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‘When you have it, it’s priceless’: Nine questions for Seleta Reynolds

Posted by on September 24th, 2015 at 9:16 am

Seleta Reynolds
Los Angeles transportation director Seleta Reynolds.
(Photo via TREC at PSU)

Seleta Reynolds gets results.

As we reported last week, the city whose livable streets program she led for three years, San Francisco, has subsequently delivered the nation’s most consistent string of boosts in bike commuting.

She’s now one year into a vastly larger gig: transportation director for the City of Los Angeles, which turned millions of heads last month when it rolled out a citywide plan to gradually reallocate numerous auto lanes to create dedicated bus lanes and 300 miles of protected bike lanes.

She’s also one of the most reflective transportation leaders in the country, as the interview below makes clear. Ahead of her free Oct. 6 talk at Ecotrust, we caught up with Reynolds to discuss her advice for Portland’s advocates and bureaucrats, the arguments for biking that work best and whether Portland is still cool.

How did you get into this stuff?

Sort of by accident. when I graduated from college, I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do. I just started cold-calling people that I found just randomly. Through a friend, I got an internship at the City of Oakland.

“When I spray-painted my first dot and then went back to see there was not only a bike rack there but a bike was parked at it, it was love at first sight.”

All the folks that I talked to, they were smart, they were generous, and they were all engaged in what they were doing. And I thought, that’s interesting, you don’t see that every day. When I spray-painted my first dot and then went back to see there was not only a bike rack there but a bike was parked at it, it was love at first sight.

So you’re part of the secret cabal of liberal arts students who run the country’s active transportation movement?

As a history major, it’s very similar to history. You can I can see the same event and have a vigorous debate about it. Transportation is the same. We’re going to look at the same 80 feet of asphalt and think about who it’s for, why it’s there, how it’s going to be organized.

It’s as much art as it is science. I think that’s the trick of it. Although I have electrical engineers who build my signals, this not really about structural engineering. It’s not really about how much load the pylon will bear. It’s about how moving a stripe six inches to the left will impact human behavior.

How is your new hometown different than your last one?

Obviously it’s bigger. I think you can fit seven or eight San Franciscos into Los Angeles.

Los Angeles has extremely low voter turnout. Nine percent of the city’s population voted in the last mayoral election. in northern California, they vote at higher levels and I think that reflects a belief that you can actually affect government.

There is a much stronger equity streak in the bicycle and pedestrian advocacy here than there is in northern California, on social justice. Which I think is a legacy of the riots in Los Angeles, which really burned the city to the ground. The city had to have a really honest conversation with itself about the reasons that happened.

What do people misunderstand about Los Angeles?

It’s a highly urban place. I live work and play in a city the size of Boston, because downtown is strong and getting stronger every day. It’s extremely walkable and bikable. A third of the people that live in and around downtown are zero-vehicle households. So I don’t experience the same kind of crushing traffic that I think is so associated with Los Angeles.

Street art at Hill and 4th-2-3
Street art at Hill and 4th, Los Angeles.
(Photos: J.Maus/BikePortland)

Earlier this year, Paul Steely White of TransAlt in NYC told us that “livable streets” arguments are turning out to be less powerful than “safe streets” arguments. “Livable streets” was your job title in San Francisco — what’s your take?

“Safety does not resonate with people as an argument for bike infrastructure. Because people perceive that bicyclists are poorly behaved.”

I have a lot of admiration and respect for him, but I would respectfully disagree, and say that’s a false choice. At least in Los Angeles, the idea of inviting people into the streets has been so powerful and revolutionary. We have the largest open-streets events in the country, the cicLAvia. People were afraid that nobody was going to show up. and it’s been such a tremendous success.

What safety is is above reproach. Safety is not a philosophical conversation. When you bring safety into it, you’re talking about something that really can’t be argued.

The problem is that you cannot use safety — and this is based on real focus group work that we did — safety does not resonate with people as an argument for bike infrastructure. Because people perceive that bicyclists are poorly behaved. People say that it’s bicyclists’ own fault that they get in these crashes. What good is a bike lane going to do? I would not agree, when it comes to bike infrastructure, that safety is persuasive. Pedestrian infrastructure is different.

