By Damien Newton, September 15, 2014
Seleta Reynolds speaks at the ribbon cutting for the “Dress Rehearsal” on Broadway.
(If you want to skip the article and the editing and just listen to our half-hour conversation, click here. – DN)
If you spend some time with the newly minted General Manager of the Los
Angeles Department of Transportation, you would think she was an LADOT
lifer not a recent transplant from the San Francisco MTA.
She can speak eloquently of the “great heart” that Los Angeles’ people have, belying the image projected by Hollywood.
Dressed in a suit and bike helmet, she points out road hazards on her
bike commute to work. Weaves around every pothole, manhole, and
cracked street with the knowledge of a regular.
She can even recite DOT history going back years, thanks in part to her avid interest in reading Streetsblog.
It’s not until you visit her office that you remember Seleta Reynolds
has been on the job at LADOT for roughly a month. The walls are nearly
barren. A map of her first project at Fehr and Peers, the Morro Street
Bicycle Boulevard in San Luis Obispo, had arrived the day before our
But you don’t need blank walls to tell you that Reynolds is a true
breath of fresh air to a department that, in the past, has primarily
prioritized a perceived need to drive quickly. Reynolds talked about
community and community building in response to questions about the
equity in transportation funding, relationships with the City Council,
and building a bicycle share system that will work in the Los Angeles
And it’s these new ideas, and a new commitment to an LADOT that is
people-focused, that has advocates, and our political leadership, so
excited. When announcing her nomination to head LADOT, Mayor Eric
Garcetti referred to her as “ideal field marshal in our war against
traffic.” City Council Transportation Committee Chair Mike Bonin was
just as illustrative in an email responding to this story, “Seleta is a
rock star – a game-changer – who will lead the charge to get Los Angeles
I could write a full story on each of the eight topics we covered
last Tuesday, but instead I’ve broken up the audio into more manageable
three or four minute segments with a short summary. This can all be
found after the jump.
We begin the interview with a discussion of some of her previous
work, spring boarding off the only decoration in her office: a framed
poster from the Morro Street Bike Boulevard project in San Luis Obispo.
Streetsblog Los Angeles actually profiled Morro Street
in a freelance piece by Drew Reed in 2010. But as you would expect, the
projects in San Francisco are nearest and dearest to her heart.
She brought up two projects as favorites, bike share, which we’ll
discuss in a moment, and protected bike lanes. Reynolds takes pride in San Francisco’s first parking-protected bike lane on JFK Parkway in Golden Gate Park, and
the Fell and Oak Street protected bike lane which removed 105 parking
spaces to create a protected bikeway. Most of the parking was moved to
an adjacent street. The character of Fell and Oak is forever changed.
“It’s really satisfying to see a design like that in action,” she
said of the bikeway on JFK. “In hindsight, what made New York City’s
parking-protected bikeways so powerful was that they took these heavily
used traffic sewers and made them into beautiful streets. On JFK Drive
that wasn’t the case. We had a wide street in the middle of the park and
we changed it. It was really useful from a design perspective, but it
wasn’t as transformative as what we did next on Fell and Oak Street.”
Next, we discuss the status of bike
share in Los Angeles, and how her experience with Bay Area Bike Share
can inform Los Angeles bike share implementation.
On one hand, the Bay Area Bike Share program shows that bike share
works best where there is a concentration of different land uses,
density, and a strong bike network. On the other hand, those conditions
don’t exist in enough places in Los Angeles to create a true region-wide
system similar to Citi Bike in New York.
“Half the bikes are in San Francisco, as are 90% of the trips,” she
explained of Bay Are Bike Share. “It’s OK if we have several pockets of
successful bike share systems because I imagine that the recipe to have a
successful bike share system only exists in pockets.”
For Reynolds, a successful bike share program is dependent on a
well-explained and attainable goal. For example, many of the bikes
outside of San Francisco are used to address a “first-mile, last-mile”
problem for Caltrain commuters. By design, these bicycles won’t have as
many trips as a bike in Downtown San Francisco where a bike can be used
many times over the course of a day. Given that thus far Metro has been
the largest source of funds for bike share in L.A. County, a similar
program could be coming to Los Angeles at some point.
As mentioned, Reynolds and I rode our bikes from her Silver Lake
neighborhood to her office in Downtown Los Angeles. Our commute started
on Sunset Boulevard where we rode the bike lanes to Figueroa Street.
From there we headed through the 2nd Street Tunnel and took a detour
into the Caltrans building’s underground parking lot where we chained up
at the bike area before heading upstairs.
Yes, there’s a place in the Caltrans building to lock-up besides the bike-shaped bike racks out front.
During the commute, I observed the General Manager ride competently
and knowingly. This wasn’t a promotional ride to appeal to Streetsblog
users, Reynolds actually bikes to work on occasion. Not an aggressive
cyclist, she rides as someone who is familiar and comfortable on the
street, waiting for drivers to provide an opening when we needed to make
a left, pointing out cracks and other obstacles and doing the little
things that make for a smooth group bike ride.
