Juan Matute, deputy director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the growing role of technology in public transit service. New York, London and Los Angeles are releasing new apps and digital versions of their subway maps, which give riders access to information about how close a train is to their station as well as any closures or delays. Matute explained that the new platforms are designed with more focus on the user experience than some predecessors, which first appeared on app stores around 2010 and were often neglected by transit agencies afterward. “These apps just fell out of favor and ended up being removed from the marketplace,” he said. The growth of ride-share services like Lyft and Uber and competition with other navigation apps such as Google Maps and Apple Maps has prompted public transit agencies to invest resources in improving the digital experience for riders.
Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, spoke to Time magazine about COVID-19’s impact on public transit systems around the world. Mass transit has seen steep declines in ridership and revenue as people have begun to work from home or opted for cars over public transportation. However, the COVID-19 disruption has also led to a global reckoning as leaders ponder how to positively reshape their cities for the post-pandemic era. “Many are arguing this pause could give us an opportunity to reallocate street space, to reconsider how much curb space we devote to the storage of people’s private property, which cars are,” Taylor said. Improving public transit and phasing out cars could lower greenhouse-gas emissions, make streets safer and more pleasant for pedestrians, and create opportunities for retail and hospitality sectors. According to Taylor, it all depends on the decisions city leaders take now to “intelligently manage automobiles” and protect public transit.
Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning Martin Wachs spoke to Forbes about the possible construction of a high-speed monorail in Los Angeles. Local officials are evaluating proposals for a $6.1 billion monorail that would aim to reduce traffic congestion in the city. Transit systems in Germany, Japan, China and India use monorails, but the Los Angeles project would be the first in the United States. Wachs is skeptical but open to the possibility that a monorail could work in Los Angeles. “When you actually work out the numbers and do a careful and thorough design, and consider that in most places where a transit route is being contemplated it’s being added to an existing network, it just hasn’t penciled out,” he said. Wachs recalled working with science fiction author Ray Bradbury on a monorail proposal that was rejected 50 years ago. “The world’s a better place for having people who are visionaries, but it also needs traditional engineers.”
Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville was cited in a Bond Buyer article about how work patterns, commutes and transportation will look after the pandemic is over. The San Diego Association of Governments is drafting its 30-year transportation plan, but some experts are hesitant about investing in transportation projects due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. At a SANDAG board meeting, a panel of experts debated how long it will take for work patterns and traffic to return to pre-pandemic levels. While some firms will continue to offer work-from-home opportunities, Manville said he believes that “work patterns will largely return to how it was before the pandemic, as will traffic patterns.” He noted that it didn’t take long after the shutdown in March for traffic to return. “Though Zoom is great, so many companies have mentioned that it’s the unplanned interactions between employees that generate the best ideas,” Manville said.
For many Los Angeles residents, the daily commute is frustrating. A project by three UCLA faculty members aims to change that — especially for those who ride to work on two wheels — by creating bicycle “flows” that produce real-time digital art exhibitions throughout the city.
One of the project’s goals is to make cycling to work feel as accessible and safe as other modes of travel, so the professors envision groups, or flows, of cyclists that would be organized by a smartphone app. The app would encourage reluctant or inexperienced cyclists to participate by pointing them toward those flows, suggest routes that are optimized for enjoyability and safety over efficiency or speed, and enable participants to share their experiences.
Those experiences, in the form of text, photos, videos and other creative submissions, would feed directly into digital murals throughout Los Angeles. The murals would be located in community spaces and transportation hubs around the city — including, for example, a large interactive display at the Los Angeles State Historic Park, adjacent to Chinatown — elevating biking to work to a collective creative experience.
“We envision the cooperative bike flows as a type of performative media artwork that is shared live with all of Los Angeles in public spaces and on the internet,” said Fabian Wagmister, the project’s principal investigator and the founding director of the UCLA Center for Research in Engineering, Media and Performance, known as UCLA REMAP.
“By inviting communities to think about bicycle riding as a way to express themselves in the urban landscape, we can strengthen commuters’ ownership of the system and offer a deeper level of engagement in the future of the city.”
The project, called Civic Bicycle Commuting, or CiBiC, is co-led by Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, distinguished professor of urban planning at UCLA Luskin, and Jeff Burke, co-director of REMAP and a UCLA professor in-residence of theater.
The project already is gaining some traction: In February, the initiative received $50,000 in funding from the Civic Innovation Challenge, which is funded by the National Science Foundation in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. CiBiC is now in contention for an additional grant of up to $1 million, which the researchers would use to create a prototype of the project.
CiBiC’s art-led approach makes it somewhat of an anomaly among most of the competitors in its category, “communities and mobility.” Most of the other proposals have origins in the STEM fields and social sciences.
