Lessons from L.A.

Seleta Reynolds talkingLast night I attended the 2015 Ann Niles Active Transportation Lecture at Ecotrust here in Portland, OR. Seleta Reynolds, head of L.A. DOT, gave an inspiring talk on “Equity and Access in L.A.” She hit on several topics in her hour-long talk, and I’m hoping that many of the themes she brought up will be revisited by our transportation leaders in the coming weeks (especially when they’re echoed again during the Transit Center event on October 22nd). Seleta’s points that most resonated with me:

1) L.A. deserves a different narrative. I often find myself half-heartedly defending L.A. to folks in Portland. Half-heartedly because I haven’t spent much time there, so my view is mostly informed by planning articles and stories from friends. But even those limited sources had convinced me that L.A.’s density + transit system deserved a more balanced treatment than many folks seem inclined to give it. By one measure (median housing costs v median income), L.A. is the least affordable city in the country. L.A. County is the size of Connecticut and could fit San Francisco eight times over. It’s got the biggest light rail and bus program in North America, and trips on the bus are $.50 (or $.35 with the fare program for smart phones). L.A has a goal of 0 deaths by 2025. And all of that with a pocked history – Seleta is the 8th general manager in 12 years.

2) We need to take a more holistic view of our jobs as transportation professionals. Seleta had quite a few gems on this front, each of which deserve their own discussion later.

On the tensions between the enforcement aspects of Vision Zero and working to end racial profiling and police brutality: “…open the doors, get everyone a seat at the table, listen quietly, and speak with humility.” On the heels of Adonia Lugo’s “Unsolicited Advice for Vision Zero,” I hope that folks in the room are ready to take some time to hear about what Vision Zero could mean not just from DOT managers but also from folks like Adonia who bring an intersectional perspective to the discussion.

Broadway in L.A.On the tension between data-driven decision making and making sure that community members influence decisions (especially in the face of “bikelash”): “We need to get people out of these toxic entrenched positions.” Yes! This is why I’m so excited about my new position working to facilitate precisely those kinds of conversations. This goes for active transportation advocates, too. Seleta noted that in the project above, there are no bike lanes, but the whole street is now “bike speed.”

“Transportation bears the policy burden of other sectors.” From housing and job access to quality of education, transportation is expected to help solve problems that have arisen through inequities or poor planning in other sectors. This doesn’t mean we can throw our hands up in helplessness. Instead, we need to double-down on working with partners across sectors towards our shared goals.

3) In a decision-making framework heavily influenced by politics and short-term interests, we have to create and nurture a space for “really fragile innovative ideas.” Seleta’s created an incubator within the DOT , changing the culture  – from one where your idea’s lifespan was based on your personal relationship to higher-ups – to one where everyone’s innovative ideas have the chance to be heard and carefully considered.

A list of "negative" words from transportation stakeholders4) Safety will not save us. From Vision Zero to autonomous vehicles, opportunities to save lives and reduce serious injuries are front and center in transportation policy and technology conversations. But, to some, “safety” is considered a negative word in the context of active transportation – in part because many folks are unconvinced that bicycle infrastructure is really an investment in safety. (And I’ll add – maybe in part because “safety” can quickly become a justification for profiling and police brutality.) We also still have much work to do to understand what safety as a transportation “north star” even means. How does development review look different? How should the DOT organizational structure reflect safety as a core value?

Beignets and cafe au lait5) How do we build hospitality into the transportation system? The first time I heard the word “hospitality” connected to transportation was at a Pecha Kucha talk by Laura Hartman at Rail~Volution in 2014. For me, the concept of hospitality is so much easier to wrap my head around than, for instance, “livable.” And doesn’t it sound better? Do you want to feel like your environment and your transportation experiences are livable? Or that you’ve been treated with hospitality? Seleta connected hospitality to the development of mobility hubs, but there are so many more places where we should be asking ourselves – “What would it look like to provide hospitality here?” Or if you really want to push it, go for some lagniappe instead.

Did you see Seleta’s talk last night? What did you think? Is there another L.A. story that folks in Portland should be hearing in addition?

1 Comment Lessons from L.A.

  1. LexiTalksTransit

    True. LA is working hard to get away from the narrative its long held on being a car-centric city. It will be exciting to see how it approaches its challenges and works to become a leader in Active transportation. It will also be interesting to see what cities well known for being leaders in that sphere (Portland, San Francisco,etc) will glean from LA.


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