Public Sector Future Podcast | Episode 28: Future of Infrastructure: Changing Lanes: Equity in Transit

Episode 28 guest speaker, Seleta Reynolds

Future of Infrastructure:
Changing Lanes: Equity in Transit

with Seleta Reynolds

Seleta Reynolds, former GM of LADOT joined Jeremy Goldberg to talk about the impact of our transit system on women and how we can build more effective and equitable transportation systems.

Episode 28: Future of Infrastructure: Changing Lanes: Equity in Transit

Public Sector Future

Episode summary

Seleta Reynolds, former GM of LADOT Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT)  joined Jeremy Goldberg to talk about the impact of our transit system on women and how we can build more effective and equitable transportation systems.

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When you think of Los Angeles, you think of traffic

Los Angeles, California is often referred to as the “car capital of the world”, mostly because of its infamous traffic but also because it’s a city that’s seen as the perfect example of American independence and freedom.

“That was symbolized by the arrival of the automobile. And by the way that the Eisenhower administration built out the National Highway System in the ‘50s and ‘60s, sort of a child or a grandchild of the New Deal, that this was part of the Public Works investment of that generation.”

As a history major turned bike parking intern, Seleta Reynolds felt drawn to the work of transportation and infrastructure early on. Now she’s the General Manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

“LADOT really sits in this extremely unique position in a region that also has a reputation as being ungovernable because of the sort of fractious nature of it. You know, when people think of California, they think of it as being a very – sort of a bastion of coastal elite politics, progressive democratic politics, but the truth about Southern California is that it has a real libertarian streak. And most of this part of the state the thinking was, look, if we can just give people their water and their power, we’re just going to let them do what they want, because we have unlimited land.”

Expectations for transportation

LADOT’s role is to try and navigate between many different expectations of what transportation should look like.

“We have a huge, massive roadway network, 7,500 miles of streets and alleys that we manage and operate, 5,000 interconnected intersections. We have one of the largest and most sophisticated traffic management centers in the world, ATSAC. It was built for the ‘84 games, and it remains one of the seven wonders of the transportation nerd world, ATSAC does.”

Reynolds continued, “We also have 37,000 parking meters, and we also run a transit agency. We move about 20 million trips a year. We’re not Metro, though. Metro is a county transportation authority. They move more like 400 million trips a year, on subways and busses, and our job is to help enable that, and to help them engage in the build-out of this huge subway system, the restoration of subway service in LA, which is a big undertaking, a big job.”

Finding a lane for yourself

Seleta Reynolds managed to carve out a lane for herself in the transportation world, pun very much intended.

“Really, it was the first time I spray-painted a little dot on the sidewalk in Oakland and came back – because I was the bike parking intern, and somebody had put in – our contractor put in a bike rack, and there was a bike parked at it. You know, I was hooked. It is such an immediate – it gives such immediate feedback about the meaning that your work has in the world.”

And Reynolds was just getting started.

“I’m going out, door to door, and asking people whether or not I can put a bike rack in front of their business, and then it graduated into, now I’m going to ask them if I can put a bike lane on the street, and then it graduated into, now I’m going to ask them if I can get rid of the parking or get rid of the travel lane to put in a bus-only lane, or to put in a bike lane.”

She described her passion for this work as feeling the “magic” and “power” of being able to change infrastructure for the better:

“There was something about the fact that we were changing the conversation about who the street is for and what the street is for, and something magic about the power of moving – of geometry, moving those white lines and yellow lines around, to change behavior, to change the way that people think about their streets as truly public spaces, was really intoxicating to me.”

Just a little history…

“It’s important to understand that there are twin biases at play in the way that our transportation looks right now, and particularly the way our transit system and service functions. The transit service we have in the United States serves predominantly white-collar/9-to-5 trips. It moves. You can look at many different examples, the DC Metro, BARTA in Atlanta, BART in the Bay Area. These systems are designed to move people from suburbs to employment centers, in the morning, and take them home in the evenings, and that is the way it is, for two reasons: one is, transit funding in this country, the formula – literally, the formula is that – bureaucrats use to award projects, award projects that can reduce peak congestion, either because of – for air quality reasons, or for other reasons, and peak congestion occurs from 7 to 9 and 4 to 6, or it used to, right?”

Obviously the pandemic has changed how many people commute to work and when, but there were issues with this system long before COVID.

“The other bias that’s at play, when it comes to the way that our system functions is that – transportation field is predominantly male and men have traditionally sort of served that role of going to work at 9 in the morning and coming home by 5:00 in the evening, and these are the people who are planning the system, and all of the data that they’re getting back about when people are driving, when the congestion happens, and how both state and federal regulators are going to fund and measure their system performance, is that that’s what they need to deal with. They need to address these two sort of peaks of congestion.” 

