Cars are stuck on highways in an immovable gridlock, empty buses chug along, getting choked up at red lights, pedestrians bob and weave through hellish traffic.
It sounds a lot like Miami, but we’re actually talking about Los Angeles a few years ago, before Seleta Reynolds, the Los Angeles Department of Transit’s general manager, came on board.
Reynolds went from zero to 100 real quick — from not living in Los Angeles to giving a fresh, pedestrian facelift to its public transit system. But she wasn’t completely new to the transit scene. She had 18 years in public and private transportation experience under her belt before she took on the gig. And before heading to L.A., she was a leader in the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Livable Streets section.
Her life’s work is making cities more walkable and livable for people. That’s why one of her primary initiatives is Vision Zero, a campaign to end pedestrian deaths in Los Angeles by 2025.
It’s about turning a city designed for cars into one designed for people, she says. And it’s a challenge we face here in Miami. We sat down with Reynolds to learn more about L.A.’s transit system, how it compares to Miami’s, and how we can learn from each other to make our cities more mobile.
Want to hear more? She’ll be speaking Thursday, Sept. 15, at Venture Cafe at 5:30 p.m. All the details here.
First things first, how did you go from not living in Los Angeles to becoming the general manager of the L.A. Department of Transit?
There are a couple things to know about Los Angeles and how we’re organized. Los Angeles county has 88 cities in it, and L.A. is the largest of those. Metro operates the countywide transit system and the LADOT has its own system as well.
I knew that I need to both understand the geography and jurisdiction and how the both of those things overlapped. I went around doing that in a bunch of different ways for the first year I was here. And to this day, one thing I do, I always say yes. Whenever I’m invited to go out and talk to a neighborhood and to get out and see different parts of the city, I say yes, because I need to map this place geographically, but also socially and politically and find people who are going to be partners and do the ambitious things we’re want to do.
I also made it my business to go out to all the different district offices and yards where our electricians and painters work. I went all over the city. I went on ride alongs with the different divisions whether it was doing bandit taxi cab stings or going out with a police officer to do parking tickets or do thermoplastic and put the yellow stripes on the streets.
But the best way to learn any city is to walk it. The problem with L.A. is that you can’t just walk it the way you would other denser, more tightly packed cities. Once a month I’d spend hours walking different parts of the city. And I don’t think there’s anything I could do that replaces that experience and knowledge I’ve gotten.
Is that why Vision Zero and the goal to eliminate traffic-related pedestrian deaths in Los Angeles one of your leading initiatives?
I think it’s always important to know where people are coming from. So where I’m coming from in my career is that I started as a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the City of Oakland. I went on to be a consultant and did a similar bike and pedestrian job in San Francisco.
Of all the places I’ve been pedestrian safety is my life’s work, it’s what I keep coming back to. I’ve spent more time than I care to admit on crosswalk policies.
For a really long time I’d do presentations work and there would be people interested but it was very small. Kind of overnight, because of leadership in New York and San Francisco, traffic safety became something that people were really waking up and getting engaged in and caring deeply about. For me it felt like a lot of hard work and think about these issues coming together.
If in San Francisco, we had 20 or so people walking or dying due to traffic violence, in LA it was more like 120 people. So I felt like I needed to alleviate that issue and get people focused on how urgently we needed to address it.
But much like Miami, L.A. is a city that was designed for cars. How do you make a city designed for cars, designed for people?
It happened on a number of different scales. Some changes are really simple and effective like, for example, we have a giant intersection at Hollywood and Highland where we perennially have the largest number of fatalities every year. That’s where we roll out the red carpet for the rest of the world, it’s where the walk of fame is, etc.
We put in the city’s biggest scramble crosswalk there, that meant that so people could cross in all directions, straight and diagonally, and all drivers would wait. We went from incidents once a month to none at that intersection. And it was a huge win for people driving too. Before if you were trying to make a turn you wait for tons of people crossing the street. Now the intersection works better for everyone.
There are small but really meaningful things you can do in a city designed around people for driving and changes you can make for making it beneficial for walking and for driving. The initiatives aren’t anti-driving, they’re actually endeavoring to make the street work for everyone who is using it. You have to design of the street to catch up with the way people are using it.
That scramble crosswalk is pretty neat. What are some other easy design tricks to make the streets better for people?
We have a People Streets program. It’s an app-based program where we ask people where there are either small parts of streets or parking spaces that could be better used as plazas or parklets. The the city works to fund the creation of these new spaces. The community has to do the fundraising to program the spaces so that they’re well used.
There are a lot of funny parts of streets that make it more confusing or difficult for drivers to get around. Some of these plazas rationalize the street system and simplify it. They also create a fantastic gathering space for people walking and biking. And it’s also good for local businesses and things like that.
One of our biggest challenges in Miami-Dade is that we have so much fragmentation. We have MDC, then 34 municipalities. You mentioned that there’s both L.A. County and L.A. the city so it seems that you have a similar problem. How do you manage to work around that and start collaborating?
