October 17, 2019 - From the October, 2019 issue

Laura Cornejo: Seasoned Transit Planner & Pasadena's New Transportation Director

With 17 years of experience delivering projects at Metro, new Pasadena Transportation Director, Laura Cornejo offers her insights into the challenges of the new mobility paradigm and what it takes to generate bottom-up community support for density and transit-oriented development. Cornejo reflects on the enthusiastic engagement she enjoys from the citizens of Pasadena and the value of maintaining a collaborative partnership with the community she's been appointed to serve.


"Part of what I bring to this position is that ability to continue to move projects along—and translate the city council’s vision into something more tangible—while engaging residents"—Laura Cornejo

Having recently (in June) assumed the helm of Pasadena’s Department of Transportation, speak to both the City’s priorities and to your own personal priorities as an experienced  professional transportation planner.

Laura Cornejo: There are several efforts and projects that rise to the top, and they’re not in any particular order, but I would say that perhaps one of the more important things is to strengthen our relationship with other agencies and residents.  I’m coming in to the City with a fresh perspective and I am looking at all the great things the city has already been doing and find that we really have been leaders on so many fronts. But I have the luxury of taking a step back, to figure out how we can take it to the next level.  

One thing we can do is strengthen our relationships with other agencies and residents and move forward the city’s goals of providing residents and visitors with alternatives to driving. We have a huge portfolio of everything from parking to street design and engineering. We operate the transit system and are tasked with implementing bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. To continue to deliver innovative solutions and cutting-edge transportation projects it is important to engage the public, bring them 

It’s really about continuing to do all of this while better communicating and engaging with the community about why we’re doing what we’re doing— and, in certain cases, looking at how we could step up our game to continue to be innovative in what we’re doing. 

How will your prior experience as former Deputy Executive Officer (DEO) of countywide planning at LA Metro inform your new responsibilities with the City of Pasadena?

As DEO at Metro, I oversaw the Measure M rail corridor planning, design work, and environmental clearance. In that capacity, I was responsible for not just making sure that the work at hand was moving forward on the timeline that Metro had committed to the voters, but also that we were coordinating and engaging with cities and agencies—all of whom are critical to making sure that these projects ultimately get built and into operation.

One of the things I bring with me to Pasadena is that ability to deliver projects and build collaborative relationships. Often times, these projects are really difficult and controversial. Even if there’s a bright light at the end of the tunnel in terms of bringing new mobility options to a community, going through the process of planning for a new transportation system can be difficult.  Change can be overwhelming for communities. Schedules and budgets are important to project delivery, but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have the community coming along with you. Part of what I bring to this position is that ability to continue to move projects along—and translate the city council’s vision into something more tangible—while engaging residents. We have a responsibility to help residents and stakeholder understand the process that we are undertaking and be transparent about decisions that are made and why certain projects may move forward while others don’t. 

Even a summer in Pasadena has likely exposed you to the City’s civicly engaged neighborhoods and interest in transportation planning – perhaps a level of engagement unlike anything Metro projects generate.  Has it been a shock or a blessing to engage with Pasadena’s citizenry?

It’s reassuring that people still see that they play a role and have a voice in shaping their communities. At Metro, while I engaged residents, held community meetings, and worked with local elected officials, being at the city level is completely different.

Elaborate. 

The planning we carry out at the city level is so much more intimate. One thing that drew me into transportation planning was how transportation really can shape a community— more importantly, the way it can impact a person’s life on a day-to-day basis in ways they might not be attuned to. Coming here to Pasadena, with a citizenry that is so engaged, educated, well informed, and involved, it is refreshing. This community holds leaders and directors like myself accountable. It tells me that they still see the importance of what government does and how it shapes and impacts their lives.

How are you managing the challenges of aligning Pasadena transit & planning priorities with those of Metro– ie.  the North Hollywood-Pasadena Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line? 

