Episode 21: Thinking Bigger Than Transportation with Diego de la Garza and Ryan Russo

TransLoc MarketingThe Movement Podcast

City of Los Angeles’ Diego de la Garza and City of Oakland’s Ryan Russo are executives working in the transportation trenches every day. They are not only deploying mobility, but they are doing it equitably. How does thinking bigger than transportation bring us closer to The City of Tomorrow?

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Episode Transcript

Cohen: On this final episode from the Ford City of Tomorrow Symposium, I’m joined by two city officials who are actually in the trenches not only deploying mobility but doing it equitably.  First up is Ryan Russo, the first Director of Transportation for the City of Oakland who is using a variety of options to meet Oakland’s mobility needs because housing people is more important than housing cars.  Let’s go.  

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future.  To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities.  Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real.  Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.  

Cohen: Welcome.  My guest today is Ryan Russo.  We are live from the Ford City of Tomorrow Symposium, and Ryan has actually got a really unique role because he is the first Director of Transportation for the City of Oakland and previous to that was the Deputy Commissioner for Transportation Planning and Management with the New York City Department of Transportation, so obviously the biggest city in the U.S.  And now you’re in Oakland, which is a tremendously growing city and lots of great stuff going on there. So Ryan, welcome to The Movement.  

Russo: Oh, thanks for having me.  Excited to be here.

Cohen: So I guess we were just talking before we came on air that you said you’ve been reflecting a lot about leadership because 10 years ago you guys closed down Broadway.

Russo: Broadway at Times Square and Herald Square. 

Cohen: And Herald Square, okay.  So give us a story on that, because I think that really fits it very nicely into kind of this larger theme of what we’re really talking about, which is it takes these bold decision-making to kind of move us forward.  So maybe take us a little bit through kind of how you got to that place and making that decision.

Russo: Well, I was fortunate enough to be a planner at The New York City Department of Transportation, and I started in 2003.  And I got to see and be a part of that department’s real transformation under the leadership of Janette Sadik-Khan, who was appointed in 2007, and under the leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  And my team’s job was to manage and deliver what we called Green Light for Midtown but which was what became, I think, an international story, the closing of Broadway at Times and Herald Square—which was less sung, but that’s where Macy’s is and the Macy’s Day Parade—to create a series of pedestrian plazas in the heart of Midtown Manhattan.  And we did that 10 years ago this weekend.  

Cohen: Wow.

Russo: There was a street fair going down 7th Avenue.  We thought a lot of New Yorkers would be out of town at the time, so we planned it for Memorial Day exactly, and we dragged some cones in front of Broadway after that street fair wrapped up on Memorial Day.  And, I think, really urban street management in the United States has been different ever since.

Cohen: Yeah.  No, it really is such an important way to do it.  And Broadway is such a unique street anyway because it kind of crosses across Manhattan.

Russo: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And so it creates those plazas in some ways.  Right?

Russo: Right.

Cohen: And so you really took advantage of that, but more than anything I think what’s important there is that it required you and Janette and the mayor and others in the administration to really say, “This is important to do.”  Right?

Russo: Yeah.

Cohen: There’s millions of things you could do.  What really led you to really push on that as saying, like, “This is a lever we need to really kind of put some force on”?

Russo: Yeah.  Well, you know, Janette has talked about this many times, but really the credit starts with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his leadership and his management style of looking for experts in the fields for the different departments, appointing Janette, and giving those subject-matter experts the room to run and to do their thing.  And at the time we were approaching an election year, and we knew doing something as dramatic like this to the congested street network in Midtown Manhattan would be subject to lots of debate and discussion and contention, and change like on this scale would be hard. And it was the mayor who said that if this was the right thing to do, it was the right thing to do.  

We had to prove that it would work with predictions and models and data, and it was a pilot, and we had to study it and record and analyze it to keep it, but we still were given that rope with the leadership.  And Janette herself was just fantastically energetic and dedicated to not just this being the right thing here, but that it could kind of be the plaza that launched a thousand plazas, if you will. And so her leadership was just really fantastic.

Cohen: I think being able to have a mayor who is willing to take those arrows—you know, because it’s almost like he knew the arrows were coming and he’s willing to take them.

Russo: Mm-hmm.  Yeah.

