Bike lanes, road diets, and fake news: The bizarre story of Westside Walkers
The most important industry in the city of Los Angeles is the manufacturing of stories. An entity that is geographic and macroeconomic and symbolic, Hollywood is above all famous for churning out narratives that wander along the borders of fact and fiction.
The shadows of Hollywood can be observed throughout the massive footprint of L.A., even in the city’s relatively quiet coastal neighborhood known as Playa del Rey, a vaguely bohemian community constrained by the Pacific Ocean, a large wetlands area, rolling hills and LAX airport. But the neighborhood that locals call Playa hasn’t been so quiet lately, not since the city came in and reconfigured the four biggest roads that bisect the area. Now it’s home to bike lanes and a war over the streets and some very strange dramas.
This one of those strange dramas, the story of LA Westside Walkers, a fake Twitter account that, at its peak, had less than 200 followers; that number has, inexplicably, dropped since reporting on this story began. It’s a detective story of sorts, and it’s also a cautionary tale about fake news and the toxicity in the public conversation about our roadways and the distinctly antisocial qualities of social media. It wanders along the borders of absurdity and civic decay.
For a taste of what’s to come, consider the fourth tweet from @westsidewalkers. It was thrown out into the Interwebs on August 8, 2017, two days after the account had been created. I saw the tweet because a film director I followed, someone I’d already been arguing over bike lanes with, retweeted it: “Biking in LA is currently a recreation not a means of transportation. Anyone preaching it is trying to create class separation.”
That got things started. And within a few days, many of L.A.’s most prominent advocates for cyclists and pedestrians were tuned into @westsidewalkers — either engaged in hand-to-hand combat or lurking on the sidelines. And within a week or two, key figures in the city government and its agencies would be drawn in, too, quietly stewing at an anonymous critic who was posing as one of their own.
As the provocative tweets kept coming, tensions rose, as did speculation over who was behind the account. Although there was plenty of chatter, the identity behind @westsidewalkers remained an unsolved mystery. Until now.
You can’t really understand the contours of this story without a primer on the battle that began in Playa del Rey in late May when road crews reconfigured four key roads that run through the community.
It was what engineers and advocates and even critics call a road diet, a polarizing term that provides a litmus test for one’s perspectives on urban planning. Some people — including many locals who prioritize quality of life issues, most progressive politicians, and nearly all pedestrian and cycling advocates — see road diets as an effective tool to make neighborhoods safer and more livable. But many other people view road diets with skepticism or outrage, a misguided government initiative to clog already busy roads and restrict their liberty to get around as they please.
Perhaps the only thing about the Playa del Rey road diet that everyone could agree upon was that all hell broke loose. There have been multiple lawsuits (raising issues as germane as environmental impact reports and as kooky as tsunami escape routes), efforts to recall politicians, community meetings that have turned into shouting matches, dueling newspaper editorials, a climate of total furor where neighbors battle neighbors. People are fighting as though the transportation future of America’s second-largest city is at stake — and they might be right.
With all due respect to the massive battle that began in New York City in 2010 with the installation of a road diet and two-way protected bike lane on Prospect Park West, the conflict in Playa might turn out to be the most divisive urban road project of this century in the United States. And while it’s largely accurate to say that after years of bitter conflict progressives, pedestrians, and cyclists won the war over Prospect Park West, the war in Playa del Rey might well be lost. The city’s legendary car culture is not about to back down.
Though the primary aim of the Playa road diet was to calm driving speeds, reduce traffic volumes through certain neighborhoods, and improve pedestrian safety, many people felt pointed anger toward cyclists. On three of the four reconfigured roads, lanes for cars were removed and bike lanes were added.
And though the context was actually quite complicated — often the fastest and least expensive way to enact a road diet is to paint stripes, and voila, create a bike lane — many beleaguered commuters saw the bike lanes in simpler terms, conforming to a narrative in which the city took precious tarmac from the silent majority and handed it over to a tiny and entitled minority, as part of a larger and nefarious government scheme to punish drivers.
For better or for worse, I inserted myself right in the middle of this civil war.
