May 14, 2018 - From the May, 2018 issue

A Symphony of Transportation Choices: LADOT GM Seleta Reynolds' Composition

The noise of traffic and congestion in Los Angeles is unlike that heard in Gershwin’s An American in Paris. But with billions of dollars being expended on new public transportation infrastructure—and as new active transportation solutions like Bird Scooters and LimeBikes are offered—is a denser, hipper Los Angeles arriving? Is today’s Los Angeles one that is betting on the multi-modal transportation solutions that Mayor Garcetti spoke of his recent State of the City Address, and that the bureaucracy at City Hall is championing—evolving into the ‘City Paris’ of the late 1920s? TPR’s interview with Los Angeles Department of Transportation General Manager Seleta Reynolds suggests that a new transportation score is already well along in composition.

Seleta Reynolds

“In my ideal vision of the future city, people have a symphony of transportation choices, such that driving alone is the choice of last resort.” - Seleta Reynolds

Mayor Garcetti began his recent 2018 State of the City address by proudly noting that he led the most ambitious, and successful, local transportation measure campaign in American history—times two. He emphasized his mayoral administrations contributions to the “city of the future.” What does the future look like for LA with respect to its streets and last mile transportation systems?

Seleta Reynolds: The mayor’s vision is broad and expansive, focusing on several key outcomes. One is easing congestion, and giving people back the time they lose to it, for improved quality of life. There’s a real focus on how to ensure all the new mobility technologies and options coming into Los Angeles achieve the goal of easing congestion.

Technologies like autonomous vehicles and dockless bikeshare can be part of the solution, but only if we—government, the public sector, and the public—intentionally guide and nudge them toward the future that we want. If all that “the future” gets us is vehicles that are autonomous and electric, but still sit in soul-crushing traffic for more than 100 hours a year, then we won’t have achieved much. As code becomes the new concrete, we need to engage in challenging conversations about managing demand, pricing infrastructure, and delivering a system that works for everyone.

After all, in the future, the public right-of-way will not just be the streets. As air taxi service comes about, the public right-of-way will extend 1500 feet up into the air. The future will depend largely on whether we get the policies right for managing that space.

In my ideal vision of the future city, people have a symphony of transportation choices, such that driving alone is the choice of last resort. We’ve created a public transit system that focuses on transportation happiness, user experience, and quality of life, and is equitable around Los Angeles. And, because we don’t need eight to 10 lanes on every city street or 200 square miles of parking in every county, we’ve unlocked the streets as public space.

Today, we have programs like Great Streets, where we convert streets to plazas; CicLAvia, where we open streets to people and close them to cars; and Play Streets, where we close streets and create places to play. These are the things that we need to be doing and learning from now—so that in the future, we’ve built the muscle memory to make it happen at the flip of a switch. We need to focus on things we can do today, and investments that we can make now, that we know work to build safe and beautiful streets. 

You deserve much praise, as does Mayor Garcetti, for fostering a change of public consciousness about the prospects for a “symphony of mobility choices." The challenge, as you suggest, is getting from here to there. An RFP was recently released by LADOT to address the city’s transportation existing transportation systems, i.e. taxis, as well as its newer, privately owned, shared mobility operators. Elaborate on the Department's need for such consulting assistance. 

The problem now is that, while there may be something like a symphony of choices, there isn’t a conductor. That is the role for the Department of Transportation.

We put out this RFP for a partner to help us think through the future of the transportation we regulate in light of the tremendous pressures on this industry from private mobility companies. As we consider whether taxi service will continue to be a franchise or evolve into something else, we are also exploring ground rules for private mobility companies trying to come into Los Angeles.

In October, we went through a process to prequalify companies to work with us on issues related to transportation technology. That bench now includes 95 companies in different disciplines: data, connected and autonomous vehicles, community-based organizations, smart city consultants, and electrification. There are major auto manufacturers, like Ford and Audi, as well as tiny AI firms in Pasadena and everything in between. Together, we thought through about 20 problem statements that we want to work to solve.

But whether we’re contemplating the future of taxi service or who will be ground control when deliveries are happening in the skies, we have to evolve to think more like a product company as well as a transportation agency. Getting the products and services required for that symphony of choices is a huge challenge for us, and we’re figuring out new ways to procure and to partner with manufacturers.

We also created a new framework for this work: a “Mobility Bill of Rights” that articulates the expectations people can have as they move through the city, as well as what private companies should expect to encounter when they come to work with the city. We identified values like reliability, safety, comfort, and accessibility, as well as community, culture, and equity. And we’re creating key performance indicators for each of those modes.