Cohen: And I think that’s an important piece that, again, I want to see more of our elected officials kind of lean into that with just like, “Look.”  He said, “This is the right thing to do. I’ve thought about it. I brought some data. I’ve got the best people in the world working for me. You know, like, if you don’t like it, that’s fine, but I’m willing to take that arrow.”  And I feel like we need more of that. Right?

Russo: Yeah.

Cohen: So let’s maybe transition a little bit to Oakland.

Russo: Oakland, a medium sized city right across from San Francisco, really the center of the Bay Area.  I like to say it is the center. San Francisco is not really the center. If you draw a circle around San Francisco, half that circle is the Pacific Ocean, so Oakland is the center.  We’ve got the most BART stations; the freeway networks come together; we’ve got the port. It really is a dynamic place. But like many medium sized cities, it managed its street under a public works department, which really has more of a maintenance-type function.  And, again, speaking of leadership, Mayor Libby Schaaf recognized that streets are about more than just moving cars A to B, and it’s about more than just filling potholes.  

And the community and the mayor understood that if we’re going to solve the big problems that we have, if we’re going to serve our values as a community of sustainability, affordable housing, attacking our homeless crisis, that how we manage our public streets are a key part of that.  So Oakland is having a downtown development boom, but we need housing, and housing in Oakland is the place where that sort of statewide NIMBYism actually isn’t playing out.

Cohen: Oh, really?  

Russo: And so we are developing, but there’s serious concerns in our community about is this development for longtime members of the community, so the transportation department not just thinking about maintenance, thinking about how we manage those streets, how can we serve all of those values.  So we’re going to be denser, so how do we get people in efficient modes? How do we support public transit, biking, walking, last-mile solutions? So doing those sorts of things.  

And how do we keep people safe?  Our traffic safety, like many cities, matches historical inequities where we haven’t built traffic signals and provided the infrastructure in our communities of color, our low-income communities.  When we pave our streets, how can we serve our value of equity? We just passed a paving plan that is the first in the country to put the value of equity so that a severely rent-burdened household is more likely to have their streets nearby paved, because if they break their axle they might lose their home and end up living under a freeway.  So creating that transpiration department allowed us to sort of think almost bigger than transportation, ironically—

Cohen: Yeah.  No, that’s necessary.

Russo: —and sort of attack all those issues and support not just moving people but support our overall values.  

Cohen: So the concept of kind of introducing the equity into how you’re kind of allocating the project maybe to—this may not be the exact word, but, I mean, are you guys the first to do that?  Because I haven’t heard of communities kind of really thinking about it in that way; because you gave a very tactical example. Right?

Russo: Yeah.  

Cohen: You know, if that street is not structured properly and then you lose that axle, like, that could be the difference between homelessness and not.  Right?

Russo: Yeah.

Cohen: Like, that’s a really powerful example.  And so were you guys the first to do that?  And if not, who did you learn from?

Russo: Well, I think a lot of us in the transportation and city-building field are talking a lot about equity.  I think what we don’t do enough broadly is talk about the history of how we got where we are, the incredible segregation, racism, inequality where basically you can predict people’s outcomes based on where they’re born, the neighborhood they’re born in, the color of their skin.  And we in government and society played a big role in that, so our redlining maps which discriminated around housing policy match today almost all of our negative outcomes, where people get hit by cars, where people have polluted air, where people have underperforming school, where life expectancy is low.  And so Oakland as the city where the Black Panthers were founded, that has in its DNA a pursuit of social justice, is really trying to lead in this area.  

There’s other cities that are leading.  Minneapolis has done some great work around equity in its capital improvement plan, Seattle, Portland; but Oakland has California’s first department of race and equity, and that department is a key partner in helping us use a data-driven methodology in developing policy with this sort of equity lens as our overarching frame.  So this paving plan that we passed—I haven’t found a paving plan that has specifically used equity to help pick out which streets will get paved.  

And we’ve also done a capital improvement program scorecard in which we got values from our community saying, “What are the top values?” and we’re scoring our proposed projects against those values with equity being number one.  And in our proposed capital plan that our city council is considering right now we have used those scores to say, “These are the proposed projects.” So, yeah, there’s a lot of exciting things. And what I’m really hopeful for and I thank you for is that it spreads to other places.

Cohen: Yeah.  Well, and I think that’s part of the goal of what I’m trying to do.  Look, I think you’re doing the right things, you’re asking the right questions, you’re at least kind of even bringing up this idea that we need to consider some of these things that, like you said, 50 years ago they were kind of actively working against.  So I think that’s just such an important thing, and I want to continue to highlight so that we can reinforce that.  

