August 16, 2022 - From the August, 2022 issue

TPR Exit Interview with Greg Spotts—StreetsLA’s CSO & Executive Officer

Greg Spotts has been leading change at StreetsLA for a decade; serving in dual roles as Assistant Director and Chief Sustainability Officer since 2017, and as Executive Officer in 2022. Over the past several years, Greg has helped to build upon the innovations begun under former GM Adel Hagekhalil (who now serves as GM at Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.)  TPR is pleased to present this exit interview  with Spotts as he leaves StreetsLA in September to become the new Director of the Seattle Department of Transportation. Reflecting on his time as a dedicated public servant in Los Angeles, Greg highlights StreetsLA's recent work piloting new technologies to cut emissions from the city's vehicle fleet and working with historically underserved communities to help repair harms caused by top-down planning and infrastructure decision-making. 


“…I get a real lift every morning coming into work collaborating with communities to shape the city, and improve the city, and interacting with individual residents to solve their problems. In addition to all the programs and activities, I’m proud of helping to build a modern culture for a successful public sector organization.”

Before you leave LA to be the Director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, thank you for allowing TPR to capture how you invested your time with StreetsLA and the accomplishments that mark your tenure. Let's start with the latter.

Greg Spotts: You know, I was starting to clean out my office last week, and I found a PowerPoint that I made in the first week I was Streets LA 10 years ago. It really startled me how consistent this document is with the way I practice my work today. It was a message to the director saying we should be making Streets LA more innovative, responsive, transparent, and accountable. If you asked the people who work with me to describe what I care about, they would probably give you those words.

Finding this paper, I felt a sense of satisfaction that I'd actually stuck with these values all these years and really embedded those concepts within the organization. In addition to all the programs and activities, I’m proud of helping to build a modern culture for a successful public sector organization.

Address the “challenges of creating a modern culture,” within the fishbowl of L.A. City Hall’s bureaucratic culture.

Certainly with Public Works, most of these agencies have been run by engineers in the past. I'm not an engineer. I'm a generalist who's become a specialist in transportation. I think the engineers’ management style has been very prescriptive; wanting to be the final decider on the detials.

By necessity, I couldn't do that because I don't know how to drive a motor sweeper. I've never worked on a paving crew. When I got here, I started experimenting with pushing decisions down as close to the action as possible, empowering people at each level to make decisions and bring forth ideas for improvement.

It took a little while for people to believe that I actually meant it. That's how imbued the old culture was. By sticking around this long, I've brought up behind me a whole generation of managers and leaders who promote this culture.  As a team, we’ve made StreetsLA a much better place to work because at each level, folks feel that their competency is respected and their ideas are welcomed. I hope to take that with me in the next role.

Using the City’s procurement of innovative street sweeper as an example; how does that happen in the “real world? 

My first encounter with the motor sweeping program was when I was doing transportation policy for Mayor Villaraigosa. We started asking about how to sweep narrow protected bike lanes that were just beginning to be installed. The answer that came back from Street Services was they couldn't fit their standard sweeper in these spaces. I remember asking about the possibility of using a narrower sweeper, and I heard five different reasons why this was impossible.

One of the first things I did when I joined Streets LA was buy a five-foot-wide propane-powered mini sweeper. When Mayor Garcetti deployed a protected bike lane along Reseda near Cal State Northridge, we were cleaning it with this mini sweeper from day one. It was interesting how the folks who run the sweeping program started becoming proud that they had a specialty service, rather than a one size fits all program.

We started collaborating on other ideas. We challenged our manufacturer to come up with an electrified version of the standard sweeper, and they came back saying the baby step would be a hybrid electric. After a few years of collaboration on the prototype, we just put into service the first two hybrid electric sweepers ever made by Elgin Sweeper. They burn 30 percent less compressed natural gas because the cleaning functions are powered by a batter. That's a significant reduction of emissions. Shortly thereafer, we bought an Italian mini sweeper that's all electric which is now sweeping the downtown bike lanes; zero emission sweeping for zero emission transportation!

Just this week, we had the kickoff of our Sweeping Optimization Study. We're going to spend a year with a consultant looking at how the route system could be redesigned around the debris that's collected so that we make sure we're investing where it's most needed.

It’s been a lot of fun taking on a very traditional function that had proceeded the same way for decades. When you asked about a particular sweeping route, staff would unroll this paper map from the 70s. Now, we have GPS on all the sweepers. There’s been a lot of innovation around something that sounds like a real bread and butter city function.

