CivSalon: Innovation and Safe Streets

On July 20, 2022, we hosted a new CivSalon discussion on how innovation can make our streets safer and more equitable. Our friends at Motional sponsored the event, and the panelists (and members of the audience) grappled with a fundamental question: What does a city that supports car-free and car-reduced commuting really look like?

Speaking on the panel were Nicholas Greif from Motional, a partner in the push for more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly streets in Los Angeles; Melisa Walk of Pacoima Beautiful, a community advocate piloting electric bike share opportunities; Michael Uribe from Blu LA powered by Blink Mobility, a leader in cleaner, greener transportation options; and Hilary Norton of both the California Transportation Commission and FASTLinkDTLA, who is shaping mobility in downtown LA.

Greif detailed ways that autonomous electric vehicles could not only reduce emissions, but reduce car ownership.

“The AV future of Los Angeles is one of subscription to things. You won’t have a car because you don't want one; no one wants to spend tens of thousands of dollars to buy a car, to maintain it – it's the worst investment you can make. It depreciates in value and it sits unused 90-95% of the time.

“We could rededicate some city streets to other things like park space and outdoor dining, and repurpose unnecessary parking areas to create space for dedicated bus lanes, bike lanes, and more pedestrian activity.”

Tafarai Bayne moderated the discussion with (L to R) panelists Nicholas Greif, Melisa Walk, Hilary Norton, and Michael Uribe

Norton echoed the sentiment: “Motional technology can’t come soon enough. We’re asking a lot of drivers right now, and our street design doesn’t always make it easy.

“To make streets safer, street design needs to give people information that they need. At many intersections it’s unclear if someone can safely make it across without stepping in front of traffic, or disrupting a bike lane.”

Safe streets pose equity questions, too.

"We need to think about the safety and usability of a city that has a lot of people of different abilities,” Norton added. “Are pedestrian crossings timed well enough? We still require people who park in accessible spaces to cross a bike lane. Why are we doing that?"

Ultimately, the way city streets are designed and used impacts how people can use them.

“We need an ecosystem of bike and walking corridors to get people out of their cars. We need to invest in making it safer to walk and ride. Let's build projects that respect people who are walking and biking.”

As Walk put it, “It’s not just about encouraging people to bike and walk more; we also have to let drivers know that these alternative transportation modes exist. There are cyclists, there are pedestrians, and drivers need to be made aware that streets are spaces for non-car users, too.”

Uribe pointed out that while progress may seem slow, we are much farther along on the path towards making our cities greener and healthier than we may think.

“This space is relatively new, but we’re seeing big changes. Long gone are days when the internal combustion engine was viewed as a solution to anything. We look to electric vehicles, public transit, and reducing the need for vehicles entirely. Today the litmus test is: ‘is it equitable?’ and ‘does it reduce emissions?’” Uribe said.

Attendees got to see a Motional autonomous electric car up close before the CivSalon discussion kicked off

And we don’t have to wait too long to see a difference. Permanent car free streets may become the norm in LA and other cities.

“We need a car-free Broadway in Los Angeles,” Norton said. “We need a car-free 7th Street, a car-free Figueroa. Let’s make streets safer, but also more enjoyable.”

Attendees networked with panelists and each other over drinks and food (provided by Hello Stranger and Bé Ù) before and after the program, while Sean Osborn (KPFK / Dublab) provided music

The panelists agreed that changing how a car-centric city like Los Angeles embraces multi-mobility is a big challenge, but one that we can take on.

“Hold us accountable!” Greif noted. “Hold companies, organizations, and the government accountable. Keep the energy up and bring new people in to build this coalition.”

Walk added: “So many new things are happening. We have city bike programs and expanding public transit. I’m excited and inspired about what’s to come.”

Tafarai Bayne, panel moderator and CicLAvia Chief Strategist, wrapped up the discussion with a promise: “By 2024, we will have monthly CicLAvias.” One more step towards a brighter future for LA.

[Photos by Halline Overby]