Safety Story with Ariel Williams-Lewis

Safety Story with Ariel Williams-Lewis

How public health and transportation professionals can work alongside communities to create people-focused streets.

For this installment of Stories from the Field, Berkeley SafeTREC’s Kristen Leckie chatted with Ariel Williams-Lewis, Program Manager of the Community and Youth Engagement program at the National Health Foundation (NHF). Williams-Lewis calls out the importance of planning for communities with the individual in mind, not just the active transportation goals planners aim to achieve. Read her Safety Story below! 

Do you mind telling us about your organization and then about the role you play within it?

National Health Foundation (NHF) was founded in 1973 to conduct research for hospital partners of the Hospital Association of Southern California. Over the years, the field of public health moved to addressing the social determinants of health and NHF identified the additional need to provide programs and services to people experiencing housing insecurity and living in under-resourced communities. Today, NHF’s programs work with community members to address health concerns related to the built environment, nutrition and food security, and housing.

I work in the Community Initiatives department as a Community and Youth Engagement program manager. In my role with built environment initiatives, I have supported communities to build their capacity and advocacy skills to create safe, walkable, and healthy neighborhoods. Most of our projects center pedestrian safety, beautification, and public safety, but we also conduct community needs assessments to identify other health concerns including density of businesses, issues with air quality, and opportunities for expanded programs for special populations.

How does your role in a public health organization impact your approach to active transportation planning?

Public health helps us to think more holistically. Our approach to transportation planning includes attention to traditional components like safety and accessibility, but I think we take it a step further. We want our communities to be walkable, include shade coverage and adequate lighting, and to encourage people to want to play, work, and learn in our communities. We also consider the needs of diverse stakeholders. We want our transportation plan to make shopping in our community possible, but we also want people who use wheelchairs, strollers, and bikes to be comfortable. Overall, I think public health increases the focus on the human components of travel.

What inspired you to apply for SafeTREC’s Comunidades Activas y Seguras (CAyS) program in 2023?

Comunidad de NHF has been working for the last five years on a beautification and pedestrian safety plan in Pico-Union. Our goals with that five-year plan were to increase the accessibility and use of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power services including the 311 App, identify and implement beautification projects, and shift power to community members. In 2022, many of the members of Comunidad de NHF uplifted the need for speed management and traffic modifications. The street our facility is located on, and where the group meets, is also part of the High Injury Network, so even the crash data shows us there is a need for interventions. Additionally, we had a community member who was a victim of a crash while walking, so that further personalized the need to address the unsafe traffic patterns we witness in our community.

How did your work with the CAyS program encourage safety for people that walk, bike, or roll for transportation in Pico-Union?

The work with CAyS allowed us to connect with local schools and their staff. Connecting with local schools and other community stakeholders assisted us in building interest and developing support from local stakeholders like the schools for our work.

How does the built environment impact the Pico-Union community?

Residents of Pico-Union report using bicycles more than three times the county average (1.9% compared to 0.6%). People in our community rely on bicycles, walking, micro-transportation (scooters), and public transportation at a high rate to travel to work and school. Additionally, Pico-Union is one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Los Angeles, compounding the number of drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists. Because of this, we need streets, bike lanes, and sidewalks that are functional, well-lit, and safe. Unfortunately, this community has been historically disinvested in which includes resources and funding for transportation safety projects.

As a result, pedestrians and people using mobility devices and strollers must leave the sidewalk because it is cracked, narrow, or not well lit. Intersections are far apart and many lack required ADA ramps, forcing people to cross in unsafe areas. There are limited traffic control interventions, and drivers make illegal turns and drive at high velocity. All these built factors impact drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists' health.

How can the world of public health help inform and strengthen the world of active transportation?

By developing transportation plans that acknowledge and uplift the diverse needs of pedestrians and bicyclists, we can create streets that are safe for all people. Public health also can transform health behaviors of individuals through health education and awareness campaigns. Finally, public health practitioners can shift power to communities through base-building and capacity building efforts.

As a public health professional, what are the key elements of a successful active transportation project or program?

  • Community input: Community members are the experts. They know the issues, can propose solutions that would increase buy-in, and provide the momentum to influence elected officials.
  • Collaboration: Engineers, elected officials, and transportation professionals provide much needed technical support.
  • Continued oversight: Changing health behaviors and building transportation systems are long processes. Plan to check in frequently with community stakeholders and familiarize new elected officials, school administrators and community members. Messaging about transportation patterns should be frequent and consistent.

What is one practice, tool, or approach you wish active transportation planners would adopt from public health?

I hope that transportation planners will listen to their communities as they plan interventions. Measures should be taken to allow people to engage with civic issues like transportation and safety. Provide interpretation services, childcare, and food to incentivize people to come out and engage with engineers and planners. Most importantly, listen to people.

What is a story or take away from your work that's really stuck with you?

I don’t have one specific story, but rather a pattern that I have seen here in Los Angeles. People come to events and ask how they can clean up their communities. People care and want to help, but there has been a disconnect between people and government agencies and services. So much of what appears to be apathy is a lack of knowledge.

When people are empowered with knowledge, they pitch in, they show up and show out to clean and improve their communities. This is a great opportunity for community-based organizations and government agencies to meet people where they are at. We have so many great resources, and people deserve to know about them.

If you had a superpower and could change anything, what would the future of active transportation safety look like?

I would increase funding for community-led transportation projects. Many of the projects require partnership with elected officials which can be tricky to navigate. Additionally, community-based organizations are responsible for finding and identifying these projects and then pitching them to city and county government stakeholders. I would like for funds to be dispersed to communities via government first, and then have community-based organizations create proposals to respond.

This Stories From the Field interview was conducted in collaboration with UC Berkeley SafeTREC. The opinions and perspectives expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily those of SafeTREC or the Office of Traffic Safety.

A headshot of Ariel. She is smiling at the camera and standing in front of a grey textured wall.

Ariel Williams-Lewis

Program Manager, Community and Youth Engagement

National Health Foundation