In previous segments of “The Engineer’s Corner,” we have introduced you to some of the talented engineers part of our Bikeways group. This time around, we take a coffee break away from the bikeway design plans to chat with LADOT’s new Chief of Staff Bridget Smith.
While Bridget is a newcomer to our Department, she is a skilled engineer with a civil engineering education from UC Berkeley, over 25 years of professional experience, and not one but three professional certifications: Professional Engineer (P.E.), Transportation Engineer (T.E.), and Professional Traffic Operations Engineer (P.T.O.E.). In this interview for “The Engineer’s Corner,” we ask Bridget about her move to our City, her experience in the field of engineering, and her idea of a livable street.
LADOT Bike Blog: Can you tell us about yourself?
Bridget Smith: I have been married to my husband for 24 years, am a mom to 10 year old twin boys, and have a super cute two year old dog named Snickers. He’s a runt Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.In San Francisco, people would stop me on the street all the time and want to take pictures with him. It was like being with a little celebrity. I used to walk home at lunch when he was a puppy to make sure he wasn’t going insane. I would meet people for lunch sometimes in my neighborhood and could always find someone to hold him for me while I ate my lunch.
How does your family like Los Angeles?
My sons are adjusting to a new school, which can be stressful. In San Francisco, we lived in one of the most urban parts of the city. I don’t think there were any other kids on our block. Even though we lived a half a block from a park and they were getting to the age where they wanted to go to the park by themselves to play basketball, I didn’t feel comfortable with letting them do that. People lived on the street in our neighborhood that would sometimes yell at me, so I didn’t want to let my kids walk to the park by themselves. We now live in Hancock Park, which seems a lot more suburban to me. My kids love having new friends to play with. Within an hour of them moving to LA, there were a bunch of kids from the neighborhood running around our house. My son has been having so much fun that he already broke his arm on the sidewalk skateboarding. He is not a really good skateboarder because in San Francisco he could only practice when I could take him, now he can skateboard in front of our house.
Where are you from, originally?
I was born in San Francisco and raised in the East Bay (Area).
Have you ever lived in LA before?
No. I lived in Newport Beach and worked in Irvine as a consultant for a couple years during my second job out of college. Since I was working at a consulting firm, I actually did some design work for the City of Los Angeles. My husband also went to law school at Loyola Law School near Koreatown. We would see each other on weekends and I would come often to LA.
Why did you become an engineer?
I guess I decided to become an engineer in high school because I was good at math and science. When I graduated from high school, the space shuttle program was a big deal. Someone from NASA visited my high school and told us that people who had designed the space shuttle had studied chemical engineering, so I decided to give it a try. I went to UC Berkeley, where my initial major was Chemical Engineering with a minor in Materials Science. I started off in that major but I realized that organic chemistry at Berkeley involved a lot of memorization, which did not really interest me.
Meanwhile my Dad, who was a Civil Engineer and a sanitary and sewage expert, was probably rooting for me to get into Civil Engineering all along. When I was a kid, during the summer, I would go with him to check on all these outhouses, leach fields, and sewage pipes. I was pretty repulsed and not interested in doing that. However, I took a one unit class at Berkeley that gave me an in-depth introduction to Civil Engineering and went through its different applications. Every week there was a new topic. After taking that, I realized there are many useful, everyday applications for Civil Engineering and decided to switch into that major.
How did you become interested in transportation engineering?
It just so happened that my civil engineering adviser Wolfgang Homburger was a big name in transportation and ITE (Institute of Transportation Engineers). When it was time for me to take more specialized upper division classes, I had to choose between two transportation engineering classes to graduate. My adviser recommended that I take the one that focused on transportation planning. I took that class and it became one of the upper division engineering classes that I really clicked with. It captured my imagination in the same way that the general public is probably interested in traffic thinking, “Why is there a traffic jam? What is causing this?” I did really well in that class because I really enjoyed it.
After that, my adviser wrote me a recommendation and gave me a list of transportation firms where I should apply for an internship. At the time I had a really high-paying job working for Lawrence Berkeley Lab, which is a think-tank kind of place, but the work I was doing there was not related to my future career. It was more suited for a career in Geotechnical Engineering. I applied to a bunch of firms and got an internship at a small transportation planning and engineering firm called JHK. (That firm no longer exists because it was bought out.) When I started working there I was doing intern-y type things that I did not really understand, but eventually I got an overview of the field and I realized that I enjoyed transportation engineering and planning.
What has your experience as a woman in engineering been? How has it changed over time?
When I was in college, I remember being in upper division classes and counting how many women were in the class. The class would be about 10-15% women, which meant there were 2 or 3 other women in the class. That was pretty low. Then, when I was hired as a consultant out of college, I don’t remember other young women getting hired but there was usually one older woman on staff. There was a similar ratio. My whole career it has been that way, so I have become very accustomed to being in a male-dominated workplace. Sometimes when I go to a conference and just half of the attendees are women, it really stands out. I find myself thinking “Wow, there are so many women here!” and then I realize its just half.
Do you think you have been treated or perceived differently by professional peers because you are a woman?
Although it didn’t hinder my ability to do work-related tasks, I noticed a lot of sexism at my workplace when I worked and lived in Orange County. I don’t know if it was the consulting firm I was working in, that it was in Orange County, or if it was just me noticing. I experienced typical, chauvinistic situations that women are sometimes confronted with. I didn’t feel that place was horrible, but it was definitely annoying.
Later in my career, this guy who was my boss for a short time, included a couple of sexist comments in his review of my performance. Honestly, it took me a while to pick up on it. For example, one thing he mentioned that really struck me was that I was doing a great job for a woman with an all male staff, because they all really respected me. When I reflected on his remarks, I thought “I don’t get it. Why did he say that? What did it mean? It doesn’t make any sense.” Weeks went by before I realized “Oh, his comments were sexist.”