My bike commute runs parallel to many of the impacted roadways, and though I don’t have a great need to use the new bike lanes, every day I see how LA’s busy boulevards put vulnerable people at risk. I know about the staggering number of pedestrians and cyclists who are killed by cars every year, the disproportionate impact on kids and the elderly, the handicapped and the poor. I believe in the international movement known as Vision Zero, an approach to road design that prioritizes human lives over economic benefits.
In short, I felt strongly that the thousands of residents in all the surrounding communities that commute through Playa should have an open mind about the safety efforts underway.
That didn’t exactly go smoothly. I went to city council meeting where I was exponentially outnumbered. I wrote an editorial in the Los Angeles Times (with the headline “Hey Manhattan Beach, preventing pedestrian deaths is more important than your speedy morning commute”) that outraged my neighbors. And the conversation — the argument — was wildfire online. In the comments of news stories and especially on social media. I had to give up on Nextdoor, where the vitriol was too toxic. On Facebook, advocates on both sides of the conflict started blocking anyone who wasn’t on program, so before long the conversation there was just people preaching to the choir. The only good action, the only place to actually exchange or challenge ideas, was on Twitter.
After the engineers and road crews were done reconfiguring and repainting the pavement, the impact reverberated through Playa del Rey, but perhaps nowhere more acutely than at a condominium complex called the Breakers at Westport. Many of the 46 townhouses at the beachfront community offer spectacular ocean views, and the location comes at a price. A two-bedroom townhouse is presently listed for $1.7 million, and larger units have sold for far more than that. But the complex is an island of sorts, literally separated from the rest of Playa by two major thoroughfares that had been reconfigured. As traffic clogged in Playa, it’s not hard to see why the folks at the Breakers felt trapped. And angry.
One suddenly unhappy soul at the Breakers was a man named Justin Robert Purser. Purser is “in the business” as folks in Hollywood like to say. He’s directed commercials for brands like Topshop and Dior, and creative-directed a bunch of slick-looking music videos and YouTube content. The Florida native has done lots of rad surfing videos, too. The guy is a pro. He’s presently working on a documentary called And Two if By Sea, which explores the personal and professional lives of CJ and Damien Hobgood, legendary pro surfers who are identical twins.
With a traffic jam at his front door and his neighbors fulminating, Purser took his frustration to Twitter, where he quickly caught my eye. As a rule, I like to pay attention to Hollywood guys with thousands of followers who are complaining about bike lanes. His first two tweets on the Playa road diet came on June 22 and demonstrated some obvious wit. Playfully attacking his local councilman, Purser wrote that he loved “the retro new retro feel of the playa streets! When do you plan to implement horse and buggies & disconnect the electricity?” and then tagged DC Comics and added “Is there a superhero that can save us from this apocalyptically mess of traffic you guys have created in Playa del Rey?”
As the summer progressed, Purser seemed to get angrier and more creative. The same could be said for his neighbors; in July the homeowners association of the Breakers filed a 17-page complaint against the city of Los Angeles.
Ernest J. Franceschi, the attorney representing the residents, told a local newspaper, “I’m not opposed to bike paths and bike lanes, but they have to be reasonable and they can’t come at the expense of two lanes of travel on these major thoroughfares.” Franceschi’s name rang a bell for some locals, who recalled that the attorney had tried and failed to develop a controversial strip club in the area a decade earlier.
My social media feeds were clogged with enraged commuters complaining about rush-hour congestion, but Purser’s tweets stood out for their distinctive blend of anti-government bile and comic relief. He increasingly seemed more interested to disrupt the conversation about road safety than be an earnest participant in it. In late July, for instance, he tweeted this gem: “Accidents cause PTSD, PTSD leads to shorter life span. #ZeroVission is population control under the thin guise of safety. Sad.”
But soon after that, Purser set his sights on the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT), the public agency that had reconfigured the road, and he ramped up the rhetoric. He accused LADOT of spreading “fake news” and using purposefully misleading data. His anger seemed to pinnacle around August 6. One of the many tweets he wrote that day stated “LADOT is performance art. A marketing arm of the local government. Everyone know that they are #Fakenews & their “data” is to push agendas.” He was openly mocking Vision Zero and his feed was being consumed with debates with cycling and pedestrian advocates. For a guy who’s primary following was Hollywood folk, it was getting kind of messy.
