Drones, Loops, and Robotaxis: An Equitable City Roadmap to Our Hyper-Uber Future

Seleta Reynolds, General Manager, Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) will give the morning keynote at the Municipal Green Building Conference and Expo on April 19.

Los Angeles rose with the age of the automobile, and the city embraced it. We designed our entire urban landscape with it in mind and little appreciation for the consequences in terms of congestion, sprawl, and emissions. After nearly one hundred years of increasing strain, Los Angeles has entered the alpha stage of building a new transportation network.

Given its position as the largest, densest metropolitan region in the US, the City of Los Angeles stands to reap the most benefits or possibly suffer the greatest negative effects of the arrival of disruptive transportation technologies and new business models that rest on the acceleration of shared mobility, machine learning, clean energy, and big data. Urban Mobility in a Digital Age established LADOT’s vision for mobility in Los Angeles, anchored on the foundation of actively managed electric, shared, autonomous mobility that tackles congestion, enables economic mobility, enables equitable outcomes, and saves lives.

No single sector – public, private, non-profit, academic – can solve urban transportation’s challenges alone. We require new approaches and a radical re-envisioning of our roles to be successful. In Los Angeles, we want to broker a new definition of public transit, iterate towards the street of the future, and nudge the market towards our vision.

Meanwhile, we continue to deliver on the Mayor of Los Angeles’ initiatives for Great Streets, Vision Zero, a Sustainable City Plan, and most recently the City’s first Resiliency Plan, Resilient Los Angeles. These initiatives align with LADOT’s strategic goals of a department that is innovative, responsive, and transparent, while working to build a safe, healthy, livable, sustainable city.

Equity and New Mobility

Los Angeles is among the least affordable cities in the country when comparing wages and housing costs. We know that Angelenos can reach upwards of 12 times as many jobs in an hour by car as they can in an hour on public transit. Owning a car has become essential to economic mobility, but given car ownership’s significant costs, it is out of reach for many residents. Further, we will struggle to reach our goals for public health, sustainability, and safety if individual car ownership continues to boom.

Los Angeles established its first Promise Zone to capture a neighborhood with high numbers of Angelenos living in poverty and experiencing disproportionate rates of negative public health outcomes, including severe and fatal traffic crashes with people walking. The Promise Zone has the right ingredients for programs like carsharing to be successful. However, these programs have not emerged in this neighborhood on their own. Bringing mobility hubs, EV carsharing, and new technologies integrated with transit and surface transportation infrastructure helps to spur change.

The Moveable Street

Much of the forecasting around the arrival of new mobility entails either a heaven scenario, where the electric fleet of shared autonomous vehicles (AV) can serve people and goods more efficiently or a hell scenario, where the proliferation of access to cheap single occupant trips in AVs portends an explosion in vehicle miles traveled, congestion, and suburban sprawl. We are considering a future that is less black and white. Instead, assume that a street can now be endlessly flexible over the course of a day. In the morning, a street can serve mobility needs while in the afternoon, it converts to a park and in the evening, a plaza.

The largest cost of closing a street is the work to manually put up barricades and detours. If in the future, these tasks are increasingly automated, this cost decreases, and communities can be empowered to reclaim under-used streets for other neighborhood needs. A few elements are necessary to bring this to life: changeable infrastructure that can easily convert a street; the technology to communicate to drivers and vehicles that the street is closed; and algorithms to create dynamic detours.

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LADOT’s initial playbook for preparing the city for an autonomous future has been a vital tool to guide investment, program development, and new models for operations. As we look towards the 2028 games, we know that we must rethink the system that we manage and operate. The city is our new platform for product development; code is our new concrete; but our values and vision remain fixed firmly on a city for people. New mobility’s value will not be measured by its disruption but its power as a catalyst for a strong, equitable city that continues to welcome everyone and connect them to a better life.

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