October 31, 2016 - From the October, 2016 issue

“Mobility as a Service” Central to LADOT’s New Urban Mobility Vision

Hitting her two-year mark as the General Manager for LADOT, Seleta Reynolds joins TPR to discuss LADOT’s recently released Urban Mobility in the Digital Age report. The report looks to address the future of transportation in the city, as transit advocates push for the passage of Measure M and disruptive ride-sharing technologies have exploded onto the Los Angeles scene. Reynolds provides shrewd insights to the how city departments of transportation are transitioning from focusing on infrastructure-delivery to managing people’s mobility, as well as writing new rules for autonomous vehicles and active transportation mobility. 


Seleta Reynolds

"Cities need to be at the table to make sure that we are being clear about the outcomes we want to see from the arrival of technology in transportation. And cities are not at the table." - Seleta Reynolds, LADOT General Manager

Los Angeles Department of Transportation recently released a report on the future of transportation in the city, entitled Urban Mobility in the Digital Age. What significant megatrends inform the report and its recommendations?  

Seleta Reynolds: Things are changing rapidly in the transportation world, and from my view, all the changes are around three major trends. One is the increasing presence of both electric vehicles and the infrastructure needed to support them—charging stations, electric garages, etc.

The second is shared mobility, which is shorthand for a long list of new transportation choices. Those include bike-sharing or car-sharing—where you have a membership and gain access to a fleet of vehicles or bikes located around the city—as well as services like Uber and Lyft and their carpool products, UberPool and Lyft Line. Those are getting a lot of traction; for instance, Los Angeles is Uber’s second-biggest market in the United States. The third trend is the emerging world of driverless and connected cars—in short, technology in the vehicle itself that talks both to other vehicles and to infrastructure.

When I looked at these three trends, I thought: There is a huge opportunity for these changes to go well, and to amount to a major revolution in transportation. We’re already seeing people buying fewer vehicles and driving less; the number of younger people getting their drivers’ licenses is declining, and when you give a millennial a choice between a car or a smartphone, they choose the smartphone. These are positive trends for cities as they grow, because presumably, they mean that you can live in a city without having to own a vehicle, which makes it more affordable.

I also see that this revolution also has the potential to go very poorly. It could create an environment where people actually drive more, because you no longer have to be engaged in the act of driving. In a driverless car, for example, you could sit in congestion for a long period of time, watching a movie or reading a book in your private vehicle.To make the most of these changes, I feel strongly that cities need to be at the table to make sure that we are being clear about the outcomes we want to see from the arrival of technology in transportation. And cities are not at the table.

About a year ago, the Department of Motor Vehicles was engaged in rulemaking for driverless cars. This was really important stuff: literally writing the rulebook on how we’re going to allow these things to come onto our streets. Los Angeles was there, and perhaps Beverly Hills as well, but that was it. I wanted to put something out there to generate conversation around these important topics.

Central to LADOT’s new vision for mobility is the concept of “mobility as a service.” Please elaborate. 

The idea is that, eventually, we want to get to a place where mobility and transportation are seen as a utility, which you pay for as you use it or as you go.

Think about how you get around the city right now. If you’re like most Angelenos, you probably mostly use your car; maybe you’ve also started to use some other options. At the moment, the cost of driving is somewhat invisible. You may pay for gas, but there are still many parts of the city where you can park without paying for it, or use the streets without paying as you use them.

The problem is that when there’s high demand for a resource and you don’t manage and price it correctly, the system becomes flooded and breaks down. Twice a day in many parts of Los Angeles, our transportation system breaks down, as the peak to-and-from work commute renders our system unresponsive.

That’s where the notion of paying for the system as you go comes into play. For example, say you need $75 worth of transportation a month. With that monthly payment, you would get access to the huge variety of choices that are out there, including autonomous taxis, light-rail and the transit system, car-share or bike-share, and “microtransit,” or smaller transit vehicles with routes that change based on demand.