What do you think of the argument that with so many problems in our cities, there’s no way to justify biking as a top priority?

The underlying assumption is that you have a fixed amount of political capital. I would really hope that you don’t have to choose between those things.

In Oakland, right before I left, people were talking about schools, they were talking about crime, they were talking about jobs. Nobody was talking about transportation. Transportation is about all of those things! I like to say, if you want to work on big-city problems, you should be in transportation. Because it’s about everything else.

The trouble isn’t choosing between schools and biking. The trouble is focusing on one mode as the transportation agenda. It can’t just be about biking. Biking is a tremendously important foundation, but it has to be about the broader array of transportation choices.

My California Adventure-29
Chinatown, Los Angeles.

As someone with lots of experience in city government, what advice do you have for advocates?

“In the best partnership, the advocates have clearly decided I’m going to work inside the building or I’m going to work outside the building.”

In the best partnership, first and foremost, the advocates have clearly decided I’m going to work inside the building or I’m going to work outside the building.

The second rule is that when things get tough, there is more communication instead of less communication. The tendency is that when things get difficult, both sides get super opaque.

The third thing I would say about that sort of successful collaboration is that there has to be space for real honesty. It’s okay in my experience when an advocacy organization comes in and say “Hey, we really hate what you’re doing with this project.” And the city can say “here are the challenges we were dealing with.” And the advocates can say, “We understand, we’re still going to go hard on you in the press.” Then we’ve both respected each other as equals.

Any advice for city officials?

I’ve always said: listen, the political will. When you have it, it’s priceless, and you don’t know when it’s going to be there tomorrow. When you have it, you need to jump on it.

Have you been to Portland before?

I lived there for a couple summers. It was in between my sophomore and junior and junior and senior years. It was the whole reason I came to the West Coast, because I loved Portland so much. I worked at the Noah’s Bagels on Hawthorne and then on Northwest 23rd. I did catering at the Rose Garden.

A lot of folks who work in the mayor’s office here, they’re under 30. I was talking to one of them about Portland. And he was like, “was that in the 90s?” He was like, “Oh yeah, back when it was really cool.” I was like, “Hey, it’s still pretty cool.”

Qs & As were edited. Reynolds returns to Portland Oct. 6 to deliver this year’s Ann Niles Transportation Lecture, an address about transportation issues from an out-of-town perspective hosted by the Transportation Research and Education Center. The event is free but it’s half-booked so far, and an RSVP is required for guaranteed seating. Update 6 pm: TREC now says the event is down to 20 seats out of 150.

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  • Pete September 24, 2015 at 9:42 am

    Highly insightful – thanks Michael, and best of luck Seleta!

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    • 9watts September 24, 2015 at 10:47 am

      Super fun to read. I agree with Pete.

      “A third of the people that live in and around downtown are zero-vehicle households.”

      Something we should be actively promoting right here. How about it City Council?! We could start by highlighting the experiences of those tens of thousands of households in Portland that already are zero-auto households.

      I also really appreciated what she had to say about more communication vs less communication from city government. I’ve accused PBOT repeatedly of not heeding her advice.

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      • Ray Atkinson September 24, 2015 at 11:05 am

        Portland could look to Seattle for inspiration on reducing car ownership in downtown. Instead of requiring developers to build car parking, Seattle wants to require developers to provide “bus passes for new residential developments in center city neighborhoods and other areas frequently served by transit, along with car share memberships, bike share memberships, or similar services.” http://www.citylab.com/cityfixer/2015/05/seattle-to-buildings-give-tenants-transit-passes-not-parking-spots/392756/

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        • 9watts September 24, 2015 at 11:14 am

          Interesting. We tried this (on a neighborhood scale with a 50 unit no-off-street-car-parking apartment building) but although everyone was in principle in favor, the project fizzled because we said our welcome package would be limited to those new tenants who did not own a car (a publicized incentive to move into the building without a car). We may have tried it at the wrong scale, but the idea is super. Thanks for the link.

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          • Ray Atkinson September 24, 2015 at 11:23 am

            What neighborhood scale project are you referring to? I moved car-free from Charlotte to Portland last September so may not be fully aware of this project. Thanks for sharing!