At LACI earlier this year you were showcasing some of StreetsLA zero emissions equipment/ fleets to the Mayor of London. Share what was being “showcased”  given that the aforementioned highlights both your priorities and accomplishments.

We hired a FUSE fellow in the spring of 2020 named Susan Sanchez. We tasked her with measuring the carbon emissions of our fleet of more than 1,000 vehicles. It turned out that our agency burns more than 1.25 million gallon equivalents of fossil fuel in a year. So, the opportunity there was tremendous. She came back saying that even with unlimited funding, today we couldn't buy our fleet in battery electric because most of this heavy and medium duty equipment doesn't exist yet. She came up with this idea that StreetsLA could to chart the Path to Zero Emissions Fleet for pubic works agencies.

Her fellowship ended, and we all huddled up and asked how we were going to carry on this path to a zero emissions fleet. We made a bold decision that we were going to partner with manufacturers to borrow, pilot, test, and rent equipment to put it to the torture test. When a plug-in vehicle works well on a given task, we can go to General Services and ask them to buy it with confidence.  That's a totally different posture than sitting back and waiting for the city to buy us some EVs. 

We  showcased some of these pilots in February and again this summer, including using electric bikes to inspect the bikeway network, charging vehicles with a solar powered charging station, and placing into service our first electric pickup truck.  This fall we're planning to put out in the field a zero-emissions tree planting crew; zero emissions vehicles supporting carbon negative tree planting!

Greg, candidly, what's a Yale graduate doing at the Bureau of Streets Services of the City of LA? Share the arc of your career aspirations.

My mother asked that question when I had the title of General Superintendent. On her list of what I was supposed to do was one, be a Justice on the Supreme Court or two, conductor of the New York Philharmonic. As it turns out, she's become proud of me all the same.

I really do have a passion for public service as opposed to the private sector. I worked in the private sector for 15 years in entertainment, and I really enjoyed it, but I get a real lift every morning coming into work collaborating with communities to shape and improve the city and interacting with individual residents to solve their problems. Public service at the local level animates me, and I even think it's keeping me young.

I've found in the second career a real match for my interests and capabilities. I'm a mission-oriented person and this mission of reorienting cities for this carbon-constrained future is fascinating. I'm a constant learner; I've always been at the steep end of the learning curve, learning the public sector in general, learning LA city government, and then learning a lot about sustainability, asset management and mobility.

One of my strengths is, once I've learned about a topic, I'm able to share it in an accessible way. I may not always be the most knowledgeable specialist, but I can bring policymakers, community members, and stakeholders on board by explaining in simple but dynamic terms what we're trying to do.

For context, what's it like being inside City Government —the “belly of the beast”—with a mission to change the culture? 

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I'm not sure the overall bureaucratic environment is innovation-supportive; however, many of the folks I've worked for have been very innovation-supportive. All three directors of StreetsLA have embraced my ideas and told me to go run with it or even to go bigger. Both Mayor Villaraigosa and Mayor Garcetti have been very interested in innovation, and green innovation in particular.

It's interesting- there's a push for bringing on new technologies and making things more sustainable, yet the system has many veto points. On some of my innovation journeys, I’ve reached a moment of total despair when it seems the obstacles are insurmountable; and then you take a deep breath and figure out the path forward.

Your answer reminds one of an Olympic swimmer.

Maybe it's more like being an Olympic distance runner. Every step takes longer than you think it should. Sometimes it seems to be excruciatingly long process, but we can make change at a significant scale. Part of the fun of working in LA is the scale is so big; you can really have a regional impact.

The fact that there's so many historically underserved communities in LA animates me every day and provides a sense of urgency. I've enjoyed this job much more than if I had been the public works director for Santa Monica or Pasadena or Beverly Hills. I lived in Santa Monica for a long time, and I love Santa Monica, but I'm much more interested in things like planting trees in redlined neighborhoods that are still short on tree canopy 90 years after that racist policy.

Pivoting to your future, what enticed you to consider becoming the Director of the Seattle Department of Transportation?

 I visited Seattle in 2016, 2018, and 2019. On the 2019 visit, I contacted a counterpart at SDOT, who took me on a tour. I saw some very sophisticated urban design happening in different neighborhoods; things that gave me that feeling “I wish we were doing this in LA!” Then I rented a bike and took a long ride up the bike trail on the waterfront. They had just opened the Alaskan Way tunnel and hadn't yet torn down the elevated freeway along the waterfront, but already closed it to traffic. The waterfront was completely different without that vibration and noise of cars and heavy trucks. I had this feeling that that was going to be transformative. It turns out there's been $750 million of investment that's come forward since they tore down that freeway along the waterfront.