On August 6, the Twitter account for @westsidewalkers was created. Although no one would notice for a couple of days.
In less than a week, most of L.A.’s bike advocates who are active on Twitter were aware of Westside Walkers, and the mood shifted quickly from bemused confusion to righteous anger. I’m sure I played a role in giving the account a platform by retweeting some of the juicier missives or entering into debates.
The original bio for the account presented it as a “City sponsored advocacy group for ped/biking. #VisionZero and #RoadDiets are #notsafeenough. Proud and successful disrupter of elitist bike/ped groups.” This meant that people who saw an outrageous tweet and clicked through to scan the bio might think the commentary was reflecting legitimate dissention.
This kind of disruption was happening every day. In the weeks after the road diet was enacted, I spent a great deal of time crossing swords with a prominent tech entrepreneur named Peter Pham, who has helped launch several companies including Dollar Shave Club and had a personal and business interest in keeping commute times on this regional corridor as low as possible. Pham’s 30,000 followers on Twitter include some heavy hitters in Silicon Beach (L.A.’s unimaginatively named version of Silicon Valley). And throughout the early summer, he repeatedly tweeted that a prominent bike advocate was aligned with his group against the road diet.
Of course, Pham never made public who that make-believe or fringe advocate was, but it didn’t matter — the impact created doubt and disruption.
Which head of bike coalition are you referring to?
— Peter Flax (@Pflax1) June 11, 2017
This is the climate that Westside Walkers stepped into. Some advocates had the good sense to stand on the sidelines. One pedestrian advocate who I respect admits that she “tracks the WW account since it tags me frequently. But my policy is to starve the trolls.”
By contrast, many bike advocates — who tend to be an earnest and embattled lot — jumped in to discredit Westside Walkers and its attempt to present itself as rebel advocates. One of the first was Gary Kavanagh, an artist and designer who closely follows cycling and public-transit issues. Right from the outset, he had doubts about the Walkers. His first interaction with the account came as he was debating with Purser, who had attempted to twist a Streetsblog article to suggest Vision Zero was a failure, and suddenly this strange account with a handful of followers was tag-teaming with the filmmaker. It was “classic sock-puppet behavior,” says Kavanagh.
Over time, Kavanagh grew irritated at Westside Walkers, for creating a completely false identity, for deliberately spreading disinformation, for harassing bike and safety advocates. He also took issue with the absurd manner in which the account claimed to be participating in illegal activities with real advocates, such as riding on the shoulder of the 405 freeway at night. To Kavanagh, the author of the account was engaging in “Gamergate-inspired tactics.”
“Rather than argue policy ideas on their merits, ethics, or supporting data, the aim was just to muddy the waters with confusion,” Kavanagh says, describing a schizophrenic voice that randomly toggles between earnest concern, obvious parody, and presenting falsehoods as serious facts. It was easy for Kavanagh to see the account as a strange joke, but also easy to see it as having “an overtly sinister quality — deliberately spreading disinformation about matters of life and death.”
Pretty soon, Kavanagh was blocked.
Ted Rogers also battled with Westside Walkers. Rogers is the creator of the BikinginLA blog and has a popular Twitter feed, both of which aggregate the most important safety and advocacy news impacting Southern California. If someone gets killed riding a bike in LA, people know that Rogers will get the facts right.
When Rogers tweeted questions about Westside Walkers — about its status as a city-sponsored advocacy group or unexpected Vision Zero data it reputedly had — the account fired back, announcing that “we are one of the curators of that twitter handle, too.” A series of jokes about the names of who was operating @BikinginLA followed: “Is this Jan? I thought it was Linda’s day.”
But Rogers was not amused. “One of the first times I remember being aware of Westside Walkers was when they claimed to be one of the founders of BikinginLA,” he recalls “That’s not a joke, that’s copyright infringement. I worked hard for nine years to build this brand.”
But it was more than just personal concern about his own brand. “When a bogus account like that, one that was pretending to be this city-sponsored advocacy group, is saying things that go against what all cycling advocates believe, it weakened all of our credibility,” says Rogers. “It disturbed me how it might look to casual readers, like two legitimate groups were arguing.”
