Is Reynolds the Antidote to L.A.’s Defeatist Attitude on Transportation?

Seleta Reynolds (left) goes for a walk in DTLA with out-of-towner Janette Sadik-Khan. Photo:## Accident Attorneys##
Incoming LADOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds (right) goes for a walk in downtown L.A. with out-of-towner Janette Sadik-Khan. Photo: @JSadikKhan Twitter

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.

  • LAifer

    Thanks for this – an excellent rationale for why Reynolds may be just the thing LADOT needs to re-fresh its mission and its morale. Seeing her farewells to the SF Board of Supervisors at a recent meeting gives the impression that she may have some of the standard, tired Bay Area biases about (against) LA, but her initiation into our city politic should quickly dispel those and energize her to take the bull by the horns with the incredible amount of resources now at her disposal. Having Sadik-Khan’s blessing is pretty telling as well, although if she can get LA to do half of what NYC did in the same amount of time, that’d be fantastic.

    Mostly, it’ll be nice to have a fresh perspective from someone who can quickly recognize that the story of “two steps forward, one step back” of local government is not unique to LA and therefore nothing to despair when it happens here. See the story on Curbed today about new bike corrals that will soon be coming to downtown LA for a case in point given last year’s bike-sharing proposal meltdown.

    One more thing: LADOT certainly needs more money; but, more than anything, it needs a renewed sense of purpose and a new vision for what is possible in Los Angeles. The same engineers doing the same thing that they’ve been doing for 50 years is not only boring (and counter-productive) to those of us who navigate our city streets; it’s boring (and career-deadening) to LADOT’s engineers. Let’s take their analytical and computational skills and put them to new uses! She seems to be someone well-suited for just such a mission.

  • Reggie H

    Since the adoption of the bike plan, the vision and leadership at LADOT have been moving projects forward. Jaime De La Vega challenged the staff to implement 100 miles of bike lines in a year. Seleta Reynolds will continue to be a champion for safe streets and active mobility. The issue continues to be City Council politics, especially now that we have new Council members blocking projects that have been in the works for years. Given the large scope of the bike plan LADOT has added bike lanes in the areas of least resistance; where lanes could be added by narrowing existing lanes (no politics necessary) and where political support was available. The real challenge will be getting the council offices on board

  • Brian h

    I have worked with Seleta. I don’t get it.

  • davistrain

    The item about dogs riding the Moscow Metro reminded me of the story of a coyote that was found riding a Portland MAX light-rail train. Local band Sleater-Kinney even recorded “Light Rail Coyote” in honor of the rail-riding critter.

  • calwatch

    The issue is, as an outsider, can you move the bureaucracy? Sure there’s great talk about “a renewed sense of purpose and a new vision for what is possible in Los Angeles” but if you can’t get the people underneath you to row in the same direction, then you just have talk from the top. The advantage of someone who is within the organization or local is that they know the inner minefields, the forgotten individuals who need to have their voices elevated, and those who just talk a good rap but don’t execute.

    With LA’s strong civil service protection and strong unionization among both the rank and file and middle management, it remains to be seen what she can do to inspire the troops and not just demote and punish people who fail to execute her vision. She needs to listen to her troops and not impose her vision and experience on others, because the rank and file see just that on first impression – someone who has never lived in LA, dictating San Francisco to Angelenos. You can bet that Breitbart article is being passed around the email chain for fodder. And while there may not be active resistance, as David Goldstein found out, there’s always TVs on in the cafeteria for a passive fight.

  • calwatch

    There are many ways for recalcitrant engineers and planners to get around upper management dictates. I would not be surprised if some of the middle management staff (especially, since they are the ones who are from the previous regimes, as opposed to the younger engineers who are less wrapped up in the traffic as fluid mentality) are finding sympathetic Council offices and feeding them information. How do you prevent that? You can’t, since those middle managers will simply grieve and fight any transfer or demotion. You need to start with a positive vision, be inclusive of all perspectives, and learn from Los Angeles. Work collaboratively with staff, councilmembers, and the mayor, and if you are going to be bold, make sure that you have the backing of the politicians and the community, or else the people underneath you will be happy to leave you hanging dry.

  • MaxUtil

    A lot of JSK’s effectiveness came from the fact that she had the strong backing of the mayor. This enabled her to move projects forward, overriding bureaucratic resistance. Ms. Reynolds will need the same support from Mayor Garcetti and allies on the city council to move any agenda forward.

  • Joe Linton

    Don’t discount that there are also some mid-level people at LADOT who want to do livability projects but have been stymied by higher-ups. I don’t think it’s going to be easy for Reynolds, but we’ll see.

  • LAifer

    What do you mean? Cryptic.