During the interview, when I asked about lessons we could learn from
the commute, I expected a discussion of the 2nd Street Tunnel protected
bike lane, which actually had all of its plastic pylons in-place Tuesday
morning. Instead, we had a discussion of what can be done to make
Sunset and Figueroa better streets in the long and short term.emand for a different kind of street,” she began.
“It’s the gaps. Sunset itself could be a good place to start talking
about what we want our streets to do and be for us in the long term. In
the short term, it’s tightening up the gaps. Leaving bread-crumbs of
green for people to get across those really hairy scary connections, or
put in two-stage left-turns to cross major intersections like Figueroa and 2nd.”
“The City has a lot of heart,” Reynolds said deep in an answer to a
question on what’s surprised her. But what surprised me was a candid
answer about the state of an agency that has taken its share of hits and
more than a handful of leadership changes in the last couple of years.
“The thing that has surprised me about LADOT is how committed a lot
of folks here are to change and how open they are to change,” she began.
“I think that the depth of the cuts that have happened at this
department and the constant change over in leadership at the General
Manager position…the depth of what that’s done to moral has surprised me
in a not-so-positive way.”
There are still folks here, a lot of them, that are ready to move on to the next thing and do something new.
Outreach to Disadvantaged Communities
One thing that is shaping the debate on transportation projects in
Los Angeles’ less-affluent communities is the idea that while the
proposed street improvement is better than the status quo, the city is
not addressing larger issues that plague these areas. While this is a
more-than-valid point from a big-picture perspective, with the way
budgeting works it is not as though canceling a bike lane project would
lead to more money to provide better healthcare.
However, Reynolds both accepted the premise of the question and
conceded that it was not one with an easy answer. She first provides an
illustration about how proper community-based transportation projects
could lead to improvements in areas of greater concern to a community
than whether or not the crosswalks are visible and the bike lanes are
the proper width.
“We have a public health crisis in these neighborhoods, and it starts
on the streets,” she started. ”That’s where I would start the
conversation. The biggest predictor of fatalities on a street is speed,
and the biggest factor in speed on your street is design.”
After pressing for better public outreach to reach people in times
and places where it is most convenient, Reynolds picked back on the
theme that street improvements have a ripple effect on other parts of
“There’s that famous work from the 1970′s that the width of the
street actually contributes to crime. The wider and faster a street is,
the more crime you’ll see in that neighborhood because our streets
contribute to social isolation. Or…they can contribute to bringing
people together in strong communities. That helps get at the other
problems on the list.”
City Council Relationship
Our question was two-pronged on relations between LADOT and the City
Council. How should the Transportation Department interact with the
Council on policy, and then with individual Councilmembers on politics?
Reynolds didn’t take the bait and comment on specific Councilmembers,
but did make clear that she understands the Council’s role, as a
“The Council clearly sets policy.”
However, when it came to the department’s role on policy delivery,
Reynolds went into detail about building community consensus for
“When it comes time to redesign a street, first of all the Department
of Transportation needs to change the way it engages communities. We
need to start the conversation in a different way than we are now. We
need to get more constituents to the table, specifically those that we
don’t usually engage,” she explains.
“What happens when you have neighborhoods that do their own
transportation planning without experts in the room…what you get is
plans that LADOT has to be in the position to say, ‘we can’t legally do
that…’ or ‘that doesn’t solve the problem we’re trying to solve.’”
Glendale-Hyperion Bridge Redesign
Later this month, LADOT is expected to weigh-in on its preferred
alternative road alignment for the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge redesign.
Rejecting the matrix that led to a highway-style original design,
Reynolds gave three criteria for picking among the three alternatives:
safety, community development, and the results of the ongoing community
“Streets that are safest for the most vulnerable users are safest for
everyone. When I think about design, when I think about that bridge,
that is the issue that is in the front of my mind.”
“If it were a great place, people could be proposed to on that
bridge. It’s the gateway to the L.A. River. It’s a gateway to Atwater
Currently, there are three proposed designs for the bridge. Safety
advocates want to see a road diet with bike lanes that maintains the
sidewalks. Speeding traffic advocates have accepted the bike lanes, but
want to see the traffic lanes maintained.
And now for the sad news: our new friend will not be at next month’s
CicLAvia. Apparently a high-school reunion was scheduled, tickets were
bought, and our General Manager was once class president and helped set
the whole thing up. Sad.
However, the answer to our “magic wand” question was something of a
surprise. Traditionally, the last questions I ask in interviews is what
the interviewee would do if they could change anything about Greater Los
Angeles with the wave of a magic wand. Reynolds focus wasn’t on bikes
or crosswalks, but on changing the car culture.
“If you look at the west coast as a spectrum, and you start in
Vancouver and Seattle and you come down to Los Angeles the difference in
driving culture is pronounced,” Reynolds stated.
“The neighborhood I lived in, (in Seattle) had no stop signs, and
they (the streets) were extremely narrow. You could just get one car
through at a time. So you had to make eye contact with the other driver
and someone would have to pull over to make someone pass. Then you would
wave and be on your way. You had to work collaboratively to make a
common goal. It was amazing.”
In the end, that may be Reynolds’ biggest challenge: getting L.A.’s
road users to see us all working together towards a common goal.