It is unfortunate that women are sometimes challenged with implicit sexism in the workplace.
Those are some of my worst stories, but generally I’ve had really good experiences and people valued me. I don’t know if it is my personality or what, but I haven’t had a lot of experiences where people have discounted me while in the room like I’ve heard other women talk about. Especially in government in the past 15 years, I have been notices a lot more younger women in the engineers’ industry. I was the first woman hired as a licensed engineer in San Francisco and at every position I was promoted to after that, I was the first woman at that level. In all the levels behind me, however, there were women. In its intern program, San Francisco always hired many women interns. I don’t know how much the profession overall has changed, but I don’t think that the field has reached 50-50 at this point.
Have you noticed a difference between local government culture in Los Angeles compared to San Francisco?
The kind of work I’ve always done has been very community-oriented, very controversial, and requires working with a lot with electeds [officials].
When I started building the Livable Streets team [in San Francisco], I purposely wanted a half-engineer and half-planner staff mix because we were taking projects from the concept phase to the implementation stage. I had an easier time finding people in the planning side, than the engineering side, because it was more difficult to find engineers who want to go out and present controversial ideas to the community. More engineers wanted to do behind the scenes stuff. I like to cross train [my team]. I wanted the engineers to train planners and bring them up to speed with how they do things, and vice versa.
Being an engineer in LA seems to carry a lot more weight than it did in San Francisco. In our society, people tend to have extra respect for doctors or lawyers. I feel that engineers receive that same type of esteem here and I have never experienced that anywhere else that I’ve worked. I am glad that I am a licensed engineer because I have been welcomed into some really complicated discussions by other engineers, considering I am new to LA.
We are definitely glad to have your expertise at LADOT. On a more personal note, can you tell us about your commute to work?
My commute time is pretty similar to my former trip to work in San Francisco. I purposely live close enough that I don’t have to drive to work, about 5 miles away. In San Francisco, I lived about 2.5 miles away from my office and I find that the trip takes about the same amount of time. In San Francisco, when I would take the bus, it would take me between 20-45 minutes. The bus ride here takes me about 45 minutes. When I would walk to work in San Francisco, it would take me about 45 minutes and when I biked it would take me 30 minutes. I would like to bike to work here but I haven’t figured out the best route for me to get to the office. If I were to drive, it would take me 15-20 minutes, which is about the same time it takes to drive 2.5 miles in San Francisco. I just started driving because I take my kids to school in Los Feliz and my husband is out of town [right now]. I would prefer to take the bus, a taxi, or a TNC.
We are big fans of multi-modal travel! How did you like being car free in Los Angeles?
I have a funny story about when I first got to Los Angeles this summer and was car free. I took Uber to Target in West Hollywood to get some things for my new place. Target is on the second floor, so when I left the store with my cart full of things I realized there were only stairs or an escalator to get down to the street. The elevator only went to the underground parking garage. I asked a Target employee, “How do I get my cart to the street?” and he says “Oh, there’s no way to get your cart to the street. We can help you carry your things if you want.” Since I was taking Uber, I ended up calling my Uber driver asking her to pick me up from the parking garage. It was hot, smoggy, and there was no air conditioning. (I almost tweeted it!)
Aside from being trapped inside a Target parking garage in West Hollywood, what are some of the most striking differences between Los Angeles and San Francisco in terms of urban design you’ve encountered?
Mini malls. In San Francisco, there aren’t really any mini malls left. Local government is pretty strict about forcing new development to face the street to interact with the sidewalk through design. San Francisco is tiny, it’s like one part of town in Los Angeles, and lots of people there get around without a car.
In Los Angeles, there is this presumption I find with a lot of people I talk to about getting around: they expect that I have a car with me and that going places involves parking it. It’s more convenient to drive here than in San Francisco. I think parking is what makes the difference. You can also drive around in San Francisco pretty easily, maybe a bit slower, but parking is an art there. You need to be a local there to know the tricks, or be ready to hunt. I lived in a neighborhood where it would take 35-45 minutes to find a spot every time. Differences aside, I really enjoy living here! I find it to be a lot more dense and urban than I realized.
Do you have a favorite street in Los Angeles yet?
I really haven’t had the opportunity to get to know the city and the streets in the way I would like to yet. I love the street where I am living. They are filming American Horror Story across the street from my house tomorrow. To me, my street is like a suburban fantasy in the middle of the city. There is not a lot of traffic on my street. My dog has gotten out a couple of times and it’s been fine because there is so little traffic. My street used to have a street car on it, so it is really wide. While I’ve never been really a fan of wide streets, the good news is that the sidewalks are wide and there is an incredible green space next to the road. So the distance between where my kids are allowed on the sidewalk, and the cars driving on the street, actually seems safe.
What is a livable street to you?
A livable street to me is one that minimizes the negative impacts cars have on the rest of the street’s users. Livable streets could look a lot of different ways depending on the street you are on. Of course, there are streets that need to carry a lot of cars, but still have good street design. Land use is also a huge part of it. Things I don’t like to see are big concrete walls that you have to walk next to, or buildings that create a similar feeling for people using the street. Even streets that have very narrow sidewalks and not a lot of public space could feel livable, if cars are going slow and the design of the street is comfortable. Safety is also very important. I tend to worry a lot about traffic safety, especially for my kids. I’ve worked on pedestrian improvements for a long time, so I’ve read every SF pedestrian fatality crash report over the past 15 years and am pretty aware of how these things happen. ■
Thank you Bridget for your time and a great conversation. The LADOT Bike Blog welcomes you to the City family!