Over the past decade, Peatónito, the mysterious masked defender of Mexico City’s pedestrians, has been spotted ushering walkers through intersections in a race against a dwindling countdown clock, scrambling over illegally parked cars in a single bound, and straining, even with his superhuman strength, to shove back wayward vehicles that have crept over the crosswalk bar (good-natured drivers usually put their car slowly in reverse, making the gag truly deliver). With a black-and-white leather luchador mask accented with a neon-green walking-man icon and a flowing crosswalk-striped cape, Peatónito has become an urbanist legend, starring in international news segments, traveling the world giving keynotes, and inspiring more than a few copycats. But for the last two years, Peatónito’s superhero status has been supplemented by scholarly pursuits — he, or rather his alter ego, moved to Los Angeles to earn his master’s in urban and regional planning at UCLA, and he’s been wrestling with how to use his powers in a city that’s notoriously hostile to walkers. “It’s not a place for pedestrians,” he says dejectedly. “I feel very miserable walking in the streets of Los Angeles.”
Peatónito — “little pedestrian” in Spanish — started as a joke, he says; after he and friends attended a lucha libre match, they put on masks and hit the streets to shame drivers. His colorful character resonated immediately with people on both sides of the steering wheel, but the persona also had some precedent, he discovered later; in the 1990s, Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus fired all the city’s traffic cops and hired mimes to more effectively protect people at intersections. That type of culture change is key to changing behavior, says Peatónito, who studied organizing and movements while working in public policy. “Having a friendly mime or peaceful luchador inviting people to respect pedestrians is way better than having armed police.”
When he first arrived in L.A. — where he has never driven a car, only walked, biked, scootered, and rode transit — Peatónito was eager to deploy his services to help local people get around on foot; instead, he found the streets disconcertingly empty. “People don’t walk in L.A. because it’s not fun,” he says. “It’s not vibrant.” The visual monotony of blank walls and strip malls can also contribute to higher vehicular speeds by drivers, he says, and when the pandemic hit, those empty streets became even more of a liability. Like many other U.S. cities, L.A. is reckoning with a year that saw fewer cars on the road but a higher overall rate of traffic deaths, and 2021 is already shaping up to be as deadly as 2020. That has put advocates in crisis mode, and they’re turning to Peatónito for ideas on where to go next. “We all know walking in L.A. is a constant fight for safety and dignity,” says John Yi, executive director of Los Angeles Walks. “El Peatónito reminds us that we have a city to save and that every time we take to the streets, it is in itself a revolutionary act.”
For his thesis at UCLA, where he mostly managed to protect his secret identity — “Some of his classmates didn’t even know about his special powers to transform a city’s priorities in support of pedestrian rights and safety,” says Juan Matute, deputy director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies — Peatónito spent a year examining a 2.3-mile stretch of Temple Street just west of downtown, which he calls a microcosm of all the city’s transportation failures. From 2008 to 2019, five people were killed and 39 people were severely injured here in car crashes, including three students crossing the street to their elementary school. This prompted the city to propose a two-mile street redesign with protected bike lanes, intersections that prioritized walkers, and curb extensions that would force drivers to take wider, slower turns. Early outreach seemed promising, with a coalition of parents and students from local schools advocating for the changes, but as Peatónito went back through all the public commentary provided at community meetings, he saw that a troubling narrative downplaying the deaths had started to take hold. “There’s people saying that there’s an ‘acceptable’ number of losses on these streets,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. In the end, the city ended up dramatically scaling back the plans.
On a video call, I walk the Temple corridor with Peatónito — he’s currently in Mexico City; he’ll be back in L.A. this summer — and he points out every missed opportunity: The bike lanes never went in, forcing riders onto the sidewalk; the new intersection designs with decorative rock features somehow result in less walkable space; the promised curb extensions that might have urged cars to turn more slowly aren’t curbs, just dashed lines on the pavement. “It’s a joke,” he says. “You’re only showing me paint.” Up the block, we watch drivers navigate what he calls a “speed table,” an elongated, mesalike speed hump designed to slow them down. It wasn’t exactly. “Look at the speed limit,” he says. “It’s supposed to be 25. But nobody respects that.” Still, this piece of infrastructure, installed in the roadway, represents a “huge step” for Los Angeles, he says. But what Peatónito would rather see are crosswalks raised to sidewalk height, serving as speed tables but also helping people to avoid navigating up and down L.A.’s awkwardly angled curb ramps at intersections. “This is very sad for people with disabilities, or parents with strollers,” he says. “They have to deal with a lot of obstacles in the streets and sidewalks and then we make it more difficult for them.” He’s also troubled when he sees the city cutting down large trees in order to fix sidewalks, when trees are every bit as critical for pedestrian safety, he argues, and not just by creating shade. “Trees help to calm traffic,” he says. “When you don’t see what’s ahead, your mind tells you to slow down.”
When experts in his profession talk about road-safety strategies, says Peatónito, they talk about the three E’s: education, enforcement, and engineering. But to Peatónito, the only E needed is engineering. “The geometry of the street talks to the driver, forcing them to slow down and make more space for pedestrians,” he says. That might seem counterintuitive for a Mexican wrestler who stands in an intersection trying to get everyone to follow traffic rules. But so-called pedestrian-safety laws are generally used as an excuse for police to target Black and brown Angelenos, and the city would be better off without them, he says. “The best walkable city is where it’s legal to jaywalk.” Just last week, Peatónito introduced a “pedestrian revolution” campaign for Los Angeles Walks and the first area of focus is launching a national conversation on decriminalizing jaywalking, starting with repealing California’s racially biased laws. L.A. could take a cue from Mexico City, which issues no jaywalking tickets and even has changed its traffic code to encourage people to cross smaller streets anywhere that feels comfortable. Of course, in L.A., that would require designing a lot more narrow streets. Peatónito might be a human traffic-calming device, but the real goal is to engineer himself out of existence, he says. “We don’t need Peatónitos on every corner — what we need is infrastructure.”