Why Community Engagement is Critical to Designing Transportation Solutions – with Seleta Reynolds

by | Mar 25, 2019 | Podcast | 0 comments

This week John met with Seleta Reynolds, General Manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) at Homestate in Los Feliz. Seleta discussed her unique approach to developing transportation solutions through co-creation and in-depth community engagement and how many traditional methods of community engagement are broken.

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Episode Transcript


John Bwarie:    Hello, this is John Bwarie and welcome to another episode of Community Intelligence, where we explore how leaders engage and build community.

Joining me for this episode is Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, who is innovating approaches to designing local mobility solutions. We met at HomeState’s Sidewalk Patio on Hollywood Boulevard, where Seleta and LADOT used creative interventions to make a safer and more efficient corridor in the East Hollywood community. We discussed the way she incorporates a community’s needs and insights into her process and the impact her approaches have.


So how do you start? You came to a new place and you said, “Okay, I need to understand some things that I’m hearing, I need to understand more about why.” When you look at a community and neighborhood, we’re sitting here in the East Hollywood, Los Feliz area of Los Angeles, and we’re seeing tons of people walk by and how do you choose who the people are you talk to get this information? You sent a team of people out to do interviews, did they go to people who are already actively engaged? Did they go door to door? Or do you actually look at a hierarchy in the neighborhood?

Seleta Reynolds:           Well, I think this is really the fundamental challenge in doing this community outreach work is, who is the community?

John Bwarie:    Right.

Seleta Reynolds:           Right? So when I did a project several years ago, before I came to Los Angeles, with the American Institute of Architects, they assemble groups of experts and they go into cities and they work with that city for a compressed period of time and sort of a 24 hour work, to understand the community and then tell that community, “Here’s what we observed and here’s what we think.” And my uncle Aaron, who’s a professor at Ole Miss Law School for many, many years happened to be in Oxford, Mississippi when I was there on this one particular project. And he came up to me afterwards and he was just livid and he’s one of these people who is one of the people that I admire most in the world and he said, “You know what Seleta? The community never says a damn thing, it’s all about the individuals who show up and you need to be thoughtful about that, who you listen to.

John Bwarie:    Right.

Seleta Reynolds:           And when you get up on a stage and say, “The community said something,” that that is almost impossible. You should be specific in order to be transparent. And that’s been several years ago now but it’s always stuck with me as the fundamental challenge of doing outreach.

The model that we have of having a community meeting on a weekday evening, at a church basement, a library, a whatever, pick your civic space, where there’s a project manager who gets up and presents a PowerPoint and then people are allowed to ask questions or there’s a microphone, that is just a fundamentally broken way of doing business and I abolished those kinds of community meetings when I got to LADOT. But it’s such a muscle memory of the way we do outreach in government that I constantly have to push back on electeds, neighborhoods who want that style. “Well, you’re going to come do a meeting and there’s going to be a microphone.” And when I was in Sand Francisco and I made this choice and decided this was just no longer working, we had a community meeting up in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco which is a historic Italian American neighborhood, we were up there to talk about putting in curb extensions, and there was no microphone. And there were a couple of folks who were so enraged that there was no microphone that they got up on a table and just started yelling.

John Bwarie:    Wow.

Seleta Reynolds:           Because people have figured out how to game that particular system, they understand that if they can show up and they can control that microphone, especially if there’s an elected official there or a decision maker, it will have a chilling effect on anybody’s willingness to make change. Because the meeting will follow the emotion in the room, and if the primary emotion in the room is anger, everybody leaves that meeting unhappy. The people who showed up to actually learn something leave unhappy and they leave angry, and they don’t even know why they’re angry. “Why am I so angry? I didn’t show up angry, why am I so angry? The city staff leave that meeting feeling they got nothing. Right? So then your question is, “So then what?” Right? So how do you do it?