To ensure the project incorporates the diverse experiences and needs of Los Angeles commuters, the researchers are soliciting input from Los Angeles neighborhood groups. Loukaitou-Sideris said the team will especially seek participation from low-income residents of Chinatown, Solano Canyon, Dogtown and Lincoln Heights.
“We want to hear from community groups and residents and understand how we can create something that is tailored to their needs,” she said.
The researchers also are collaborating with Eli Akira Kaufman, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, who said the project could demonstrate how transformative bicycle culture could be in Los Angeles if bicyclists could help create infrastructure that reflected their needs.
“Instead of allowing the built environment to dictate the culture of bicycling in Los Angeles, we need to uplift the culture of bicycling to make sure the built environment is defined by the social infrastructure and the people who use it,” he said.
Aggregated data from the app could also eventually be used to influence Los Angeles’ long-term infrastructure planning.
And Wagmister said the project stands to both reflect and amplify the city’s creative spirit: “We want to create an alternative transportation system in Los Angeles, one that values our collective creative capacity to transform the city for all.”
A New York Times article about improving bus service cited a research report by Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin. Bus systems across the country are underfunded, resulting in slow, inconvenient and unreliable service. Proper investment could transform city buses into a cheap, accessible and sustainable form of public transportation. However, many transit agencies do not identify serving the poor or minorities as a goal, and instead cater to more affluent voters who are less likely to actually ride public transit. Taylor’s report suggests that public policy goals are often not aligned with “the needs of transit riders themselves, particularly the poor and transit dependent,” who wield little political or economic clout. The article suggests that transit agencies have been given a valuable opportunity to invest in bus systems because of the way the COVID-19 pandemic has altered Americans’ commuting habits.
The setting was virtual this time, but UCLA again figured prominently when the Los Angeles Business Council convened a who’s who of California elected officials and civic leaders for its annual Mayoral Summit on Housing, Transportation and Jobs, an event that UCLA has co-hosted for 18 of its 19 years. “This event is near and dear to our hearts,” Chancellor Gene Block said in welcoming remarks. “As a public institution with a deeply rooted service mission, we view it as our obligation to help address the vexing issues facing our city.” Academic research figured prominently in the daylong event presented in partnership with the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate and the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation directed by JR DeShazo, professor of public policy. He moderated a panel focusing on how to promote zero-emission vehicles in an equitable manner, noting that California’s policy investments have brought low-emission vehicles to 10% of sales, a notable accomplishment. “But we have failed miserably to make those policies beneficial to our low-income communities and communities of color,” DeShazo said. Richard Ziman, who is founding chair of the Los Angeles Business Council, opened the virtual summit, and Stuart Gabriel, professor of finance and director of the Ziman Center, led a session on economic recovery efforts. Jacqueline Waggoner, Miguel A. Santana and Michael Mahdesian of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Board of Advisors also spoke, as did public officials that included Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.
Recent articles in Medium and Sightline highlighted the findings of Associate Professor of Urban Planning Adam Millard-Ball’s new research on the relationship between parking and driving in cities. While many cities have been designed under the assumption that the urban environment should accommodate people’s desire to drive, researchers led by Millard-Ball found that that assumption is backward. “Increased parking causes more car ownership and more driving while reducing transit use,” the team concluded, noting that “buildings with at least one parking space per unit have more than twice the car ownership rate of buildings that have no parking.” The Sightline piece cited Urban Planning Professor Donald Shoup’s observation that parking spaces are a “fertility drug for cars.” Furthermore, the research team found no correlation between parking supply and employment status, indicating that buildings with less parking do not limit the job prospects of their occupants.
By Les Dunseith
As one of the state’s top political leaders, Rendon outlined his legislative priorities for 2021 — police reform, climate change and broadband internet access — as the first presenter in a virtual series of discussions set to continue in February, March and April.
Dean Gary Segura said Rendon was invited to open the Summit in part because his background and political views are of interest to UCLA students, faculty and alumni. “In his career as educator, child well-being advocate and policy innovator, Rendon represents the best values of the Luskin School and our mission.”
Addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, Rendon, a Democrat, said Californians are already seeing benefits from the election of Joe Biden as president.
“One thing we can be sure about is the importance of having a plan. Throughout 2020, when COVID first appeared on our radar, we did not have a national plan,” Rendon said. “Biden came in, and he released a plan in his first week.”
He noted the tension that existed on many issues between the Trump administration and California officials, which led state leaders to work independently of the federal government on issues such as immigration and climate change.
“With Biden in the White House … I think we’re going to have a little bit more help and more opportunities to work with this administration instead of against it,” Rendon said.