  • ubrayj02

    I am still skeptical. Gloria Jeff was brought to LA by Villaraigosa in his first term and she had the department repeatedly audited before a staff mutiny forced her out.

    The LADOT is an incredibly powerful department – it is the sole authority for planning in the right of way. That power has been abused in the past and even now the LADOT and transportation officials rank quite low in public percpetions of trust. Additionally, council offices have an extra-legal end-run they use to make sure that city departments stay in line with individual council office wishes. Councilmembers threaten full council action against departments in order to win concessions – and like the phoned-in veto the US Senate uses, council offices get far more out of this threat that they deserve.

    Seleta Jewel is going to have to call a few of these council officials to the table and negotiate the mayors’ vision with them, or suffer defeat of his vision (see: Lankershim, Westwood, North Figueroa). Added to this is the mayor’s lack of allies on the council – he didn’t have the money and resources to help get many of these old guard state legislators elected to the council. They relied on their contacts from their days in state politics. As a result, Garcetti doesn’t exert any control over them – all he has is his positive image in the areas of the city that voted for him. If he wants action from these old Democratic electioneers, he has to let them appear at his side to raise their profiles in districts where barely 10% of the registered voters got them in office (in elections with 20% turnouts).

    If Garcetti suffers a scandal or some gaffe, his power over the council crumbles unless he has something else in reserve to twist the arms of these grumpy old men.

    Seleta has to work in this context. Can she make it rain grant money to dole out favors while also consolidating council votes Garcetti needs to make his policies happen?

    I am sure I’m only imaging half of this issue, but the North Figueroa project has shown how weak the mayor’s vision is relative to his need to secure votes on the council.

    One ace in Seleta’s sleeve, and the mayors, would be to find a way to covertly funnel support from donors to political action committees and nonprofits that support their agenda. They probably don’t have the resources or the compunction to do this, but making a political movement that follows the mayors Great Streets initiative would make any council offices defying him on this issue more beholden to the mayor for election year support and would make his request for votes on the council easier to get.

    We are missing a PAC for livable streets issues. Will Seleta and Garcetti help us create that? Help us connect with people who want to pay for a professionalizing of livable streets activism? LA has a lot of millionaires and billionaires who could make a lasting impact on this city for the money they squander on city council campaign contributions.

    LIkewise, LA’s activists need to create one, or several, groups that are ready to accept this support. Just as the mayor isn’t offering it, our advocates aren’t asking for it.

    That has to change – or our streets won’t.

  • some dude

    Younger Engineers? The department hasn’t hired an engineer in 6 years. I think the youngest guy is 28.

  • some guy

    Yes, that last paragraph is what I’m hoping for.

  • Joe Linton

    There’s no guarantees – and Mayoral backing will be critical… but I think that LADOT and L.A. streets have already stepped toward livability compared to when Gloria Jeff was GM of LADOT.

  • DMalcolmCarson

    I dunno, I’m excited about Seleta Reynolds but not sure about this particular line of argument. The story of L.A. as hopelessly and endlessly addicted to their cars actually originates more from out of towners (mostly New Yorkers, but some Bay Area folks too) who experience (and write/talk about) the city from the perspective of affluent, white Westside/Hills dwellers as opposed to that of the vast majority of people living in the actual urban core of Los Angeles (which I would say encompasses everything within five miles or so of DTLA). Angelenos who actually do live in that area, especially the younger ones, understand the nature of the city that they live in. Unfortunately, it’s also true that very few of them work for DOT/Metro. Of course this is all changing quickly . . . and that’s mostly why I’m excited for Ms. Reynolds. Clearly, from working in SF she understands how to construct streets that are safe for all users, and to the extent that she is now stepping into a city where there is a developing understanding of the need to move in a different direction, hopefully she’ll tap into that instead of listening to the naysayers.

  • BJToepper

    I asked a friend who works in the L.A. City Planner office for her estimate of colleagues who bicycle to work at least once monthly. Off the cuff, she figured it was 5 of 30 in her department — and the stat didn’t include her, as she doesn’t own a bicycle. This is higher than the general population, but still lower than one would hope for an office tasked with making streets safer. I wonder whether Reynolds will bike to work?

  • Some other guy

    Many mid-level and high-level managers at LADOT are huge advocates for active transportation. All of them are completely demoralized by more and more staff cuts and lack of support from upper management (which has changed 8 times in 10 years). LADOT hasn’t hired a single engineer since the Early Retirement years ago nor have they promoted a single engineer since then.

    Hopefully Seleta can actually manage, and not just be an advocate for the Mayor. If she proves to staff she can be a good manger, they will rally behind her and make things happen. Most staff are eager for this mission, but have been completely crushed by former managers that simply could not manage.


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