Should Mayor Eric Garcetti have hired someone with more Los Angeles experience to run Los Angeles’ Department of Transportation? With San Francisco’s Seleta Reynolds chosen as the incoming department head, there’s been a small buzz that only someone with direct experience with our region can handle making L.A. a better place to live. It has to be someone with local experience, they say.
As someone who is not from the area originally, and was only an Angeleno for six months when I became the first editor of Streetsblog Los Angeles, allow me to say that idea is complete hogwash.
For some reason, people that live and drive in Los Angeles have sat through so many traffic jams that they have come to believe that idling in endless traffic is a natural phenomenon. They also believe a harmful corollary: that things that have worked in other areas to make people’s commutes better will not work in Los Angeles. Because “this is Los Angeles.”
It’s the reverse of exceptionalism.
Because over the last six and a half years, we’ve heard that Los Angeles, and Angelenos are so enamored with our vehicles that we will never be able to walk, much less ride a bike or ride transit, even though wild dogs can learn to ride transit. Following the passage of Measure R, many are starting to accept that transit is a viable option in Los Angeles, although the anti-transit theory it still pops up in some cities on the Westside.
Nowadays, we hear some mix of theories from “smart growth won’t work in Southern California,” to “road diets won’t work in Southern California” to “people won’t bicycle in Southern California.” These sort of self-defeating prophecies sap the energy out of transportation reformers, jade community activists, and generally have a corrosive impact on those seeking to make our streets safe for everyone.
By reaching outside of LADOT and Metro staff to find a new department head, Eric Garcetti is signaling the end of the pessimism and reverse exceptionalism that have marked our transportation discussions over the past years, decades, and even generations.
It is a new day, and Seleta Reynolds is a new leader.
This is not to say that there are not plenty of good, capable leaders from Greater Los Angeles that would have done a great job as the General Manager of LADOT.
The affable Zaki Mustafa at LADOT comes to mind. Long Beach’s bike visionary and grant master Sumi Gant could do the job. So could consultant Ryan Snyder who seems to have written half of the bicycle and pedestrian plans for cities throughout Southern California.
But by tapping an expert on street safety and bicycle share from outside the area, Mayor Garcetti is sending a message. Not only is he creating a safe and equitable transportation network for all road users a priority, so is ending the era of Los Angeles’ reverse-exceptionalism when it comes to transportation.
Will Reynolds succeed? Will she be Los Angeles’ Janette Sadik-Khan? Only time will tell. But not starting with a vision limited by years of hearing about what won’t work in Los Angeles gives Reynolds an advantage. By seeing Los Angeles through fresh eyes will help her see it for what it is, and what it can be, instead of being paralyzed by false fears of what it can not be and what we can not do.