The problem with that approach is that not everyone follows a 9-5 schedule and a lot of folks use public transportation for trips that don’t have anything to do with work.

“You know, as it turns out, most of the trips that any of us make in a given day, even if we have 9-to-5 office jobs, are – are not commute trips. There’s a whole bunch of other trips that we make during our day, and that is even more true for women. Women do a lot more of what’s called trip-chaining than men do. They’ve got to drop the kids off at school, they’ve got to go to work, they’ve got to go pick up the dry cleaning, they’ve got to pick up a prescription for their parents, they’ve got to – you know, get the kid to the afterschool activity, and then they’ve got to get back home again.”

Reynolds continued, “And I’m embarrassed to say, it had never occurred to me that I needed to think about that specifically. You know, obviously, I’ve been a woman, I’ve lived in a lot of different places, a woman with small kids, a woman traveling with my elders, a woman with and without a car, but it had never occurred to me to sort of think about how we might study that more broadly and understand that problem.”

The Changing Lanes Study

A recent report from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation provided some findings that are particularly interesting around gender equity in transportation.

Speaking to host, Jeremy Goldberg, Reynolds explained that “this project happened because people are so burnt out, fragile and overwhelmed at this point, but it’s also a huge moment for us to think about where are we spending our time and how could we spend it differently, and what are the things that will only happen because you, Jeremy, are in the position you have, or I’m in the position that I have, and let’s make sure that we make time and space for those.”

That moment of realization led to the creation of the Changing Lanes Study.

“So, the study came to be because of that, and what we learned from it were that there were a lot of low-tech things that we could do for women and girls, right away, that had nothing to do with technology, and because as I described early – earlier, a lot of the forces that led us to this moment, where women are really disenfranchised because of the transportation system’s failures, those are systemic reasons and they require systemic responses, and systemic responses are only possible if you have – have an organized coalition of folks who have focused asks for what they want.”

Some of the stories that came out of this study were heartbreaking.

“Women who – you know, because bus service is not reliable, they can’t get to church to worship in fellowship with their community. Because there is no bus service that takes them to – or any service that takes them to recreational areas, park, nature, the beaches, they never go there. Because it takes them two transfers and two hours to get out to some part of the county, to visit their families that live there, they only do it once a year, even though maybe they live 20 miles away.

You know, women were saying, ‘Listen, I have already been on two busses to get to the grocery store. I’m coming home. I’ve got my arms full of groceries. It’s dark outside. I’ve got my two young kids with me. Can’t I just get the bus to stop where I need it to stop and not have to walk an extra five blocks?’”

Reynolds went on to say that these simple trips are some of the most important, because they’re the most vital to a community’s mental wellbeing and to their health. And that her team at LADOT owes a debt to the citizens who make these trips, to try and make their lives a little bit easier.

What does inclusive infrastructure mean?

It’s an important question to ask, but not so easy to answer.

“The only way to get the answer to that question is to do community-based research, to really go and fund people to come and participate in conversations and to share their lived experience. And so my first piece of advice to anybody in a transit or transportation agency is, number one, take a look at the data you already have and disaggregate it by gender, because you will see a different story will begin to emerge.”

Women have a very different experience on public transportation than men do, for example, and their data should be included in transportation infrastructure as well.

“I lead a big agency, and I sit inside a very traditional old-school bureaucracy. And I believe in government. I believe in the power of systems. I’m comfortable working inside big institutional contexts to try and like disrupt them and move them forward, and you know, I’m an organizational management geek, and I love talking about culture change inside a bureaucracy like LADOT, but one of the places where I have felt very much like an outlier is in this discussion of returning to work. 

And I think this really hits on a whole bunch of things that we’ve talked about. How do we think differently about work? How do we think differently about, and specifically for me, transportation and work? And how do we take a more inclusive approach?”

Remote work has become increasingly popular during the pandemic and an inclusive workplace now should include the option for employees to work from home due to disability or illness. Or at least be open to hearing what employees want.

Reynolds is definitely listening to her team: “I’m in the middle of our third employee survey on how working from home has gone for LADOT, and trying to lift that up, and also make the transportation argument that it is better for everyone if we do not go back to the way that it was before.”

She concludes, “So, that’s the thing that’s top of mind for me, but there’s a generational clash too, around sort of hanging on to an old way of doing things. And every time we have another surge, every time there is another moment where we’re talking about shutting things down again, or wearing masks, I just think to myself, the virus is not going to be done with us until we’ve learned whatever lessons we needed to learn. And we’re not, we’re not there yet.”

To find out more:

Changing Lanes: A Gender Equity Transportation Study

Public Sector Future Podcast | Episode 20: Inclusivity and Sustainability in Education

Public Sector Future Podcast | Episode 24: Future of Infrastructure: Re-linking a Community

Public Sector Future Podcast | Episode 7: Accessibility in the public sector

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