Walking in L.A.: The Data Driven City Walking in L.A.: The Data Driven City

Walking in L.A.: The Data Driven City

by Ryan Bradley

June 5, 2010

There are people on the third floor of the CalTrans building with their feet in the air, legs churning upward towards the fluorescent ceiling. It's a familiar motion—they're walking, more or less, but upside down and for exercise only. It looks pretty inefficient and no fun. And it's part of a larger problem, the problem of perception. Specifically, the perception that nobody walks in Los Angeles, and that you, or an employee of the California Department of Transportation, would have to get in exercise by looking like a fool as you upside-down walk in front of a glass window-wall. The truth of it is that walking is good for you and good for the environment and Los Angeles is a great city to walk in—the weather is perfect year-round, there are plenty of sidewalks, and there's a very good chance that, if you live here, you're living about a mile from basic amenities like a grocery store. That's less than a 20-minute walk. But do you walk for your errands? I doubt it. This is why Bruce Gillman is frustrated.

Bruce Gillman is the Los Angeles Department of Transportation's Public Information Officer, which means a lot of people are mad at him and his department a lot of the time. He's trying, but for the most part he's given up on you and moved on to a group of people the DOT actually has a chance of changing. He's focused on school-kids. "People are too stubborn," he says, "If we can get teachers to get their kids walking, to lead by example, we can combat child obesity and reduce traffic all at once." Gillman, like a lot of new arrivals to Los Angeles (he's been here just three years) is fascinated and horrified by the entrenched car culture, which runs so deep Joan Didion once described "the freeway experience" as "the only secular communion Los Angeles has." Gillman is battling this culture war with a campaign for school kids.

But back at ATSAC, they need more data.

Last year, it was announced that ATSAC would receive $150 million to enhance its system. There is talk of using in-car GPS to trace the movements of individual cars throughout the city. They want to add sensors to more city buses. Chan, wide-eyed, recalls a demonstration of London's extensive camera system, where engineers actually zoomed in on individual drivers. "The image was so clear," he says "you could see the driver's face."

And then Chan turns back to his console and the room continues to hum and I walk out the big steel doors and up into the bright, late-morning. I haven't gone half a block before I notice my first video camera, drab and stationary in its white metal box. It's an impersonal thing and yet intensely personal—I am being watched, being added to their data. I don't quite know how to take it, so I quickly continue on, heading north toward Hollywood.

Next up: The relationship between transportation and happiness is... complicated.

Photos by Ryan Bradley.

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Walking in L.A.: The Data Driven City