Will Los Angeles Ever Be a Safe Place for Kids? Meet the Women Charged with Creating Safe Routes to Schools

It is no secret that in America, and especially in Greater Los Angeles, too many children do not walk around their own neighborhoods. Whether it is fear of “stranger danger,” safety in the neighborhood, or the allure of electronic babysitting, many of today’s youth spend too much time indoors, and not enough doing something as simple as walking.

Margot Ocanas and Valerie Watson at the Southern California Safe Routes to School's Fall Convening 2012. Photo:##http://www.flickr.com/photos/saferoutesca/8027837463/##Safe Routes California/Flickr##

Today is the day that changes. For a couple of hours, children everywhere will be laughing and playing on the sidewalks. Meeting their neighbors. Extorting them for candy. For some children, this will be a unique experience. For others, it is just like every other day, except their clothes are cooler.

In an effort to combat this trend, Los Angeles is beginning to take the first steps, pardon the pun, to get children walking by encouraging more parents to have their children walk to school. After years of underperfoming when it came to earning state and federal Safe Routes to Schools’ grants, the city used a portion of its Measure R Local Return funds to modernize the city’s process of earning and delivering on these grants.

Earlier this year, the City of Los Angeles hired Margot Ocanas and Valerie Watson to be the city’s first official “pedestrian coordinator” and “assistant pedestrian coordinator.”

Both women come prepared for their new role with experiences from their professional and personal lives.

Ocanas, a former grant manager with the RENEW Program at the L.A. County Department of Public Health, was planning “open-street” block parties and organizing walking and bicycling school buses for her kids before pedestrian access became a profession. Watson, who previously worked as an urban planner at Melendrez and spent her free time advocating for the burgeoning Downtown Bike Network as a member of the Downtown Neighborhood Council.

While Ocanas and Watson started at LADOT when the issue of the city’s poor sidewalk repair was front page news, the focus of their positions is on improving the city’s Safe Routes to Schools Program. By rebuilding LADOT’s data gathering, review, and pedestrian toolbox for children, Ocanas and Watson believe they can make the city more responsive to the needs of all pedestrians.

“Our primary focus is on a Safe Routes to School Strategic Plan,” explains Ocanas. “It’s very much an umbrella strategic plan that forces a data driven prioritization process.” Previously, the city’s Safe Routes’ applications contained some data on recent crash history, estimates on the number and percentage of students who walk and bike to school, and anecdotal reports from parents and administrators.

“As we put that in place in the first year…we can leverage those processes and data gathering and methodologies to a more universal pedestrian segment,” she continues.

The updated processes would contain that information and more data on where students are beginning their journey, more data on sidewalk and road conditions, and would propose solutions from a larger toolbox of options. In fact, Ocanas hinted that a closer relationship with the Bureau of Streets Services (BSS) is already making for better conditions. As the BSS works on the backlog of funded projects, the city is updating and improving old plans before implementing in the street.

Previously, the city was trying to create applications based on political boundaries so that each Council District received a similar number of applications. Today, Ocanas and Watson are talking of slimming the number of applications. A smaller number of applications will allow the city to spend more time on each one, bringing in more data, more local outreach and a better narrative. Instead of just looking at “hot spots” such as a dangerous intersection near a school, LADOT will focus on a “corridor perspective” where a wider look is taken between areas where students begin and end their days and the schools they attend.

For example, a signalized crosswalk at an intersection may make a crossing safer, but it will not help encourage more people to walk if the sidewalk is crumbling on both sides of the street.

Behind the scenes, both Ocanas and Watson report a new “synergy” inside and outside the department. When looking at projects to improve walking and bicycling access to schools, the team is able to bring in partners within LADOT including planners, the bicycle team and the pedestrian team. Outside the Department, community groups, pedestrian and cycling advocacy groups, the LAPD, City Planning, the Bureau of Engineering and BSS all need to be involved in creating a quality application that leads to safer streets.

“From the initial get-go, once the data is pointing us in a certain area, we are meeting with our ped. team, with our bike group, with design to make it a richer package,” explains Ocanas.