Rogers complained to Twitter. And then he complained to the city. It’s not clear whether those steps had an impact, but a week later the Westside Walkers did change its bio, removing language suggesting it was a city-sponsored group. The revised bio indicated that the account was being penned by LADOT employees.
Rogers, Kavanagh, and other critics aired their suspicions that Purser was the voice behind Westside Walkers. He repeatedly ripped the advocates for that suggestion, calling them “mentally ill” and “insane” for making a “baseless accusation.”
At one point, after another advocate needled Purser that he had “forgotten to log in as @westsidewalkers” the director fired back with this response, complete with the lol emoji: “Ugh I did. I have so much time to run some weird shitty walking advocacy twitter. I AM WESTSIDE WALKERS.”
It’s worth noting that a few overearnest bike advocates took this obvious joke as an admission.
As advocates sparred with Westside Walkers and conducted behind-the-scenes research, there was only radio silence from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation and its 2,000 employees. But that doesn’t mean that the agency and its ranks were not aware of the Twitter account that was positioning itself as the voice of disaffected LADOT staffers and trolling the department and its controversial project.
I spoke with a number of LADOT employees, all of whom asked that their names be withheld, and it’s fair to say that they were pissed off about Westside Walkers, which repeatedly referred to itself as “the resistance within LADOT” in tweets.
“It’s no secret that people don’t trust the government,” said a senior staffer. “The agency works extremely hard to build credibility with neighborhoods. It’s a fragile thing, and it’s easy to undermine it.”
One tweet from Westside Walkers proclaimed “Our data comes from within the city. LADOT employees not being happy to push #visionzero on the city using propaganda not facts.”
I asked one senior LADOT staffer about this kind of rhetoric and there was a long sigh. “If someone didn’t approve of a project, this would be one of the most effective ways to undermine it,” that individual said. “Tweets like that are actually stealing credibility that we’ve built.”
— LA Westside Walkers (@WestsideWalkers) October 1, 2017
The backdrop to this kind of trolling is complex. Since Donald Trump took office as U.S. President, there’s been a spike in renegade Twitter accounts supposedly representing disaffected agency members. Numerous accounts positioning themselves as the voice of National Park Service employees, for instance, have gained prominence and a dissident voice, but it’s not clear whether these feeds actually are authored by disgruntled park rangers or seemingly like-minded individuals pretending to be park rangers.
In the case of the Playa del Rey road diet, there was added context, too — a well-traveled story on social media that LADOT employees had proposed safety changes to one of the impacted road years ago and that the city councilman who leads the district ignored this advice. Multiple LADOT officials I spoke with insist this is completely untrue. But the urban mythology has persisted, and thus offered an opening to a Twitter account giving voice to dissident voices within the agency.
“It’s a huge agency — we have roughly 2,000 people here,” says one LADOT staffer. “They are private citizens and they’re entitled to opinions. But there’s no culture war at LADOT. We have a precious duty that impacts public safety. Engineers are professional skeptics, but we have to operate under consensus.”
When asked to explain the level of resistance the agency was facing, that LADOT staffer offered a theory: “I think people are uneasy and frustrated in general. But they can’t control what’s going on in DC or the larger world— they may be worried about North Korea or Trump or another mass shooting, but there’s nothing they can do about that. But a road project that impacts where they commute? They sure as hell can raise a stink about that.”
By the end of August most Los Angeles bike advocates were privately convinced that Purser was the author of the Westside Walkers account. And there also was a widely-held desire to hold him responsible or shut him down. This was proving challenging.
I know of at least three people who started playing with the Twitter login pages for Purser’s personal account and that of the Walkers, and all of them emailed me screenshots suggesting that both accounts were linked to the same phone number and that an email address containing Purser’s name was attached to the Westside Walkers account. It was compelling evidence that didn’t prove anything.
But it also was true that both accounts had a similar voice and bizarre similarities — in separate tweets both Purser and Westside Walkers likened the plastic bollards that lined the Culver Boulevard bike lane to giant white dildos, for instance. And it seemed wholly believable that a performance artist who had repeatedly criticized LADOT for conducting performance art would create a fake Twitter account to conduct criticism as a kind of performance art.
