Chief Innovation Officer at Los Angeles Metro
Seleta joins Ratna to talk about some of the exciting projects Los Angeles Metro is working on and Seleta’s mission to make public transit accessible in Los Angeles.
Host Ratna Amin sits down with Chief Innovation Officer at Los Angeles Metro, Seleta Reynolds, to talk about how her team is making LA Transportation more accessible for all.
The scarcity mindset [makes us think that] if we make it easier for other folks to get into the door, there will be less for the people who are already inside. And I have seen over and over again, the opposite is true. When you open the door wider, the room gets bigger, and everybody benefits.Seleta Reynolds, Chief Innovation Officer, Los Angeles Metro
Prior to her current role, Seleta served as the General Manager for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. Among her accomplishments were the nation’s largest electric vehicle carshare program and the nation’s largest universal basic mobility plan pilot. Previously, she served at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, leading the Livable Streets Unit.
She has published four articles in Forbes magazine and a key article in the Eno Center for Transportation regarding the adaptation of Los Angeles for Urban Mobility in our Digital Age. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in American History from Brown University.
Today, I'm very happy to be joined by the newly appointed Chief Innovation Officer at Los Angeles Metro, and she's also the former general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, Seleta Reynolds. Seleta is here to talk about her role at LA Metro, plus some of the exciting projects the agency is working on and how they're endeavoring to make Los Angeles transportation more accessible and available.
Thanks so much for joining us, Seleta
I've known you for a long time and it's been just amazing following your journey. There's something special about you and how you've been able to keep moving and be a leader and make stay accessible for a lot of us women. You’re a model of an executive.
I just want to ask about that right off the bat. Like what do you feel like your impact has been on the field as a, a leader in this, in transportation, in the public sector.
Oh, cool. We're just starting with like a light, easy question. I have to say, first, it's difficult to see yourself the way others see you.
And second, it's difficult to know what hindsight will be on the work that you've done. I'm always just trying to stay curious and open and be out in the world and be listening and be open to viewpoints that are radically different from mine, and then try and keep a firm North Star about things that are most important to me in the work that I do.
But I will say, I remember I was up on a stage at WTS when I was in Austin, Texas several years ago. WTS stands for Women's Transportation Seminar and it's an industry organization created to support women's growth in the field of transportation and to support and nurture future leaders.
And of course, It's open to men and women because success is a collective responsibility as it benefits everybody when women are also successful. I was up on that stage with Polly Trottenberg, who at the time was the New York City DOT commissioner, and many other big names like Leslie Richards, who runs SEPTA in Pennsylvania, and Robin Hutchinson, who at the time was running the Salt Lake DOT.
There were a lot of very powerful women on that stage. And I was telling a story about when I moved from the city of Seattle to San Francisco, and I have two daughters and my youngest one, I was pregnant with her when I accepted the job in San Francisco, and my mother had moved to Seattle where we were living in order to be closer to her grandchildren.
Bridget Smith asked me about the position at the SFMTA and at the time I was in the private sector, but I really was feeling a tug to go back to the public sector. And I got very emotional when I was talking about the advice that my mother gave me because I called her, and it was one of the most difficult conversations I've ever had.
You know, she moved to be closer to her grandchildren and here I was leaving not long after she had gotten there. And she told me, look, if you don't take this job, then I will have failed as your mother, because I raised you to be independent, to chase your dreams, to go after the things that you care about.
I'm getting emotional again because it's just such a powerful expression of love. And afterwards, I remember talking to Bridget Smith about it and saying, I'm so embarrassed. I showed emotion on that stage. I cried on that stage, and she said, no. That's important for women to see that it is okay to bring vulnerability and to bring emotional intelligence and to really bring your whole self into a very public position because that will invite more women to feel comfortable stepping into leadership, because that's one of the superpowers that we have.
Its our ability to really connect to our own vulnerability and to bring that empathy into the work that we do. And so, I hope that of all the things that I could point to and say, it'd really be great if I was someday known for X, Y, or Z. I instead hope that there was somebody in that audience that saw me do that, and who then felt like, ‘oh, she's just a normal person and she has feelings and it's okay to express them. And maybe that I can also step into leadership, and I don't have to feel like I must keep my emotions bottled up or that it's not okay to bring those into your work.’