It’s about trying to take a more expansive view—and to ladder up to the people we serve. Everything we develop and create has to be about people first. The method comes second.

Given the many other city departments and agencies involved with or impacted by congestion and immobility, has LADOT been collaborating on shaping the “city of the future” with the city’s other place-based public stakeholders?

Yes, absolutely. That is an expectation that the mayor sets for us every year when he does reviews with department leadership. Collaboration is the price of entry. Success in the city is no different than success outside the city: It is 100 percent about leadership, and it is absolutely relational.

Eventually, we want to get to a place where success happens because it’s part of the culture, and not just through acts of individual heroism on the part of great people inside the city. We’re moving in that direction. In the meantime, it’s about starting at the top and setting expectations.

For example, LADOT has an amazing partner in the Department of Cultural Affairs. The general manager, Danielle Brazell, and I have spent long hours getting to a shared understanding about how we go about our work and the things we care about.

Another example: Vince Bertoni and I work together so closely that he jokingly refers to me as his “work spouse” (we are each happily married). Our working relationship is so good because we both agree that land use and transportation have to be much more integrated. If we want to establish demonstration zones around the city for new mobility services, for example, we will have to behave differently in those spheres—not just how the Department of Transportation builds the infrastructure, but also how the city zones and plans those areas.

LA Metro is recently begun a multiyear Next Gen Bus study that involves the planning and rerouting of its many bus lines. How important is that exercise, and how involved is LADOT in it? 

Around the country, in places that have successfully bucked the nationwide trend of declining transit ridership, it’s because they have taken a fresh look at their system and overhauled the way it operates. In Seattle, drive-alone rates into downtown are plummeting and transit ridership is increasing because of a foundational, blue-sky approach to reworking a legacy system.

Routing evolves over time. But many decisions about how bus networks work—not just at Metro, but everywhere—are made through an operational lens, looking at things like how long a transit operator can sit behind the wheel before they need a break. Taking a step back and looking at the system through an entirely different lens has proven to be the key to success in other places.

It’s hard to overemphasize how excited we are at LADOT and how important we think this is. We recently went through a similar process with our transit, and we found some things that were really surprising and illuminating and that led us to make some great changes to how we deliver that service.

Our transit team works very closely with Metro, and I’ve had long conversations about this study with Therese McMillan and others. I fully anticipate and hope that LADOT will be engaged and informed about that study, both as stakeholders as a transit organization ourselves, but also as a true partner in making sure that the region delivers the best service that it can.

Let’s pivot to LADOT’s efforts to incentivize fleet electrification and its new collaboration with BlueLA.

Internally, we’re in the process of electrifying the municipal fleet—the vehicles that parking enforcement and traffic control, as well as engineers and planners, use to do their work around the city. Those vehicles have a lot of particular service needs—a lot of officers have long shifts or go up into the hills—but we want to electrify as much as possible.


We’re also electrifying our DASH buses. We’re very proud that our very first EV buses have been running on the DASH A route—downtown—since last year, and people have been able to experience how comfortable, quiet, and beautiful that fleet is.

There are challenges around procurement and delivery, however. For one, there’s a chicken-and-egg question when it comes to the number of manufacturers out there that can reasonably deliver an electric bus fleet in the timeframe we need.

There’s also a facilities need. Our CNG natural gas buses can refuel in 15 minutes. Electric buses need much longer to recharge, which means that we need a much bigger footprint for the entire fleet to simultaneously charge. Plus, CNG fueling and electric recharging can’t happen in close proximity for safety reasons. There’s a lot to untangle and figure out—but we can’t take 10 years to create a new facility plan. We need to electrify our fleet much sooner than that.

So, we’ve put forward some pretty creative ideas as bridge solutions—like using LADOT parking lots as charge points, and partnering with Caltrans to identify underused spaces in their real estate portfolio where they could provide charging infrastructure. And we’re signaling to the market that LADOT, and now LA Metro, are ready to go big on electrification, so manufacturers need to step up.

We’re also working on electrification outside the bounds of our department. Recently, Watts received a Transformative Climate Communities grant for $35 million as part of the Volkswagen settlement to do a robust buildout of EV charging infrastructure. We’re working aggressively with the Department of Water and Power and partners in the region to provide on-street EV charging on several LADOT lots that are fully electrified. And that brings me to BlueLA.

BlueLA is a public-private partnership with Bolloré, a French company that provides EV car-sharing service in Paris. It’s a point-to-point car-sharing service: You can pick up the car in one place and drop it off in another, as long as there’s a charger nearby. We initiated the partnership with cap-and-trade funds from the California Air Resources Board, and Bolloré also agreed to invest $10 million in public EV charging infrastructure in and around Downtown LA and MacArthur Park.

