A Lesson in WOONERFS

During my childhood, I rarely walked or biked to school as I lived in a suburb and my home was located four miles from the schools I attended growing up. I relied on my parents to drive me from place to place and this dependence on cars only continued as I grew older. My experiences did not differ much from many American children growing up in car-oriented suburbs, and moving to Los Angeles for college was not too different from my childhood. I lived in a fairly walkable area during my time as an undergraduate, but venturing to other neighborhoods by foot or on bike was either not feasible or not safe. Instead, I relied on public transit and friends with cars to explore my new home.

"I was determined to live a car-free lifestyle and solely rely on walking, biking, and using public transit"

It was during my first post-college job as a teacher in Japan that I developed an interest in active transportation and pedestrian advocacy. For three years I lived in Takasaki, a small city two hours outside of Tokyo that I often compare to Fresno for its similar population size and location in an agricultural region in the center of Japan. However, it differed greatly in terms of ease of mobility. From the start I was determined to live a car-free lifestyle and solely rely on walking, biking, and using public transit. This proved to be an easy endeavor, as I walked to and from the schools I taught at each day and used my bike to travel further distances.

Not only did I commute using active modes, but so did almost all of my students; out of around 500 students between two schools, I was only aware of one student who was driven by their parents. From first grade, most students in Japan walk to school on their own and as they grow older many transition to using bikes. On weekends I would often see my students walking and biking around town with their friends, a form of independence I did not have as a child. Walking and biking is encouraged from an early age, and as the driving age in Japan is 18, most students rely on active modes for the entirety of their time in school. These habits often carry on to adulthood, with many people walking and biking to run errands and commute to work.

A narrow two-way street on my commute to work in Takasaki, Japan

Walking and biking were safe and enjoyable in Japan, and I attributed this to the layout of the streets. Many road networks in Japan were laid out hundreds of years ago and have maintained the same widths since then, particularly those located in residential areas. These roads are often so narrow that cars are not able to pass each other going in opposite directions. Although unintentional, in a way these narrow streets act like woonerfs, a Dutch word for shared streets in which there are no distinctions between the spaces for cars, cyclists, and pedestrians–no sidewalks, no curbs, no pavement markings. While the narrow streets in Japan I’m describing did have pavement markings, they had no other distinctions beyond this. I found that the narrow widths and lack of separation between modes force drivers to go at slower speeds and be particularly careful around pedestrians who share the road with them. Not once did I feel in danger by walking in the street.

"Making Los Angeles a more pedestrian-friendly environment involves a lot of undoing of past mistakes, but it is not an impossible task."

While Japanese cities have a very different context from Los Angeles, they serve as a good example of what more human-oriented cities look like. Within the US, some of the most walkable cities, like New York and Boston, tend to also be the oldest as they owe much of their layouts to urban planning before the rise of cars. Making Los Angeles a more pedestrian-friendly environment involves a lot of undoing of past mistakes, but it is not an impossible task. Implementing road diets to widen sidewalks, shorten the length of crosswalks, and provide more room for cyclists is one way in which Los Angeles can improve its active transportation infrastructure. Where road diets are not feasible, increasing tree canopy can create a sense of enclosure that both improves the pedestrian experience and serves as a traffic calming measure.

"Most trees are concentrated on the medians rather than the sidewalks and pedestrians must cross seven lanes of traffic plus the width of two medians."

Although major strides have been made in working towards improving active transportation infrastructure across Los Angeles, so far these improvements have not been distributed evenly across the County. Unfortunately, historically disinvested communities suffer from these disparities the most. During my time with Los Angeles Walks, I was able to work on the Department of Public Health’s Pedestrian Plan for Willowbrook and West Rancho Dominguez-Victoria. These communities have higher than average rates of vehicle collisions and adult and youth obesity in comparison to LA County as a whole (LA County Department of Public Health). I helped with outreach for the project’s Community Advisory Committee made up of residents, and on numerous occasions people mentioned that they do not feel safe walking in their community. While children don’t necessarily live far from their schools, many of them do not have safe routes to walk and bike between their schools and their homes. In some cases parents said that they drive their children for this reason. This is valuable input that will go into the making of the Pedestrian Plan, and feedback like this went into the selection of locations for collecting data about pedestrian activity in early March.

Intersection at Central Avenue and 23rd Street in Willowbrook

I sat near this intersection in Willowbrook while conducting pedestrian counts for the Pedestrian Plan and one can see from the above image that the existing conditions do not make for an ideal pedestrian environment. Most trees are concentrated on the medians rather than the sidewalks and pedestrians must cross seven lanes of traffic plus the width of two medians. Additionally, the speed limit is 40mph and there is no stop sign nor pedestrian activated beacon at this crosswalk. While observing pedestrian activity, residents stopped to tell me about how few pedestrians walk in this area and that many collisions have occurred at this intersection. Although this is just one example, street layouts like this are not uncommon in Los Angeles and they encourage driving at high speeds which in turn decreases safety for pedestrians. As the Department of Public Health and Los Angeles Walks work with residents in creating the Pedestrian Plan for Willowbrook and West Rancho Dominguez-Victoria, hopefully streets like this will be transformed into more pedestrian-friendly environments in the coming years.

My time spent living car-free in Japan opened my eyes to the benefits of active transportation for physical and mental wellbeing, and it also revealed to me the importance of the design of the built environment in making the use of active modes of transportation feasible. My goal as an urban planner in-training is to not only improve active transportation infrastructure in American cities but to also ensure that these improvements are implemented equitably. My experiences with Los Angeles Walks have further instilled in me the importance of community participation in the planning process as residents know their neighborhoods better than anyone else. Los Angeles has a long way to go in terms of becoming a more pedestrian friendly place, but with organizations like Los Angeles Walks working to advocate for improvements to the pedestrian realm in the communities that need them most, slowly but surely I see it becoming a more human-centered city.

Sophie Joan Frank is a former intern of Los Angeles Walks and is getting a Master of Urban and Regional Planning at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.


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