September 8, 2021 - From the September, 2021 issue

LADOT GM Seleta Reynolds on Mobility’s New Normal

Eighteen months into the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, TPR interviewed LADOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds to update readers on the challenges and opportunities facing LA City's transportation agenda. Reynolds elaborates on the city's reassessment of its mobility priorities: to expand service despite declines in ridership and a bus driver shortage; the challenges of curb management; and "the Amazon effect" in light of the pandemic's persistent disruption.


Seleta Reynolds

(T)he new normal is a state of constantly going back and forth between two polarities. ..(O)ne week it'll feel like we're back to pre-pandemic levels of traffic, and then the next week, it will feel like the roads are a little empty again… The same thing is happening with transit ridership… (G)oods move around the city of Los Angeles has also been in flux .., (T)hat makes it challenging to pick a lane, pun intended, as a Transportation Director.”—Seleta Reynolds

It's been some time, Seleta, since TPR has interviewed you. Let’s begin then by asking, 18 months after the pandemic began, what's your (LADOT’s) New Normal?

I would say the New Normal is a state of constantly going back and forth between two polarities. On the one hand, we still have a sense of uncertainty out in the wide world of transportation. We haven't landed on a steady state of being, so there's still quite a lot of chaos and adjustment happening. At the same time, we have people spending their time in different ways now with their families in their homes in their neighborhoods, so there’s also a greater sense of calm, if you will.

What that means for transportation is that one week it'll feel like we're back to pre-pandemic levels of traffic, and then the next week, it will feel like the roads are a little empty again. The same thing is happening with transit ridership. On some lines, we're moving back towards pre-pandemic levels of ridership and on others, there's not a lot of activity.

The new normal is this strange dichotomy between those two things. It means that we're seeing different patterns when it comes to things like traffic crashes and how people move around the city, which is influenced in no small part by the fact that many of our buying habits changed during the pandemic too.  The way that goods move around the city of Los Angeles has also been in flux of up, down, and all over the place, so that makes it challenging to pick a lane, pun intended, as a Transportation Director. 

What then are the challenges for LADOT of a reset?  

There's been a lot of thinking about the upstream and the ways that the Department of Transportation can change to think more deeply about some of the upstream causes of the outcomes that we see on the street.  What I mean by that is that just a few weeks ago, DOT released a study called Changing lanes, which was community-based research about the transportation needs of women and girls in the city of Los Angeles. 

Metro and researchers at UCLA have done work looking at how women feel while when they're actually on transit. Once they're on the train or the bus, what can transit agencies do to deal with those specific personal safety issues that women might have that might be different? This study took a step back to ask how is the mobility system that we have as it exists today serving women or not serving women? What we discovered is that it's failing women in many ways.

 We looked at three different communities—Sawtelle, Sun Valley, and Watts— and what we found were some pretty surprising outcomes. For example, fewer women have their driver licenses in Watts and Sun Valley than men do. women are less able to take recreational trips. In Watts, you may live a few miles from the beach but never get to see the ocean because you struggle so much to just get you where you need to go for the trips you have to take that you don't have the luxury or the time trips that add to a person’s mental well-being and quality of life.

 So, as I'm looking around at some of these inequities—and we can have the same conversation about racial equity, income inequality, and how wealth gaps translate to people's mobility choices, which then directly relates to their access to opportunity and their ability to live a fulfilling life— what does the Department of Transportation need to do differently to get at some of these deeper issues? We've spent so long just trying to manage the system that we have on its surface, and we haven't had really great outcomes. These trends and changes that come and go over time are the tail that wags the dog. Going deeper into these gender equity issues, and what the Department of Transportation can do to make the mobility system work better for everyone, I believe is a better pathway to grappling with some of these larger trends we’re observing.  

Seleta, you literally have been City of LA’s champion of these issues; but in fairness, the pandemic and resulting dislocation of the economy and people's lives clearly has upset your transit policy priorities. Has it not?  Is it now, 18 months since the pandemic was recognized, unrealistic to prioritize these larger challenges?