We intentionally focused this program in a low-income community—LA’s Promise Zone. We’re interested in having EV charging everywhere, of course, and we’re working closely with our partners at the LA Cleantech Incubator and the utilities to figure out what that looks like. But we wanted to make sure we focused public dollars on driving investment to neighborhoods that might not be the first in line to get these kinds of new services.

In doing so, we created partnerships with community-based organizations that informed everything from the RFP to the pricing structure. They also helped with outreach and understanding the use cases around MacArthur Park. We learned things we never would have without these partnerships, and without going out and listening.

That’s what differentiates BlueLA. Yes, the electrification component is cool. Yes, the public-private partnership is cool. And it is totally foundational for the way we want to work with the private sector in the future. But what is really going to be valuable for us is what we’re going to learn about what works and what doesn’t work, so that we’re serving everybody in LA—not just folks who have 9-5 jobs.

Could you also comment on the city’s Vision Zero initiative?

The mayor launched an executive directive in 2015 for LA to get to zero traffic deaths by 2025. It happened to coincide with a huge nationwide spike in deaths—the highest in the last 15 years.

One way to achieve Vision Zero in Los Angeles is to change the design of our streets. We know what the status quo gets us, and unless we change it, we shouldn’t expect a different outcome.

Distracted driving is also huge challenge. A recent report found that about 40 percent of drivers at any given time are using their smartphones. But we can’t rely on enforcement by itself to get the outcomes we want, both because enforcement alone can’t sustain behavior change—which is proven out in the research again and again—and also because we don’t want to put communities in a position where, if Vision Zero comes to their neighborhood, that means a ton of cops on every corner. That’s not going to create lasting change.

We’re going to have to partner with the private sector and non-traditional partners. For example, are car designers and auto manufacturers taking distraction into consideration as they layer on increasingly complicated tech inside vehicles? How are we going to make distracted driving just as taboo as drunk driving?

There’s a culture change piece, a communications and storytelling piece, and a design piece here. We’ve had tremendous partnerships with the LA County Department of Public Health, community-based organizations like LA Walks, and storytellers and artists. We’re bringing every single tool we can think of to attack this problem.

We appreciate the focus in the mayor’s budget on increased investment. Of the $91 million that the mayor has talked about, $38 million will focus on streets in the city where the highest numbers of people are injured or killed. The balance of the funds is for citywide projects for people biking and walking.

After adopting Vision Zero, San Francisco and New York both had historically low traffic deaths last year. We’re following their playbook and adding to it, and we share information across dozens of cities with this initiative that are learning and growing together.

We’ve got the investment, we’ve got the leadership focusing on it, and we know that the playbook works. We’ve started to see the numbers move in the right direction, but we have such a long way to go, and we’re going to need all hands on deck if we’re going to get there.

Lastly, and for context, what has been the role of Bloomberg Philanthropies in supporting, encouraging, and offering Los Angeles global models to stand on the shoulders of? 

Los Angeles is lucky to have fantastic philanthropic leadership in our own backyard. The Goldhirsch Foundation invested in the yearlong fellowship at LADOT that created our transportation technology strategy, Urban Mobility in a Digital Age, which laid the foundation for how we think about creating the city of the future. The Bohnett Foundation has also been a great partner in investing in catalytic projects, like some of the sharrows in Los Angeles.

Last year, Bloomberg and Aspen Institute convened the Autonomous Vehicles in Cities initiative: a cohort of 10 global cities working on the future of streets and a set of shared principles to welcome innovative mobility solutions into our cities in a responsible way. I get to sit across the table from my counterparts from Helsinki, Paris, Sao Paolo, New York, Nashville, and London—all nodding our heads to say we’re dealing with the same challenges—and although we operate in widely varying sociopolitical structures and cultural contexts, some of the solutions can be universal.

There is so much power in peer-to-peer learning among cities. After all, what Portland is doing might work here. But even more importantly, all of us have the same private companies approaching our cities and building their businesses on our infrastructure and our streets, and it will be easy for us to be picked off one by one if we’re not thoughtful.

This is why, the limited spare time that I have to spend, I spend on the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). NACTO’s bread and butter is creating a forum for peer-to-peer, city-to-city learning. That’s incredibly rare, and very precious and valuable. One thing NACTO has done, through Bloomberg funding, is create a platform called SharedStreets—a place for private companies to share anonymous data so that we can begin to learn, and make more transparent, what’s happening on our streets.

The participation and support of the philanthropic world makes this peer-to-peer collaboration possible, and it creates things that add real value to cities. Without that support, I think we would be much more siloed and much further behind than we are today.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.