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Downtown Los Angeles

Although Downtown is the historical, administrative, and financial hub of Los Angeles, it’s not the sort of city center that the word “Downtown” might connote in other cities. Like the Universe itself, Los Angeles is a continually expanding amorphous agglomeration that has no center. Of course, there are people who insist that Los Angeles is the center of the Universe.

Downtown has had a reputation as a dodgy place to visit, in large part because it has long been a community with few bedrooms. Once the people who work in the skyscrapers start clogging the freeways in the evening for their crawl back home, the restaurants and shops that serve them lock their doors. Any visiting business travelers retreat to their hotels, and the abandoned streets then become the preserve of the homeless and residents of “single-room occupancy hotels.”

But in recent years, redevelopment and gentrification have overcome much of the dodginess. High-powered bankers and executives who work in the Financial District’s skyscrapers have snapped up costly condominium and “loft” units in former office buildings under an “adaptive reuse” program, thereby turning their previously wasted commuting time into additional productive hours.

Developments such as Disney Concert Hall and the Staples Center sports arena have attracted enough visitors from all around Southern California to create a viable and increasingly vibrant nightlife. Although Skid Row has yet to be razed for an upscale condominium project, and the problem of Downtown’s homeless population remains intractable, much of Downtown is now a safe, pleasant, and walkable place that offers nearly limitless opportunities for daytime exploration.

Unlike most of Southern California, Downtown is well served with public transportation, including the Metro Rail light rail and subway (underground) system. That makes it one of the very few places in Southern California that are easily visited without a car. It’s actually better not to have a car, since Downtown traffic is heavy and parking is very expensive. A visitor staying on the West Side or Santa Monica would do best to drive to the nearest Metro Rail station with a park-and-ride lot, or ride a bus to the Union Station transit hub.

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Travel Note: The increase in Downtown’s pedestrian traffic has led the Los Angeles Police Department to declare War on Jaywalking. The War has been quite successful, with officers assiduously ambushing large numbers of unsuspecting enemies and leaving them seriously injured. That’s not hyperbole. A jaywalking citation costs $200, which is indeed a serious financial injury for (too) many vanquished enemies.

Key to the success of the War are new traffic signals that display a flashing red “countdown” of the seconds remaining before the light turns solidly red and cross traffic begins to flow. The City began installing these signals in 2008 as part of a pedestrian safety program. The “countdown” is meant to inform pedestrians of how much time they have to cross safely after the WALK signal turns off. As the designers intended, most people naturally assume the flashing numbers mean they have that much time to cross the street.

But in establishing the rules of engagement for the War on Jaywalking, the LAPD cunningly exploited an obscure Vehicle Code provision that had not been updated for “countdown” signals. The LAPD defined the enemy as a pedestrian who walks into an intersection when any signal is flashing red, including a “countdown.” Then they strategically deployed officers to ambush as many enemies as possible. (The Los Angeles Times called that “catching fish in a barrel.”)

Not surprisingly there have been many complaints about the War, and not just from injured enemies. In response, police officials invariably insist (with as much sincerity as they can feign) that the War is entirely about safety. Their only concern is protecting the lives of pedestrians and motorists alike. Revenue is the furthest thing from their minds, and shame on anyone who thinks otherwise!

The complaints increased after the Los Angeles Times reviewed the LAPD’s citation statistics and found that officers were disproportionately targeting low-income people of color who rely on mass transit. It’s probably a mere coincidence, but jaywalkers who can’t pay the $200 fine are assessed additional penalties and fees. The obvious question, then, is how someone who can’t afford the $200 fine will be able to pay additional penalties and fees. You won’t get a coherent answer from police officials or judges; but such absurd injustice that doesn’t even make economic sense clearly goes well beyond the extreme internationally-publicized abuses in Ferguson, Missouri.

The California Legislature finally updated the Vehicle Code in 2017. Starting 1 January 2018, if a pedestrian crosses an intersection with a flashing “countdown” signal and arrives at the other side before the time reaches zero, the officer will have to find another (later-arriving) enemy to ambush. Or the officer can move to an intersection that has not been upgraded to a “countdown” signal. It’s still illegal to enter such an intersection when the red DON’T WALK signal is flashing.

You can stay safe by crossing streets only at crosswalks, and stepping into the crosswalk only when the white WALK signal is lit. If the signal is red, blinking, or counting down seconds when you start to walk, you still risk an unpleasant encounter with a police officer. The loophole that enabled the War on Jaywalking may have been closed, but the City still needs the revenue it generated.

There’s a much more compelling reason to adopt an overly conservative and cautious approach at intersections. It can protect you from a far greater risk: A driver preoccupied with a vitally-important conversation on a (hands-free?) cellphone while making a turn. When you’re a pedestrian in a city built around motor vehicles, patience and paranoia are crucial to survival! (Perhaps the LAPD will declare War on Distracted Driving, which might actually improve pedestrian safety in addition to generating vital revenue.)

And yes, a jaywalking ticket really does cost two hundred dollars. About $150 of that are various “fees” and “assessments” county and state lawmakers have piled onto tickets over the years, as a “creative” way to fund numerous things without raising visible taxes. If you consider this an abuse of law enforcement that undermines respect for the law, don’t bother taking that up with your state legislators. They’ll ignore you even if they agree. In a country that hates taxes and worships its “criminal justice” system, it’s impossible to argue against any proposal to avoid raising taxes by instead imposing more fines and fees on lawbreakers.


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