Purser was aware of the amateur detective work and jousted with people who accused him of authoring Westside Walkers. He denied it and accused advocates of stalking him. He made more than a few threats to sue people, which led to more angry accusations and more angry counter-threats — the kind of episodes where people block each other and stop talking; the kind of episodes that remind you that Twitter can be a black hole. I just decided to steer clear of such confrontation, to keep a playful but antagonistic conversation going, and just work in the background to see if I could solve the mystery.
I reached out to folks at Twitter, both through official channels and through friends of friends. This yielded nothing. I emailed the company’s Trust and Safety team multiple times and got no reply or action. Local advocate Ted Rogers did the same to get the account shut down and will only say that “Twitter didn’t do shit.” I had a lengthy back and forth with a PR representative, seeing if they could merely confirm that the phone number associated with both accounts was the same, but she declined to get involved, stating multiple times that the company was “unable to comment on individual accounts.”
I have pursued many different stories that involve Twitter and Facebook and have consistently seen these companies sidestep questions about problematic content or accounts on their platforms. On one hand, I understand the difficulty of policing an ecosystem of such massive global scale. It’s sort of like expecting the phone company to patrol all the conversations occurring over its lines. On the other hand, I’m constantly reminded that the companies could do more and simply decline to do more than terminate accounts when things escalate to a certain point. We live at a time in which Facebook not only hosts and tolerates white supremacists but actually was delivering targeted ad buys to that demo.
In any case, it was becoming clear to me that I never was going to get official confirmation that Purser had created the Westside Walker account. I felt like I needed to confront him or walk away from this story. I used to play poker and felt like my only move was to bluff him.
So that’s why I texted Purser on the evening of October 5, using a cell number I found in public records that matched the Twitter account screenshots.
“Hi Justin,” I wrote. “Peter Flax here. I’m finishing a story that involves you. Want to give you an opportunity to respond before I file it. You have time to talk tomorrow?” I sent a similar email to the address connected to the Westside Walkers account.
About 45 minutes later he texted me back. “Hey Peter,” he responded. “Sure.”
I decided to play the hand like I had a full house. Il forwarded him a screenshot of the Westside Walkers account login, which showed a phone number ending with the same two digits as his cell and a Gmail address that began “ju..” I indicated that I had been in touch with folks at Twitter and that I had confirmation it was him. If he had continued to deny the connection, I’m not sure how this story would have ended.
But then he admitted that the account was his — or at least that the account had been his. In the next 24 hours, we would exchange text messages and emails that detailed his involvement in Westside Walkers and his contention that he had handed off the account to someone else.
When confronted with questions Purser initially reacted with sarcasm. “Why are people so obsessed with that Twitter? Doesn’t it only have like 20 followers?” But when I persisted that I had proof, Justin texted me a brief communique in which he casually admitted a role. “STATEMENT: Haven’t tweeted from it in months. When it got mentioned on BikinginLA someone asked if they could take it over so I gave it to them.”
He offered some elaboration in an email sent the next morning. “I started it with the intent to be a parody account that I was hoping everyone could find some levity and humor in,” Purser wrote. “Ease some of the tension if you will. I plan to roll it out slowly as ‘real’ and then change the narrative to ‘Obviously this is a parody’ and continue from there. But right out the gate it got so much attention that it nearly overnight ended up BikinginLA, which I thought at the time was jackpot because I was getting free press on a parody twitter I had just started.”
It seems outlandish and unlikely that Purser would have handed off the keys to the account to someone else — the distinctive comic voice never seemed to change to me and others — but that was his revised story. “I got a DM from someone saying they saw it on BikingInLA and asked if they could tweet from it,” he wrote. “I wasn’t really using it so I gave them the log in and stopped following it.”
He was suggesting that less than a week after he created the account, someone else took it over. So I asked who these new owners were.
“It’s a couple of guys,” he texted. “I don’t really keep up with it. I gave them the log in. It got boring. I do know who but I’m not going to out them. There is a reason they don’t put their name on it. A group. Might be two or three. I didn’t ask.”
He refused to tell me who these people were. “I will not reveal who they are as they asked me not to reveal their identity and I honor my word,” he wrote. “Plus I could get sued or even in trouble with authorities for unmasking the identity of others protected under the constitution of anonymous free speech.”
