One late summer day, John Yi and Jenny Iglesias met at the corner of West Olympic Boulevard and Normandie Avenue in Los Angeles’ Koreatown to look across six lanes of traffic.
Yi grew up in the heart of Los Angeles’ bustling Koreatown, where he watched his grandfather navigate the congested streets without a car. Iglesias, a software engineer, lives in Koreatown now and, like Yi’s grandfather, she also does not have a car.
Both Yi and Iglesias are working on making the roads safer for people on foot – Yi as the executive director of LA Walks, a nonprofit advocating for pedestrian safety in LA, and Iglesias as an engineer with Waymo, an autonomous driving technology company.
“This is your typical LA intersection in Koreatown,” Yi explains. “There are about six to eight lane streets with incredibly fast traffic, commuter traffic going east and west.”
Combined with dense residential housing, these factors make this intersection – and many LA streets – dangerous for the most vulnerable road users such as cyclists, pedestrians and wheelchair users.
Several years ago, a four-year-old girl on her way to school was killed in this very intersection when she and her mother were hit by a left-turning vehicle. The two were in a marked pedestrian crosswalk.
Yi is working to change this tragic status quo. For more than 25 years, LA Walks has been partnering with communities to secure life-saving pedestrian infrastructure like flat sidewalks, curb ramps, speed humps, more greenery, and more street design safety elements that can slow cars down, improve the pedestrian experience, and help save lives.
“Most of the advocates for Los Angeles Walks are primarily immigrants and communities of color,” Yi shares. “They’re almost all monolingual immigrant mothers who have seen, one way or another, either their child or their friend's child being almost hit by a car.”
Most of the advocates for Los Angeles Walks are primarily immigrants and communities of color. They’re almost all monolingual immigrant mothers who have seen, one way or another, either their child or their friend's child being almost hit by a car.
For her part, Iglesias says she is inspired to improve pedestrian safety not only as an engineer but also as a pedestrian herself.
“As a pedestrian, I don’t just look twice,” Iglesias shares. “I feel like I'm constantly looking every time I cross the street because there are so many red-light runners and distracted drivers.”
The state of road safety in LA is dire: every 36 hours an Angeleno is killed in a car crash and the leading cause of death for elementary and middle school children are car crashes, Yi shares. The vast majority of those killed by cars are from communities of color, immigrants and senior citizens.
Yi believes autonomous driving technology like Waymo’s could help make LA’s streets safer. Waymo is designed to obey road laws like speed limits, remain constantly aware of everything that is happening around the vehicle with a 360-degree vision system, and maximize safety for passengers and all other road users.
“I think autonomous vehicles can present a future where we have less human error when it comes to our streets,” Yi shares. “The main reason we have traffic fatalities is human error.”
Iglesias explains that the large majority of crashes are due to human choice or driving error, like distracted and impaired driving, which is a contributing factor in 94% of all crashes in the US, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“Computers never have any of those issues,” Iglesias emphasizes.
There are also limits to what human drivers can perceive and process all at once.
“You're not paying attention to those five cars and those two pedestrians all at the same time because it's really hard to take all of that information in at the same time and process it and react to it,” Iglesias says.
Iglesias says she is constantly assessing the LA roadways to help design Waymo’s technology with pedestrian safety in mind.
“I am constantly taking my own experiences of walking around Los Angeles and thinking how can we do better than that?” she says. “I do find a lot of meaning of being able to come to work and think about how can I make the road safer for everyone: for the person on the road next to us, for the car going around behind us, for the cyclist going across the intersection down the hill, and being able to make sure all those folks are comfortable and safer than they would be today.”
I am constantly taking my own experiences of walking around Los Angeles and thinking how can we do better than that?
In his work, Yi is focusing on improving street design and empowering citizens. LA Walks is working on making quick but impactful design changes in Koreatown, such as adding bollards, curb cutouts, and street painting to encourage traffic calming. He’s also asking Koreatown residents what they want to see.
“By arming the community with these tools, with this knowledge, they're then better able to work with city governments on securing pedestrian infrastructure,” Yi says.
Yi says he is also excited to exchange insights with Waymo and give pedestrians a seat at the table as Waymo’s autonomous driving technology continues to advance.
“It’s important that nonprofits like us who are part of the community, who understand the needs of specific vulnerable communities when it comes to transportation, are part of the conversation when it comes to innovation on our streets,” Yi says.
It’s important that nonprofits like us who are part of the community, who understand the needs of specific vulnerable communities when it comes to transportation, are part of the conversation when it comes to innovation on our streets.
Iglesias says that working with local communities and advocates like LA Walks is crucial as Waymo brings its ride-hailing service, which is currently operating in Phoenix and San Francisco, to Los Angeles.
"It's very important to make sure that the communities that we're affecting and working with understand what we're doing and we understand the needs of those communities,” Iglesias emphasizes.
For Yi, the community’s needs are clear: fewer single-occupancy-use cars; more biking and public transit; more walkable spaces; and more public amenities that add dignity for pedestrians like green spaces and shade. Yi also sees value in thinking about transportation as an integrated system rather than as a set of services for separate user groups.
“My 30-minute wait at my bus stop is related to your two-hour, three-hour drive in your car,” Yi emphasizes. “Those are intricately connected because we all share the same system, we all share the same roads.”
Yi believes building a safer transportation system for pedestrians will benefit everyone, across the board.
“We have to move everyone together in a way that makes sense, that's less stressful, that's less costly for their bodies and wallets,” Yi emphasizes. “That's how we get to a better transportation system.”