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.

  • Carter R

    Thanks for the explanation.

    I’d love to see LaHood throw some Bike/Ped improvement funds at LA to bolster the 30/10 plan.

  • The buck does have to stop somewhere, and the LADOT is the place.

    The agency has near total control over transportation planning issues in L.A. The changes bike and pedestrian advocates are asking for a cheap, easy, and politically uncontroversial in many cases.

    I knew there was a reason I posted that video on YouTube!

  • Marcotico

    Great editorial Damien. I couldn’t agree more. I remember reading a story about Robinson and how great she had been at the sanitation bureau, and I’ve been thinking the same thing. Wasn’t she an innovator? What happened? I hope she reads this blog posting, or someone sends it to her, to remind her what she capable of.

  • It’s reminiscent to me of a quote from LADOT’s Assistant General Manager John Fisher. In a January 30th 2002 LA Times article, Fisher, responding to a surge in pedestrian deaths, stated “Whether a pedestrian is killed or seriously injured is often by the grace of God”

    LADOT leadership: it’s not magic, it’s not god – it’s appropriate design that prioritizes safety, not just more and more and more cars every where all the time.

    Robinson and Villaraigosa have shown leadership in the past. It’s critically important that they show leadership now – as the department reorganizes – or we’ll continue to repeat the failed mobility priorities of the past.

  • “basket fool of amazing analogies” – apt typo!

  • You can’t separate Rita and Mayor V. Everyone I talk to who has any close contact with GMs says that Mayor V’s GMs follow his marching orders. If DOT hasn’t been making improvements for vulnerable road users, that’s on Mayor V.

  • Alex you’re right, but then again who is really running the DOT? Robinson has stated quite clearly in public that she knows nothing about transportation issues. She is reliant on senior staff and managers in the department to guide her through the issues she faces. Both she and Villaraigosa, as well as councilmembers are subject to a department well versed in exploiting the ignorance of those that dare to question “staff decisions”. To put it bluntly, DOT staff lie and intimidate our elected leaders behind closed doors. There must be some loose cabal of staff members fighting to maintain their control over affairs to serve their own petty ijnterests. It’s either that or the LADOT is an out of control legal shell that hides a bizarre and ungovernable culture of civic destruction. Heck, maybe it’s both.

    So, while the mayor is to blame, names need to be named and policies need to be amended in the light of day. The death and blight of the LADOT’s policies is more than a reasonable society can stand.

  • Ubrayj,

    I wonder about the same scenarios. I spoke with a city employee recently who said “DOT isn’t monolithic”. Then, in the following conversation, we subsequently agreed that it is opaque, then agreed it is huge, it is inpenetrable. That pretty much describes monolithic to me!

    Still, aren’t Assistant GM’s exempt from civil service? If a GM really wanted to shake up the department, they could start letting AGMs go, then promote the problem employees beneath them, and let them go too.

    The civil service protection in LA is waaaaaaayyy too strong.

  • Carter R

    One of the interesting threads throughout this whole discussion is how LA is grappling with 1950s Era progressive governance reform, which was a response to Chicago/NY boss-party politics.

    Not saying ours is better/worse. Each has its problems, but it makes you wonder if were running up against a whole political system was shaped and designed by those and to serve those white middle class mid-westerners who moved to LA after the war, and wanted an honest slice of the Garden City: a backyard, two kids, two cars, etc.

    Can a political system founded by those people, with their erstwhile noble ambitions, really work for what contemporary LA needs? To address our current challenges?

    Let’s continue with the probing. Meanwhile, were seeing the old gears grinding and lurching all around, starting with the school system and its transformation before our eyes.

  • “basket fool of amazing analogies” – apt typo!
    You’re right. I’m leaving it.

  • Carter R you are exactly right – the system was set up to maintain control in the hands of a white upper class. Power has changed hands to those of different ethnic backgrounds, but the structure of power in L.A. is very similar to that which ran the city throughout the late 20th century. So, you can have a mixed bag of Asian and Middle Eastern engineers holding fast to urban design principles set out in the 1930’s meant to ensure that poor minority neighborhoods (and businesses) were ruined, street life was cut off, and the social fabric disrupted in favor of suburban, auto-oriented, white-only, tract development. There are a bunch of news articles about “cutting out the rot” in LA and other euphamisms for paving over less prosperous neighborhoods throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s that attest to this design focus for our car-only road network.

    Back then, this system made a bunch of white men rich. Now, I’m not sure who’s being made rich or who, exactly, is benefiting. It’s just a weird sort of institutional inertia or something.

    The LADOT is a meat grinder, and the people of LA are the meat. You can try and switch the meat up, but to the butcher operating the machine it’s all the same.

    We need a paradigm shift, and Robinson and the mayor need to be on point to make it happen. To me, Robinson needs to show us that she can reform this department, and get the car lovers in check.

  • la rider

    This reminds me of when I first entered the workforce. There were always people who had stayed way past their prime and were deliberately sabotaging any sort of progress because they were uncomfortable with change.

    A clean sweep of administration with new people and a can do attitude will do a a lot of good.

    Right now we have ‘old’ (not literally) people rotting away in important decision maker roles.

  • la rider

    Thinking outside the box (I know, overused term) is what we need.

  • Chris Loos

    Good post.

    The problem is a lack of leadership. LA has yet to find its Bloomberg or it’s Sadik-Khan. There’s no reason that LA can’t make the same changes NYC did, but unfortunately I don’t think its going to happen with the current players; it would have happened already.

  • The “institutional inertia” is called automobility, the result of decades of planning only for car travel. The baseline for mobility here in LA is driving; if you don’t own a car, you must be some poor loser (the general public might say). Now that there are more and more people choosing to go carfree, things will slowly shift, but not only is the built environment designed to accommodate the free flow of automotive traffic, people have spent their lives driving and thinking of cars as status symbols. Even academics in the LA School of urbanism have reinforced the idea that the right way to travel in LA is by car, instead of challenging the corporate interests that promote car ownership as a key component of being a valuable citizen. Oh yeah, baby, I’m gonna get that PhD!

  • btw I totally disagree with the idea that LA is better suited for cars, we have a grid and plenty of room for bikes. I’m just pointing out that this is what people think; even cosmopolitan New Yorkers get off flights at LAX and rent a car because it’s LA.

  • Adonia, I agree with you completely. As a car-free cyclist, I have gotten to the point that when people suggest taking a car anywhere in LA, I have to do a double take. For one, it’s just not in my mentality anymore. But also, it’s such a bikeable city, the grid-street pattern, the flat terrain (minus the gigantor potholes), LA’s street design, with some re-adjustment in the way of sharrows, bike lanes, or even better sidewalks, is much better suited for the car-free lifestyle. Hello? Downtown and Santa Monica are only separated by like 15 miles (I know, I bike it regularly). It’s not like we’re Jacksonville, FL, where it’s literally 50 miles from one side to the other.


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