I think it’s important to have a really strong working relationship with Metro. Having come from Metro, I have a good understanding of what the process is from that side, what those opportunities are to engage, and when we—as Pasadena—should be engaged and ask that we be engaged. We can and should be part of the process and make sure that our interests and needs are being addressed, even as Metro follows its own parallel process.

One of the things we have already communicated to Metro is our concern with having the dedicated lane on Colorado and providing alternate solutions to that. Also, we wanted to make sure that there was a commitment from the Metro Board that, if it was on Colorado, it would not be a dedicated lane. That’s something that the board agreed to, but it’s not enough to just say it’s not going to be a dedicated lane. How the stations are be designed, how they are made to be part of Pasadena’s community fabric matters. How the analysis is conducted and that the results are shared 

Metro just completed its scoping meetings, I surely hope the next time we hear from them is not when the environmental document is out for review. I would expect, and have asked, that they continue to meet with not just Pasadena, but all the affected cities on a regular basis. They need to continue to engage us so that at the end of the day when the report is out there’s nothing in there that should be a surprise to us.

Transit planning increasingly must consider how California’s housing crisis and state legislative proposals to densify R-1 neighborhoods align.  A recent special council election in Northwest Los Angeles (District 12) seemed to turn on the attitudes of the two candidates on a proposed BRT line, not because of the value of the transit, but more the concomitant significance of having that BRT system triggering the upzoning communities along the proposed corridor. Has this challenge touched Pasadena, and what are your thoughts on the nexus between density development and local transportation routing?

That is something that all cities are concerned about. It’s not particular to Pasadena or our neighboring cities, it’s anywhere that there is major infrastructure—like a rail line or BRT—being planned. While I was at Metro—working in some of the eastern and southeastern communities—there were concerns about what it means to have a new rail line or BRT come in and what it does for economic development. There were often conversations about facilitating transit oriented communities and what that meant in light of local land use control and decision-making.

Cities need to be proactive and really think about what opportunities major transportation infrastructure present and take the lead in determining what it should look like for their respective communities. Higher densities in Pasadena means something different than in the city of Bellflower or West Hollywood. Density and projects have to be context sensitive; they have to look, feel, and be accepted by the community.

Often the attitude of the state legislature (i.e. SB 50)  is that California cities have not approved enough housing units; that local jurisdictions no longer ought to be trusted to approve greater density; and, that the state should wrest control over zoning and the planning of more housing to facilitate more production/supply along frequently used local transit routes. Pasadena’s state senator has been an opponent of the latter; but a close reading of legislation such as SB 50 effectively would have the routers of city buses become the new local zoning administrator. How do you interpret or respond to such proposals?

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At the end of the day, the issue that we’re trying to solve is the housing crisis—to provide not just enough housing, but affordable housing and housing that looks different for different kinds of families at different stages of their lives. What does that look like for each community? Setting densities that look a certain way irrespective of what a certain community looks like and what densities have traditionally been in that area without understanding the character of the community is somewhat misplaced. I do feel that there needs to be some encouragement—and there already is—to bring in more housing and to meet certain demands. 

What that looks like—what the design is and what the density levels are—really does need to be a local decision. You can go to West Hollywood or any other community with higher density levels, and it works there; it’s their urban form. That’s how their streets are designed. You can’t take what’s in West Hollywood and plop it in another city. Having that local control is very much important, but there also has to be a responsibility at the local level and a sincere effort to meet the housing demand that exists.  

Are you optimistic?

Yes. Metro is increasingly understanding the importance of a bottom up approach and placing greater value on community input. There is also a responsibility on our part to continue to knock on their door and to ask to be engaged at a meaningful level. 

Pivoting  to  local bus service —Metro board members have repeatedly noted that LA Metro’s NextGen Bus Study recommendations must rely on LA County’s regional bus systems being fully integrated withlocal bus operations. They publicly note, however, that achieving that integration via collaboration has been difficult. How important is it for Pasadena’s local buses to be integrated with regional bus operators and into the NextGen bus study’s recommended solutions?

