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The Los Angeles City Council will reportedly consider a recommendation that would take the first steps to make the City’s Al Fresco a permanent program. California is now in the yellow tier, the least restrictive phase of the state’s reopening plan, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has said most counties in the state should be out of the tier system entirely by mid-June.
The outdoor dining program was launched last spring, allowing restaurants and bars to expand their dining areas into streets, sidewalks, and parking lots so they could seat more customers while adhering to physical distancing requirements. The city also sped up the permitting process for these new outdoor dining areas and in some cases even provided planters, barricades, and umbrellas for them.
In some places, expanding outdoor dining into streets has meant limiting or closing those streets to traffic. According to Bloomberg, a recent Yelp report suggests that consumers prefer dining at restaurants on pedestrian-friendly “slow streets,” which limit or ban vehicle traffic.
According to Yelp’s analysis, which looked at restaurant districts in five cities, including Burbank’s San Fernando Boulevard, which limited vehicle access during the pandemic: “Eateries in car-free areas saw more consumer interest (based on the amount listings) when their streets were strictly limited to pedestrians and cyclists.”
The L.A. City Council will soon decide whether or not it will ask the City Attorney, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, the Bureau of Engineering, the Departments of Building and Safety and City Planning, and the Los Angeles Fire Department to issue reports in 60 days on the feasibility of making the pilot Al Fresco program a permanent feature of L.A. life.
In Santa Monica, the City Council approved weekend closures of part of Main Street this upcoming summer, in a move that some have called prioritizing pedestrians over cars. The motion seeks to boost business along the restaurant-filled street. It is now headed to city staffers to sort out the logistics and potential traffic impacts before its final approval. City council member Gleam Davis reportedly cited the success of a similar program on Santa Barbara’s State Street, as well as comparably-sized pedestrian initiative in Munich that boosted retail activity by 200% and restaurants by 300%.
The city received over a hundred public comments in response to the proposal, of which the large majority were in favor. Among those opposed, however, most cited fears of increased traffic along 2nd and 3rd Streets, as well as residential roads that run parallel to Main. Others simply felt that the plan caters too heavily to restaurants and bars.
For some, pedestrianizing streets mean fewer vehicle collisions with bicyclists, pedestrians, and everyone else not in a car. In California, on average, 136,000 are injured in traffic collisions each year, including 1,500 deaths and 5,200 seriously injured. People who walk and bike are at greater risk of fatalities. Pedestrians and bike riders make up 27% of those deaths, despite comprising only 12% of the trips.
However, Slow Streets programs, which were designed to limit through traffic on certain residential streets and allow them to be used as a shared space for people traveling by foot and bicycle, have been criticized for mostly serving wealthy communities — like Santa Monica.
Moreover, California Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian of Los Angeles introduced AB 773, a bill that would make it easier to create Slow Streets by allowing for local authorities to lower speed limits and permanently close streets to vehicles back in Feb. The bill unanimously passed out of committee on May 6 and is headed for its third reading.