All these things came to mind when I happened to see on my LinkedIn feed this job posting in Seattle. I hadn't been pursuing out-of-town jobs, but I remembered the feeling that I had in these visits to Seattle. I thought I should just go for it. I had the first-round interview right away. They told me that I was likely to get to the second round and meet the community search committee. They sent me a list of who's on the search committee, and it was bike advocates, housing advocates, the head of the transit organization, folks who advocate for underserved communities, the head of the Asian-American museum. I looked at this stakeholder list and just got so excited about the people that Mayor Harrell had put forward to help him make this decision.

I started doing some deep research and came to the conclusion that it was the most desirable available transportation job in the United States. Period. I was reading two to three hours a night, every night, for a month to prepare to meet the mayor. I finally met him on July 1st.

If it's possible, give our readers a read on your conversation with Seattle’s Mayor?

Bruce Harrell ran for mayor last year on a unity platform. The audacity of doing that in our divided politics excites me. I did have a chance to ask him about what underlies his “One Seattle” vision. He told me about bringing people together around common solutions rather than dividing people. He told me about lifting up the voices of underserved communities and folks who didn't feel like they had a seat at the table in the past. I looked at the mayor's lifelong history of service to the community, and his wife has that same history. I had a strong feeling that Seattle under his leadership would be a great environment for me as a public servant.

I spent some time sharing with the mayor the fact that my team has identified $50 million to invest in underserved communities during the pandemic. It was a true meeting of the minds. I didn't know what was going to happen after that, but I told him if he decided that I was the right man for the job, I was going to interpret it as a call to serve and I was going to answer that call. 

Our Newsletters have been reporting for some time, especially in the last week, on the funding from Washington coming for infrastructure improvement. When you settle, how would you like Seattle to deploy those resources?

I told the mayor in that interview that I like to co-create projects with the community. I'm very proud of how Streets LA has done that. We've built up a portfolio of $350 million in competitive grants. We've done it by bringing forth innovative, holistic, multi-benefit concepts and having the community tell us what would work best. I’d like to bring that same collaborative spirit in Seattle.

I think the days of planners and engineers drawing lines on a map and telling the community what they're going to get has got to end. Even if today's planners are more green-oriented or thinking more broadly than just moving passenger cars, I still don't think it can be programmed from the center anymore. I would really like to lift up exciting collaborative projects to improve safety, mobility, and quality of life and to co-author climate resiliency projects in communities where we haven't been investing in the past.

 Returning to this year and StreetsLA, you joined, as an expert panelist, VerdeXchange this past June on the topic of how electrification, autonomous vehicles, and AI might reshape urban mobility. Share your take on what’s to come.

My takeaway is that we're only at the very beginning of an absolute blossoming of innovation in mobility. There are going to be forms of mobility we weren't expecting. Two of them we already know about are shared scooters and e-bikes, and the new food delivery robots that are rolling along sidewalks in both Santa Monica and West LA. I think those examples are just the beginning.

Then, there's this whole effort to code the curb and utilize curb space for different users at different times. Zero emission delivery zones, EV charging that's embedded in the roadway, and a lot of innovation around the last mile of freight delivery and parcel deliveries.

This field that was very risk averse and static is now going to be very dynamic. I felt like it's a great time for someone like me to be in this field because I love to innovate. I'm not afraid of new things. The innovation opportunity is tremendous, and all this federal funding is going to drive innovation if we can make sure we don't just use it to build the same old single-purpose infrastructure.

With your service to two Los Angeles Mayors and your recent conversation with a third, the Mayor of Seattle, share what should the public should be looking for in a candidate for mayor of a city in 2023?

That's a great question, and I'm not sure I'm ready to give advice to the Los Angeles voter. We notice, in interacting with the public all the time, that there's quite a bit of discontent and frustration out there.  Sometimes people say it doesn't matter who they vote for. In 2022, the Los Angeles primary produced two very different candidates with different backgrounds, life experiences and resumes. It'll be very interesting to see in the debates how each of these candidates articulates their vision to navigate through a challenging and difficult time. I’m an eternal optimist and I believe LA has a bright future.

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