And the answer is that there’s just no replacement for an extremely labor intensive, focused, sustained effort in a community, and furthermore, there’s a few essential rules to doing that. You have to go meet people where they are. You have to go to their standing meetings. You have to hold an open house on a Saturday morning that lasts five hours, that has daycare. You have to sit in the middle of a sidewalk with a card table and soccer balls and lure kids to come play with the soccer balls and then ask their parents what they think about things. You have to go to the farmers market. You have to do that, and you have to do that over and over again. You have to show up on a Wednesday morning and get to know the guy who owns the coffee shop. You have do all of those things and it still won’t be enough.

The rules are one, you’ll never be the expert. You can be the technical expert, but you can’t be the community expert. So don’t ever try and tell a community something about itself before you get to know them and earn their trust. Two, you always have to have a neutral convener. The community knows that the project manager has an agenda when they show up, and that agenda is to deliver that project. Because they’ve probably gone out and gotten a grant or who knows what. So you have to have a neutral facilitator. Three, you need a champion in the community who can be your guide and help you sort of navigate all of the different dynamics that are at play in a given community. And four, you’ve got to be honest with the community from the very beginning about what is on and off the table for negotiation.

If the project is a transit only lane because you went out and got money from the state to put in a transit only lane, then no matter what the community says or no matter … Nine times out of ten, the community’s been asking for other things for many years and you probably no showing up to deliver the things that they’ve asked for. But you have to be honest with them. “This project has to have a transit only lane when I’m done, we can talk about all kinds of other things, there’s other things that you want that we can maybe add to this, there’s trade-offs, there’s things we can discuss, but at the end of the day, this thing right here is non-negotiable.”

Because what often happens is that planners will go in a community and say, “Oh, I’m here to do a charrette process and we’re going to design the street of your dreams, and then they get to the end of it and the community can see, “Oh, well all along-”

John Bwarie:    All you wanted was this.

Seleta Reynolds:           “You wanted this.” Right? So you got to be an honest broker if you want to build that credibility.

John Bwarie:    What’s some of the most innovative approaches to engagement that you’ve seen or participated in? The opposite of the standing on a table with a microphone. What’s been an interesting intervention that’s been used to really great effect? I heard you mentioned like a card table on the sidewalk, cool, interesting.

Seleta Reynolds:           Right? Simple, it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.

John Bwarie:    Right.

Seleta Reynolds:           Two other things that I’ve observed or that I’ve been playing around with here that have been I think really meaningful … One idea came out of actually the former CIO Miguel Santana, I was talking with him about this challenge and Miguel is somebody who cares a lot about the city and cares a lot about how we get things done, understands that there’s a need for change but also understands that we live in a competitive capitalist society. This is not northern Europe, we cannot do top down kinds of changes. The folks got to come along with us.

And he said, “Well, why don’t you do this? Why don’t you, instead of going out into a community and saying, “Hey, I’m here to implement the mobility plan that the city council passed and it says that I have to have a dedicated bike lane here.” Why don’t you instead say, “Hey, how about let’s open a call for communities to tell us what they want and how they would design their streets differently.” It doesn’t have to be expensive, let’s just do a small seed fund and let’s see what we get. And their ideas must conform to the mobility plan, and Vision Zero. Right? It can’t be something that’s like, “Oh, well I want you to deck the 405 or something.” It has to be consistent with the policy framework.”

And so we did that, the first year we did that in partnership with the mayor’s Great Streets Studio, it was called the Great Streets challenge, and we got some of the most exuberantly creative, exciting ideas. And we started small by just doing a day long intervention. Right? So we’re going to use temporary materials, chalk, planters, cones, traffic officers who direct traffic, for just a day. There were seven projects that came out of that, and all across the city, in all different parts of the city. Two takeaways from that were number one, I was worried that we were going to see like we do in typically in a traffic calming program, which is another application driven program. Wealthier parts of the city will over subscribe, and you’ll see speed humps that are all in wealthier neighborhoods and lower income neighborhoods won’t access because they don’t trust the system, and they’ve got their minds on other things.

John Bwarie:    Right.

Seleta Reynolds:           And they don’t think anybody cares right? When they can find more cannabis stores than grocery stores in a three block radius, why would they think that the city’s there to do anything for them? But for the Great Streets challenge, we got way more applications from low income neighborhoods and in fact, the largest number of applications came from Boyle Heights. But we also had applications from Panorama City and from Pacoima and from South L.A..

