December 21, 2015 - From the December, 2015 issue

Demand Management Technologies Revolutionizing How Urban DOTs Enhance Public Mobility

TPR presents edited panelist excerpts from the UCLA Luskin Innovators November Speakers Series Forum. LADOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds and City of LA Transportation Technology Strategist Fellow Ashley Hand offer their comments in light of Gabe Klein’s Start-Up City, a new book aiming to inspire “public entrepreneurship,” a start-up-pace energy within the public sector. Together, they consider how P3s and other tools can improve LA’s transportation systems.


Seleta Reynolds

“City Departments of Transportation have traditionally thought of ourselves as being in the infrastructure-delivery business. We can’t just do that anymore.” —Selata Reynolds

Ashley Hand: A lot of things are changing in how government approaches problem-solving. In my last few months in Los Angeles, this fellowship enables a full-time person to look at what’s coming in the future. 

Cities are usually in a reactive, responsive mode and don’t have the ability to think about what is going to shape our physical environment, our communities, and our social environments over time. I have a year to develop a transportation technology strategy for the City of Los Angeles. That means looking at the results of new mobility tools that have evolved because of smartphones, which have changed the way that we network, communicate, and ultimately access resources. 

We now have real-time information available to us. We can now match our needs to available resources in a way that is so much more instantaneous than it was even 10 years ago. How that technology has changed the way that we demand services is also shaping and reshaping how government is providing those services. 

I’m looking, for example, at how the Department of Transportation and our region as a whole are going to address the challenges of a rapidly growing urban environment and how we might continue to meet those needs. I’m looking at shared-use mobility, and the potential impact of autonomous vehicles, more specifically. Seleta Reynolds, the City of LA’s general manager of the Department of Transportation, deserves an incredible amount of credit for having the vision and the foresight to say, “If we do not address this actively as a city—because quite frankly, we’re not invited to the table right now by the private sector developing these technologies—then we will be reacting, yet again, to something with a transformative impact.” 

This is the next biggest opportunity we have to completely rethink the design of our cities. If we miss this opportunity, we forfeit that for the next generation—for the next 100 years, because we build our infrastructure to last for 50 years or more—and these changes should enable us to approach our built environment in a completely new way.

In Kansas City, as chief innovation officer, I looked to the private sector for their subject matter expertise, for a lot of the capacity, and to shoulder some of the risk when making these investments. 

But also, you need the public-sector view: looking at the public good to ensure that we have accessibility, affordability, and equitable distribution of services.

Public-private partnerships are going to create new innovative opportunities that we can’t even imagine. If we come at it with a lens of just trying to make a profit or just trying to get the basic service to as many people as possible, we’re going to continue to fall short.

It’s an exciting time, and municipal government is the place where it’s happening.

Seleta Reynolds: City departments of transportation have traditionally thought of ourselves as being in the infrastructure-delivery business. We can’t just do that anymore. We have to manage people’s mobility. Because of the tremendous wave of disruption that’s coming to transportation, opportunities are exploding in the way people get around. 

I want there to be a strong role for the public sector and for government, in particular as it relates to equity. In Los Angeles right now, you can reach about 12 times as many jobs in an hour by car as you can by transit. We have to continue to invest in building out and catching up our transit system, but we will never build it fast enough. That calls on us to have a more elastic definition of public transit. 

As many homeless veterans as we’ve housed in the last year and a half, more have fallen into homelessness. Transportation is one of the biggest barriers to jobs and education, and it is one of the ways we are going to keep people from falling into homelessness. 

I observed in San Francisco, while working on car-sharing and bike-sharing programs, that when “the market figured it out,” it ended up benefitting the few but not the many. If we are not mindful of that here, we will only see these mobility options exacerbate the income gap, rather than being invested in places where they could close it.

Government can do a few things. We can say no, which Gabe Klein says we should never do. We can regulate, which is where we say yes and no, but mostly no. We can get out of the way, a rarely used power of government. And we can convene. We have tremendous convening power. 

With mobility hubs, we are investing in low-income communities to be the convener. We’re thinking about ways we can exercise our convening power to bring together bike-sharing, car-sharing, hoverboard-sharing, or whatever is coming next—you would not believe what comes across my desk every day. We can also provide shade for people to wait in and real-time bus information, as well as thanking people for making those choices and treating them with hospitality and generosity. That’s the power of government. 

We’re investing in EV car-sharing in low-income communities. We are trying to create a system where, eventually, you will be able to use your TAP card to transfer from bus to bike-share. We are using our transit operating dollars to fund the operations of that bike-share system—that’s new. We are considering cobranding the EV car-sharing with our brand, DASH, because it’s a brand people trust. Getting folks to use these new options is not just about making them inexpensive or giving them unbanked access to credit. It’s also about lowering the barriers of trust and confusion about how they work.

We have to think about how to take the resources we have and get to a much more flexible, nimble, and equitable transit system. It’s tempting to think about the ways, the means, and the tools, but we should really be thinking about outcomes of transportation. That’s what Ashley is doing such an excellent job of in trying to get Los Angeles ready for the future.

Audience Question: It can take years for something as simple as a bike-share program to be implemented. You talked about implementing programs in a rapid fashion through public-private partnerships. What are some of the city’s tools to do that?

Ashley Hand: I worked on a public-private partnership in Kansas City, where we are building the largest, most comprehensive smart-city network in North America. That’s the result of a private partnership with two major corporations that could fund the majority of investment on the city side, which helped alleviate some of the challenges of finding money. 