Private, for-hire vehicles—often called taxis—were in business for more than century prior to the introduction of Uber and Lyft into the urban marketplace. Curiously, city transportation regulators often characterize these mobility providers in terms of “old versus new,” and favor, via regulation, the new, shared-ride, smart-phoned-managed “disrupters” over taxis. Is this true of LADOT—and is that wise and fair?

There’s no question that transportation providers like Uber and Lyft have had a tremendous negative effect on the number of rides that are taken by taxi in Los Angeles. But there’s also evidence that they pull trips from a lot of other modes, including public transit, biking, and walking. Not only that, but they grow the overall pie—the overall number of trips that people are taking. Some of these things, I would argue, are good outcomes of the arrival of transportation providers. There is some evidence that they may make it easier to live in a city without owning a second or third car.

The negative outcomes, though, are worth mentioning. From my perspective, when the state of California asserted its regulatory oversight of transportation network companies, they made it impossible—or very difficult—for cities and urban areas to have input. Even setting aside questions about labor, background checks for drivers, etc., we’re not able to use tools like pricing and regulation to pursue our local goals—like making sure the city is served in an equitable way, that every neighborhood is getting the same benefit, and that pricing is fair in all neighborhoods.

When we lost the ability to regulate Uber and Lyft at that level, we were also potentially cut out of the future mobility-as-a-service marketplace.

LA currently regulates taxis with what many believe is a rigid, archaic command-and-control structure—limiting the size of taxi fleets and precluding a responsive pricing scheme. Lyft and Uber are free of this structure, granting them a competitive advantage. How will LADOT leveling the playing field, if at all, to provide maximum service to a public increasingly encouraged to give up their cars?

It’s worth noting that the taxi driver-and-franchise relationship is exactly the same as the Uber driver-and-company relationship, in that taxi drivers are not direct employees of the cab companies that oversee them. The reason we have so many taxi regulations is partly because those regulations amount to an employee handbook for taxi drivers.

The punchline is that even though we’ve been working on this “employee handbook” for the last 20 years, it’s no longer relevant because the market has changed so much. In particular, the artificial cap on the number of cabs on the street has suppressed the demand for taxi trips, whereas the fact that Uber and Lyft don’t have that same cap has created a situation where you can reliably get one in under five minutes almost anywhere in LA County.

I think that the right level for regulation of all vehicles-for-hire—taxis, transportation network companies, limousines, and even non-emergency medical transportation—is at the county or regional level. We don’t want to be cut out of the picture entirely, but we also don’t want a patchwork of 88 different sets of regulations in LA County.

It’s so important for us to put the architecture in place to get ready for what’s coming next.In the last legislative session, the governor vetoed a bill from representative Evan Low that would have had taxis regulated at the state level just like Uber and Lyft. In response, Los Angeles is actively working on a counterproposal that would establish a regional or countywide entity to oversee all vehicles-for-hire.

How could a more balanced regulatory model for ground transportation evolve over the next 10 years? 

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I don’t think we’re talking about things changing overnight; I think we’re talking about a gradual, incremental shift. But at some point, the rate of change is going to become very fast— just like with smart phones and most other technologies. That’s why our transportation technology plan focuses on steps we can take inside city government and on the streets over the next two years to start moving everyone in this direction.

The Department of Transportation is going to have a role, of course. So are the Planning Department, the Information Technology Agency, the Department of Cultural Affairs, and all of the Public Works Bureaus, as well as departments that may not jump to mind for this issue, like the Department of Aging.

In fact, planning for aging is one area with great potential for improvement in LA County. Folks are increasingly aging in place, and we have not done a great job preparing for that outcome through land-use planning. We need to make sure that people can get to their medical appointments or to the grocery store and retain their independence. The systems that we have in place to do that now are not where any of us would like for them to be. 

Perhaps we need translators who can work with older adults to help them access new transportation choices. Perhaps we need to create new access points. For example, a lot of older adults may not be comfortable with smart phones, but they are comfortable with a desktop computer; we have to make sure you can call for transportation services from your desktop and not just from your smartphone.

These are the kinds of things that we have to start thinking about now to ensure that we don’t turn around one day and find ourselves totally unprepared. We have to know that we’ve been slowly but surely building toward this future all along.