John Bwarie:    Traditionally, lower income communities, lower engaged communities.

Seleta Reynolds:           Yeah. And I think part of that was due to the fact that the people in the Great Streets studio, they did the work. They did focused work to make connections, to organizers in those communities to alert them to the opportunity. My second hypothesis, nickel theory is that, the groups in those neighborhoods were more open to change. They were more willing to take risks because the problems they confront are much more intense. Right? Not to diminish the challenges the folks in high income neighborhoods, there’s challenges all over, but people driving 35 miles an hour down your residential street in Westwood is different than somebody getting killed on foot once a month in South L.A.. Right? And so the projects that came out of that effort were great, and the second round made it into a program that had more permanent kind of installations. And at the same time we have other application driven programs Play Streets, People Streets that we’ve incubated and grown those.

And so that’s one creative way to try and engage a community, is to actually say, “Hey, I have some money, here’s a policy framework, why don’t y’all get together and tell me what you would do to solve this problem? I will make my technical staff available to do what they do best.”

John Bwarie:    Right.

Seleta Reynolds:           Which is to say, “No, I’m sorry. You cannot do a giant sculpture in the middle of the road, but yes, we can do something more creative with the way that the crosswalk is marked.” Right? To try and get to yes. I think that there’s been some interesting work done around partnerships with artists, health and wellness organizations, and other community based organizations that we’ve found success with partnering with them.

John Bwarie:    Indicating of course, you’re a transportation agency-

Seleta Reynolds:           Yup.

John Bwarie:    And now you’re finding maybe unusual partners-

Seleta Reynolds:           Yes.

John Bwarie:    In artists, that traditionally aren’t part of the transportation conversation.

Seleta Reynolds:           Yes. Yeah. So we took for Vision Zero, which is our goal, to get to zero traffic deaths, we put out a call for artists and community based organizations to adopt certain corridors in the city and do education and outreach in those corridors and do installations, and so to try and raise awareness and spark a conversation. Because safety and that culture shift is about storytelling, it is about getting people to see their community a little bit differently, and we can’t be the messengers. Government just cannot, people don’t trust government right now, to put it lightly, and we can’t be the messengers. And that’s okay. Right?

It is more powerful, and we get more interesting and creative results when I have an organization like LA-Más out on a neighborhood corridor doing the work the way they do the work and how they do the work, that infusion of genuine and authentic community outreach with great design and elevated installations and quality of that architectural brain that they bring to it. It’s an outcome that we never could’ve envisioned on our own, and that’s fine. Right? That’s actually a really good thing.

John Bwarie:    And you’re here in Los Angeles, and you’re only here in the city of LA right? We’re one of 88 cities in a county, in a region of 200 jurisdictions, is this the place to do it? Or if can make it here you can make it anywhere? Well, that’s New York, but you know?

Seleta Reynolds:           Well, it is true in many ways. Because in Los Angeles, you have just about every type of neighborhood that you could think of, right. From all the way from rural, if you’re up in Sylmar and the sort of far reaches of the city, to some of the highest density west of Manhattan and Korea Town. So no matter what you want to work on, you can work on it here. But it doesn’t change those kind of immutable facts that you have to have partners in the community, you have to approach the community with respect. Government needs to also be respected and technical experts need to gain respect, but they also need to be in their right spot. Right? All of these things are true no matter where you’re working. I was at a press conference up in Council District Seven with council member Rodriguez, Monica Rodriguez, she’s an incredible leader on transportation and a whole bunch of issues, she’s doing amazing things for that community.

John Bwarie:    In the Northeast Valley, San Fernando Valley.

