I've gone from driving hundreds of miles per week to using public transport or ride-share services whenever I can.
I live in Los Angeles, a city where the car is king. At certain times (mostly before dawn on Sunday), the roads are clear, the breeze is gentle, and Bowie is on the radio. The rest of the time? Driving here sucks.
But it is possible to negotiate the city without a car. I've gone from driving hundreds of miles per week, stuck in interminable traffic, to using public transport or ride-share services whenever I can. This has changed my experience of being on the West Coast and gives me a taste of what I miss most about London and Manhattan: being one amongst many in a metropolis full of possibility.
In the 1920s, the Pacific Electric Red Car mass transit system was the way to get from Hollywood and Beverly Hills to the Pacific Ocean, but the last Red Car to the beach stopped running in 1961. In May, however, the newest section of the Expo light rail opened and, for the first time in decades, you can get from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica and the beach in 46 minutes. You wouldn't even attempt that journey in a car.
So what's behind the new mass transit-friendly, sharing economy-style Los Angeles? Part of it is about economics: gas prices increase and cars become too expensive. There's also the desire for a better quality of life, from avoiding car accidents to mingling with neighbors via Uber Pool.
(As an aside, you won't be surprised to learn that L.A. has the most attractive flexi-drivers of the fleet because, you guessed it, many are actors. You know this not just because they tell you, but because there is often a sheaf of headshots in the magazine holder attached to the rear of the passenger seat. One day, when heading to Paramount Pictures, the look of disappointment on my driver's face when he learned I was just a journalist heading to a press screening was truly pitiful. The Uber drivers that aren't actors? They're musicians.)
Thanks to GPS, cloud-based apps, and a reputation management system, technology has made the concept of getting into a car with a stranger relatively safe. Unlike the time I flew to Milan, got into a private taxi, and was driven two hours through the night without taking my eyes off the knife on the driver's armrest. My driver was female. It was Italy. A knife is probably standard defense issue over there.
My favorite way to get around L.A. is viaCitymapper, which delivers a clever combination of bus, subway, light rail, and train. All I have to do is tap "get me somewhere" or "get me home," and it will look up my location, cross reference sensor data on all forms of public transport to check timetables, and give me a myriad of options. It took me a while to realize Citymapper doesn't even offer car driving directions, which is very modern.
But start-ups like Uber and Citymapper aren't the only ones thinking about transportation in Los Angeles; the city itself is examining ways to make the area less congested.
I sat down with Ashley Z. Hand, the Transportation Technology Strategy Fellow for Los Angeles, a program funded through a grant from the Goldhirsh Foundation and supported by Mayor Garcetti, to create a city-wide strategy to build a tech-savvy transportation system for Angelenos. A trained architect, Hand previously served as Chief Innovation Officer for Kansas City, Missouri, where she delivered the city's first-ever digital roadmap. I quizzed her about why she returned to L.A. and what she hopes to change.
Is driving a car about to become a guilty pleasure?
There will remain a place for the automobile. But the smartphone, Wi-Fi, and access to the ubiquity of technology has shifted our notion of ownership. For example, we're working with automobile manufacturers, who are so passionate about what they do. I applaud their partnerships, which reflect this new mindset, like GM linking up with Lyft, and Faraday Future building an EV [electric vehicle] fleet.
Shared car ownership, ridesharing services, and autonomous or automated vehicle platforms will free up a massive amount of parking spaces in the city, right?
That's true. For instance, 200,000 square miles in the County of Los Angeles are dedicated to parking. With affordable housing being a key issue for Los Angeles, if we could take away the $35,000 per parking spot cost [in a purpose-built parking structure] and use that money, and physical space, to construct homes instead, that would be huge. Due to technology, we can make radical decisions about land use and allocated costs to change our city.
You've lived and worked in many cities, including Hartford, Montreal, New Orleans, Rome [Italy], Kansas City and now for the second time in your career, L.A. What was it about this gig that drew you back?
I've always been fascinated by cities: how they work, what are the social implications of a walkable city and so on. I'd already met Peter Marx, CTO, City of Los Angeles, through my former job and, when I met the visionary Seleta Reynolds, General Manager here at the Department of Transportation, I knew right away I wanted to work for her.
Civically speaking, I'd voted for Measure R (the half-cent sales tax for Los Angeles County to finance new transportation projects and programs) and wanted to see it in action, because the subway and light rail extensions are part of the largest infrastructure build going on in North America right now. Professionally speaking, I wanted to be part of next-gen transportation strategy in a city that is all about the future and has the imagination, energy, and determination to make it happen.
You're a licensed architect, but not practicing. Why is that?
(Laughs) I went through all the years of study, exams, and internships, and I will keep my license current but the cityscape is the scale I like to work on now. Having said that, the discipline, design-thinking, and way of looking at the world instilled in architecture school stands me in good stead to this day.
What are you most proud of from your prior gig in Kansas City?
We had a streetcar line that was under construction and, through a partnership with Cisco and their Smart Cities platform, we had an opportunity to do something different with all the utilities infrastructure underground and the city services on the street. Essentially we built upon a data-driven culture at city hall by launching a comprehensive sensor network, provided free public Wi-Fi throughout downtown, opened up the technology platform to allow innovation from third parties, and created a responsive environment for a more livable and efficient urban center with cooperation from the community.
Give us an example of how that worked.
I got to ride on the first streetcar leaving the station and, as I walked up to the traffic intersection, the sensors picked me up, the pedestrian signals changed, without me doing anything.
It was a great moment. You deliver research reports and strategies for public policy, but it's awesome when you get to see the projects in them become real.
You're about to deliver your recommendations to the Department of Transportation and the mayor of L.A. Can you give us a sneak peek?
It's a huge doc. It's intended to be seen as a manual of data-driven innovations, best practices of what's happening elsewhere (like the redefining of Right of Way in NYC with Times Square), a ton of recommendations, policy and administrative shifts, core ideas and strategy to put them into place.
A few examples include ensuring we don't leave people behind if they don't have access to technology. In Philadelphia, for instance, you can go to a dollar store to pay for a bike share membership if you don't have a credit card, and our bike share isn't a standalone service, but an extension of transit, so I can use my TAP card to use any number of bus, train, light rail, and bike services. We've built a partnership with Waze to improve transportation routes, we're launching electric vehicle sharing for low-income communities, and we have a solid plan for integrating automated vehicles into the future cityscape. We'll also be launching a website to track how, why, where, and when things launch from the plan, as transparency is key.
Have you been in a Google self-driving car?
Yes. But sadly not while it was moving. The thing about emerging technology is it's hard to predict the pace of change, especially when we're doing city planning in 30-year increments; building infrastructure for 50 to 100 years. Government works on entirely different timelines than tech companies; how to better align is important to leveraging the benefits these innovations will have on our city.
But we have an incredible backbone in L.A. with the Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control System (ATSAC), so we plan to integrate and iterate all future connected vehicle networks (like self-driving cars) as they come onboard. The system is becoming smarter, based on data from sensors. For example, we can detect when a skyscraper empties at the end of a work day and make on-the-fly decisions about transit load and options. It's no longer just supporting single occupancy vehicles; it's much more complex.
Airspace congestion is a problem. When I piloted a Cessna single engine aircraft, I was shocked to see how crowded the airspace around L.A. is.
Wait! You fly planes?
I don't have a license, but that's my next plan, to get one. This was a gift and there was an instructor with me, but I had to take off and land. That was wild, I loved it. Seeing the city from up there was so cool. I'm proud to be part of making L.A. more livable, and a truly smart connected city, for everyone.