or another person getting into a close call with a vehicle.
“I’m optimistic, I just know it’s not happening quickly enough,” Wehner said of the city’s progress.
Wehner said more protected bike lanes and pedestrian islands, like the ones the city plans to install along the entire stretch of Anaheim Street later this year, are needed. But investments in the city’s bus system could also work to push more people off the streets and onto public transit, which would improve safety by subtracting vehicles.
“Money and resources are real problems the city has in implementing this stuff, but it’s important to recognize that bike and people infrastructure is the cheapest type of road work that can be done,” Wehner said.
Some of the larger planned projects are expected to be completed over the next three years, including major overhauls of Artesia, Studebaker, Market Street and Anaheim.
But others are still waiting for grant funding to be awarded or are being delayed to be synched up with utility work to avoid damaging streets once improvements are made and to conduct community meetings to ensure the safety measures being installed by the city are meeting the needs of residents.
Lopez said the city is also tapping developers to incorporate safe street improvements into future housing projects. He wouldn’t commit to saying whether the city would meet its goal of zero deaths by 2026, but he said he was optimistic about the progress the city will make between now and then.
“It’s important to be heading in the right direction,” Lopez said. “And I think we’re doing that.”