Seleta Reynolds:           Yup. Northeast San Fernando Valley. So we’re in Sylmar and we’re on a street where it was a really fast street, there was a guy riding his bike, he was a lifetime cyclist, got hit from behind by a car, was in a coma for several days, woke up and the first thing he said in talking with his wife was, “How do we make sure this never happens to anyone else?” And so with a strong political leader, with this really powerful humanizing testimony, and approaching the community with respect and really empowering them to come to the table, we came up with this beautiful project that is a conversion where the street went from four really fast lanes, people were getting up to 50, 55 miles an hour on this street that is in a residential neighborhood, down to a more reasonable number of lanes for the amount of traffic, so that the speeds could come down. People can still make it through there with plenty of time, but you had this street that was parallel to a freeway where people could go really fast and so they are.

And we had this great project, a great event, a great press event. People who were at the event came up to be and said, this was just the best community outreach that we’ve ever seen. And part of that is because Monica insisted upon it, because she held the bar really high, but part of it is that we were bringing these lessons into practice. So you can do it anywhere. It doesn’t have to be in … And if you can solve it and really get it into the systems and the way that you do projects, it can work anywhere. But until people are willing to sort of take that first risk to say, “Okay, Seleta, I believe you. We don’t have to have this microphone and these PowerPoints, and we’re not going to do it on a Wednesday night.” You’ll never get to show them a different model, and then when they see the model they’re like, “Oh.” I’m not talking about rocket science, I’m just talking about an open house.

John Bwarie:    So as we look at the future of mobility transportation, what’s the roll of tunnels and gondolas in the city.

Seleta Reynolds:           Well, way back in my career when I was just a wee transportation plan engineer, I was a consultant and I was working on a project in Alameda Point in the bay area, which was a former naval air station that glows in the dark at night because it’s where the Navy used to strip the paint off of their planes. It’s extremely toxic land that they’ve been cleaning up gradually over many, many years since many of the bases got mothballed in the ’90s under the Clinton administration.

And this should by all accounts be a place with a ton of housing, a ton of commercial development, a ton of retail, it’s right in the heart of the bay area. It is right across from Oakland, from Jack London Square. You can see San Francisco clearly across the bay. But the only way on and off … I used to say if it was a nightclub it would be like the fire commissioner’s worst nightmare, because there were only one way on and one way off the island, the Webster and Posey Tubes. Which were these tiny, very ancient tunnels that tunneled underneath the Oakland Estuary, that connected you to the freeway.

Nobody had the money or the appetite to either retrofit those tunnels or expand those tunnels. There were ferries which was good, but that wasn’t going to be enough to move the volume of people. But you could see the West Oakland BART Station, right across the estuary. And so we proposed an aerial gondola, because it could move the volume of people we needed to move and I went around and looked at others. I looked at the one that serves Roosevelt Island and New York. I had people who are specialists in aerial tramways and gondolas around the world, there aren’t very many of them, come and talk to me.

And at the time, the city of Portland was also contemplating a tramway to serve a new medical center that was going to be up on a hill, that to get up to it you had to wind through all these tiny little neighborhood streets in this residential area, and it’s a huge employment center and obviously medical center, and so they were pursuing it too. You had this moment in time where these two American cities in the west coast are looking at this really novel, innovative transportation solution.

As it turned out, that particular developer came and went and the gondola never got off the ground in Alameda, but Portland built theirs. And I’ve been and used it many times and it is this really fantastic project. There’s a huge bike station at the base, you ride your bike up, it’s always full, and it carries you up to the medical center. And it’s this beautiful experience that actually adds joy to the process of going from A to B, which we don’t often do enough of in transportation, there’s not enough fund in transportation planning. And so when I heard about the tramways being proposed here at Dodger Stadium and also to the Hollywood sign and others I just thought, “Yeah, of course. Why not?”

Because we don’t do enough to excite people about getting out of their cars. Right? We don’t do a lot to make riding the train a delightful experience. We don’t do enough to make riding the bus an enjoyable and superior experience to driving your car, because it’s competition. When you’re in you’re in your car you can listen to the music you want to listen to, you control the climate, it’s your private time. People say it’s their private time. It’s a roving locker, because you can carry crap in the … Seriously, these are all the things that people associate with driving, and we don’t think through that and offer that. We at LADOT, we actually coin this term transportation happiness, which is this idea that we need to get back to focusing on the A to B trip and the lived experience of the people who are using our system every day.

