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Great Streets director discusses Los Angeles transportation, draws comparisons to New York

The following post was written by intern Maggie Su as part of a series of profiles of API members of the community.

Naomi Iwasaki, a Los Angeles native, is a self-proclaimed transportation nerd.

“You know how people talk about an acting bug? You act and you just get bit by this bug and you love it and you want to be an actor? I think that there’s a transportation nerd bug also, and that some people just love maps and love buses and love the way that people circulate throughout a city. I’m one of those nerds,” Iwasaki said.

As such, she is well-suited for her job as director of neighborhood services and Great Streets at the office of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, where she works with city departments such as the Department of Transportation (DOT) to oversee projects designed to improve street safety, design and development.

She shared an anecdote from her time mentoring middle school students in the Bay Area, when she came to the realization that accessibility is often the defining factor in whether or not people utilize available resources. The youth center she worked with was originally located right across the street from the school that student participants attended. But when the center was forced to move across town, most of the students stopped coming due to its sheer inaccessibility.

“You can have the best resources in the world, but if people can’t access them, it’s almost as though they don’t exist,” Iwasaki said.

It was this epiphany that led her to pursue a master’s degree in urban planning from New York University, equipping her with not only extensive theoretical knowledge but also an abundance of personal experiences that contribute to her nuanced understanding of how cities function.

“[Urban planning] was a field that I didn’t know a lot about, but I knew [it] was one that understood that how cities are built affect how people in those cities live and reach their potential,” Iwasaki said.

Having lived in both LA and New York, Iwasaki can see similarities and differences between the two major cities. Although both are cosmopolitan with international recognition, the way people approach life in each city is very different. She attributes this in part to how the cities are built: while LA is a car city with sprawling freeways in every direction, New York is built to be walked. This changes how people in LA versus people in New York interact with their built environment, according to Iwasaki.

Much of her work entails reclaiming LA’s streets as spaces that are inclusive of all residents rather than merely the drivers whose cars dominate the city.

“The mission of the Great Streets Initiative is to empower communities to identify ways to transform their streets and to look at streets not as arterials for cars but as public spaces, gathering spaces, places for people to eat and shop and meet people, all within walking distance of where they live or work,” Iwasaki said.

She acknowledged that cars serve a useful function in terms of transporting people around the city — for example, taking her son to preschool via any other mode of transportation would be infeasible for her — but noted that in the past, there has not been enough emphasis on designing streets with safety in mind.

“Culturally we’re not conditioned to think of cars as weapons, but they can kill people,” Iwasaki said.

Innovation is sweeping cities across the nation in a street safety trend that Iwasaki sees LA, a current work-in-progress, as part of. Compared to urban areas such as Chicago and New York, LA’s residents are more dependent on cars, putting the city at a disadvantage in terms of both street safety and pollution from greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, because LA’s political power is decentralized and based on consensus, with 15 relatively powerful councilmembers in addition to the mayor, it can take longer to enact change. Nevertheless, Garcetti is fully committed to improving street safety and finding alternate modes of transportation in order to ease congestion, according to Iwasaki.

One such alternate mode of transportation, cycling, carries with it a different culture in New York than in LA. For example, businesses in New York often deploy bicycles for delivery purposes, be it of documents, food or other products. The result, Iwasaki said, is a fleet of cyclists whose primary concern is to get from point A to B as quickly as possible. This differs from a bike culture in LA that usually frames bikes as either recreational or as an important mode of transportation.

Despite the differences, both cities have cycling populations in common: those who cannot afford to participate in bike advocacy efforts. Bike advocacy, a world dominated by white, upper middle class people who bike by choice, generally excludes those who do not have the time or money to contribute.

“I think that both cities have a contingency of people riding bikes who feel like they’ve been ostracized and marginalized,” Iwasaki said. “Their voice has historically been missing from a lot of the mainstream bike advocacy groups.”

Most streets in LA have bike lanes as an afterthought if they include them at all. Great Streets, however, is working on implementing parking protected bike lanes on streets across the city. The bike lanes are painted next to the sidewalk with a row of parked cars separating cyclists from oncoming traffic. The first of these parking protected lanes, located on Reseda Boulevard, is now two years old.

Although parking protected bike lanes provide cyclists with an additional barrier from moving cars, there is an adjustment period. Most people are not yet accustomed to streets designed with safety in mind, Iwasaki said; in the past, engineers designed streets with the primary objective of accommodating as many cars as possible.

“People are scared of change and often can react with anger to it,” Iwasaki said. “But, as people, we are more resilient than we think we are.”

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