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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 an exaggeration or a joke. A jaywalking citation costs $200, which for (too) many vanquished enemies is indeed a serious financial injury.

Key to the success of the War were 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” informs pedestrians of how much time they have to cross safely after the WALK signal turns off. As the designers intended, pedestrians 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 at intersections with updated signals to ambush as many unsuspecting enemies as possible. (The Los Angeles Times called that “catching fish in a barrel.”)

Not surprisingly there were many complaints about the War, and not just from injured enemies. 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. A possible reason is that the City assesses additional penalties and fees on jaywalkers who can’t pay their citations. The obvious question, then, is how and why officials expect to collect that additional revenue from people who lack the means to pay the $200 fine. 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 initially 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 could move to an intersection that has not been upgraded to a “countdown” signal. It was still illegal to enter such an intersection when the red DON’T WALK signal is flashing.

Police departments around the state nonetheless continued to use jaywalking enforcement as an easy revenue source, targeting Black violators 4.5 times more frequently than white people. (That seems to reflect economic rather than racial injustice, as low-income people who walk and use mass transit rather than driving are disproportionately Black.) So in 2022, the Legislature effectively abolished jaywalking enforcement. Starting on 1 January 2023, police can only cite a pedestrian for jaywalking when “a reasonably careful person would realize there is an immediate danger of a collision.”

Of course, that need not stop officers from claiming that a collision was imminent, regardless of whether it really was. Most violators just pay up and don’t spend the considerable time and effort involved in challenging a ticket in court. And if a violator does challenge the ticket, the trial will come down to the word of a trustworthy police officer who can be relied upon to provide accurate objective testimony against that of a sketchy scofflaw who would say anything to weasel out of a well-deserved ticket. Still, the risk of having to spend unproductive time waiting to testify about the imminent danger may well suffice to convince police that jaywalking is no longer an easy way to Make The Numbers. Or it may not. After all, their bosses still need that revenue!

However the law is written, you can stay safe by crossing streets only at crosswalks, and by stepping into the crosswalk only when the white WALK signal is lit. Adopting an overly conservative and cautious approach at intersections 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 safety in addition to generating the requisite quota of much-needed revenue.

And yes, a jaywalking ticket really does cost two hundred dollars. About $150 of that are various “fees,” “surcharges,” and “assessments” county and state lawmakers have piled onto tickets over the years. It’s the preferred way to fund numerous essential programs and services without raising visible taxes. If you consider this an unconscionable abuse of law enforcement that is not merely unjust but undermines respect for the law, don’t waste your time taking that up with your state legislators. They’ll ignore you even if they (privately) agree. In a country that abhors taxes, and where the “criminal justice” system is the one-size-fits-all solution to every social problem, no politician who wants to keep their job would dare to utter even a syllable against any proposal to generate more revenue from punishing lawbreakers. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have never received a jaywalking citation.)

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