Well, the last 18 months have made these fissures in our society so plain; you cannot unsee them. The people who were most impacted by this disease are the same ones who have been frontline workers. And we can see it in the data from the research we did at the beginning of the pandemic that low income folks, black and brown Angelenos living in neighborhoods in South LA and East LA,  were driving more during the stay at home order than their white and wealthier counterparts on the Westside.  That’s because many of those jobs in the Westside neighborhoods could be done remotely, so not driving became the luxury.

The folks whose vehicle miles traveled increased during the pandemic were frontline workers who actually lost their jobs in the service industry and fell into jobs in the gig economy driving for some of these tech platforms. As I'm seeing these trends play out, it looks to me that unless you deal with some of those deeper inequities, you won't be able to deal with the challenges of the pandemic.

How must LA’s transportation agenda be rethought in light of what LADOT has learned over the last year and a half?

What we know about working from home and travel patterns is that people's overall vehicle miles traveled don't actually decrease when they work from home. In fact, they decrease initially and then they increase. If you're a white-collar worker, instead of getting on the bus and going downtown at 9am and going home at 5pm, now you work from home, which means maybe the central business district might suffer a bit, but it also means that you’re doing things like picking your kids up from school and running errands in the middle of the day or maybe meeting a neighbor for lunch. Neighborhood-scale travel, even for office workers, is the same or at an increased rate. So, my job is still to make sure that some portion the 75 percent of trips in Los Angeles that are under five miles can happen by means other than a single-occupancy vehicle for a whole host of reasons.

What the pandemic did crack open though was this renaissance of the use of public spaces, like the Al Fresco program and the Slow Streets programs. The challenge before us now is how do we make permanent these efforts to repurpose parking spaces for businesses to support them when they couldn't have customers inside? How do we make it attractive, beautiful, and well-designed?

To answer your question about what happened during the pandemic and what's going to continue happening, I would say we were able to accelerate a lot of the things that were happening before the pandemic, and we had a lot of freedom to go further and faster on things like repurposing parking spaces for other uses than we would have otherwise.

Should readers conclude that the extensive multi-year research done by Metro for the Next Gen Bus Study is relevant and need not be revised? Is the new normal like the old normal?

You'd have to ask Metro for all the details, but my two pennies are that the real paradigm shift for Metro Next Gen was to look at the totality of trips being made throughout the day. Their service had heretofore really been focused on traditional 9 to 5 work trips, and what they discovered was that there were whole parts of the city that they could be serving much better with more frequent transit service. I have no reason to believe that isn't still a smart strategy for reconfiguring bus service to capture some of those trips where people didn't have good options. If they had a bus that came once every 30 minutes for a trip that was happening in the middle of the day, now they have have a bus that comes once every 10 or 15 minutes instead of frequent service being focused all on the 9 to 5 commuters.

I think that the Next Gen work was on the right track, and probably many of the trends that informed its changes are still valid.

Keeping on this theme of a new normal and predicting future mobility trends, address today’s goods movement challenges for Los Angeles.  

The pandemic was a catalyst for a trend that was already underway, but it did accelerate that market share for online ordering and shopping that had been on the upswing for years. We’re almost to the point of no return for people becoming completely reliant on some of these services to deliver their goods.

The challenge that presents for a city department of transportation, and for LA in particular, is that we don't have any comprehensive view into all of the data about goods movement by these private technology companies, which is fiercely guarded because those companies—Amazon, UPS, FedEx, Uber, Lyft, and all the food delivery apps—believe that it might disclose some secret that would undermine their competitive advantage. For this industry, there is no single regulatory oversight from a transportation perspective, and therefore there is no single clearinghouse for information about how those companies are changing traffic patterns in the city.

