Los Angeles is going through a renaissance. Not only are we experiencing a cultural explosion but we’re experiencing a moment of reform, where Angelenos are confronting the idea of being slaves to their car and not having a good transportation system. With things like CicLAvia and lots of great bike initiatives, it appears that the city is heading in the right direction. Another voice in this discussion is Los Angeles Walks, a group that seeks to get Los Angeles out of their cars and onto the street–on their feet.
The group is a volunteer led organization formed in the late nineties to shift how we get around in our city. It consists of locals like Jessica Meaney, Alexis Lantz, Michelle Craven, Colleen Corcoran, and Alissa Walker. The group is headed by founder Deborah Murphy, a woman who may stand as Los Angeles’ Godmother of walking.
Murphy is a native Angeleno, who is an urban designer and urban planner. She’s worked all round the city, making it her job to make Los Angeles the dream city we’ve always hoped for it to be. In a conversation last week, she explained it all on the phone. “I got involved with being an advocate for walking because, thirty plus years ago, I started taking the bus when I finished graduate school in architecture at UCLA and took a job Downtown. I had grown up in Los Angeles and there was a lot less traffic back in those days. Since I had to go Downtown more often, I started riding the bus since it was so much easier to walk from my house (a little less than a quarter mile from a bus stop) and take a ride Downtown. I got other people I worked with to ride the bus and my activism related to walking was around those trips I would take down Pico Boulevard and Westwood and Overland–and the aggressive drivers and the challenges that came with it.”
Speaking with Murphy, it is very apparent how passionate she is about getting the city to a walkable point: Murphy is obsessed with helping the city. “We all have to recognize that it’s a part of our responsibility to help deal with our environmental issues,” she said of our car culture. “One way we can do that is put our feet first and get out there and walk–and try to do those short errands without using a gallon of gas.”
And, of course, Murphy is at no shortage of answers on how to get out there walking. “Find a store where you can shop for a product or service,” she mentions as an easy way to get out walking. “Instead of driving your car to your dry cleaners, try to take a walk there. Go to the grocery store or 7 Eleven: try to not get into your car and take the trip on foot.”
She mentions walking your kids to school or walking with a friend somewhere instead of hanging out at home to talk: as long as you are out walking, you are doing it right. But, drivers can be quite a threat to walkers: they can be frightening for walkers. “One of the main things is the respect from drivers about pedestrians’ rights on the road,” she says. “Drivers seem to ignore our rights.”
“We actually have the structure of a walkable city because we had street cars,” she explains. “I live in Silver Lake. My neighborhood was built with staircases that took you down to the Glendale [trolley] line. My mother grew up in Echo Park and she didn’t learn to drive until she was fortysomething: she took the trolley cars everywhere or walked to Marshall High School in Los Feliz from her home in Echo Park.”
Our city was built around commuting by other forms of transportation aside from cars, which is something we take for granted by not taking advantage of that fact in our city’s planning. Moreover, once the city’s trollies were removed, it was almost forgotten that walking is a “thing” here (hence why the San Fernando Valley is not very walkable, which Murphy explains to be the result of post-World War II building and ideological shifting).
Murphy also stressed that walking is seen as a bit dangerous here because it is in fact dangerous: drivers just don’t care about pedestrians. Did you know that driving at forty five miles an hour is a speed enough to fatally harm a walker? Murphy taught us that, a statistic that is quite frightening. “We just all have to slow down. Where the heck are we going so fast?” she says. “Traveling in a city, no matter how fast you go between signals or stop signs, you are never going to average over twenty five miles per hour. If you need to go five miles, do the math on how long that is going to take–don’t think you’re going to get there in seven minutes. You’re not!”
Los Angeles Walks is now kicking things up a notch in their work to not only make walking cool but to make walking something the entire city supports. To assist this cause, they’re actually holding a fundraiser this Saturday to raise money for their work, specifically to expand the work of Los Angeles Walks within the city. “The fundraiser is a chance for us to raise money to hire a staff person because all of us are volunteers. I founded Los Angeles Walks in 1998 and volunteer my time as the Chair of the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee.”
The event makes walking cool, naturally, by way of a karaoke fundraiser, where participants are encouraged to walk to the Atwater event and sing walking anthems. The event is the first in a string of new fun things they have coming up which extend the roster of Los Angeles Walks activities done in the past. “One of the things we’ve done related with LA Walks is Walkabouts, where we evaluate the walkability of neighborhoods and look at issues and problems–and then look to make some recommendations on where the city or other persons could invest some money to make improvements.”
The work of Walkabouts and other activities has raised awareness of how much help we need in our city in relationship to non-automotive transport. The group has actually gotten quite far, even getting a Pedestrian Coordinator hired for the city. “We’ve been pushing for them to hire two but the City Administrator only recommended one position,” she says, noting that they are pushing for two “One would be to work on a strategic plan for safe routes to school–a priority set to need and where funding goes in the city of LA–while the other would be working on data for the strategic plan and other projects.”
Of course, getting more persons in local government to crusade for walkers is key but what is just as key is getting locals out on the street, on their feet–and Murphy knows plenty of spots where people could start lives as Los Angeles walkers. “I always say to look for somewhere where you are near a transit line,” she says. “Echo Park is always great if you are near Sunset Boulevard because you’re near the Sunset bus and you have a bike lane that takes you Downtown or out West.”
“Wilshire Corridor is a very great thing because you’re right near the rail line or the Rapid Bus. A lot of people that I know live in what we consider East Hollywood along Vermont, too” she explains, mentioning shopping and attractions and rail lines near Koreatown, Los Feliz, and Hollywood. “North Hollywood is great as well if you are a Valley person,” noting the great Red Line and Orange line. For those of you now looking? She points to Culver City, an amazing walkable part of town that will very soon welcome the Expo Line.
And, even if you can’t travel by Metro, walking is something we all can do. Even though it sounds like such an obvious, there are still things we walkers all need to know. “You need to be a little bit of an aggressive walker in terms of not just demanding or taking the right to walk but communicating with the driver of a five-thousand-pound-vehicle-that-might-kill-you what your intentions are.”
“Don’t have your head down, looking at your iPhone, going across the crosswalk and expect drivers to behave themselves,” Murphy mentions. “It is that eye contact that is important on the driver’s side but you need to keep your eyes open, too. Check out the buildings, now that you are out on the sidewalk, look out and see the architecture and the view on the street. It gives you a great perspective on the world and gets you connected to it.”
For more on Los Angeles Walks, check out their website. And, of course, we expect to see you at their fundraiser this Saturday where you could meet Deborah and the LA Walks crew. It’ll be total walkable fun!