Then he made a veiled threat toward one of the three advocates who had sent me a screenshot of the Westside Walkers login page. “The unmasking of personal info through hacking and then giving that info to the press is a problem that could have some legal ramifications headed his way.”
But as we kept talking, Purser loosened up. As much as I disliked the subterfuge of the fake Twitter account, I also appreciated the ridiculousness of the whole episode. When I asked him if he understood why advocates and folks at LADOT were upset, his email response was like a text-based shrug. “Of course I get it, but it’s Twitter,” he wrote. “Twitter is littered with these types of profiles.”
Which is true, of course. And at times his outlandish tweets made me smile.
But the fun and cleverly disruptive qualities of the LA Westside Walkers is no joke. The battle that is going on in Playa del Rey will impact human lives and roads throughout Southern California and even beyond — people who oppose road diets and other government efforts to reshape American streets (and the entities that fund such resistance) are watching and listening.
The disputes about road diets and bike lanes can seem pretty complicated, but they can be distilled down to a clash of two worldviews — one that favors a status quo to preserve the efficiency of our society versus one that favors concepts like safety, sustainability, and livability. It is as stark a division as the battle between supporters of the Second Amendment and those who want to eliminate gun violence.
Anyone who wanders into such a dispute as a merry prankster trying to disrupt the debate is insulting the ideals of civic debate. Such is life in the fake news era, where confusing the truth can be more effective than saying the truth.
The End Game
The more Purser and I talked, the more I was struck by the parallels between his current documentary film project, tracking twins who are intimately linked but determined to have their own voice, and the strange duality of his two voices on Twitter, each battling the road diet in his backyard in a different way. I asked the filmmaker if he’d ever contemplated that parallel.
“Yes and no,” he answered. “I started a parody Twitter account so that I could entertain everyone but through a heightened voice and hopefully bring some common ground to both sides. What those guys are doing with the account now, I don’t even know.”
I don’t believe that there are other guys running the account now, but I don’t feel like trying to prove it. It doesn’t really matter. The idea that Purser handed off the keys to some new guys who have the same sensibility just days after he created Westside Walkers is so outrageous that I’m willing to pretend that it’s true.
In any case, I decided to DM the Westside Walkers account for a statement on who was running the feed, since Purser insisted that it was no longer his. It felt like I was playing along with a game.
The statement that came back dovetailed perfectly with Justin’s account. And the voice was familiar.
“When we took over the Twitter from Justin we were hoping for more of a following,” it said. “Hopefully your article will enhance our following so we can continue to advocate for real safety and expose the corruption inside our local government. Thank you Peter for being part of the unanimous task force decision to restore lanes that go against Vision Zero’s own recommendations.”
I quickly replied. “Ha ha,” I wrote. “Awesome statement. Thanks.”
All the while, the barrage of strange tweets from the Westside Walkers account continues, a maddening mélange of dubious facts and falsely earnest advocacy, leveraging a completely faked identity to convince unsuspecting readers that measures meant to save lives are not working. It’s a total cesspool of bullshit distracting people from an actual life-and-death issue.
Through it all, I never could figure out how Purser could reconcile his opposition to the road diet and his decision to undermine the conversation about it. In the battle over the streets of Playa del Rey, I’ve come in contact with a shocking number of bad actors in my community, people who care more about commute times than human lives. I don’t think Purser is one of them. He’s just a smart guy who’s done a dumb thing.
As our interactions were winding down, Purser mentioned that he had come to respect the fervor that cyclists and other advocates had brought to this dispute. So I asked him to elaborate.
“When I see a group of people extremely passionate about something, I want to understand why,” he wrote. “I have nothing personal against anyone else who has different views. It’s their right to feel that way and it’s totally fine. And the more I’ve read and seen from a cyclist community that I really knew nothing about till recently I’ve wanted to understand more and I can now see the concerns. I don’t agree that what’s been done in the solution but I wish no harm or ill will towards anyone. I don’t want to see anyone get hurt.”
Before we were done talking Purser sent me one last text. “You are brave man riding a bike in LA,” he said. “Drivers are idiots here for sure.”
Real safety measures like fully protected bike and ped lanes are what we are all about. #LAstreetsafe
— LA Westside Walkers (@WestsideWalkers) October 7, 2017