And we’ve come up with a mobility bill of rights, that we came up with after working with a lot of different stakeholder groups, business owners, constituents, mobility providers. There was a card game, it was awesome. So I think the tramway idea is fantastic. I think it has huge potential to both move a lot of people without relying on cars, so move them really efficiently, and add delight and joy to their experience of getting around the city.

Now if the Dodge Stadium tramway only goes from Union Station to Dodger Stadium, it will be a huge missed opportunity to start to put together the spine of a real system. So I think that what I-

John Bwarie:    Where else could it go?

Seleta Reynolds:           Well, it out to stop in Chinatown, and at the State Historic Park, it out to take a turn and maybe head on up to the valley. It out to be the beginning of a little spine, a little system that you could use to connect communities. If you could go from the valley to Chinatown on a tramway-

John Bwarie:    I’d do it.

Seleta Reynolds:           Right? It’d be awesome. Or if you want to take the train to San Diego and you can just take a tram to Union Station and take the train, that’s an event. That’s something you want to do with your family, with your kids, with your parents-

John Bwarie:    Yeah, absolutely.

Seleta Reynolds:           With the people who visit you from out of town. Like this is the thing that we do in Los Angeles with people who come to visit from out of town, we go and we have amazing food in Chinatown-

John Bwarie:    Absolutely.

Seleta Reynolds:           And then we go to the State Historic Park which is a gem, we go to the Highland Park Brewery across the street and then we take the tramway to Union Station, or we jump on a scooter or bike share bike, and then we take the train the train to San Diego. Come on. Right?

John Bwarie:    That’s great. Are you sure you’re not the director of tourism here in L.A.?

Seleta Reynolds:           I know, right? I know. No, Ernest Wooden is doing an amazing job at that. I could never compete with his gravitas, wisdom, and hospitality. But I do think that the tunnel however is another beast completely.

John Bwarie:    Maybe that’s a whole other topic for a whole other time.

Seleta Reynolds:           Well, I’ll just say this about the tunnel. The tunnel does none of those things. Right? The tunnel doesn’t move more people more efficiently, it still relies on people in their individually owned cars. The tunnel does not propose any kind of demand management, pricing or otherwise. The tunnel does not have a feasible plan for how to get people from the surface to the tunnels, and the tunnel also does not have a feasible plan about how to overcome the fundamental challenge of a high capacity car system, the freeways. Which is that, if you want to go from A to C and you want to skip B, you have to have redundancy in a system. Right? And so you have to be able to … Because the person in front of you wants to go from A to B, and so that you don’t have to stop, you need to be able to go around them. Now multiply that by an infinite number of destinations that people want to go to and imagine how many tunnels you’d need to create that kind of redundancy.

There’s this system called personal rapid transit, which is the Federal Transit Administration has put a moratorium on funding. There’s one system in Morgantown, West Virginia, and nobody’s ever built another one effectively because of these inherent problems with … And so what you’ll get then is just a duplicate of what we see on a freeway system. Where people are willing to sit on an on ramp for an indefinite amount of time to get onto the system. So imagine that, people waiting to get on these elevators. And it’s not feasible to construct the number of tunnels you would need. Furthermore, a lot has been made about the cost of the tunnel, and that may be so. There may be some innovations there in terms of actual tunneling, but a very small tunnel boring machine created that tunnel. And it’s a self-reported cost, there’s really no transparency about how much did it really cost.

And furthermore, that could never function as an actual tunnel for humans, because for fire life safety reasons it would need to be much larger so that people could evacuate if there’s a fire in the tunnel, or that a firefighter could get down there. And as soon as you star to make the tunnel big and create the stations, well now you’re back and you’ve created an infinite number of tunnels. I think that Elon Musk said that he doesn’t believe in induced demand, he thinks it’s a red herring. And so the way he’s going to resolve it is to just build an infinite number of tunnels until he meets the demand. Again, it’s like, so how many tunnels are we really talking about now and let’s be serious.