LADOT’s new report rests on city and regional goals set through the Mobility Plan 2035, Vision Zero, and the Sustainable City pLAn. Are you confident that our present level of civic conversation at City Hall can successfully align these transportation and planning policy documents toward an enforceable and paradigm-changing policy?

Yes. The arrival of technology in transportation does not reset or radically change any of our stated goals and visions. When the internal combustion engine showed up, we let it redesign our cities without being grounded in the outcomes that we cared about. We have a chance now to correct mistakes in the transportation revolution. That’s where vision and the planning come into play.

The power of the Urban Mobility plan is that it was written by an architect, Ashley Hand, who has a strong sensibility of the quality of the design of our cities and about public spaces and the public realm, and who cares about solving issues like traffic crashes and the horrible inequity across a lot our cities.

It’s easy to become hypnotized by new technology and to forget that we don’t care about technology for technology’s sake; we care about it because it gets us to our goals faster. We have to be very disciplined in our recognition that new technologies can be great tools, but they make terrible masters.

To critics of Los Angeles city planning, it seems inevitable that our future will largely be driven by the $100-billion public transit industry, multi-billion dollar companies like Uber, car manufacturers, and similar economic interests. How does LADOT stand up to those powerful market forces to press for good planning, systems integration, and smart policy alignment?

There’s certainly a strong possibility that those market forces end up defining the future of the city. But I also think that that prediction doesn’t give enough credence to the role of government and the public sector, and the powers and tools that we have.

Probably our biggest—and clumsiest—tool is our ability to simply say no. We’d like to avoid using that, because it puts us in the position of choosing winners and losers, and that’s not a good way forward. Another power we have is the creation of regulations that work in service of our outcomes. If we’re serious about creating opportunities for shared mobility, maintaining high-capacity, efficient public transit, and freeing up surface parking space to allow good design in our cities, then we have to get serious about our regulatory powers. As the gas tax disappears and demand for parking decreases, and we begin to lose that revenue, how are we going to continue to finance the system that we deliver?

The people laying out the vision now are the auto manufacturers and sellers, and their vision of the future looks a lot like their vision of today. But we can change the conversation. Architects and urban designers can lay out a vision that can capture people’s imagination about the future of our streets.

Imagine a network of streets optimized for driverless vehicles. You might spend a little more when you’re by yourself in your Tesla than when you’re with friends in your LADOT DASH robot taxi. That kind of model would drive some of the outcomes that we want and help us get to what I call “autonomous urbanism.”

I think there are a lot of tangible and intangible powers that we have as urban and design professionals and as people who care about the role of government. Urban Mobility is a call to action as well as an action plan for what we need to do, starting right now, to get to those futures.

You were recently quoted in LA Downtown News suggesting that there is an absence of “robust dialogue” and “tough questions” driving LA’s deliberations on urban mobility. What did you mean? And without the assistance of such former allies as Ashley Hand and Peter Marx, who remains to help LADOT craft and advance its mobility vision? 

There is a continued need for the professional and practitioner layer of the city—planners, engineers, analysts, administrators, and more—to make space for good technical expertise in the public conversation. Objective technical expertise has a valuable place in that dialogue.

The debate over AB 650 was an example of a good conversation. We had experts in their fields, who really understood the facts, talking to the policymakers charged with weighing that information against other community concerns. It happened in a public forum—in a City Council meeting on a big stage—and was covered by the media. That was incredibly valuable for me, and I think it was important for the public and for the companies involved to see us engage in that kind of conversation in a public way.

Another good conversation happened after a tragic hit-and-run in Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson’s district in South LA. He invited LADOT to sit at the table during a City Council meeting and have a discussion about Vision Zero. That was the first time that’s happened, even though Vision Zero has been an executive directive for over a year now. That was a very positive step forward.

I sometimes think of my job as Storyteller-in-Chief. I try to have conversations about these issues locally and nationally, and to put out pieces like the new transportation technology strategy to give policymakers and communities an opportunity to get that discourse going. There’s so much here, and we’d be doing ourselves in a disservice if we didn’t have an ongoing public discussion about it.

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© 2018 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.