The long-term task facing Ocanas and Watson is a daunting one. “Pedestrians are ubiquitous…Everyone is a first mile, last mile customer,” explains Ocanas. But if anyone can make the city a safer one to walk for children, and eventually everyone else, it is a determined mother who made a safe street for her children and an urban planner who envisioned and helped create a bike network in Downtown Los Angeles.

(Note: The interview actually occurred in late September and was planned for Walk and Bike to School Day. Instead, we had a baby.)

  • Ubrayj02

    These ladies have an uphill battle to fight. When Alarcon in the Valley had traffic calming installed around elementary schools, the LADOT fought him eery step of the way. The LADOT still designs streets for Speed Limit + 15 mph (a rural road design paradigm) in the heart of commercial retail and residential areas – then returns to do a speed limit survey and finds (surprise!) that motorists are driving 15 mph above the speed limit and then recommend a raised speed limit which is rubber stamped by the city council.

    I think the best way around the LADOT’s operations people is both through wholesale cleaning house in the DOT by the incoming mayoral administration. Booting the anti-human engineers into boring go-nowhere positions and hiring 30 year olds out of urban planning, anthropology, and sociology programs into more important positions is a good place to start. We have unpaid bike program interns doing the heavy lifting of planning four LA’s future, while car-only planning only sinks us deeper into penury and austerity. The other thing I would do is use analysis like the one recently done on York Blvd. in every council district, all year round in coordination with local academics involved in urban studies. The economic data tied to transportation planning will obviate the need for a couple of community development.economic development departements/programs (i.e. fire these “economic development” people long term in favor of a better econonmic monitoring and analysis function within the DOT) – because this data is the beating heart of what LA is designed now to ignore and pave over. The case for a pedestrian friendly LA is also the case for an economically resilient city – one with a focus on creating properties that turn over to new owners with a higher property tax value; one with a focus on creating one new job in 100 businesses instead of 50 new jobs with one big business; one with a higher return per acre of public infrastructure; one with a focus on quality schools services (not directly in the classroom but all the surrounding services around a school.

    Like with bikes, the focus in the department is on pedestrians – but the language used to convince people has pedestrian safety and convenience as a side benefit to the economic, cultural, and political ends focusing on pedestrians brings to the city.

  •  you should send these comments on to the mobility element revision- they need to hear good ideas on metrics for streets

  • Jamesrojas

    They need to focus on Latino Neighborhoods. Latinos have the highest pedestrian fatalities in the city!  

  • Ubrayj02

    You know that in the Jewish neighborhoods of LA they have shabbas traffic signals? John Fisher’s history of transportation planning in LA has a section all about how the hasidic jews in a couple of parts of town didn’t want to activate the “Walk” signal on the sabbath and lobbied hard in city hall to get the signals changed to automatically give pedestrians a green walk sign on the sabbath.

    Who knows if this is still in effect, but it is a great story and one that bears mentioning when you cite the pedestrian fatality numbers as being mostly latinos.

    I wonder if the latino traffic casualties are in proportion with their population numbers in LA or if it is totally out of proportion. I will leave answering such questions to the professionals.

  • Ubrayj02

    I will probably want to make sure that I don’t slaughter the english language in my comments (as i seem to have done above).

  • Rodolfo Orlando Duriez

    As an idealist pro-environment type, i gave up my car for a year and a half. During that time I learned to never, NEVER, trust that anyone behind a moving vehicle will follow the law or drive with the safety of others in mine. As a pedestrian I learned that instead of driving defensively, I had to walk defensively. You get glares for simply crossing the street, as if it were illegal, as if those extra 10 seconds they had to wait for you was life and death.

    In California we have a car culture that puts the driver, the car, above all others. We see this in the courts, where drivers who end up killing pedestrians are hardly ever more than slapped on the wrist. It’s ridiculous how many people commit murders and drive away from the scene of the crime, never to be found, justice never to be had. More than anything, we see this in the way we build/have built our cities. I don’t have kids, but I do have little brothers and sisters, and I honestly wouldn’t wish to walk around such an environment. Hopefully what these ladies are doing, and others as well, will have a domino effect. 

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