Reimagining the streets of LA

Los Angeles is transforming from a city of cars into a city of pedestrians. We talk to Seleta Reynolds, General Manager of the city’s Department of Transport, about the changing face of mobility in LA.

How would you describe the city of Los Angeles?
Los Angeles is a place that will surprise you. First and foremost what you will see and feel is an incredibly vibrant culture and the sense of a place where everything seems possible. We have a downtown that feels like a downtown that you encounter anywhere around the world, neighbourhoods like Koreatown with some of the densest pedestrian activity of anywhere west of Manhattan and the Arts District where every single building is covered in murals. These neighbourhoods are exploding with vibrancy and the love that people have for their city. There is a collision of ethnicities and cultures in Los Angeles that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.

Los Angeles seems to be a city designed for cars instead of pedestrians. Could that be, or should that be, reversed?
Los Angeles is really a city of cities; it was designed in a way that meant you have little pockets of activity and strings of neighbourhoods. Rather than having a dominant centre that everyone comes into in the morning and leaves in the evening, LA is happening all of the time in all directions. 

Los Angeles is really a city of cities.

In the past you might have had a certain neighbourhood you drove to to get your bagels or a certain neighbourhood you drove to to see a movie, but over the past ten or fifteen years those neighbourhoods have become stronger and denser and so now all those things are happening within a smaller scale. 

Has that changed the way people move around the city?
Today it is actually pretty easy to get around without a car. Our job at the Department of Transport is to make sure that we keep up with these changes. It is important for us to design streets for the way people are using them right now – but we also need to think about the ways in which we want them to be using the streets going forward. How can we make the streets safer, calmer, and more inviting for people who are walking, biking, or taking transit?

What measures have been taken to help achieve these goals?
We are fortunate to have a tremendous canvas: we have a huge city, we’ve got a lot of infrastructure in the streets, and we have a lot of investment. Two years ago, the county of Los Angeles voted for 120 billion dollars of investment in transportation and infrastructure over the next 40 years, and that includes restoring the light rail and subway system that we used to have with the Red Car lines in the ‘40s and ‘50s. These measures will continue to transform the way people move and the way people get around the city.

How else is the city transforming?
In addition to voting for greater investment in transportation, LA’s voters passed two measures called Measure JJJ and Measure H. These are not transportation measures at all – they’re actually measures designed to help us build more housing and to build higher and denser housing near public transit – but if you look at all of those things together, you see a city that is beginning to see itself in a different way. Los Angeles no longer sees itself as a city designed only for cars or as a city of suburbs but as a world city that should have housing that is welcoming and accessible for everyone and that should invest in quality public transit.

Los Angeles no longer sees itself as a city designed only for cars.

How is LA using e-mobility to improve the livability of the city?
In Los Angeles, we really see our role as activist investors. We are investing in a number of electrification initiatives from making sure the industry know that we’re going to go to all electric procurement for all of our buses in the next ten years to investing in electric vehicle car sharing – specifically to go into low income neighbourhoods – and providing the Los Angeles Police Department with electric vehicles to use in their work.

Do you have any other initiatives in the pipeline?
What you’ll see us doing next is really making tremendous investment in the build out of public charging infrastructure, and a smart grid to make sure that our electrical system can withstand the charging needs that are coming. There is no question that we have to have a much more electrified fleet of vehicles if we’re going to make progress towards our climate goals. That said, it’s not enough for people to continue to buy and own and drive exclusively their own single-occupant vehicles, even if they are all electric. We are trying to make investments that nudge people towards different choices - if it’s possible for you to get an electric sharing car near your home, perhaps you don’t need to buy a second car. If we can encourage people to view car ownership and public transport in a different way, that can help to change the overall calculus for how people are moving around Los Angeles. 

How would you define a smart city?
A smart city is a city where technology serves the city and not the other way around. A smart city is a place that is future guiding, a place that welcomes innovation but also makes sure that that innovation solves real problems. It is a city that is very clear about the problems it wants to solve, and is also a place where people inside the government are actually allowed to take thoughtful risks and occasionally to fail in the service of learning and of growing and becoming innovative. For me, it is the culture and values of the place itself that make a smart city rather than just the tactical applications of technology.

A smart city is a city where technology serves the city and not the other way around.

Where outside of Los Angeles do you look to for inspiration?
Mexico City has an amazing bus rapid transit system and I think that is something that a lot of Latin American countries share. The city of Medellin has done some amazing work using transportation to connect low-income neighbourhoods with job opportunities using a number of really novel and innovative ideas including escalators up to the Favelas. Japan and Tokyo have done some wonderful work unlocking the value of public transit; their national railway really invests in real estate and land use development around their transit stations enabling them to fund a world class transit system by capturing the value that that transit service has unlocked in terms of land use development. I also think that Seattle has done incredible work redesigning and transforming their streets to make them safe and comfortable for people to bike and walk, and that Houston was pioneering in the way it transformed their entire bus system overnight to make sure that it really served people where they lived and where they wanted to go. I am inspired by many different places and I think that there is much that we can learn from other cities around the world.

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