Earlier this year, KPCC's Kim Bui reported that LA has the highest rate of car accidents involving pedestrians in the nation. Of course the LA Department of Transportation wants to fix that, and they've got a brand new Pedestrian Coordinator to prove it.
At the corner of 7th St. and Alvarado St., Margot Ocañas sees an endless array of problems. At each pedestrian crossing, cars making left and right turns must battle with pedestrians for the right of way. Meanwhile, the flow of pedestrians in non-stop, coming and going in every way, and all the while cars are whizzing by at 50 miles an hour. But Ocañas sees solutions.
"It may make sense to actually phase our pedestrian signaling, so pedestrians can get a start into the crosswalk before cars are permitted to make their right-hand turn. Another objective is to narrow the width of the crossing. You are bringing the pedestrian a bit farther out into the street, so there's better visibility to those waiting pedestrians, and likewise that shortens their distance."
There are many proven ways to affect change, but not many avenues to get them done in the city of LA. Ocañas was hired in large part to bring many agencies, including LADOT and the Bureau of Street Services, which share responsibilities between the street and the sidewalk, to actually get things done.
"Overall one of the things we recognize is that speed is really the biggest enemy to pedestrians. We need to start thinking about putting in medians into middle lanes and curb extensions. When you start putting in elements into the street space, these act as visual cues, which have been shown through research to actually slow the speed of the driver."
Just a few years ago, Margot Ocañas had no experience working the public sector. But the mother of two children wanted her neighborhood to be a safe place to ride a bicycle, and she came up with an idea to shut down her street for a bicycle block party. She followed what she calls the "packaged approach", contacting her neighborhood association and local police, but she got what she wanted, and hundreds of people showed up.
Among them was prominent city planner Ryan Snyder, who encouraged Ocañas to apply for a unique new position with the LA County Department of Public Health. The department, under a specific mandate from President Obama's 2009 stimulus monies, was in the midst of an unusual new campaign focused on making communities more accomodating for biking and walking. The health department was looking for ways to engage and improve the built environment.
"Their take is that we've got high incidences of heart disease and obesity, and the way to address them is that at a minimum people should be walking thirty minutes a day. That means that either the door outside their workplace or their residence needs to be a place where they can comfortably and safely do that walking."
Ocañas did not disappoint. One of her first projects was the Silverlake Pedestrian Plaza. Near the intersection of Sunset and Maltman, the plaza began as a block that the Silverlake community agreed was underutilized by traffic. Ocañas lead an effort to barricade the block with planters, paint it bright green, dot it with tables and chairs and thus turn it into an instant gathering space. There's even a basketball court.
Now as Pedestrian Coordinate, Ocañas is working to streamline that process for future plazas and other smaller curbside parklets, but her main task is still to fix broken intersections. She has to cope with the fact that city engineers had a driver-first mentality when they designed LA streets, and re-designing for pedestrians requires re-writing the books. She also has to untangle a complicated web of different agencies. It can be frustrating job in a city so devoted to cars. But Ocañas got into this business for her children, and for her the job is anything but pedestrian.
Do you live in a neighborhood with a treacherous pedestrian intersection? Or how about a street block that never gets any traffic? Let us know what you think could do to make your neighborhood more pedestrian friendly.