Los Angeles planning director Vince Bertoni and L.A. Metro planning chief Therese McMillan have been on the job for less than eight months, but they are already immersed in the complex transit issues facing the notoriously automobile-centric metropolis. Speaking at a ULI Los Angeles conference in October, both made it clear they are ready to try new approaches.
“One of the great challenges for the transit industry is rethinking how transit works,” said McMillan, who joined the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority in April.
The session, moderated by Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, provided an unusual opportunity to hear two of L.A.’s key planners, fresh on the job, discuss their attitudes, priorities, and philosophies. Both offered a glimpse into the future of L.A. development as they addressed the myriad issues facing the city.
Bertoni sees a shift in the thinking in L.A. “There is a real feeling we have to get things done,” he said. “There is a real feeling there is a lot at stake if we can’t figure this out.”
Bertoni took over the top planning role at the Los Angeles Department of City Planning in February after five years as Pasadena’s planning and community development director. Before that, he was deputy planning director for Los Angeles for three years, making him keenly aware of the demographic shifts and transit preferences in the city.
“We have to accommodate different ways people are living,” Bertoni told the audience at the Japanese American National Museum.
Los Angeles presents a unique set of issues, Bertoni said. The city is “getting both older and younger at the same time,” he said, a reference to the simultaneous growth in the number of senior citizens and millennials. A successful transit-linked development is not always simply about introducing a mix of uses, but also about encouraging people to walk and change their habits, Bertoni said.
Affordable housing, parking, and the connection to health care and services are all key goals for city planners. That means moving the transit discussion beyond “simply moving people efficiently between point A and point B,” McMillan said. These days L.A. Metro is focusing more on the “positive change transit infrastructure can make,” she said.
It’s no longer enough for a development to offer new shops and restaurants around a transit stop. Developers and planners need to take a broader look at transit-related development and how it can address citywide issues, McMillan said. “It’s important moving beyond the parcel-by-parcel think of joint development and land we own and really thinking about how transit infrastructure transforms the community,” she said.
Before joining L.A. Metro, McMillan spent seven years with the Federal Transit Administration, eventually serving as acting administrator. The lesson from her time there: “One size doesn’t fit all,” she said. “I think in L.A. we need that same perception.”
Bertoni and McMillan have taken their new roles at a critical juncture for L.A. transit. A measure on the November ballot, Proposition M, would increase the sales tax by a half-cent, and maintain a current half-cent tax, to fund a wide menu of transit projects. The measure could infuse as much as $120 billion into the system, including for construction of miles of light rail, widening of freeways. and extension of bus rapid transit lines.
But the measure will need two-thirds approval from county voters to pass, and has faced criticism for not capping funding and for how planned projects are distributed. “Even if it doesn’t pass, we still have a path forward,” Bertoni told the ULI audience. “I think the strategy would still be the same.”
Los Angeles’s primary focus in recent years has been a rapid expansion of light rail. Since 1990, L.A. Metro has built a network of 105 miles (169 km) of light rail with 100 stations. In the past year, two new lines have opened, connecting downtown to the coastal community of Santa Monica and the suburbs of Pasadena and Azusa.
But the added transit service has done little to ease L.A.’s traffic congestion, which remains among the worst in the country, according to annual studies. Angelenos spend an average of 81 hours a year sitting in traffic, according to a report by data company Inrix. And the Los Angeles County population is expected to increase by 2.3 million people, to 12.5 million, in the next 40 years.
“Often we build these [transit-oriented] developments and people still drive,” McMillan said.
Moving forward, the transit system is looking more at “transit-oriented communities,” and searching for new ways to connect and reach the people living in the single-family communities surrounding the city center, McMillan said. New services such as Uber and Lyft and new technologies like autonomous cars are not the enemy for existing systems, she said.
“We have to look at them not as competitors; that’s so 1980s,” McMillan said. “We have to look at them as the ability to extend the reach of public transit and rethink what public transportation means in the future.”
But McMillan noted that L.A. Metro, despite an array of seeding and joint projects, is “not the new redevelopment agency.” Transportation is still the agency focus, she said. “Part of doing planning better is to recognize what your lane is, but also to push the boundaries of that lane.
But both planners focused on the need for projects to address the big picture. In many cases projects simply “reinforce the same behavior”; they are just next to transit, he said. The larger goal is to something “sweeping,” where people can “see and feel the difference,” he said.
Ultimately, the biggest driver for transit-focused projects will be the ever-worsening traffic situation, which will force change, McMillan believes. “The soul-crushing impact of traffic is really pushing people to think about different options,” she said.
Both planners emphasized the need to create better dialogue and communications in the community, which is often a source of tension in the city. “It’s important voices are heard,” Bertoni said.
McMillan noted a growing flexibility in L.A. Metro’s approach. Last year the agency scrapped plans to develop a shopping center project called Mariachi Plaza in the East Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights. Local critics complained the project didn’t address the needs of the community. “We screwed up and started over,” McMillan said.