CES 2019: “Code Is the New Concrete” in Today’s Cities
Metropolis interviews Seleta Reynolds, general manager of L.A.’s Department of Transportation (LADOT), about modernizing transit and making cities more equitable.
Cities seem to have the deck stacked against them: Old infrastructure is failing, new mobility companies like Lime and Uber are rapidly changing how people use city streets, and the federal government has largely abdicated its role in leading the way. But that hardly means cities don’t have options. At CES, Metropolis sat down with Seleta Reynolds to discuss how her agency—the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT)—is responding to 21st Century challenges. (Reynolds, in addition to helming the LADOT, is the president of the National Association of City Transportation Officials.)
Let’s start with one of the LADOT’s recent projects: the Mobility Data Specification (MDS), a standardized data format and interface that helps your department to track and manage “mobility providers” like bikeshare and scooter companies. But is the MDS more than just a management and visualization tool? Can you use it to talk to mobility providers?
That’s a really good question. MDS is about two things primarily. One is creating a consistent way of getting information about the devices on our streets so we can fulfill our role as regulators. As regulators, the more transparency and insight we have into the operations of these companies, the less we need heavy-handed regulation.
But the second set of the MDS’s APIs, called Agency, actually envisions a really different kind of two-way street between companies and cities. [Editorial note: an API, or Application Programming Interface, is essentially the building blocks of code used to create a computer program.] We don’t currently have a way of communicating directly with businesses that operate fleets in our cities. To do that, we need to get into their actual product workflow.
So, through Agency the business will ping the city and say, “I’m starting a scooter trip at 1st and Main and ending it at 7th and Figueroa.” I can then say [to the mobility provider], “You’re not meeting your equity plan; you haven’t provided the adequate number of service hours in low-income neighborhoods for more than a month. Your fleet is grounded until you reach those service levels; that trip can’t start.” Or I might need to ground the fleet because there’s a sinkhole that just opened there. [Agency] is a more elegant, digital way to start to do this.
It sounds like the LA DOT is acting more like a product company.
Yes. It offers the opportunity for really interesting alchemy between the city and the companies: If I can give companies certainty and [make] the expectations really clear, it’s actually a win for business. Then companies can go off and do what they do best, which is to innovate the user experience, the options that people have, and how they pay for them.
There’s a lot of boosterism about the power of data. Last year at CES, someone said “data is the new oil.” Is all this data collected by rideshares, bikeshares, etc., actually revolutionary for you?
No. The transportation field has long been very steeped in data. The more accurate phrase that describes what we’re doing is “code is the new concrete”: the delivery of digital infrastructure to services that give us data.
For example, let’s say the Lyft app pings the city and says, “I want to pick up and drop off at this corner.” But [that’s where] there’s a bike lane where we don’t want pickups and drop-offs. The city’s operating system might say, “You need to go right around the corner. We have a clear space for you and it’ll cost you 50 cents a minute.” The [LADOT] will have insight into whether or not that curb space is occupied. Not one single part of that was about me extracting data. It was all about me managing the public realm and delivering services I already deliver. Now, as a result of delivering a service, I also have data about the operation of the street curb.
I know social equity is a major priority for you and your department. What are some ways the LADOT creates a more equitable city?
Last year we launched an EV [electronic vehicle] car-sharing program called BlueLA with Blue Systems, a subsidiary of the French battery company Bolloré. It’s really the only one of its kind in the United States. Basically, we brought community-based organizations in low-income communities around MacArthur Park and four other neighborhoods and actually had them write a request for proposals so that they could shape a program that would solve real problems for them.
Then we used public funds [and private company support] … to put in 200 EV chargers and 100 cars. We’re gonna expand probably in the next year or so. When [the chargers] are not in use by the car-sharing fleet, they’ll eventually usable by the public to recharge their cars. So that’s about having communities design a program, bringing the private sector and their innovation to the table, and leveraging public dollars to drive investment to communities where these services might not otherwise go.
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