Updated: Apr 13
Soon after Severin Martinez graduated from Eagle Rock High School in Los Angeles in 2009, he figured it was time to give up riding his bicycle and purchase a car “because that’s what adults do.” The Swedish-born Martinez – he spent the first 12 years of his life in Malmö, a city where 30% of all trips taken occur on a bicycle – had grown up in a city where the bicycling infrastructure dominated the transportation landscape. But now he was living in a city where “public transit is slow and most people don’t think about biking as an option to get anywhere.”
Fortunately, Martinez’ girlfriend at the time – they still live together in Eagle Rock – challenged his proposed transportation upgrade on environmental grounds. She didn’t like the idea of adding a gas-powered vehicle to their carbon footprint.
“It had never occurred to me that transportation was part of the environmental picture on a personal level,” said Martinez, who recalls that conversation as a time of “awakening.”
It also started the conversation in his head that by promoting #sustainabletransportation as a career, he could “do something good for the environment,” and help less fortunate members of society, “who often bike, walk, or take transit out of necessity, not out of choice.”
Today, as a transportation planner for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT), Martinez helps ensure that the people of Los Angeles can get around safely and affordably by all modes of travel, in ways that are both equitable and sustainable.
“Just because you are poor or disabled or young or old doesn’t mean that getting around should be any more difficult or less safe for you just because you don’t have the means to drive,” he emphasized.
Martinez is involved in several LADOT initiatives, but his work is focused on helping the agency create a safe, comprehensive and well-connected bicycle network, “that can get you anywhere you want to go.”
For example, he’s guiding LADOT’s work on a Caltrans-funded grant to create a network of residential streets that will provide cyclists with a calmer, less stressful cycling environment.
“Sometimes you’re biking on a low traffic street and then you hit a major street and there’s no safe way to get across,” he said. “Or increasingly in this day of driver apps such as Waze, a street that should be nice for biking is suddenly overrun with traffic.”
Martinez is also collaborating with the City’s Bureau of Engineering to upgrade existing bike lanes to physically-protected bike lanes on 7th Street in downtown Los Angeles. And he’s helping the Bureau update policy and design guidelines for how #protectedbikelanes should interface with bus stops and intersections with curb extensions.
Connecting with Transportation
Martinez' undergraduate work at the University of California, Berkeley began with a focus on anthropology "because I had an interest in how people behave in urban settings," he explained.
But he soon found himself spending all of his spare time reading about transportation planning. His girlfriend noticed the trend as well, and suggested that he focus his undergraduate degree instead on urban transportation issues.
In 2014, Martinez earned simultaneous bachelor’s degrees from UC Berkeley: a BA in Urban Studies and a BA in Scandinavian Studies. He would go on to earn a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs in 2016.
His capstone project for that degree, a paper entitled “Who Wins When Streets Lose Lanes,” is considered a seminal analysis of the safety benefits of road diets, the practice of reducing traffic lanes to make room for center turn lanes or bike lanes.
The paper was awarded the 2017 Neville Parker Award by the Council of University Transportation Centers.
After his time at UCLA, Martinez spent two years working for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) as a transportation planner. He joined LADOT in the spring of 2018.
Putting Safety First
Today, Martinez’ work developing bike-friendly infrastructure dovetails with a larger, evolving effort by California to better manage its traffic. Under State Senate Bill 743, which became law in Dec., 2018, entities such as the City of Los Angeles are required to measure the environmental impact of transportation projects using a new standard called Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT).
VMT focuses on reducing the number of miles traveled in cars, instead of the older standard, Level of Service, which simply measured and tried to mitigate traffic congestion.
The shift to measuring VMT has added momentum to Martinez’ efforts to grow Los Angeles’ bicycling infrastructure and help locals perceive it as a safe, viable transportation option.
He knows from personal experience – during high school he had a minor collision with a car while riding his bike – that a lot of bicycle/car collisions go unreported, which effectively understates the need for bicycle safety improvements on Los Angeles streets.
“From that crash, I learned that one bad experience is enough to scare someone off their bike,” laments Martinez. “It is important that people feel safe while riding their bike. It helps when streets are designed to avoid conflicts between cars and bicycles.”
Growing the Network
One of the first steps in creating safe travel lanes for cyclists, he explained, is simply learning to identify opportunities. As a college summer intern at LADOT, Martinez noticed that some city streets were simply resurfaced without exploring options to add bike lanes.
“I thought to myself, 'well, if there was room for a bike lane, why didn’t we put one in?” he said.
As a result, Martinez worked with LADOT engineers to develop a list of opportunity corridors where bike lanes could be easily added when streets were resurfaced. Three of those bike lane projects were completed before he left his internship.
"One bad experience is enough to scare someone off their bike. It's important that people feel safe while riding their bike."
-- Severin Martinez
Riding the Dream
For Martinez, who does not own a car, work days begin early in his Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles, about seven miles northeast of his office in downtown LA. After a bowl of oatmeal, a glass of orange juice and a scan of the day’s headlines, he typically rides to work. If the weather is not cooperating, he takes a bus or perhaps takes his bike on the bus.
Martinez spends most workdays in his office writing reports, preparing presentations and collaborating with colleagues. His days are punctuated with periodic meetings at nearby City Hall or the LA Bureau of Engineering to discuss current or upcoming projects.
For daily inspiration, Martinez has to look no further than the edge of his desk where he keeps a mug inscribed with a quote from Enrique Peñalosa, the former and current mayor of Bogotá, Columbia, and a well-known urban and transportation planner. “We underestimate the power of dreams... It’s time to take a great risk and do something new,” proclaims the mug.
Building a Sustainable Future
With Peñalosa looking over his proverbial shoulder, Martinez looks forward to the day when the people of Los Angeles can wake up and choose any means of transportation they want to get to work, rather than feeling compelled to travel by car because other options take too long or seem unsafe.
“Transportation planning is about more than just creating infrastructure,” he suggests. “It’s about planning for a more sustainable environment, better public health outcomes, improving public spaces and improving the quality of life.”
Indeed, Martinez can rest assured he's moving Los Angeles steadily closer to achieving those goals, one protected bike lane at a time.
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