We also had people within government dedicated to developing and cultivating these partnerships. I was a dedicated person looking at how we create a smart city and how we build those relationships. It wasn’t just about getting government ready to rapidly deploy this network. It was also about helping educate our private-side partners as to our rules, regulations, and limitations as government—because we have a responsibility to the public good.

It’s about creating that point of entry and creating successful, trusting relationships to enable those partnerships to flourish, and then having leadership with the vision to say, “We’ve set this as a priority: We expect you to execute it quickly, and here are the performance measures we are going to hold you to.” 

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Being data-driven and transparent in how we approach the design of these programs helps to build that trust. Once you build that trust, people see what can happen. When you start one, everyone wants to come to the table because it’s a huge opportunity and the private side benefits just as much.

Audience Question: Could you comment on the areas of Los Angeles where cycling is very successful already? Have you spent time there?

Seleta Reynolds: I take the bus to work and from work or ride my bike every day. I’ve spent time in all parts of the city. I’ve also crossed Market Street in San Francisco during bike rush hour, where there are 5,000 bikes a day. We don’t have anything like that here. We pale in comparison. 

The difference is that on streets where different modes interact well, the infrastructure treats each of them with dignity and responds to their needs. I have this ongoing question: Can engineering teach people good manners? It’s important to think about the limits of the system that we design. 

People rise to the level of infrastructure that you give them. Drivers need predictability. Bicyclists need legitimacy on the street. As we think about how all of these modes work together, we have to dramatically increase our toolbox for design. If we want people biking to stop at intersections, then bike signals are a powerful tool—which Gabe used to dramatically drop the number of people on bikes running red lights. We have the tools. We know what works. We could use them better. 

That’s the tremendous challenge, especially in a city like Los Angeles, where everybody needs to get through the same space. Our most precious resource in a city is space, and it’s oversubscribed. We have to get smarter about using the tools at scale that we know really work. 

As a longtime fan of walking, I know it is important to protect the most vulnerable user on the street first. The Vision Zero goal in Los Angeles is a raw numbers goal. I want to get to zero people dying. Half of the people dying on our streets right now are walking and biking, and half of the people walking who are dying are over 65. I want to start my intersection design by designing a street that works for the most vulnerable person there, because everybody else will benefit. 

Audience Question: There is a sense of entitlement in most of the United States that we have a right to get into a single-occupancy vehicle and go wherever we want at whatever time of day, and we expect government to provide us the infrastructure to do that. In this sprawling city, where north to south it’s almody as long as San Francisco to San Jose, I have no idea how we’re going to address that sense of entitlement that produces friction between all of these loads, particularly in a city where you can’t possibly link every origin and destination.

Seleta Reynolds: If you were to draw a boundary around Downtown and the neighborhoods that ring it, say the size of the city of Boston, you’ve got something. Now you can start thinking: How can I create a network of protected bike lanes there, where I have some important ingredients? Number one: I have permission from the community to experiment. Number two: I have policy support. Number three: I have really good transformative, feasible projects. 

How can I create a place that is incredibly safe and connected, then layer on top of it our thousand-bike bike-share project next year that is meant to be a true extension of public transit? 

My focus is on quality over quantity in terms of what we can provide. There are a lot of places in Los Angeles where some version of those three ingredients exist. Don’t lose hope. 

We put the city’s first parking-protected bikeway on Reseda in Northridge. That was important because it is the deep Valley, where you wouldn’t expect that to go. You would expect it to be Downtown. But I had this magical combination of permission and opportunity. We delivered that project in two months, not two years, and it has made, I think, a big difference in how it feels to be on that street. 

Think about little wins. I like to joke that I’m an Oakland A’s fan, so I believe in small ball. Small ball wins World Series. I create a beautiful, neighborhood-scale series of spaces and invest in those all over the city in different neighborhood nodes.

Ashley Hand: I think the sense of entitlement will be replaced with a marketplace of opportunity and choices. I might not need a pickup truck 365 days a year, but I might have access to one when I need to go to IKEA. I may not need a vehicle at all, but I have access to that, or I have access to a bike. In Southern California I could probably do a lot of the outdoor commuting already, so why not? 

The challenge that we have is less that there’s a sense of entitlement and more that we’re not willing to pay for the infrastructure we have. How do we create a marketplace that provides choice, but then pays for what we’re using and how we’re using it in a way that’s sustainable?

Audience Question: Do you have any insight into how cities are evaluating autonomous vehicles and how accommodating they’re going to be? There’s a lot of benefit, but cities are also going to lose parking revenue and there are going to be land-use issues. How do cities actually think about the pros and cons?

Seleta Reynolds: Getting our infrastructure ready for driverless cars is important. I do think there will be a role for smart infrastructure to manage the fleet when we have 10 competing softwares out there in taxi-bots and also ’95 Camrys still on the road.

What if we ask developers to invest in smart infrastructure instead of widening roads, because who knows if we’re really going to need the space? Also, what carrots and sticks do we have at our disposal to incentivize what we want and disincentivize what we don’t? 

Now is a good time to have the conversation because we’re not quite there yet. What we do have are the Googles and Apples on one side, and the Volvos, Lexuses, and Fords on the other. They have very different business models and very different goals. It’s our job at cities to facilitate the outcome we think is going to get us to equity, safety, and sustainability.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.