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            • 9watts September 24, 2015 at 11:25 am

              Sunnyside, SE 30th & Hawthorne Blvd. You wouldn’t know about it because it never got off the ground. It was a conversation between the Neighborhood Association and the developer’s representative.

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        • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
          Michael Andersen (News Editor) September 24, 2015 at 11:17 am

          Yep. Portland’s “centers and corridors” parking task force is discussing this very issue – transportation demand management requirements for developers of low-parking apartments – at its meeting tonight.

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  • Mark September 24, 2015 at 10:48 am

    I would like someone to sell me on why running stop lights has any positive outcomes. Or…running stop signs at speed. Sure…slowing for stop sings and rolling them at walking speed is one thing….which cars do as well…but I have seen many cyclists cruise through pumping hard. That’s got to stop.

    Signed, a cyclist who cares

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    • Pete September 24, 2015 at 12:28 pm

      OK, seems out of context for this subject, but I’ll bite…

      Totally agree. The difference is often in what’s perceived to be a “stop.” With a car, studies show they almost always stop over stop lines, and this is due to rolling momentum, position of driver (eyes) in relation to front bumper, or both. As a society of motorists we’ve come to accept this as normal – that we’re legally “stopping” because we’re ceasing forward momentum before fully entering intersections.

      As a bicyclist… well, it depends. You’ve got people pedaling slowly with shoes and flat pedals who put a foot down for balance, people clipped in doing track stands, and of course people who just follow others or blow through at speed (just like some drivers do). The same studies I read show that bicyclists tend to come to their lowest speed before stop lines so that they can maintain forward momentum through the intersection. As bicyclists, we’ve come to accept this behavior as normal, because those are the physics that best fit our mass/speed profiles.

      Other than the folks who’ll say they refuse to obey these automobile-centered rules (and you may hear from some soon…), many bicyclists have come to accept that we “stop” for stop signs by timing right-of-way so that we can maintain some momentum because it’s harder for us to get going from a complete stop (which may even lead some drivers to believe you’re letting them go so they accelerate just as you are… and hit you or drive you off the road, like I watched happen to my wife once).

      Some non-cyclists will say that a bicyclist hasn’t stopped because they haven’t put their foot down, and some communities even have ordinances requiring this (though no states have this law). Some people will also witness bicyclists slow down, see that nobody else is in the intersection, so then keep their momentum through or even start pedaling again before the intersection. The cyclist has rationalized that they’re proceeding safely and no harm is done (irrelevant of breaking the law or not), much like many drivers exceed limits on highways, though their relative speed to other cars isn’t that high so it seems harmless.

      The Idaho Stop is of course a hot topic of debate right now in San Francisco, but there’s also the misunderstanding that it actually takes away the right-of-way from drivers stopped at these intersections.

      So I’m not the guy to sell you on “running” stops at speed, but hope this is insightful – wish I had links to those studies but not in this laptop, sorry.

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  • wsbob September 24, 2015 at 11:01 am

    L.A. Transportation Director Seleta Reynolds words about “…Safety…” being a “…false choice…”, are hard to follow. So I went on to read the article to which a link in this story was provided:


    …which gives more insight to what Reynolds is referring, which is that she shares a view that use of the word ‘safety’, or deliberating with the public on the objectives that the word ‘safety’ relates to…is an ineffective way to pitch cycling to the public.

    It’s interesting that in the people for bikes story, a bike log writer is quoted, using a car manufacturer analogy to explain his feeling that cars are pitched in ways to prioritize over concerns about safety, interest in the positive aspects of travel by car.

    There’s some truth to what Reynolds and the blog writer say with regards to the use of ‘safety’ in promoting biking to the public…actually though, people having assurance that safety of the activity they’re considering taking part in, is very important.

    And accordingly, car manufacturers go to great length to pitch directly and overtly to the public, in big, glamorous, color advertisements, press releases and whatnot, safety features and innovations of the motor vehicles they manufacture to be purchased by people.

