Not Your Parents’ LADOT

LADOT General Manager Seleta Reyolds. Photo by Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.
LADOT General Manager Seleta Reyolds. Photo by Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

One of the nice things about shopping for food and eating in France is that the quality is assured by rigorous government regulation. While some boulangeries are better than others, in general, consumers can find a good quality baguette in any bakery.

Refreshingly, the same might be said about the Westside Urban Forum‘s (WUF) monthly breakfast events. Without the regulation, of course. While I wish WUF events were held at more transit-friendly locations west of the 405, attendees are always assured a great presentation on a timely topic. Today’s event with Los Angeles City Transportation Department (LADOT) General Manager Seleta Reynolds was no exception.

The format — Ms. Reynolds interviewed by Brian Taylor, Professor of Urban Planning and Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies and Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at UCLA — allowed for an informative, free-ranging session focused on complete streets, transit, competing priorities for L.A.’s roads, and safety. Reynolds is an experienced transportation leader who talks streets and mobility without getting too bogged down in the jargon of transportation engineering.

The talk began with a little on her background as a then-newly-minted history major working as an intern creating bike parking for the City of Oakland. To paraphrase, transportation is a lot like history, in that we are all looking at the asphalt with different opinions about how it should be used and what its design should look like.

Ms. Reynolds went on to describe the radical recycling of streets and public space that started in New York City under the leadership of Janette Sadik-Khan at the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT).

Reynolds has only been in her job for six months, but if all goes as planned, what has been said of the NYCDOT under Sadik-Khan might become true of LADOT: this is not your parents’ LADOT. This agency says they do something and they do it.

To illustrate the challenges LADOT faces, the General Manager spoke about L.A.’s Great Streets Program. Great Streets is L.A.’s “effort to activate public spaces, provide economic revitalization, increase public safety, enhance local culture, and support great neighborhoods…by reimagining our streetscape.”

One person in the audience aptly called Great Streets’ initial candidates, streets hand-selected by the City Council rather than a more data-driven process.

According to Reynolds, while some streets like Central Ave. in South L.A. have been studied to death and stakeholders are just awaiting implementation, in the case of others, like Venice in Mar Vista, “you have to show up with not a whiff of an agenda.” The General Manager believes that in South L.A., Mar Vista, on Western in Koreatown, Broadway downtown, and elsewhere, LADOT has an opportunity to try things out and hopefully exploit the intersection of arts, for which L.A. is known, and transportation. The changes ultimately will range from a light touch by LADOT to a wholesale rearranging of the furniture of our street.

Interviewer Brian Taylor did a good job keeping things moving while getting a chuckle from the audience for his shameless plug of UCLA’s excellent urban planning program and its upcoming Complete Streets Conference. Save the May 14th date for what might be called the Compete Streets conference, given the competing priorities of stakeholders. Whose street is it anyway? 

Note to Professor Taylor: Call me if you need help with the UCLA transportation program’s branding and promotion.

In her comments, Reynolds acknowledged that bike riders’ and pedestrians’ concerns don’t always dovetail, in spite of their historic pairing, and that safety of the pedestrian (and biker) must be paramount.

WUF attendees tend to come prepared and one of the harder questions for the General Manager came from an audience member who wanted to hear her plan to address L.A.’s accidental freeways — local streets like Highland and Crescent Heights that have become de facto rush-hour freeways. We can all name others. On this, Reynolds punted a bit, saying we really don’t have a guidebook yet for L.A. and need to be on the same page about our design options. It’s unclear in L.A. who gets to be the decider, and we need to get the playbook right.

Regarding public transit, Reynolds outlined how LADOT is an important transit provider with its affordable DASH and Commuter Express bus lines. She called DASH the world’s largest neighborhood circulator and a bargain at 50 cents a ride. WiFi and mobile fare purchase are two recent improvements to the program which has a surplus (don’t tell the City Council). Reynolds hinted that further changes are coming to enhance realignment aimed at improving how people get to and from Metro’s trunk line service. Quoting her aunt, Reynolds said, “If you always do what you always did, you get what you always got.” The design piece is always the hardest one.

On bus rapid transit which is coming, finally, to Wilshire Blvd., Reynolds recommended we look to what has and will be happening on Metro’s successful Orange Line.

Reynolds implied that, now that the Orange Line is very much a fixture in the San Fernando Valley, we will be seeing more frequent service, timed signals for buses, and faster speeds. Let’s hope for the same on the Expo Line as it crosses Washington Blvd. It was my understanding that Caltrans, not Metro or LADOT, was to blame for the light rail line’s excruciatingly slow speeds as it enters and leaves downtown.

Reynolds and Taylor discussed a lot more, including the impact that technology like driverless vehicles and transportation apps will have on transportation: “The way we think about streets for vehicle storage is going to change.”

One of the most interesting observations the General Manager made was regarding the disconnect between what shop owners think about their customers’ behaviors and the reality. Citing recent research, Reynolds underscored the need to bust the myth that parking means more business. She noted that pedestrians, bike riders, and transit riders tend to spend more money at local stores in most instances than drivers.

I look forward to learning more about that research and to WUF’s next program.

Yours in transit,
Joel

Joel Epstein writes on transportation and urban life. He is a Streetsblog L.A. Board Member and 2009 Streetsie award winner for Writer of the Year. This article first appeared at the Huntington Post, and is published here by permission of its author.

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