Crosswalks in LA’s Boyle Heights. (Image: LA Great Streets)

After years of decline, the number of deaths on American streets are starting to rise again, a troubling statistic for many cities that are working hard to get more people walking and biking. Now Los Angeles’s Department of Transportation (LADOT) is trying something new: Enlisting a sound artist to bring attention to the city’s traffic deaths.

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In his role as LADOT’s artist-in-residence, Alan Nakagawa will specifically focus on LA’s Vision Zero plan, an international movement to reduce traffic deaths to zero. An avid cyclist, Nakagawa has long been immersed in transportation culture as a studio artist who has worked with the public art department in LA’s transit agency, Metro, for over 25 years. His goal is to focus on the neighborhoods affected most by traffic deaths, and use a very targeted approach for every neighborhood that takes cultural nuances into consideration.

Nakagawa recording sound as part of a show currently up at the Getty Villa, “myth Not Myth

Nakagawa says he’ll explore what he calls a “regional vernacular” that determines how people use LA’s streets. For example, Central American communities might share bikes informally within their own neighborhoods, while others lock their bikes up inside. “We have our own cultural differences due to migrants in Southern California, which is another level of mobility to navigate,” he told Gizmodo.

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In addition to his work in sound and public art, Nagakawa is trained as an oral historian. His first task will be applying this approach to LADOT, interviewing its safety engineers and transportation planners in the same way he has documented the lives of artists and historical figures.

“Alan built his art career on listening,” said Danielle Brazell, general manager for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. “This is the starting point for all his projects—to ask the right questions, learn from experts, and develop creative approaches that balance need with aesthetics.”

“Sound Forest” is project by Nakagawa that aimed to bring together different users of the street

Connecting artists with city agencies to serve as urban visionaries who can help tackle civic problems has become a popular trend in cities around the world. San Francisco has famously installed artists in its waste management center since 1990, for example. New York City’s DOT has also worked with artists to create awareness around pedestrian safety. But this is the first artist-in-residence in a US city that will be explicitly focused on Vision Zero.

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According to LADOT’s general manager Seleta Reynolds, bringing Nakagawa onboard is part of a larger effort to bring design and tech to the forefront of its operations, like its data-driven approach to improving the city’s intersections. “LADOT is committed to creativity and innovation,” Reynolds said. “Alan will continue this tradition, with a focus on how we can infuse art into design to create safer streets.”

What struck me about Nakagawa’s proposal is that it’s the first time I’ve ever heard someone address the fact that how we use our streets varies due to the culture in which we were raised. This is an incredibly smart approach in a place like LA, because how you talk about Vision Zero to a primarily Latino community in Boyle Heights will be different from how you’ll talk about it in Chinatown or Little Bangladesh. It’s a challenge just to create signage in a city where over 200 languages are used. In a way, Nakagawa said, what he really needs is a kind of real-time translating app that can help guide people through the streets.

Nakagawa worked at Metro when many of the city’s new rail lines opened, and the first time riding transit for many Angelenos. The “Metro Manners” cards were Nakagawa’s idea to educate in a playful way

But what Nakagawa is also proposing is messaging about sharing streets that transcends language. This includes an idea Nakagawa has about teaching etiquette for street users (including their most famous sound tool: horns). We hear a lot about “sharing streets” when it comes to the delicate negotiations between pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. But the challenge he sees is that even as we move from car to bike to foot, we still think we’re the most important people. “Everyone thinks they’re entitled to the road, like no one else should be on it,” Nakagawa said, although he does think relationships are getting better between drivers and “second-class” forms of transportation. “Maybe they’re still upset, but they know we have rights on the road—or there are so many of us they are learning to tolerate it.”

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In addition to all these projects, Nakagawa also has a vision to make LADOT part of the local art community. His plan is to take a ground-floor space in LADOT’s headquarters and turn it into a public gathering space for art, programming it with work by local artists and opening it up during the monthly art walk that happens in the neighborhoods around it.

This might be one of Nakagawa’s biggest challenges as it’s not considered to be the friendliest location—the imposing Caltrans building it’s housed in is known as the Death Star. As one of his first orders of business, Nakagawa is determined to get that nickname changed to honor a more appropriate vehicle in the Star Wars universe.

“It’s not a Death Star, it’s not even round—it’s an AT-AT Walker,” Nakagawa explained. “I know it’s still the bad guys, but what could be better for the Department of Transportation than a walker?”