You were asking about the generational shift in women leaders, I do hope that this is the generation for this. Not just for women who lead, but also for people of color, other marginalized groups that have not been allowed into leadership. I hope that there's a new model emerging, and I'm certainly not the only version of it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for leadership to be more welcoming to a broader array of people, that these positions feel accessible and that they feel doable to folks?
Because we cannot continue to have a, you know, homogenous sort of thought in leadership in transportation or any other field because we won't solve the problems in front of us if everybody at the top looks and thinks the same.
Seleta, what an incredible set of ideas there. I'm really touched by that as a working mother myself, and it's easy to get mixed messages from your family. Or to interpret mixed messages about a woman's career.
Yeah, mom, guilt is real.
It's real, it's confusing but I think what I’m hearing is an openness to a different perspective. That maybe, first of all, you decide what's best, but that other people do want you to achieve your dreams.
Thank you for that. Focus on the people in your corner. It is also, I think every single one of us has an inner critic and that inner critic sometimes mirrors back what we hear from our detractors or people who don't want us to succeed, or people who think we're too much or we're too loud, or we're doing too much, or our ideas are bad, or we don't have the right bonafides to be at the table. But every single one of us has a lot of folks who are in our own corner, I think it good practice and a habit to think about them.
Oh, I know. People are going to be stoked to hear that, Seleta.
Your job, so you are the newly appointed Chief Innovation Officer at Los Angeles Metro. For people who don't know, you came from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, you were the general manager there. Can you quickly explain the difference between LA DOT and LA Metro? And the difference in scale and budget?
LA is a giant region and like the Bay Area or other sort of big metropolitan regions, it is kind of impenetrable to folks from the outside to understand the complexities of its governance.
But the city of Los Angeles obviously is huge: 4 million people. The budget for LA DOT was about half a billion dollars on an annual basis, and about half of that money comes from outside the city and half of it comes from inside the city. It has 52 business lines.
I also think of LA DOT and really any public agency that deals with transportation and public dollars as an investor. In both the infrastructure that we build, but also the companies that help us build that infrastructure. We've sort of entered the digital age, the sort of need for a shift in the way that we think about ourselves as grown even greater.
But LA Metro is at the county scale. The county has 88 cities in it. So, one of those is the city of Los Angeles, but there are 87 others. Some of them are, you know, they punch above their weight in terms of the resources they have and what they bring to the table. The City of Santa Monica is a separate city, but it's obviously in this very critical place in the region.
They're at the coast and there's all sorts of issues there that they must grapple. And they have a lot of transit that LA Metro manages, that comes to and from Santa Monica that serves a critical purpose. LA Metro, you know, just to get a sense of what they're dealing with in terms of their budget. They operate the rail and the bus service in the region. There are municipal operators and other smaller transit operators. LA Metro is the major provider of those services. We ae also charged with the responsibility to manage part of the highway system as well.
LA Metro manages the express lanes for all intents and purposes, the tolling authority, the sales tax measure that the voters in LA County voted for back in 2018. The scale of the money just from that one sales tax measure is pretty incredible.
LA Metro has 11,000 employees, which includes the transit operators, whereas LA DOT is about, you know, hovers anywhere from 1500 to 2000 employees. So I went from being at the top of an agency that had a huge sort of footprint to having a smaller role in a bigger organization, and also a very different scope.
The Chief Innovation officer's portfolio includes a lot of interesting things. We're in charge of putting together the plan for the 28 Olympic and Paralympic games.
We're also responsible for the agency's strategic plan. We're responsible for a congestion pricing study and coming up with due ways for people to pay and access the various transit services in the region.
We also take in a lot of ideas from the private sector through unsolicited proposals. And so all those are all big things, but there isn't one single one of them where everybody responsible for the implementation of those things is in my team, almost all of them involve providing support or influencing or managing sideways, other implementing teams inside LA Metro.
