July 30, 2014 - From the August, 2014 issue

New LA DOT GM Enthusiastically Accepts Management Challenge

In July, Los Angeles City Council approved Mayor Garcetti’s pick for General Manager of the LA Department of Transportation: Seleta Reynolds. Moving south from her current position at San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Authority, Reynolds will assume her new role this August. In the following interview, TPR introduces the incoming GM to readers—focusing on her background in active transportation and livable streets—as well as discussing the challenges facing the LADOT. 


Seleta Reynolds

"The mayor has Great Streets at the heart of his agenda. This felt like a place and a time that really aligned with the kinds of projects that interest me the most." —Seleta Reynolds

"We need strong partnerships with Metro, Public Works, Bureau of Street Services, Public Health, and other cities in the county." —Seleta Reynolds

What enticed you to become the 12th General Manger in the last 20 years for the City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation? 

Seleta Reynolds: I’ve spent most of my career drawn to cities—thinking about their streets, what purpose they serve, and what purpose they could serve. Los Angeles offers challenges and opportunities second-to-none. Its scale is one of the biggest in the US to explore the potential of transportation to create and sustain really fantastic, vibrant, resilient cities. There are not very many other places with an opportunity like this.

Apart from the facts of LA’s infrastructure, the mayor has Great Streets at the heart of his agenda. This felt like a place and a time that really aligned with the kinds of projects that interest me the most. 

For context, elaborate on your current responsibilities at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority. How does your experience align with the new position in Los Angeles that you’re about to assume?

At the SFMTA, everything transportation-related is under one roof. San Francisco is a city and a county without any other cities in it. This provides an opportunity to bring transportation together in a way you really can’t in other places.

The voters consolidated all transportation functions into one agency governed by a Board of Directors that was appointed by the mayor, rather than elected. They wanted to try to take the level of politics down a notch in discussing transportation policy and the direction of the city.

In the agency, I sit in a subdivision called Livable Streets, which confusingly is nested inside Sustainable Streets. Our charge is to carry out all pedestrian, bicycle, traffic calming, and school-safety projects city-wide. Because we are in 2014 and most of the low-hanging fruit has been spoken for, we’re having tough conversations about the functions of our streets and how we allocate our space along them.

Even though my focus is around those types of projects, we have to be conversant—and even experts—in everything related to transportation. We consider our projects to be transit projects, signal projects, and even freeway-access projects. Our work has to consider the wide variety of needs and functions of the street in order to allocate space differently.

In my section, I have the team that launched the city-wide bikesharing project. I have the bike-parking team, which has built our 50thbike corral—probably the largest in the US. I also have a policy and innovation team that does a lot of evaluation. Anytime we’re designing something for the first time, it lives in that team.

Then I have a team focusing on complete-streets coordination, working across agencies to try and maximize the hidden transportation dollars. They work with Public Works, which repaves the streets, to make sure that with an incremental addition of funding we can get a great project—one that a community may have asked for over a long period of time. That team led the comprehensive safety evaluation we undertook, focused around safety for people walking. That’s also the team where the Vision Zero work lives. Earlier this year, our Board of Directors, the Board of Supervisors, the Planning Commission, the Police Commission, and the Public Health Commission all adopted a Vision Zero initiative—to get to zero traffic deaths in San Francisco by 2024. One of the teams here that I supervise is responsible for identifying and tracking all of the engineering projects that are going to help get us there.

That’s a taste of what falls under my purview. It runs the gamut. I should mention that almost all of our projects are grant-funded. Transportation funding is pretty balkanized and an area of expertise all its own.

Before SFMTA, you worked for Fehr & Peers, and before that, the City of Oakland Public Works Agency. What do you draw from both work experiences that you expect will be helpful for your new responsibilities at LADOT?

I was at Fehr & Peers for a decade. I managed the San Francisco office and then in 2008 moved up to Seattle. There, I managed a firm we had merged with, in order to bring the two company cultures together. This was during a really difficult time for everyone, from 2008 to 2012. Certainly transportation public and private entities were no exception. That was a tough time to be trying to grow a business and also merge two very different company cultures. I learned a lot about culture change from that experience—about people’s appetite for change, their capacity to accept it, and the importance of treating everyone with respect even when you’re having very difficult conversations.

Particularly toward the end of my career at Fehr & Peers, I learned a lot about how to manage people and collaborate with them that I’ve brought to my work at the MTA. I hope this will prove valuable at LADOT.

At Fehr & Peers, I was also the company-wide leader for active-transportation projects. I had the opportunity to work on projects throughout the western US. Frequently, I was invited to be on charrette teams all over the country to talk with communities about their goals for their transportation systems. I got to see these projects through a variety of lenses: from a very small town, to a suburban environment, to a highly dense urban one.

I also continued to be interested and involved in evolving the state of the practice on a nationwide level. I participated in transportation research board committees on bicycling and walking to help develop the research that shapes how practitioners approach their work. For example, I worked with Federal Highways on ped safety assessments to develop crosswalk policies.

Los Angeles has a wide expanse of land use forms and streets. I’m hoping that a breadth of experience and understanding of what’s going on nationally will be useful there.

At LADOT, you’ll have 2,000 employees, a complex, underfunded budget, and a rather decentralized City Hall leadership structure. Could you comment on the skills and luck you'll need to excel in your GM role?

One of my favorite sayings is: “Luck is the intersection of hard work and opportunity.” You can only control one of those things.

