Making a Difference West Edition

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Los Angeles Walks advocates for pedestrian safety

It turns out the saying “Nobody walks in L.A.” is a myth.

Apparently lots of people walk in L.A., going to and fro as they go about their busy day.

In 1998, urban designer Deborah Murphy founded Los Angeles Walks along with friends who were focused on fostering a more livable city.

The nonprofit is a pedestrian advocacy organization whose intent is to make walking safe, accessible and fun for Angelenos of all ages, ethnicities, incomes and abilities.

It is dedicated to promoting walking and pedestrian infrastructure in Los Angeles, educating Angelenos and local policymakers concerning the rights and needs of pedestrians of all abilities, and fostering the development of safe and vibrant environments for all pedestrians.

Nine months ago, John Yi, 36, took the helm and became the executive director of Los Angeles Walks. An avid walker who lives in Koreatown, he took the position because he cares about the safety of those who have no choice but to experience Los Angeles via its sidewalks. Admittedly, he was also concerned about the safety of walking in his own neighborhood.

“I take public transit a lot,” Yi said. “I walk to downtown. I am privileged. I’m transit-rich. Sometimes I have to go to three metro stations and several bus routes. That’s not something a lot of people can afford to do.”

He takes no joy in the notion that car-centric Los Angeles is notorious for being antagonistic to pedestrians.

“Walkability is something we should all think about,” said Yi, who has been hit twice on his bike in Koreatown on both Olympic and Pico boulevards. “These days I have to intentionally think, ‘Is this place walkable?’ How are we building our streets? Koreatown has been called one of the most walkable places in Los Angeles. If it’s so walkable, why are there so many car arteries like Olympic and Wilshire?”

Through its various campaigns and projects Los Angeles Walks trains and mobilizes Angelenos to advocate for safe, accessible and equitable walking environments in neighborhoods across Los Angeles. Members amplify the voices of those most immediately impacted by traffic collisions.

Yi, who has an extensive background in community organizing, saw an opportunity at Los Angeles Walks to do work on public transit and urban planning because when it comes to safety on the streets of L.A., he said there is a social equity issue.

“Being able to move about the city with safety and dignity is important,” Yi said. “Everyone knows how [bad] our streets are. No one would say they are good. Just look at how hostile the street design is for pedestrians. There is also a racist tone of how we perceive public transportation. Many think, ‘That’s for those people, not us.’”

‘Those people’ represent the black and brown community, according to Yi, who added, there is ‘political calculus’ when it comes to where the city puts cars and where it doesn’t put cars.

To prove it, he did some research on black and brown communities and, not surprisingly, found they were the most impacted.

“Freeways were being piled through those communities,” Yi said. “My job is to fix their streets. I need to engage their political reps regarding everything from speed bumps to stop signs. It takes a lot of work.”

Yi partners with the black and brown communities because he wants their voices to be heard. First on the agenda is organizing various communities and then maneuvering them into influential and effective positions.

“We take community members and try to get them in positions of power,” Yi said. “We can start with the Pedestrian Advisory Committee with the goal of eventually getting to the city council. We’re building power. That’s our bottom line. It’s not an individual issue. The work we do impacts the entire city.”

Some of the communities LA Walks is targeting for training and mobilization include Panorama City, West Adams, MacArthur Park, Koreatown, Watts, Willowbrook and Wilmington.

“Some of the worst streets are in black and brown communities,” said Yi, whose background includes a stint at the American Lung Association as its advocacy director and the Parent Revolution as its interim national director. “It’s a population that is not seen and not heard. When you think about the streets in some black and brown communities, you have to look at whether there are crosswalks, and whether there is sufficient transit to get people back and forth.

“If someone is in a wheelchair, can they get down the streets safely and with dignity? Affluent neighborhoods don’t have uprooted sidewalks. The trees are there for shade. Shade is a huge issue.”

In L.A., Yi said bus shelter placement is based on how much revenue can be generated.

“If you notice, there are some bus stops that don’t have shelters at all – so bus riders are baking in the sun,” he said. 

Asked what designates a street as safe, Yi said it’s one where the pedestrians have dignity.

“A safe route is a route where someone doesn’t have to wait 40 minutes for a bus,” Yi said. “It’s when the bus isn’t too full. It’s where you have a wheelchair or stroller that can be placed on the bus. It’s safe when you’re not harassed by the police. It’s safe when there is no fare evasion. It’s safe when there is walkability.

“Can I go to the grocery store without my car? Do I have to go to the hospital by getting on multiple buses? It’s about access with dignity.”

In the transportation industry, there is a term called ‘road diets’ that refers to lane reduction in L.A.

“The idea is if you put fewer lanes, cars will drive slower,” Yi said. “There have been issues to narrow the streets or to put in a bike lane. We have to figure out how to redesign the streets to make drivers go slower. We also have to make sure communities have a sense of ownership.”

At the end of the day, Yi said the goal is that street designs are of intention.

“Currently, they are built the way they are because of political decisions decided by white men,” Yi said. “Our streets don’t have to stay this way. We are all pedestrians. We are all part of the problem of traffic. We are all in this together.”

Just how many people walk in Los Angeles is not known. Late last year the Los Angeles Department of Transportation conducted its first-ever bike and pedestrian count. So far the data has not been made available.

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