Now, could it work as a goods movement system? Yes. Potentially. And to bring us full circle back to the ’84 Olympics, a lot of people think that the ’84 Olympics, we didn’t have any traffic because of all the transportation demand management and all of that sure, played a role. But Jen Juliano, at METRANS has done a really good job educating me that it was actually the fact that freight and goods delivery was almost exclusively done in the middle of the night. That was the biggest contributor to the reduction in congestion that people experienced that was temporary. And so if we could take all that goods movement that’s happening on the surface and put it into a tunnel, if congestion is your goal, congestion management is your goal, then that might be a more meaningful path. However, if jobs are your goal and good employment is your goal, then it’s not as simple as that. Right?

So the tunnel is problematic for a bunch of different perspectives. And the main thing that I think is missing is a typical sort of thing that’s missing from a debate when we get into conversations with some technology companies which is, these are not engineering problems, these are political problems. Right? Pricing, that’s a political problem. Taking goods movement and automating it, that’s a political and a labor problem. That’s not an engineering problem. And the sort of disdain for technical expertise, calling something like induced demand a red herring when it’s been proven over and over and over again is a perfect example of why we’re going to continue to struggle if we can’t see a little bit more vulnerability from Silicon Valley and acknowledgement that to disrupt a problem, you won’t be tainted, your disruption won’t be tainted if you actually do your homework first.

John Bwarie:    So it’s almost like there’s the community of neighborhoods that you’ve been working with day after day in the micro implementation of these localized projects, but as you look at the bigger picture, there’s other communities that may not be geographic based, but are rather industry based or interest group based.

Seleta Reynolds:           Philosophically-

John Bwarie:    Philosophical-

Seleta Reynolds:           Based.

John Bwarie:    Communities that you have to approach the same way.

Seleta Reynolds:           Yes, that’s right.

John Bwarie:    And provide them … Because you still have people who are naysayers, who are resistant to change, who think that they have the answer that they experience, and that’s the only way it can be, and it’s a challenge to overcome, and it’s hard work as you indicated.

Seleta Reynolds:           It’s hard work. And if you don’t have two sides that are willing to be humble, sit down, listen, then there’s a limited amount of forward movement you can achieve.

John Bwarie:    Cool. All right Seleta, we’re going to do our lightning round.

Seleta Reynolds:           Okay.

John Bwarie:    Nine questions, just quick answer the first thing that comes to mind. If you have to pass, you can pass. Who’s a leader that had influenced you in your work?

Seleta Reynolds:           Janette Sadik-Khan.

John Bwarie:    Which American city has made the most admirable mobility progress?

Seleta Reynolds:           Seattle.

John Bwarie:    What is your ideal method of transportation for the distant future?

Seleta Reynolds:           Biking.

John Bwarie:    What’s your L.A. community tip?

Seleta Reynolds:           Oh, take the bus man, the bus is magic.

John Bwarie:    What is your favorite instance of transportation anywhere in the world?

Seleta Reynolds:           I think I would say taking the tramway to Roosevelt Island or riding my bike in Copenhagen.

John Bwarie:    Cool. What advice would you give 25 year old you, which isn’t that long ago?

Seleta Reynolds:           Yeah. Oh, I would just say, take risks, you’re on the right path. Trust your gut.

John Bwarie:    Nice. What is the best career decision you ever made?

Seleta Reynolds:           I took a risk when I moved to Seattle. I’d been there and I bought a house and thought I was going to live there forever and got recruited for a job at the SFMTA and even though it was really scary and we had to do a lot of … I had just had a second baby, we moved back to the bay area.

John Bwarie:    Okay. And what has so far, been your proudest professional moment?

Seleta Reynolds:           Oh, I think that when we opened the plaza in front of The Vision Theatre, that was one of the best days. Because the Festival of Masks was there, the community was there, and you could just see the joy that people had.

John Bwarie:    Cool. Well, thank you Seleta for joining us today and all you do for our communities.

Seleta Reynolds:           Thank you.

John Bwarie:    All right. Cool.

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