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LADOT has experienced a big transformation in the last five or so years—the loss of lots of folks due to budget constraints, with many others on the verge of transitioning into retirement. These are tremendous challenges from a personnel perspective, to preserve institutional memory and improve the customer service that we offer. We really are a customer service department.

I think that the other piece is trying to better knit together the transportation fabric in LA. LADOT could find its place and its voice as a leader in transportation for the city. It’s holding the bag in terms of being answerable for transportation in the city, but the whole of the funding picture, and the folks who can influence and control transportation, are all over the place. We need strong partnerships with Metro, Public Works, Bureau of Street Services, Public Health, and other cities in the county.

I hope that I can bring a lot of experiences in forging those relationships. In San Francisco, they didn’t really exist when I started. Not to say that I deserve the credit for all of them. I just believed in them, and there were a lot of opportunities to forge relationships over the time I’ve been here. This seems critical.

The communications piece is really important—telling the transportation story in plain language so people can really understand what LADOT is trying to do. We need to think critically every time we interact with somebody who lives, works, or plays in the city. This applies even down to the information that we put on a parking ticket. That is an opportunity to share information and not just regulation.

Turning now to the challenge of managing LADOT, a Streetsblog interview of you includes: “Though she says that LA and SF share many similar transportation issues, including ‘serious congestion,’ one big difference is size. For Los Angeles, she stated ‘the canvas is bigger’ and there are ‘huge opportunities to work at a neighborhood scale.’” Could you elaborate for our readers?

Anytime you see a chart of places with the highest vehicle miles traveled, or people who sit for the most hours in congestion, it usually includes Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I think there is a misperception that San Francisco is this transit utopia where everybody bikes and walks. While it’s absolutely true that the share of people who bike, walk, and take transit here is greater, it’s also true that there are a lot of folks stuck in congestion on really long commutes. That's an outcome of how our affordable housing misaligns with our job opportunities and job centers. In thinking about Los Angeles, I see similar challenges. Almost every American city struggles with this to some extent.

Tackling really long commutes requires a regional strategy, looking at land-use and transportation integration. But at the neighborhood level, we’re not talking about commute trips. We’re talking about taking your kids to school in the morning, picking up your dry cleaning in the afternoon, going out for a spontaneous dinner because you didn’t get to the grocery store that week, or even going to the farmers’ market. I want people to have real and very different choices about how they make those trips.

One of the most telling things that I’ve taken away from projects I’ve done was during a study in Spokane Washington. We asked people why they wanted to live in a walkable neighborhood. “Well, I like walking.” You ask them, “Why is that? What is it about walking that’s important?” They would give you answers like, “I might run into my neighbor along the way”; “You don’t know what you’ll see”; “Something unexpected or interesting might happen”; “I don’t experience the city in the same way when I’m in my car”; “It also offers an opportunity to unplug and interact with people in my household.”

Social interactions that strengthen neighborhoods and even can strengthen the resiliency of a community to recover after a disaster are improved if you offer people the opportunity to walk or bike to get around. Making those modes a real option for trips that are less than a mile for walking or one-to-three miles for biking is important for a huge variety of reasons. That’s what I’m interested in from an active transportation perspective. That’s where the opportunities are.

Of course, there’s a lot of research to suggest that the more public space you offer people and the more streetscape investments you make, the longer they linger in commercial districts. Consequently, the more people might spend—so such upgrades are valuable for economic reasons. That’s part of why I think discretionary neighborhood trips offer the most opportunity to give people a wider palate of choices. 

The City of LA is not a unified city/county governmental unit, and the responsibility for mobility within the city’s 470 square miles is delegated to a number of different departments. In doing your due diligence before accepting the mayor’s offer, what opportunities did you see for better collaboration within LA City Hall to accomplish the mayor’s goals—and your vision for safer streets and more active transportation?

One of the things that catalyzed collaboration in San Francisco was the inclusion of $50 million for streetscape projects in a repaving bond that went before the voters in 2011. More than almost anything else, that required the Planning Department, the Department of Public Works, our advocacy community, the MTA, our transportation authority, the Department of Public Health, PUC, and PG&E all to come together. That group collectively decided how we could best spend bond dollars, and then subsequently how we could partner on each of the projects.

I saw something similar beginning to happen in Los Angeles with the Great Streets initiative. The Mayor’s Office is convening a team of folks from all around the fragmented transportation implementation agencies to come together around these 15 streets projects. He’s including participants even beyond traditional transportation agencies, such as the Department of Cultural Affairs. Something like that can really pull people together. Then, you have to take advantage of the opportunity to continue those relationships and those conversations past the initiative itself.

Certainly at a staff level, people were eager and hungry to collaborate with one another, which was very encouraging. That was one of the things that really drew me in.

Lastly, could you convey the reactions of your Bay Area colleagues and friends when you shared you were leaving San Francisco for the wiles of LA?

The reactions have ranged from very positive—with people being supportive and congratulatory—to people expressing, as I feel myself, that it’s bittersweet. I have really enjoyed my time here. I think that these folks are some of the best and the brightest. I’ve loved building this team and I’ve loved being a part of it, so it’s sad to leave.

A lot of folks have pulled me aside and said, “You may not know this, but I’m actually from LA—and I really like it.” That’s not something you should say out loud in San Francisco! As somebody who’s not a native Californian, I’m agnostic on the northern and southern culture war.

© 2014 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.