In some ways, Margot Ocañas has been walking the walk ever since she was a kid growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and her mom sent her off to modern dance lessons with the words:
“You’ve got two feet and a bicycle. Get going.”
Talk about prophetic. Today, Ocañas—a Mandarin-speaking Fulbright scholar and one-time Wall Street analyst whose resume also includes running an independent film company with her husband and developing “streets for people” projects at the county Department of Public Health—is jumping feet first into a brand new role with major ramifications for how L.A. moves into the future.
As Los Angeles’ first pedestrian coordinator, Ocañas, 48, is front-and-center of a growing movement that aims to rethink streets as we know them.
Her appointment is just the latest sign—along with car-free CicLAvia events, a new pedestrian plaza in Silver Lake and a burgeoning public transit system—of how Los Angeles is throwing off its car-centric reputation in sometimes unexpected ways.
“The national momentum is very much our friend right now,” Ocañas said. Pedestrian awareness is “part of a larger national conversation. People are in tune with that.”
Ocañas and assistant pedestrian coordinator Valerie Watson, an urban and regional planner by training, have recently joined the city Department of Transportation. Their mission: making life better for walkers on streets that often were built mostly to enable automobiles to get from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible. The tools of transformation include reshaping lanes and crosswalks, changing signs and signals—anything to foster calmer corridors and reduce the “raceway mentality” that’s rampant on many streets.
And then there are those things that are beyond the DOT’s purview—such as “street furniture” like benches and light fixtures. “To enhance the safety and the warmness of a corridor, you might want to start installing more of what I call human scale lighting. You may have flower baskets, or trash cans,” she said. “I think it’s those types of amenities that just make it feel more like an outdoor living room.”
Since sidewalks and street furniture fall under the Bureau of Street Services, not the DOT, part of her job involves reaching across departmental lines. “There are just increasingly strong strategic working relationships and partnering that’s happening with Street Services and Street Lighting,” she said.
Deborah Murphy, founder of the pedestrian advocacy group Los Angeles Walks and chair of the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee, said she’s been urging the appointment of an L.A. pedestrian coordinator for more than 15 years. While Los Angeles still has a long way to go to before it catches up with other cities including, locally, Santa Monica, she senses a permanent transformation is underway.
“I have really seen a huge change in the last year,” she said. “I’m thrilled. I think Margot and Valerie bring lots of great energy to pedestrian safety, and to encouraging people to walk.”
The well-traveled Ocañas, who moved to Los Angeles in 2003 from New York by way of Austin, also thinks the moment is right for the city to get in touch with its pedestrian side. She’s reached out to counterparts who are on the same journey in New York, which is regarded as a national leader in reconfiguring streets, notably in Times Square, as well as in San Francisco and Chicago. She thinks it can’t hurt that stratospheric gas prices are making alternative modes of getting around look better and better these days.
“Selfishly, I’d love to see gas prices not go down,” said Ocañas, who gets to work by bike, bus and foot three days a week and has organized a “bike train” caravan to get her two children to school each morning. “I could be talking till I’m blue in the face but there are certain triggers that just force behavioral change.”
Walk a mile in her slingbacks, and you’ll quickly get a sidewalk-level view of what’s good, bad and ugly out there on the L.A. pavement.
At the busy triangular intersection where Fairfax, Olympic and San Vicente come together, Ocañas watched one morning this week as pedestrians scrambled to cross. She reflected on how broad streets with short signal times can pose difficulties, especially for the elderly.
“I have seen situations where seniors are caught three-quarters of the way across the street and the light has turned,” said Ocañas, who lives in the neighborhood with her family. “We do have a population that’s getting older. We need to adjust signaling to ensure their ability to cross more effectively.”
Beyond that, “unwelcoming” streetscapes can send a forbidding signal to just about anyone who’s not in a car.
“People are not incented, or motivated, or enthused at times to get out and walk,” she said. “But those times are changing.”
Her proposed solution: “Re-engineer the environment.”
Ocañas’ previous position as a policy analyst at the county Public Health department’s Project RENEW, funded with federal stimulus dollars, involved working on grant proposals intended to combat obesity by confronting challenges in L.A.’s “built environment”—such as those long, unshaded stretches of roadway where fast car traffic and widely separated crosswalks make it uninviting or impossible for pedestrians to stroll and interact.
“When I was on the health side, we always talked about, ‘We’ve built ourselves into sickness so we need to build ourselves out of sickness,’ ” Ocañas said. One of the projects she worked on turned into the green polka-dotted Sunset Plaza Triangle pedestrian zone in Silver Lake, which opened in May.
Her own transformation, from a career in the private sector that included working at Dell Computers, started modestly enough, with a block party closure she organized to give neighborhood kids a chance to wheel around freely on their bikes and scooters. Ryan Snyder of the urbanist transportation planning firm Ryan Snyder Associates was there as the guest of a neighbor. When he met Ocañas, he mentioned the upcoming policy analyst positions in Public Health.
A light bulb went on. “It never occurred to me to consider taking a recreational passion and translate it into a paying job,” she said.
At the city Department of Transportation, Ocanas’ and Watson’s first priority is developing a Safe Routes to School Strategic Plan for the city. The “data-driven” plan will help the department prioritize spending on student safety projects and will introduce “new types of pedestrian-centered amenities” into the mix. It also will serve as a building block for the eventual creation of a “Pedestrian Safety Action Plan” for Los Angeles—something that’s probably three to five years down the road.
At the same time, they’re working to foster innovative “place making,” including “parklets” (tiny curbside areas the size of parking space, often in front of businesses and furnished with seating areas and plants) as well as bike corrals and pedestrian plazas like the one in Silver Lake.
“You do these things that you can quickly implement with low-cost materials…to help demonstrate the benefits of ‘people-space,’ ” Watson said.
Ocañas, who like Watson is being paid by DOT Measure R funds that have been targeted for pedestrian initiatives, said she’s finding the department a “very supportive environment.”
“I actually find them very open,” she said. “We will debate. I will learn from them: ‘OK, you just can’t do that, and for these reasons.’ But similarly, they are very open to ‘Why not?’ ”