What we have to do then is focus first on the assets I manage, own, and operate on behalf of the public and be thoughtful about how I can use those to begin to bring a little order to chaos in a way that's different from just writing parking tickets. In many ways, that's the same as it was before the pandemic. We still have a lot of pressure on the curb and a lot of increased congestion is due to that shift in goods movement. Our focus on managing, coding, and pricing the curb remains unchanged, and if anything, there's only an added urgency to that work. 

In the same vein, you were since becoming LADOT’s GM a champion of the shared economy with respect to mobility. Given the pandemic’s public health challenges and the reticence of passengers to share common spaces, are you still a Shared Ride mobility champion? 

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When it comes to passenger travel, I'm thinking more about things like shared bikes and scooters, EV car sharing, and those kinds of services. Our own analysis of the effects of those scooters and bikes is that they’re a net win for climate, net win for safety, and a net win for mobility and access for able-bodied folks who can use those services. The question for me is how to broaden that access?

Thinking about this idea of Universal Basic Mobility that we've discussed in the past, which is like Universal Basic Income where everybody gets a check every month that creates a social safety net; Universal Basic Mobility is that same idea but extended to people's transportation choices.  Whether or not you own a car in the city of Los Angeles, you ought to have access to safe, reliable and affordable transportation options so that you can access opportunity.

When it comes to the shared economy, if it helps advance that goal, I'm in. The problem with companies like Uber and Lyft is that they are not, at the present, advancing that goal. Their practices around how they treat their drivers and their extremely passive approach to electrification of their fleet, and the price gouging that they're currently engaged is not a win for universal basic mobility, climate, or safety, none of it.  At present, I would say it's not a flat yes or no; there’s a little bit more nuance to it. 

Taxis are highly regulated in the City of LA; more than anywhere else in the county. Have you modified your rather negative views on taxi services?

I don't think I was ever antithetical to it. As the department that's responsible for regulation, from the moment I got here, we have been looking for ways to remove some of the constraints on the taxi industry. For example, there's a cap on the number of cabs that can operate the City of Los Angeles. It's a leftover thing from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and it's totally out of date. I don't think that drivers should have to paint their cars and not be able to use them for other purposes. There should be a freedom to work for different companies, the same way that there is for drivers for Uber and Lyft.

We are in the process of bringing forward a massive overhaul of the taxi regulations. It's been before the Taxi Commission for their consideration.

Is the net result to make them more like Uber and Lyft?

It’s to try and get the best of both worlds; so, to maintain the oversight on fares, to maintain the oversight on the fuel efficiency of the fleet, to maintain the requirement that they serve the city equitably, and also that we provide investment for those companies to have vehicles that can serve people with disabilities.

But, to also have some of the changes to their regulatory paradigm that are responsive to market conditions. We already know that was a false cap on the number of trips that people want to take by for-hire vehicle in the city of Los Angeles. Uber and Lyft proved that repeatedly over and over again; they're still proving it, even with their higher fares now.

In San Francisco, Waymo just introduced quasi-autonomous vehicles into their taxi fleet. Is that something that LA is considering?

We have done quite a lot of work on trying to influence state and federal policy around autonomous vehicles. There are still a lot of outstanding questions about whether they do a good job of improving safety for anybody outside the vehicle or not. So, I don’t feel confident that they've got a product that is going to be able to detect pedestrians and behave in a safe manner around people walking in highly urban environments. I remain concerned, but the city has, really, zero ability to say yes or no to whether or not those vehicles would come into the city of Los Angeles that rests entirely with the California State Government and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Everywhere in ground transportation, from the Amazons to the Lyfts to the taxis and to the school bus drivers, there's a shortage of labor. Are you seeing that in your own fleets, and what policies are being brought to address that shortage? 

The way that we feel it most keenly is in our transit operator shortage for LADOT Transit. We are really struggling to get drivers on board, and we do all of the things that everybody does, career fairs and recruitments etc. But what we're doing right now is wage comparison between what our concessionaires pay their drivers versus what they could make by driving for other employers around the region. We're going to you know bring this information before decision makers and see if we can open up a conversation about whether or not we need to increase the wages for drivers. 