    By the way, a couple other things; What’s she exactly mean here: “…When I spray-painted my first dot…”

    …and here: “…It’s not really about how much load the pilon will bear. …”. What is ‘pilon’ ?

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) September 24, 2015 at 11:19 am

      I believe it’s also known in the structural engineering world as a “typo.” 🙂 Thanks, I’ll fix.

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      • wsbob September 24, 2015 at 11:55 am

        Michael…thanks for the correction. Still a rather unusual metaphor for her to choose, but it makes the point fairly understandable.

        Some questions about the following:

        “…(Q) What do people misunderstand about Los Angeles?

        (A) It’s a highly urban place. I live work and play in a city the size of Boston, because downtown is strong and getting stronger every day. It’s extremely walkable and bikable. A third of the people that live in and around downtown are zero-vehicle households. So I don’t experience the same kind of crushing traffic that I think is so associated with Los Angeles. …”

        Is she saying Downtown L.A. (as compared to greater L.A.), is the size of Boston? Sounds big. Is Downtown L.A. really as good for walking and biking as she says? Overwhelming freeway traffic definitely is associated with L.A. Wondering how much of the city where people live and work, is distanced away from the freeways.

        One of Portland’s and other cities’ in our area’s problems, is how big freeways impair opportunities for walking and biking to be good ways to get around rather than by motor vehicle. In our area, that may be the single biggest obstacle to biking and walking being more of a realistic travel mode used by a greater percentage of the population than uses it currently.

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        • Nate September 25, 2015 at 10:01 am

          As an LA resident of three years who relocated from San Francisco, I think it’s helpful to make note of the fact that LA is polycentric in its economic activity, and that most people do live in one area and commute to another. But many of those economic hubs- like Glendale, Long Beach, Santa Monica, and downtown LA- have good bones for walking and biking within their central areas. Also, one can make a case that LA has a linear downtown that extends along Wilshire Boulevard from Santa Monica/Silicon Beach east through Beverly Hills/Century City and on through the LA city proper, ending in the traditional downtown. This band is densely developed with heavily used buses and will be getting a subway in the coming decades.

          It’s possible that more people in LA will elect to resettle close to their jobs, or turn down higher paying jobs that require a commute. But from my understanding, most people in the area will still live one place work in a distant hub, and as a result we need to (a) improve our regional transit options and (b) foster more jobs and housing near stations. But since we area doing (a) but not (b), I’m skeptical people will forego traveling by car in huge numbers. (Also, given limited funding, I think we should improve our bus system for the people who use it for all their daily travel (low-income people) rather than spend on expensive trains that affluent people are not likely to use anyway, and if they do only for their commute to work.

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  • soren September 24, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    I consider vehicle pollution and CO2 emissions to be both a livability and safety issue.

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    • soren September 24, 2015 at 1:33 pm

      “both livability and safety issues”.

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  • Pete September 24, 2015 at 12:56 pm

    I think you have to ask why so many people there are zero-vehicle.

    Is it because walking and bicycling is safe and convenient in downtown L.A.? I suspect not.

    Is it because public transportation is rapid, connected, affordable and convenient in L.A.? I know that’s not true.

    Or is it because property is so expensive and paying to store a car that’ll get you stuck in traffic when you try to use it carries an outrageous cost (and you don’t have enough left over after you pay rent anyway)?

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    • Ann Coates September 24, 2015 at 6:10 pm

      I just moved from Portland to North Hollywood (part of the the city of Los Angeles) and the public transportation is actually pretty good! I live a mile from the Red Line. It’s cheap and runs frequently. I can get pretty much anywhere easily. More consistent bike infrastructure would be good, though. I bike to Burbank to work and it’s a little spotty at times.

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    • Ann Coates September 24, 2015 at 6:12 pm

      Also, my apartment is huge and cute and my rent isn’t any more than it’d be in Portland (but you can bet my salary is)! Los Angeles gets a bad rap. I love Portland and I love LA, but LA is a lot more livable for me, personally.

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      • wsbob September 25, 2015 at 12:47 am

        The part of L.A. you’re fortunate to live in, and the one the transportation director says she lives in and manages transportation for, sounds very different from those parts of L.A. most of the city’s residents live in and travel about in.