So, it really is a coordination role, collaboration role, consensus building. And kind of an organizing role. That's another way that I don't know that we always think about our jobs in transportation. We don't think about ourselves as organizers, but we absolutely have a collective power that only comes when we build coalitions and pull people together.
And so, I think that's the other part of the role that I have now.
That's such an interesting point about needing to be an organizer. I was on the advisory council for the Chief Innovation office when it started, and I, it's really amazing to see how much the scope has grown, which I think speaks to the need for a place that is an organizer coordinator, but maybe doesn't have a huge bureaucracy of its own, but has a skill set to bring people to the table and keep things moving across departments, which is a growing need across agencies.
Can you tell us a little bit more about what an average day or week is like for you in this role in the Chief Innovation office?
Oh, sure. So, let's see. This week I presented to the senior leadership team, which is all the chief executives at Metro, plus their direct reports, presented to them an idea that we have about something called a visionary seed that we want to make available to the region. So, trying to figure out what should the theme around that call be? Who's eligible? How can we begin to get people excited about it? Presented that for input and feedback, and then participated and had feedback in the agency's gender action plan that have been brought forward to the board for their consideration.
I also went to the City of Compton to participate in a business round table. So, you know, a lot of entrepreneurs and business owners down in Compton come together on a quarterly basis and have presentations from different entities in the region. I was there representing Metro to take a pulse, see what's going on down there, see what they're thinking about when it comes to transportation and mobility.
And then, you know, I also have meetings about the 28 games. There’s a group called the Games Management Executives, and that includes LA DOT, Caltrans and Metrolink. These are all the major transportation providers in this region, along with LA 28, which is the local organizing committee. And we're working to come up with a list of projects that we think need to be delivered to make the games work. And so that's obviously both a technical and a political process.
I also have two daughters. One of them is a pitcher, the other's a catcher, so they've got softball practice twice a week for fall ball, which isn't as big of a deal as spring ball, but they really love to play. So, there's those kinds of things happening as well in the background.
And then Metro has a hybrid work policy. So, you know, one day I might be at home, most days I’m in the office and see Peter DeFazio from Oregon, who's been a long-time chair of the House Transportation Infrastructure Committee. He came to LA Metro for a visit. I participated in that presentation to talk about the games and how the US government might step in and help.
So, it's kind of things large and small, trying to move initiatives forward and trying to balance, you know, work with home.
That's amazing and it's really cool how you connect all those systems balancing home life with your kids.
The inside the building work at Metro, as I see it, is the work of creating a culture that does prioritize collaboration. That does break silos, that does apply creativity and joy to the work that we do.
And then there's the outside the building work, which is making sure that, we're advocating for the region and getting dollars for transportation, but also being in the community and making sure that I'm out there listening because one of the facts about being in transportation and urban planning in general, is that this industry is responsible for creating a lot of harm and some of it unintentional and some of it intentional specifically through a lens of racism, cutting black and brown communities off from opportunity and generally leaving them out of decision making and communications and power and funding.
I've been in this field now for almost 25 years. So that means that, even though I was well-intentioned, there's probably projects that I did that created harm in those communities because I had and have a lot to learn. And so, part of this job is being out in the world and listening with humility and atoning for things when you can, even if it wasn't your fault, even if you weren't the one who made those decisions.
That's an important part of any transportation planner and urban planner's work, and anybody who's not including that in their work is missing out on a lot of very incredible opportunities, both for learning to open the door, to allow people to share things that they might not share if there's no trust, and if they don't think that you understand what their day-to-day reality.
And there's also missed opportunities for creativity, for really inviting in and hearing ideas that can come from anywhere about how to make the system work better for everyone who's currently left out of it.
That's really powerful as well. That personal commitment to atonement and to learning is a really valuable call, and I hope people listening hear that.
You mentioned the 28 to 28 program. I remember when that was launched, and it was very smart and clever and involved state legislation to move forward a bunch of projects in advance of the Olympics. That also happened in what feels like another era completely. It was before COVID, it was before all this unrest and hopefully growing awareness of racism and the environmental harms that have come with that.
