Meet Seleta Reynolds, the New Head of the LADOT

Seleta Reynolds will become general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation next month. She was previously at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, where she led three teams in the Livable Streets division. 

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Seleta Reynolds has never lived in Los Angeles. Still, on Aug. 11, she’ll start a job that impacts each of the city’s 4 million residents: general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

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Reynolds, 38, has spent the last three years leading teams in the Livable Streets division of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Mayor Eric Garcetti picked her to replace interim General Manager Jon Kirk Murki at the top of the 1,800-employee LADOT, and the City Council confirmed her on July 1. 

Los Angeles Downtown News spoke with Reynolds about the differences in traffic in L.A. and the Bay Area, and got her take on some key Central City projects and goals. 

Los Angeles Downtown News: How well do you know Los Angeles and the Downtown area? 

Seleta Reynolds: I’ve visited over the years and I have been asking a lot of questions since this process of becoming general manager of LADOT started in the spring. I’ve often stayed in Downtown because I want to experience the city without a car. Downtown is clearly growing different neighborhood centers, and that’s a fascinating process to watch. That’s something that San Francisco also experienced over the last five to 10 years. There’s also a movement to reclaim streets as public spaces and it’s been amazing to see that mentality in Downtown. 

Q: How would you describe the transportation differences between San Francisco and L.A.?

A: The biggest one, literally, is the scale. L.A. is just a much bigger canvas and has so many wider streets. San Francisco has a lot of narrow streets and hills, which makes compromising for transit and transportation decisions tricky. There’s more open space in L.A. to work with, but that also makes it more complex to figure out where to begin. 

How transportation is managed is very different, too. Everything in San Francisco is handled through the Municipal Transportation Agency and it reports to its own board that is not elected. In L.A. you see different agencies hold different parts of the transportation puzzle, and you’re partnering with an elected body to decipher the mayor’s budget.

Q: What are your initial impressions of LADOT?

A: It’s full of people who have been working in L.A. for a very long time and have strong institutional knowledge of what has worked and what could work in the future. But what’s struck me is that there’s an enthusiasm to try new things, which is a happy surprise because you don’t always see that in a bureaucracy. The primary weakness is the funding picture. There’s a new normal for city transportation budgets in a post-recession economy, and we need to examine how we’ll meet the transportation needs of the 21st century. That begins with how we help ourselves to lock in funding, particularly federal funds, which are slowing to a trickle. 

Q: You have a lot of experience with “complete streets” projects, and the MyFigueroa plan is the most ambitious project of that kind in L.A. What do you think of it?

A: I know the project had controversy and delays over its impact on traffic, but what was encouraging about the debate was that stakeholders came together and reached a compromise despite some very strong fears at the start. They looked at the facts and came to a data-driven solution. The project appears to be a very modern design with tremendous promise in terms of being a lesson on how to create more complete streets in the future. It’s important for the city to put a project out and tinker and tweak it over time to learn from it. 

Q: There’s an effort on Broadway to calm traffic, make the street more inviting for pedestrians and streamline transit. Why are these projects valuable?

A: Most people don’t only ride bikes, or only take buses, or only drive. Most folks use a combination of those things, and that’s why a balanced approach is good for future infrastructure. Everybody wants a well-organized street where people’s movements are predictable. Everyone also wants beautiful streets that contribute to the quality of life in the area. It’s about making streets safer but also making them reach their full potential. 

Q: You’ve talked about taking a data-driven approach to transportation. How might that apply here?

A: I want to replicate work done in New York City and San Francisco to look at data of how streetscape projects connect with the economic performance of the street. What we’ve seen in those cities is that a simple streetscape project, like a plaza conversion or something built out with temporary materials, has positive impacts on the economic performance of the businesses adjacent to those improvements. Studies from Copenhagen also show that people linger in public when you have great streets, and that leads to more social interaction that strengthens communities.

Q: What other tasks or goals do you have? Is the proposed Downtown streetcar on your mind?

A: I’m excited to get into the cost estimate and the funding plan for the L.A. streetcar. I’m not knowledgeable enough about it to have an opinion at this point. Streetcars do have a very powerful ability to capture the civic imagination and become economic development tools. But it’s important to balance overall transportation needs and have the most efficient funding structure that doesn’t deprive other priorities. 

The department has also been working on a long-term strategic plan and I hope to roll something out in my first few months. That will be a really important roadmap for the public and policy makers in terms of priorities and how each task connects to the policy framework. Much of the plan is coming from the department staff and I have a lot of optimism that it’ll work because of that foundational support. 

eddie@downtownnews.com

Twitter: @eddiekimx

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