        What about neighborhoods outside of the city’s Downtown?; are they also as walkable and bikeable as Downtown is?

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        • armchair boogie September 25, 2015 at 12:53 pm

          Central LA (the area Seleta Reynolds is referring to in the article) has a population of 836,638 and a population density of 14,458ppsm. Some census tracts within that are reach 30,000-40,000ppsm.

          And there are several other ‘downtowns’ in the Los Angeles region that offer a pretty typical urban setting for those interested in living car-free (or car-lite.) Long Beach (469,428 people), Pasadena (139,731 people) and Santa Monica (92,472 people) all have healthy urban cores where residents can get around without a car. That said, safety is another issue due to years of car-centric engineering of our local streets. But we’re working on it.

          Also, we’re building mass transit faster than anywhere else in the country (http://bit.ly/1LSw6CK). Sure, there will always be vast swaths of LA that remain car-centric. But on the whole, LA is a far more urbane place than it was 20 or 30 years ago… and this transition to a more conventional city is rapidly increasing.

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        • Ann Coates September 25, 2015 at 5:52 pm

          I don’t live near downtown… it’s about a 30-min ride away on the Metro. Lower density than downtown. I have no idea if we’re as walkable/bikeable because I haven’t taken my bike down there yet.

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      • Pete September 25, 2015 at 2:34 pm

        Thanks to L.A. people for responding; I was hoping to get some insight. The last time I was there was the year before last, and we visited friends in some Hollywood neighborhood (which was far from glamorous). We waited forever for buses and the walking was less pleasant than other parts of CA (including the one I live in now) – but I realize L.A. is huge.

        When I made my decision to leave Oregon I was heartbroken. I still consider it ‘home’ because all of my closest friends live in various corners of it, but California was where the jobs were after 2008, and my taxes actually went down even though my income went up. The endless sunny days let me ride an awful lot more, although my Portland friends had little sympathy for me when I complained in January that a heat wave and “spare the air” day had me coughing my lungs out after a 70-miler to the coast and back.

        Thanks for making us rethink our L.A. stereotypes! 🙂

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    • David Hampsten September 25, 2015 at 12:05 am

      Comparing a city like Boston or Portland, cities of 600,000 or so, to LA with 3.5 million, is, I agree, odd, but downtown LA is actually pretty small and quite walkable. True, the streets are very wide and the blocks are very big, but the sidewalks are wide, crossings are well-marked, drivers actually stop for pedestrians, and the large blocks have various cut-throughs similar to European cities. The skyscraper core is smaller than Portland’s core, with a mix of apartments and office blocks, though some of the buildings are much bigger and taller. I highly recommend the asymmetrical post-modern Roman Catholic cathedral that replaced two earlier ones damaged in successive earthquakes; the city is named after the earliest church. There is also a very odd-looking Disney theater. The art-deco train station is quite stunning.

      The freeways are below-grade, so they are easy for pedestrians to ignore.

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  • Chris Anderson September 24, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    One of the best interviews I’ve seen here yet. I hope Seleta Reynolds goes far!

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  • Phantom Commuter September 28, 2015 at 9:44 am

    The city that Ms. Reynolds, and other privileged “new urbanist” transplants, live in is a tiny fraction of Los Angeles. Downtown has about 50,000 residents, mostly rich or homeless. Most Angelenos have no reason to ever go there, or to the “Central City” area of 836,000, most of which is way beyond reasonable biking or walking distance. Most or the 5-county Metropolitan area’s nearly 18 million residents don’t even set foot in the 3.4 million City of Los Angeles. The reality is that the vast majority live in one suburb and work in another. Biking, transit and walking will never work. Trying to make L.A. something that it is not will never work.

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    • Nate September 28, 2015 at 12:19 pm

      “Trying to make L.A. something that it is not will never work.”

      Cities are always changing. Los Angeles has origins as a rail-based city, and it was made into a car-centric city through decades of both well-intentioned and cynical policies. It may take time, but the LA region can be made into a multi-modal region if we want it to be one. It will start by acknowledging that that commute to work is not the single most important trip- it represents only 15% of total trips and 20% of total VMT.

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