And now climate emergency, what kind of changes are happening to 28 to 28? It's an interesting example of an evolving transportation project that with an extremely big price tag and a lot of commitments that have already been made
Back then when the mayor, it was really Mayor Garcetti and the Metro Board that put forward this 28 by 28 framing around what the region could do, would strive to deliver by the 28 games.
And of course, you know, anytime you put out a list of projects, it is inherently political, right? It's no longer just technical but now also political in nature, and as you correctly described it, a call to action. 28 by 28 was a call to action regionally. Can the agencies get together?
Can we row hard in the same direction? Can we inspire the federal government to invest in these projects? And then COVID happened, and really every transportation agency that I know of in this region converted almost it overnight into an emergency response. We repurposed bus fleets at LA DOT and LA Metro to do things like deliver food to seniors and move unhoused folks indoors and consider, you know, how to bring people to vaccination sites, to testing sites and changing the Dodger Stadium parking lot into the largest testing site.
I think in the US that was all the work that was happening. And then as we're sort of emerging, I won't say we've emerged, but we're emerging now. Everybody is kind of recovered a little bit from that moment of emergency to see that there's another huge task before us. And in looking at that list of 28 projects, it's also that time to recognize that that list was a stretch goal. It was an ambitious list, and now we must turn our attention to the practical realities now that it's much closer about what can really be accomplished. And so, I think what you'll see in in the shift as we begin to move forward is that there's a much, much heavier emphasis on, for example, building out a set of bus only lanes in the region that might be a legacy, you know, leave behind when we do those quick build projects where we allocate a lane just for bus buses and we change traffic signal timing, and we. make other changes to infrastructure to make the bus more optimal and efficient.
That is the little seed that begins to make the bus more attractive, more time competitive, and overall, just more effective at moving large numbers of people that can potentially stick after the games are over. So, there's certainly been a shift, and I think to your point, in 2017, how we thought about transportation then and how we think about it now has changed.
The Metro Board has been very clear that equity and specifically specific investment in communities have been overlooked. We look at underinvested areas and use that as a criterion for how we prioritize these projects going forward. So, equity also, you know, in access to the games and, and making sure that they're really going to help effectively move people to that huge event.
We think of it in terms of a legacy - is the project something that can be delivered by 2028 but still have lasting positive effects in the region?
In Sepulveda, there's a giant project to like tunnel through a mountain called the Sepulveda Pass, which is this longstanding infrastructure project that's very needed in the region.
It's very unlikely that given where that project is now that it will be done in time for the games. So that's a project that was on the 28 by 28 list that we've moved on from. But I think what you'll see is that now we have a list of 48 projects that are much more surgical in nature.
They will require a lot of public outreaches and a lot of community engagement to bring to life. We've got a lot of urgency around now, turning our attention to those projects.
That's interesting and encouraging. To hear about change and revisiting things. I think that's been hard for a lot of agencies and the stakeholders that raised the money and got the first legislation through or something like that, but really critical.
You mentioned switching to more of a community engagement mode, moving the project forward. I imagine there's a difference in between what people ask for every day in terms of improvements to their transportation system, to their public transit.
What you've heard in Compton and the agency's needs to move these big projects forward that are longer term in nature, that are harder for individual people.
Maybe to fathom the benefits of how you balance those two, how do you keep representing the big projects that might not meet, meet people's needs in the immediate.
Yeah. And they might not even be big projects, right? When you go into a neighborhood and you say, I'm here to build a protected bike lane, or I'm here to build a bus lane, and that means I must take a lane that's currently dedicated to vehicle traffic and convert it to something else that's not usually at the top of the list of some communities.
I don't want to paint everybody with one brush. It may not be right, and that's a trap there, which is that tendency for particularly folks who work in technical fields that are steeped in data and analysis, that use incredibly sophisticated tools to make determinations about where to put the bike lane and where to put the bus lane that look at things.
Crash records and safety and where people are coming from and going to, and all this very intense research that underpins these recommendations that also, by the way, are trying to get to a place where we have cleaner air. We're able to survive climate catastrophes and we're able to really give people economic mobility who currently don't have it because they can't afford it.
