Why you should care

If even Angelenos can embrace carless transportation, we’ll know something awfully big is happening to American cities.

Many of us like the idea of a walkable city, but in practice? Not always — not even in “green” San Francisco, where, until recently, municipal transport chief Seleta Reynolds had to work to convince property owners that bike lanes are better than parking spaces. Now Reynolds has her sights on a task that few would dare contemplate: transforming one of the most traffic-choked, car-centric cities in the U.S. into one that loves pedestrians and cyclists, too.

We’re talking about Los Angeles, of course, where the avenues are wide, the sidewalks sometimes nonexistent and hoofing it is a fool’s errand. But Reynolds seems to relish the challenge. As the new head of the city’s transportation department, the sunny Southerner is aiming for more biking, car-share and public-transport options and, yes, pedestrian-friendly streets. Should her vision succeed in LA, Reynolds explains, “you could do it anywhere.”

It felt like Los Angeles was in its moment.

— Seleta Reynolds, new head of the city’s department of transportation

Reynolds will need every ounce of that can-do attitude: Were she Captain Ahab, LA would be the great white whale. Consider: In San Francisco, about 16 percent of the population uses public transportation, according to an analysis by Joseph Kane of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. In Los Angeles, only 6 percent do. The city of LA comprises 500 square miles, more than double the size of San Francisco. That doesn’t count the 80-odd towns that surround the city proper, either, from Santa Monica to Culver City to Pasadena. And residents traditionally are attached to their cars. A recent neighborhood meeting in Highland Park to talk bike lanes verged on “a full-on riot,” recounts Gloria Ohland, of the public-transportation advocacy group Move LA.

But much like the rest of urban America, the City of Angels is changing. Over the past decade, middle-class residents have descended in droves upon downtown Los Angeles’ neighborhoods, creating hipster havens from onetime dead zones. Ridership on public transportation, which nationally is the highest it’s been in 50 years, has ticked up in LA, too, though from a low bar. Mayor Eric Garcetti made “livable” streets — welcoming to not just cars, but also other forms of transport — a top priority when he entered office in 2013, and Reynolds says that “progressive view of transportation” appealed to her when she was contacted about the job. “It felt like Los Angeles was in its moment.”

A portrait of Seleta Reynolds

Seleta Reynolds

Source Photo Courtesy Seleta Reynolds

It’s a long way from Jackson, Mississippi, where Reynolds grew up. The youthful-looking 39-year-old fell into transportation policy mostly by accident: She got her first job post-college, interning for the City of Oakland, California, on a program to install bike racks, because a roommate knew the woman in charge. But threads from a childhood spent on bikes and walks with her mom echo through her work today.

Now she’s the unique public servant who actually enjoys the bureaucratic scrum. Recalling her days working for the City of Oakland, Reynolds says, “I really loved having a front-row seat to city politics, watching how the city council navigated some tough issues.” As a member of the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, which works on alternate transportation planning, “she jumped right in to head the bylaws revision committee, which you can imagine is not everyone’s favorite job,” says the group’s executive director, Kit Keller. Reynolds became the organization’s president in the late 2000s. She now says improving employee morale at the beleaguered Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) — which has seen eight managers in the last 12 years — is near the top of her to-do list.

Despite the new energy and money for alt-transport (read: not cars) in Los Angeles, the entrenched car culture will be very hard to dislodge.

But her real passion is pedestrian safety, which she argues is “a public health crisis on the streets.” Though deaths from violent crime in the U.S. have hit an all-time low, the number “dying just trying to get around town is holding still or rising,” she notes, and stats from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration bear her out. A tragic 2013 accident in San Francisco provided the momentum for Vision Zero, a city project to eliminate pedestrian deaths. Reynolds headed up its first phase. In LA, she’ll build off the mayor’s new “Great Streets” initiative, which targets 15 stretches where, the city thinks, neighborhood investment will pay off. There will be trade-offs — including dreaded proposals to eliminate car lanes — that enrage folks in neighborhood forums.

Despite the new energy and money for alt-transport (read: not cars) in Los Angeles, the entrenched car culture will be very hard to dislodge, says Ohland. Reynolds has struck her as a “fierce” advocate, but Ohland worries the new LADOT head doesn’t altogether recognize the depth of the challenge. Los Angeles’ diverse demographic mix offers its own minefields. Less affluent communities may well be suspicious of spending money on bike lanes and street-side parks, which reek of yuppie gentrification, when their schools are falling down. That’s been a battleground in other cities: In 2010, Adrian Fenty, then-mayor of Washington, D.C., got hammered by his opponent during his re-election campaign for supporting bike lanes and dog park projects. And lost.

Reynolds says she’s heard those complaints, but insists the real problem is that transportation officials aren’t communicating well with the public. “I need to be able to say I’m here to improve your business, and I’m here to lower the rates of obesity so that your kids live longer, and I’m here to make it so you can increase the time you spend with neighbors.” That’s the message she’ll be delivering to Angelenos. She’s got about 4 million of them to win over.

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