It’s important that, not just the regional operators, but local operators—like Pasadena Transit—be at the table and be part of those conversations. The relationship between Metro, Foothill Transit, and Pasadena Transit is both complimentary and in some cases duplicative. The relationship between our services demands that any change at Metro’s level be very well coordinated with both Foothill and Pasadena so that if Metro changes its service, whether it’s adjusting a line or dropping one, customers have another option that’s just as viable and efficient, if not more so, than the service Metro had been providing. 

Having those conversations early on, as Metro has, and having them frequently is important.

TPR, this past year, has published a number of interviews that address what is termed the ‘new mobility paradigm’. Cities throughout Southern California have been/are considering new technologies, engaging in challenging conversations re pricing infrastructure, and equitable access to mobility in the digital age. Is the afore-mentioned also true for Pasadena? 

We’re looking at what technologies and innovations are out there that we haven’t implemented or tested that would allow us to be more efficient, reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and communicate and integrate with other transportation systems. Similar conversations are taking place regarding our parking network. Are there new technologies out there that better allow us to share curb space or be more efficient with our parking network? I think there definitely are opportunities that we’ll be exploring and looking at.

Last mile mobility solutions such as bikes and scooters have for the last few years been consuming the attention of most City transportation planners. What’s been Pasadena’s experience and response to the rapid introduction onto its sidewalks and streets of both? 

As you know, Pasadena was part of the Metro Bike Share program and decided opt out after a one year pilot period. Part of what we need to do is provide viable mobility options. Whether it is scooters or bicycles, that’s something that we’re exploring. If we jump back into the bike-share world, we want to make sure that it’s a program that really is suited for Pasadena and that it meets the needs of the residents from placement and management to pricing structure.

The flip side of that is you can have a fabulous bike share system, but you need a bike network that people feel safe and comfortable riding on. That’s true whether you have a bike share system or not. If you want to make any kind of a dent in modal shift from cars to bicycles, people need to feel safe and comfortable bicycling. The way you do that is with bicycle infrastructure that protects the bicyclist. That’s been an ongoing challenge, not just in Pasadena, but in every city where you have a defined and finite amount of road space. How do you accommodate all of those users? That’s part of what we as a city have committed to in passing a complete-streets policy—making sure that our streets accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers. That means sometimes you have to adjust your street network or reallocate travel lanes. That is part of being able to accommodate everyone: being able to develop and design streets that are safe for a child, for the elderly, and safe for all modes.

Lastly, a subset challenge of introducing new local options for last mile is increased competition for the “curb”. How will cities align the interests of  pedestrians, retail, EV charging stations, the homeless, bus access, and bicycles. Have been asked to address the challenge of accommodating the aforementioned on Pasadena’s curbs?

It’s a conversation that we’re starting to have. We recently participated in a curb-side symposium hosted by Metro and it’s something here internally that we’ve been talking about. How do you accommodate within a given space a bus, a TNC, and bike parking? I don’t have a solution yet, but it’s a legitimate conversation and one that should also involve goods movement, delivery companies and others that share the same space. It’s a very relevant issue. 

I want you to comment on one of your city transportation colleagues’ agenda. Seleta Reynolds has said that one of her driving agendas is to make driving alone the transportation choice of last resort in LA. Has your city adopted such a strategy that guides the policies, incentives, and disincentives you’re being asked to put into place? 

We absolutely want to make sure that we are providing our residents, visitors, and business owners with viable alternatives to driving.  Pasadena has an award winning transit system, an adopted Complete Streets policy and is one of the early adopters of VMT.  If someone wants a drive, that is their choice, but it shouldn’t be because there isn’t a transit or bicycle network that is just as, if not more, efficient and convenient. What I see as one of my responsibilities is making sure that we’re providing those options to those that live, work, and play in Pasadena. 

 

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