Until Adel Hagekhalil recently left the City to be GM of MWD, he was Director of STreetsLA, and you, as LADOT GM, had a truly collaborative departmental relationship. Address rumors today  that  Streets Services and LA DOT may now be merged.

This is, I think, the third or fourth go around that the City has had this conversation, so it's clearly not going away. It's something that the policymakers and electeds are interested in talking about. They perceive potential efficiencies if the functions of the two departments could be merged. There'll be a report back on a motion before Council and discussion about that. I think that sometimes that conversation gets confused between organizational management versus governance. People get caught up in thinking, “well, if this department could just report to the Board of Public Works, there would be greater oversight and we'd get greater accountability.”

For my money, the challenges around the construction management of public space and the public right away in the city of LA are not really about governance. They're about the challenges of managing sideways, that every department in this city faces in one form or another. So, I remai really open to a conversation about how we can make the city work better.  In the meantime, I'm a fan of Keith Mozee I think we're going to have a great working relationship. Keith has been at that department for a long time. He's got a lot of challenges, and I'm here to support him. 

The City of LA, unlike Chicago or New York, has always been perceived as having a decentralized (weak Mayor and strong Council) form of Local Government, which means any one of the  City’s 15 council people can dictate or frustrate city wide policies, and obviously that bears on your responsibilities as a GM. What are your thoughts about the challenges of better managing and governing the City of LA at a time when the current mayor is about to become an ambassador to India?

 The council definitely is capable of acting as a governing body that governs the city with big citywide programs where they've been able to hold together, whether in the name of delivering something citywide. RecycLA  was an example of that; they didn't let one council office opt out of RecycLA, because the whole city needed to do it in order for it to eventually work. Take Regulating taxi cabs or transit service, a single council office can’t say they don't want any buses  or taxis in their district because the whole thing would fall apart.

But somehow, when we get to infrastructure, construction and street design, the discussion takes on a different tenor. I would love to see us get closer to coherent citywide policies on street design, the same as we have on the delivery of services because they are the same. For example,  we would never accept a street system that just stopped once you got to the border of a council district, but we’re willing to accept that when it comes to bus-only lanes, when it comes to protected bike lanes, and even when it comes to basic infrastructure like sidewalks and pedestrian safety improvements.

So, I am hopeful that we can continue to get leadership at every level that to deliver on that promise of a city wide mobility network that is safe and frequent reliable for everybody. But in the meantime my, my job is really to deliver the things that I'm able to deliver—the things that are already on my plate—and to continue to advocate and support the projects that I know will make will make the city better. 

Lastly, before Phil Washington departed from LA Metro to Denver, he was championing congestion pricing. What now is the likely future of congestion pricing in Metro LA?

That's a question for the Metro board to grapple with, and the City Council is going to have to grapple with it too, as Metro completes their study and comes up with their recommendations. It's very clear that all of these other measures that we are taking in the name of climate to reduce the amount that people drive and improve the fuel efficiency of the vehicles they drive when they do drive, will never reach their full potential without having other policies that may not be popular, like congestion pricing, providing less parking, charging for parking, and all the rest. That's a plain fact that you can see in the quantitative data from cities that been able to successfully bring forward a full complement of projects, not just congestion pricing on its own, but congestion pricing as part of a broader strategy to ease congestion to make transportation deliver more equitable and climate friendly outcomes.

I'm extremely encouraged by the fact that we've gotten as far as we've gotten on a discussion about congestion pricing. It's not something that you could even say out loud in California 5 or 10 years ago, so the progress is encouraging. The delivery is going to be essential, but it doesn't, at the moment, have a clear political champion. Another lesson learned from other places that have implemented successful congestion pricing programs is that you need somebody in elected leadership who takes it on and champions it just like any other large-scale initiatives that we do in this region. It’s an essential ingredient, and I don't know that we've found that champion yet. And until we do, I think we may get there, but it will take us a while.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.