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Department of Transportation General Manager Seleta Reynolds Talks DASH Buses, Pedestrian Safety and the Idea of Car-Free Streets in Downtown

When Seleta Reynolds graduated from Brown University in 1998, she had an American history degree but no clue as to a career path.

She took on an internship with the city of Oakland, thinking it could be a worthwhile stopgap. Instead, it plunged her into a career in public service. That eventually led to her to San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency, where she won accolades for her work leading teams in the Livable Streets division, focusing on bicycle and pedestrian issues and traffic calming from 2011-14.

Mayor Eric Garcetti hired her away to run the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, with an eye toward finding ways to improve the city not just for drivers, but also for walkers, cyclists and transit users. She started the job in August 2014 and now oversees a department with nearly 1,900 employees, a $650 million annual budget and responsibilities including the DASH bus system and parking enforcement.

Reynolds, 40, is seeking to provide stability to a department that before her arrival saw seven GMs in a 13-year span. During an interview in her 10th-floor office in the gleaming Caltrans District 7 building in the Civic Center, she talked about her adjustments to the department, Downtown projects and the future of transportation.

Los Angeles Downtown News: A lot of people hope to see DASH service expanded in Downtown, especially into the Arts District. Is that coming?

Seleta Reynolds: Amen! [Laughs] We’re very close.

In Downtown, there’s a lot of redundancy in the DASH lines, and since they were put in place, different parts of Downtown have come to prominence. When I want to go over to the Arts District and I jump on the D or A, it just doesn’t get me all the way there. So it’s a priority for me to get DASH into the Arts District and I think it’s important for the future of that neighborhood.

The Arts District is such a high-demand place with a lot of development. I want it to be covered with transportation options. I want it to have bike share stations all over the place, frequent DASH service, all that, so when people move to the Arts District it’s partly because they know those choices are there and that’s the lifestyle they want.

Q: In general, how is the health of DASH and its funding pool?

A: DASH doubled its fare from 25 cents to 50 cents after dealing with some huge service cuts about five years ago. Those are tough conversations to have with the community, because DASH is a lifeline service — it serves low- and very-low-income folks. We have lost riders, even with a fare as low as 50 cents, because we doubled the cost.

As a result of that, though, DASH has a good funding reserve and we are able to contemplate the addition of a couple of lines, at least. Now’s the time when we want to give back some of the service that was removed and come up with creative fare structures, similar to how if you pay with your TAP card now, you get a discount down to 35 cents.

Q: One of your most important initiatives is Vision Zero, the campaign to eliminate pedestrian deaths by 2025. Where is the effort?

A: We’re almost done with our crash profiling, where we identify high-injury networks — where we have the most severe crashes with people walking or biking. Now we’re doing the deep dive into “Why?” It’s kind of like archaeology: What can we learn from the crash reports that we get from the enforcement side of the department, and how do we layer that info on top of what we know about the physical environment?

The trends that have been emerging, particularly in Downtown, are pedestrian crashes that happen when drivers are turning, predominantly when they’re turning left. Hit-and-runs and insobriety continue to be an issue for both drivers and people involved in crashes.

There are a lot of places that simply have missing infrastructure, where people are crossing the street and there are no crosswalks, or people are on bikes but without any biking infrastructure. That means they’re doing things like riding the wrong way on the street or engaging in other types of behaviors that make perfect sense if you look at conditions on the street but can lead to tragic outcomes.

In Downtown, we’ve made small but important steps. The lane consolidation on Broadway was a good first step. We’ve put in 16 pedestrian head start crossing signals around Downtown. We’re also embarking on a redesign of Main and Spring streets, plus our first protected bikeway in Downtown is being built on Los Angeles Street.

Q: We’ve written about pedestrians getting jaywalking tickets for crossing the street when the countdown timer is on, but these kind of policies seem to go against promoting walking. What needs to change?

A: The whole reason we rolled out the countdown signals to begin with was to diminish the number of people who were caught in the crosswalk when the opposing vehicles got the green. People know whether they can make it in time or not. I hope it’s a policy change we can seek at the state level, because the police are out there enforcing the law as written — that you are not allowed to step into a crosswalk during the countdown.

Q: What do you think of the proposed Downtown streetcar? There are concerns that it won’t live up to its transit potential, especially with it sharing lanes amid pretty significant congestion.

A: I think that Councilman [José] Huizar has been one of the most progressive champions for transportation that I’ve encountered in city government, period, and not just in L.A. The streetcar is clearly one of his topline priorities in giving people more choice in how they get around.

I tend to agree that the streetcars — and I’ve seen a lot of research on this — that operate in exclusive lanes are simply a higher level of transit service. I would like that, but what I hope will happen is we’ll start to move toward a real conversation about car-free streets in Downtown. The streetcar is a project designed to capture people’s imaginations. It could help us think about things that Angelenos would have never thought possible in their city.

Q: What have you noticed about the differences in how politics impacts transportation policy in this city?

A: I wasn’t as closely tied to the political side of things in San Francisco, so there’s less to compare directly. But I have noticed that, in San Francisco, technical experts from the department would be expected to show up and have mastery of the topic and deal with very tough questions, with lots of public back-and-forth with elected officials. That doesn’t seem to be the tradition here.

It’s just not as often that you see robust public dialogue. There needs to be a safe space for that to occur. Part of that is, my engineers and planners need to know that if they make a mistake while speaking, I have their back. But it’s a lot of work, and not everyone is comfortable with it. This can lead to a place where people hold their cards very tightly and not be open and honest.

Q: Do you often hear from critics who disagree with your focus on pedestrians and cyclists instead of just improving conditions for drivers?

A: Oh yeah. [Laughs] But there is no war on cars. We’re trying to give people choices because we see that, even though you think of L.A. as a place of traffic, there are a lot of people here that don’t have access to a car. And I need to make the city work for those people.

You can get to about 12 times as many jobs in an hour in a car as you can by transit in L.A. Homelessness is a huge problem in Downtown and the whole city, and the way I’m going to keep people from becoming homeless is to make sure they have a reliable way to get to work.

There’s also a huge disruption in transportation coming. I don’t want it to be more of the same when driverless vehicles arrive. I don’t want them to be available to only the very wealthy.

My way of easing congestion is to invest in other modes and help them catch up. You’re looking at a city that has spent the better part of the last 60 years trying to make it easy to drive, and you can see the results.

We cannot keep doing the same things and expect a different outcome.

Source: Los Angeles Downtown News
May 16, 2016
By Eddie Kim, photo by Gary Leonard