So to the people who are traveling, those boundaries are invisible. People don’t care if it’s L.A. versus West Hollywood versus some other city. They just want to get where they’re going and get there safely.
We work very closely with Metro (the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority). Metro is taking a large capital investment program and building out a subway system for the county. They can’t do that work without the city being a hand and glove partner.
It’s about creating trust and relationships between the City of L.A. and Metro. But it starts with the tone set by the mayor. The city mayor sits on the Metro board and he’s made it part of his platform that he wants the city to collaborate with Metro. He does things like convene meetings with all of the mayors and do the hard work of opening communication and rebuilding trust that’s been damaged so that we collaborate and don’t get stuck in our silos of city v.s. county, because the stakes are too high. It helps everyone if we can deliver a program that works well.
What are some concrete ways to rebuild that trust?
It’s no different than anything else you have to do in your life. It starts with the successes of your relationship with the person sitting across from you. I’m a big believer in getting out of the office and going on a bike ride, going out to dinner, having breakfast, doing things so you can understand where someone is coming from. That way you get a better understanding of where they’re coming from when making decisions. So focusing on relationships.
When things get rough — overcommunicate. When things haven’t gone as well in the past, people have a running storyline about who and what the contractor is like. Sometimes that blinds us to things that are really going so we put up a wall and go opaque. I think it’s important to air on the side of more communication, so you can correct things right away.
Also we need to find little wins and celebrate them. When things go well, bring everyone to the table lift people up and that builds momentum. Negativity is contagious but positivity is contagious too.
In Miami, one problem is ridership. We can’t get enough people out of their cars and on the buses and so there’s not enough money/incentive to make the bus systems work better. It’s like an endless cycle. Is this also a problem in L.A.?
You see it a lot of course this is something on the transit side of the house that is a constant conversation. We invest in these big projects and upgrades and then we need to go back and evaluate if we got it right. If it’s not going the way we want, that means we should do more not less and that’s difficult — particularly if someone has put the political will behind something, it’s tempting to tear that person down if it wasn’t a success. It has a chilling effect. You don’t want to put will on the next thing.
If something’s not working, it means we need to adjust not that it’s a failure. We have to be a position where we’re constantly learning and adjusting.
In terms of ridership, what Houston recently did with their surface transit system [is went to the basics.] Some routes had not kept pace with the way cities changed and land use changed. Overnight, they rebooted the way their transit system works.
It’s been a strong success story and you’ve seen ridership go up and the system is better used. Sometimes you do have to take a better look and adjust. The other thing is that sometimes we’ve applied the wrong tool to the problem. When the tech opens up, we should think about things like microtransit or Uber pool, car shares, and bike shares. Maybe we don’t have to serve every transit route, maybe we can expand what we think about public transit and focus on making other choices affordable and equitable in the way they serve the city so we’re not just stuck.
Another thing L.A. has successfully implemented that Miami has not is bus rapid transit (BRT). Is it getting strong ridership?
The Wilshire Rapid Line and the Orange line are the two examples of BRT in L.A. […] With the Orange line people are clamoring to get more and more out there. It’s because you don’t need a schedule, you can show up and count on it when you need a bus. You don’t need to wait a long time. It runs in its own dedicated right of way and for that reason we have more control of its reliability and travel time. Alongside it they’ve also built a beautiful walking path and biking path it make the neighborhood more livable and has contributed in a positive way to people’s quality of life. Whether or not you use it, you still feel positively about it because it was a well-designed piece of infrastructure.
What our BRT does is focus on the customer experience, and focus on it being enjoyable or even fun to get from point A to B. The Orange line in particular does this well.
What do you mean by enjoyable?
When you’re on a really well-done transit system, first of all you have confidence that you have a reliable travel time. You know how long it’s going to take you and every time it’s going to take that trip you know exactly how long it’s going to take. You can’t say that when driving in L.A. — it can go from 10 minutes to an hour.
The second way is that you don’t need to know a schedule, you can show up and you know in a few minutes there will be a bus.
There’s also the quality of found time — it’s time you didn’t have in a car. You can spend time unplugging and people watching or having a conversation.
Can you live in L.A. without a car?
Absolutely yes. A lot of people do. One-third of the households in and around downtown do not have a car. For some folks it’s because they can’t afford a car so these investments we make are lifeline services for a big segment of our population. We also have a lot of folks who choose not to have a car. Particularly if you live downtown or around USC you’re in a transit dense urban environment. And with the expansion of Uber, Lyft, and carshare and the subway system you can get from downtown to the beach in 45 minutes. I would say enthusiastically yes and it’s only going to get easier.
Can Miami get there?
There’s no reason why not. I don’t know Miami very well. I have a cousin in South Beach and I’ve visited and love it. It shares some similarity to L.A. in different ways. I think the ways that you can make sure that you can are in the palm of your hand — you can call up a ride that is affordable and it can take you where you want to go. But there are also a lot of people living in Miami right now who don’t have a car and it’s an imperative to make it work for the people already in that situation.