National News

Their Friend Died in a Hit-and-Run. Can They Take on Car Culture in Los Angeles?

LOS ANGELES — A busy roadway in a struggling part of town. A young man on his bike. A reckless driver in a luxury car.

Posted Updated
Their Friend Died in a Hit-and-Run. Can They Take on Car Culture in Los Angeles?
Jose A. del Real
, New York Times

LOS ANGELES — A busy roadway in a struggling part of town. A young man on his bike. A reckless driver in a luxury car.

The moments before Frederick Frazier, 22, was struck by a car while riding his bicycle in South Los Angeles this year, captured on a security camera, were at once tragic and familiar. On the video, a white Porsche sport utility vehicle can be seen dipping into the gutter lane and hitting Frazier, seemingly unaware of his presence.

The car never stopped. Frazier, known as Woon, left behind a grieving mother and a pregnant girlfriend.

Cyclists have long risked danger in Los Angeles, where a loose and lackluster network of bike lanes means they often ride alongside speeding cars. Cyclists draw a special kind of vitriol from drivers in America’s car capital, where traffic congestion is increasingly intolerable as the region’s population grows by an estimated 50,000 people a year.

In poor areas of the city, where people are more likely to depend on walking and cycling as their means of transportation, residents complain of a disregard for their well-being by drivers who treat their neighborhood streets like highways. City data shows that the dangers to pedestrians and cyclists are particularly acute in South Los Angeles — where Frazier was killed — which lags the rest of the city in safety infrastructure.

“Once they see people on bicycles, they think it’s like a homeless person or someone who’s getting to work on their bike because they can’t afford a car,” said Edin Barrientos, who lives in South Los Angeles and founded a cycling group. “And I think that’s why there’s a lot of hostility around here. Drivers and the public don’t see a cyclist’s life as valuable, especially here.”

City officials have celebrated a modest fall in traffic deaths overall in recent years. But in South Los Angeles, pedestrian and cyclist deaths have jumped sharply. Bicycle-involved collisions increased in all divisions of the Los Angeles Police Department’s South Bureau, up about 25 percent from this time a year ago, though some areas have seen sharper increases. In year-to-date comparisons between 2017 and 2018, bicycle-involved collisions in the Southeast division of South Los Angeles have increased 70 percent.

A subculture of riding groups has emerged as cycling has become more common, including Chief Lunes, the group Barrientos founded about five years ago, which counted Frazier as a member. Like other such groups, it is loosely organized around “night rides,” weekly or biweekly gatherings where cyclists ride en masse. The groups are bound by their enthusiasm for bikes, but also by the assurance of safety in numbers.

In the aftermath of Frazier’s death, other cyclists are trying to mobilize politically under the name Woon Justice for South LA. Hundreds of cyclists across Los Angeles have joined in protests and vigils, and many are working to change city policy involving the protection of cyclists.

“We keep hearing, every week, about people getting run over or hit,” Barrientos said. “And the city isn’t doing anything, the law isn’t doing anything, and the public isn’t doing anything. So who is going to step up?”

Spencer Sims, a member of Chief Lunes, said Woon Justice for South LA had focused on the specific goal of getting a bike lane installed on Manchester Avenue, where Frazier was killed. The group has other goals: to petition for questions about cyclists on driving tests and to eventually start a legal defense network to connect cyclists and pedestrians who are hurt by reckless drivers.

“We don’t want other people to die. And there are people dying on their bikes all the time that aren’t part of any community so they don’t get any support. And we want to be able to be the voice for that,” Sims said.

Between 2013 and 2017, 489 pedestrians and cyclists were killed by cars across Los Angeles, according to data provided by the city, numbers that have remained stubbornly high.

In his response, Mayor Eric Garcetti introduced a plan called “Vision Zero” in 2015. City officials have also put considerable work into identifying high-risk roads, noting that 6 percent of the city’s streets account for 65 percent of pedestrian and cyclist deaths. Since the plan went into effect, 11,000 safety improvements, including crosswalks and pedestrian rescue islands have been installed.

“I can empathize and understand the frustration that things aren’t moving fast enough. But we are delivering projects, we have a phased approach to our delivery,” said Nat Gale, principal project coordinator at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

Activists have accused city leaders of failing to show political will amid resistance to road safety improvements; they have also questioned the implementation of “Vision Zero.” When signed, the program set an ambitious goal to reduce deaths 20 percent by 2017; instead, traffic deaths were down 3 percent. “You’ve got these ‘Vision Zero’ ideas and plans, but when it comes time to implementing anything, nothing happens,” said Sims, whose knee was severely injured after being hit by a car in January — also a hit and run.

Ted Rogers, a well-known member of the cycling community who has a popular blog, said that he was rooting for “Vision Zero” to succeed but had been disappointed by the city’s inaction.

“I’ve been a Garcetti supporter for years, going back to when he was on City Council,” Rogers said, “and he has totally lost me in the last couple years because of this.”

Garcetti defended the improvements this year, saying, “I am confident that without our efforts, things would be even worse.” He said the city’s transportation department would ramp up advertising related to road safety. Frazier’s friends in Chief Lunes stressed that they are advocating simple solutions “so Woon’s death isn’t a waste.” They said pedestrian and bike deaths often go unnoticed and their mission extends beyond Frazier.

“Woon had a family. Woon had the bike community behind him, that’s why it got so much attention,” Barrientos said. “Other people who might be homeless or immigrants getting to work, they have no one.”

Police arrested Mariah Kandise Banks, 23, in early June in connection with Frazier’s death after a monthslong search. The Los Angeles Police Department said Banks admitted to hitting Frazier, and she fled the scene and painted the car black in an effort to avoid arrest.

At a vigil the day after Frazier’s death, bicyclists gathered at the intersection where he was killed, blocking traffic and angering drivers. One, in a tan Honda Accord, ignored a red light, and hit Quatrell Stallings, who had been trying to defuse tensions, according to witnesses, throwing him into the air. Stallings was hospitalized with severe injuries.

Rogers, whose BikingInLA blog is an unofficial cyclist safety watchdog, said impediments to safety improvements came back to drivers feeling that sharing the road with cyclists and pedestrians is optional.

“Drivers in LA, they accuse bicyclists of being entitled when we want to ride safely on the street but they’re the ones that are entitled,” he said. “They don’t want to give us an inch.”

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.