As a legislative leader, Rendon has stressed inclusion and diversity, and he noted that more women hold committee chairs today in the state assembly than at any time in the past. He also pointed to his appointment of the first Muslim, Imam Mohammad Yasir Khan, to serve as assembly chaplain.
His leadership style emphasizes sharing of responsibility, Rendon told the online audience of more than 100 scholars, social services advocates, philanthropic and public leaders, and other interested parties.
“I believe that the assembly works best when the individual members of the assembly, particularly the chairs, are able to utilize their skills, to utilize their life experiences,” he said. For example, Rendon said he has sought to embolden the chairs of legislative committees related to health and education whose expertise exceeds his own. “That’s been my philosophy, that I can be the best leader if I’m enabling others to do their jobs.”
In terms of legislative priorities, Rendon acknowledged that California lawmakers “fell short” on police reform in 2020, including failing to pass a bill that would have changed the disciplinary processes for police officers.
“We need to change those processes so that public safety is not just about officer protection,” he said. “Of course, we want to make sure that we’re not endangering the people we trust with patrolling our streets and neighborhoods, but we also have to make sure that they are careful.”
Rendon said California is already a national and international leader in dealing with climate change, but more work can be done.
“We need to ask if our climate change actions benefit disadvantaged communities,” he said, noting that his assembly district includes some of the most densely populated areas in the nation. “Southeast L.A. communities have around 17,000 people per square mile, but we have severe park shortages.”
Parts of his district were once farmland, but when they were developed for housing, the emphasis was placed on building high-density apartment dwellings without retaining open spaces. “Parks and vegetation are really important ways to reduce the heat island effect that drives warming in urban communities,” Rendon said.
His third legislative priority for 2021 also focuses on disadvantaged communities. In the past, discussions about a lack of broadband internet access centered around rural communities in the extreme north and south of the state.
“When COVID happened and when folks started having to go online for schooling, we discovered that there was a lack of broadband access all over the place,” Rendon said. “And those problems really started to manifest themselves, particularly in disadvantaged communities.”
He views the internet today as a critical public utility. “It’s not just a rich and poor issue; not just an urban and rural issue,” Rendon said. “It’s an issue that affects every single part of the state.”
In answer to a question posed by Segura about housing affordability, Rendon talked about visiting a neighborhood where he had once lived and noticing a flurry of housing construction. He reached out to a local official to praise the effort, only to be told to take a closer look at the upper floors of the newly occupied buildings.
“Those are all dark, right? Nobody lives there.”
In Rendon’s view, this example illustrates an ongoing problem in a state in which high-end housing continues to be built without enough pressure being brought on developers to balance their projects with affordable units.
When he first got to Sacramento, Rendon said, he noticed a disconnect in people’s minds between housing and homelessness. Over time, this misconception has slowly changed, in part because of “incredible data that show the number of people who would become homeless if they missed one month of pay, if they missed two months of pay.”
To further illustrate his point, Rendon noted that as assembly speaker he serves on the UC Board of Regents and the Cal State Board of Trustees. The statistics on housing scarcity among university students are staggering, he said, noting that many students can be found sleeping in their cars or couch surfing with friends from one night to the next.
“We know that housing and homelessness are linked,” said Rendon, whose 20 years of work in the nonprofit sphere often leads him to look for solutions in service delivery mechanisms. “I think if we’re going to solve the housing crisis, we need to address homelessness. And if we’re going to address homelessness, we really need to think about comprehensive services for homeless folks and for near-homeless folks.”
Additional information about the Luskin Summit, including previews of other sessions and a registration link, can be found online. Sponsors include the Los Angeles Rams, Gensler, the Weingart Foundation and the California Wellness Foundation. The media partner is ABC7 in Los Angeles.
In late April, the final event of Luskin Summit 2021 will be unveiling of the 6th annual Quality of Life Index, a project at UCLA Luskin that is supported by The California Endowment and Meyer and Renee Luskin under the direction of Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative. The survey asks county residents to rate their quality of life in a range of categories and to answer questions about important issues. Last year’s survey happened to coincide with the early stages of the pandemic.
Watch a recording of the keynote session:
Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, spoke to Wired about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on public transit services. Facing plummeting ridership, public transit agencies have cut services significantly to stay afloat. According to Taylor, transit usually serves two sets of people: those going into busy downtown areas and those who don’t have other transportation options. During the pandemic, ridership has declined among the first group due to stay-at-home orders, fears about transit as a vector for spread and the shift to remote work for many companies. As a result, the burden of public transit cuts has fallen on the people who need the system most, such as essential workers in the grocery, retail and health care sectors who continue to rely on public transit during the pandemic. “The social service aspect of public transit is even more prominent than it was before,” Taylor said.