There's a trap there to come in and say, look, I've got all this, I've done all this analysis, I've got all this information, and I know best, and here it is. And then to become extremely frustrated when you know the neighborhood that you're speaking to is completely uninterested in any of that and has a long list of other things that they need from you as the transportation agency, whether you're at the city or the county or the state.
There's this mismatch that happens all the time and there's sometimes a danger in that. I think it's heightened in the sort of post 2020 era of particularly planners and engineers thinking, oh, well actually I have access to power. I have this position. I'm going to come in and I'm going to rain down on this community which is very challenging.
And I think that all of that arises from the fact that the last 20 years or so, a lot of folks who are coming into transportation are coming in through the climate door. They're in transportation because they're desperately trying to combat the effects of driving and transportation accounts for 30 to 40% depending on who you listen to of greenhouse gas emission.
And so, the natural conclusion of folks is, well, people have to drive less and for people to drive less, I've got to, number one, make it harder to drive, and number two, make it easier to take other modes. We also have to electrify all the fleet that's on the road right now. What that misses entirely is just how critical it is right now for people's lives to be able to drive.
We've done a poor job of understanding the role of urban planning in American life. A lot of that relates to land use and the way that we've planned and laid out cities make it almost impossible to get access to jobs or education or even just to take your kids to school without owning a car.
You're there to deliver one thing and you actually have a lot of money. You're actually committed to deliver one. But then people are asking for a whole bunch of other things, and my approach to that has always been to first and foremost, set my project aside and listen carefully and closely and see if I can find some wins for communities that are feeling disenfranchised, overlooked, et cetera.
If there are, even if it's not my agency or if it's not in my purview or I don't have funding for, to be successful at delivering a transportation system that serves everybody, their worries have to be my worries. There must be a way. Maybe I'm not able to give them everything on their punch list, but I can at least give it a go.
So, I think that's just the best way to go about doing it. I've never seen it succeed if you try and skip that step and you put in a project that a community is not asking for or that they're really not concerned about, it usually backfires.
Use your power to get community the wins that it wants before you come in with your project, I think is the best way to think about it.
I hope a lot of people in this field are listening to this. I'll make sure that they do. Speaking of atonement, I worked in consulting too, which is kind of the big source of a lot of that technical information and a lot of folks who don't see the ability to respond to anything else.
I heard in what you're saying Seleta is to believe what people are saying. They're speaking their truth about what's hard, and they have authority in their own lives, in their own neighborhood, their own travel journeys more than somebody who doesn’t.
I would love to see us change job qualifications to include lived experience. Like maybe you need a degree in this, or you have lived experience in some arena, that we'd start to value community expertise the same way we value technical expertise.
And by the way, there are a lot of other fields that could probably enrich what we're thinking about and doing. You know, behavioral psychology, even anthropology history, bringing those pieces into what we do and trying to figure out if there's anybody around me that can give me some of those reality checks. This would be a catalyst for a lot of overdue change in the way that we think about and approach our projects.
Yeah, I totally agree with that. I've felt that social work is a really, essential skill in this field, both for the inside game and the outside game. How to help people one by one, have self-efficacy and access resources. Another one I talk about a lot is training and process. How to move people from point A to point B using well-known practices, but that might come from a lot of different fields.
Totally. I think right now we're in the middle in this country of a massive bus transit operator shortage. That's being felt across the board. It's starting to recover a little bit, but I mean, we were dealing with a transit operator shortage at LA DOT even before the pandemic.
It's only gotten worse, even if we have an all-hands-on-deck approach and we're able to bring people into that. Unless we figure out a career ladder for folks, I don't think we can keep them there, right? There's those rarities and those transit operators that have 20, 30, 40 years of experience, but not nearly enough of them.
And that's because that job is physically, emotionally, and mentally taxing, and it's not really a job that most people should do for long periods. But we haven't really figured out what is that career ladder for folks. And this applies to parking enforcement, traffic control officers, and probably a lot of other places where we struggle to bring people on board.
