Good Transportation Planning: It’s Not Magic



LADOT General Manager Rita Robinson explains the public outreach for the Pico-Olympic plan in 2008.

Way back on April 14, LADOT General Manager Rita Robinson spoke in front of the City Council Transportation Committee on how the department is going to deal with the city's budget crunch. Robinson delivered her usual passionate defense of the "LADOT Family" in the midst of the cuts and also brought a basket fool of amazing analogies. She compared planning in the budget crisis to working with a bad comb over, ("you think you're covered but you're totally exposed") and compared her experiences with furloughs and layoffs to a parent having to decide which of her children to feed. Oddly, her comments about the City Council having "Reality Deficit Disorder" seemed to be left at home.

I recommend listening to it if you have the time, it's about half way through this audio recording of the meeting.

But it wasn't her weird analogies that caught my ear, it was this statement:

I wish we were New York and could magically make things happen.

There's no magic involved with what's going on in New York. It's happening because the Mayor and DOT are dedicated to changing the way business is done when it comes to transportation. In fact, the leadership deficit in L.A. is exactly because our LADOT is busy wishing for things and defending their turf rather than pushing the envelope to free our streets, clean our neighborhoods and get things moving. If she wants to change transportation in Los Angeles and, do it without a magic wand or flying broomstick, she can.

The first thing is to have a vision for what you want the city to look like. If you were to ask anyone what LADOT's vision was, they'll tell you it's to move cars. Not just people who read Streetsblog, or people that ride bikes, but everyone. Listen to the You Tube clip above. Rosendahl is pleading for community involvement, and Robinson kind of blows him off because she's too busy making the argument the street needs more car capacity.

The second thing is leadership. The Mayor has been a punching bag for Livable Streets advocates for years, but you know what? He's becoming a transit hero around the country and is stepping up for bicycle and pedestrian funding. Mayor Villaraigosa may not be the solution to all of our Livable Streets problems, but he's been showing us that he's not the problem, either. 

Los Angeles also has a City Council Transportation Committee Chair who is committed to safe streets for all users. Robinson even noted that L.A. is blessed with an active advocacy community. What's missing is a commitment from LADOT to do make changes.  Which is somewhat puzzling because Robinson took the job coming off a much lauded stint reorganizing and reforming the Bureau of Sanitation.

For example, just last week during the debate on setting aside Local Return funds from Measure R, Councilman Tom LaBonge asked whether the LADOT was in favor of the proposal. The representative at the meeting had no answer.  She either didn't know, or was unable to counter the "logic" presented by Councilman Smith. Testifying that the Department is for something after the advocacy community has done the heavy lifting?  That's the minimum that LADOT could do to bring change.  Yet, they fell down even at that.

The week before there was a debate on Bike Corrals in Northeast L.A. The proposal came from the community and activists. If anything, LADOT sounded as though they wanted to delay the proposal. Here is a pilot program that has the support of the community, local business, and activists. Leadership would have been nice, a polite head nod that they agree with the advocates work would have been acceptable, but instead the Department is seen throwing up a roadblock.

It's this simple. Car Culture planning has failed, and Los Angeles desperately needs the agency to commit to something new. I understand that change is difficult and scary. As we can see from the above You Tube Video, Robinson already knows that. So the agency should meet us half-way. Do a series of pilot programs: road diets, separated bike lanes, scramble crosswalks on arterial atreets...whatever you want. Just do something and let's see if they work. If they do, expand them so that they appear in the road design manual for L.A. and become common place.

When Robinson was in front of the Transportation Committee in November of 2007 before being sworn in, she was hailed as a reformer and when asked about her priorities said:

It's important to have a child-safety agenda, but we also need a pedestrian safety agenda focused on every age group.

It's been two and a half years...where exactly is that pedestrian safety agenda? It seems the only time the city is talking about pedestrian safety is when there is a corpse involved. Heck, go to the last sentence in that story from November, 2007. Robinson said the Bike Plan would be in front of the Council in the fall/winter of 2008. When you look at what is promised and what the record is, there is no way you can argue that LADOT wants to push the envelope to make the city the best it can be for all users. The work product doesn't meet the rhetoric.  Leadership is lacking, and the buck has to stop somewhere.

And let's not even talk about Sharrows.

So here's a direct plea to Rita Robinson: You're the head of the second largest urban DOT in the country. By miles of road, it's the largest. It's not even close. There are literally thousands of ways to "be like New York" and push the envelope. Find just a handful of them and make them happen. Pilot projects. Road diets. Whatever. That so many senior staff are resigning in the face of the cuts is bad news to those that know them...But for an agency that's looking for a little magic it presents an opportunity to let new talent rise to the top so that LADOT can try something different.

Because let's face it, what is being done now isn't working.  And trying to continue to do what isn't working, especially in the face of cutbacks, is just a recipe for more failure.  L.A. can't afford that.