But here's a bunch of folks in our own backyard that are experts on, you know, really what's going on out there and what people really need and what would be most valuable. We should be able to find a way to bring them into the decision-making rooms. Those of them that want to. But right now, that ladder doesn't exist unless you are a very strong advocate for yourself and willing to invest a lot of your own time in educational attainment.
There are barriers between classes of people, I would say there's a classism that you can see in this field between folks to do the operations on the ground serving the public, and those who are in more technical roles or leadership roles.
What will take to overcome that? What is the barrier or like the mental model that's the barrier here, or just bureaucratic to maybe overcoming what you just said, having more of the operator voice and expertise in the room for decision making.
There's a great writer, and I'm blanking on his name, but he's done a lot of investigation. At what point in the United States did we begin to value that sort of technical expertise in technical fields that are, I'll put this in quote, sort of intellectual in nature, rely more on mental acuity versus some of those professions that are skilled trade or even, you know, people who do all variety of work, right?
People who are servers and restaurant people. People of cute hair and those who work in mechanics. At what point did we relegate that group and that segment of work? How can we recover from that? And I think part of it is that it is a systems problem.
So, it goes deep all the way back to, the stereotype in high school where students who goes and takes shop versus who's in AP calculus. Like it starts then and then sort of proceeds from there. And that's outrageous in terms of how we value and think about that.
And how we connect that to happiness and fulfillment, because really doing work, the work you do is about bringing value to your life. If the pandemic taught us anything and gave us any lessons about how incredibly short our time is, how very interconnected we are. We should spend our time doing things that bring meaning into our lives and bring the meaning into those lives around us that allow us to be better humans and, and share love.
And we haven't effectively figured out how we assign those classes. I don't know if I have a great answer, but my starting point is, you know, why don't we have a set of classifications in the civil service system or in any big bureaucratic system that allow that kind of mobility back and forth between frontline work, skilled trade work and desk work or management work or analysis work, and how can treat those as siloed has only gotten us into a mess.
I hope people are listening because that's going to take a lot of collective effort to accomplish.
I know that you're still on the Transit Center board?
The chair of the Transit Center board – it’s a foundation based in New York City.
Excellent. I know what the Transit Center board is. I had a conversation with David Bragden and his colleagues there. I think that advocacy organizations, non-profits, academics, there's an opportunity here, at least in this, on our small corner of the universe, even just to come up with some recommendations and then to find a handful of public and private agencies that are willing to give them a shot and put them into practice.
I have a feeling we're going to find things that make our work better, but it is a risk. It's a little bit risky, right? It's a little scary. It's a little bit counterintuitive. It can feel sometimes we come to these conversations, whether it's about gender equity or racial equity or, accessibility with a scarcity mindset that somehow if we make it easier for other folks to get into the door, there will be less for the people who are already inside. And I just have always seen over and over again, the opposite is true. When you open the door wider, the room gets bigger, and everybody benefits. I think that mindset shift is also an important part of the conversation from scarcity to abundance.
Thanks for that. And one last question, before I let you go. Obviously, you're working very hard as a leader, a parent and a community member in Los Angeles, but if you could get out and visit some infrastructure somewhere in the world, what's at the top of your list?
So many things. But because I'm working on the games now, I would really like to
look at the bus only infrastructure that Rio put in for their games. I want to push the fast forward button and get a vision of what does LA look like in 2030 or 2035, and what are the legacy pieces of the games? And I think Rio is a good model for that because they relied so heavily on their bus infrastructure.
How did they evolve that and preserve that and advance that over time? I'm also interested in going in and poking around Tokyo and understanding what kind of technology they use to make decisions about how to change things on the fly in real time as the sort of dynamic day-to-day reality of hosting the Olympic games. Between Asia and South America, that would be, that would be an amazing trip.
I hope you get to do that soon. Seleta, thank you so too much for this time, and your voice and candor and willingness to call things out. Really grateful
Always fun to talk to you and good to have an opportunity to talk about the deeper things that I don't get to talk a lot about in my day-to-day hustle.