Obviously there’s plenty of people in Oakland that still drive cars. Right?  And you talk about it; it’s obviously becoming more dense. And then of course you have your transit; you have other more efficient modes of moving.  How are you balancing beyond equity but things like, “Hey, look. The reality is the car is here today”?

Russo: Yeah.

Cohen: You know, how do you balance the needs of that versus kind of our future needs and kind of how you want to move or nudge people in another direction, which might be more space efficient, carbon efficient, and so forth?

Russo: Yeah.  So we’re creating lots of carrots to extend the reach of the transit that we have.  Shared mobility is a big part of it, so Oakland along with Berkeley had the Bay Area’s first free-floating car share called GIG Car Share.  You take out your phone, and you need a car to sort of run over to the Target and do some shopping; you can just find a car, like, literally sprinkled around your neighborhood, dockless car share, rent one, go do that or even take it for daytrips.  Pretty affordable for daytrips. You know, one of the beautiful things about Oakland and the Bay Area is the nature and the stunning landscapes. And what we’re finding is people are saying, “I don’t need to own a car. I don’t need to pay for a parking space,” and so each individual trip, you know, whether to take a car or another form, we’re really helping by having that option conveniently available.  

Bikeshare.  We’re part of the five-city regional bikeshare system; San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Emeryville, San Jose, one membership.  You know, you get on BART on the one side of the bay, you know, use it as last-mile, but get to BART, go to San Francisco, and use it again for the last mile on the other side.  And we’re looking to grow that. We also championed to make sure from an equity perspective we have a low-income program where it’s about a 90% discount if you’re in a current program that gives you a low energy bill or CalFresh, etcetera.  

And then scooters.  We didn’t have as big a negative reaction to the wave of scooters that places like San Francisco had.  And what we found was that a lot of our youth, you know, Starbucks barista, construction workers, it’s not like tech bros in Oakland riding scooters.  It’s really serving as a last-mile solution. Again, we’re not super dense, and we have some solid transit with the most BART stations in the system, but having these last-mile solutions can really give people those options.  You know, all that said, we’ve had a lot of parking down. Our parking lots are developing into housing, and we do think housing is more important. Housing people is more important than housing cars, and there are some sort of growing pains from that transition.  And we do get the complaints, but we’re trying to provide those options so that people don’t feel totally stuck.  

Cohen: Yeah, and I think the balancing part is—to me it seems like the hard part.  Right?

Russo: Yeah.

Cohen: What do you think the best leaders are doing to effect change in their communities around transportation and mobility?  

Russo: Let me just start by saying I think this is a really great topic to explore in that we have this sort of somewhat contradictory concepts that we need to do both of, which is—you’re right—we need leadership; we need to elect people who make bold decisions, visionary decisions, but we also need to recognize that wisdom comes from our communities and from the ground up.  

And, you know, Oakland, OakDOT is doing lots of things to make sure we’re meeting people where they are; we’re going to those communities who have reasons for lots of distrust of government to sort of help us figure out our course.  So, for example, our bike plan; we’ve paid community-based organizations in East and West Oakland to be our partners, and we’ve learned about the barriers to using cycling, an affordable, sustainable form of transportation in those areas.  It might be racially inequitable stopping of cyclists. It’s the fact that there’s not a bike shop available in the whole area so that you can’t maintain your bike. So our bike plan is going to have things like bike mechanics in the local libraries, which are really community centers.  And so we need to get that engagement and that wisdom from the ground but then act decisively with that sort of information, if you will, and not get paralyzed by the need for consensus for every decision.  

Cohen: Well, let’s maybe transition a little bit to, you know, we’re here today at the City of Tomorrow Symposium, and I’d love to kind of get a sense on what you hope to learn today or what you really hope to get out of today.

Russo: Well, I’m really appreciative of the invite to be on a panel, so I’m hoping to share our story in Oakland and hoping to help people.  You know, frankly, City of Tomorrow is kind of a loaded term and makes us think of the world’s fair and these sort of utopian, autonomous, 1938 visions.  And, I’m sort of assessing whether Ford is kind of getting it right or adjusting and whether we’re just going to sort of put our faiths in technology and think they’ll solve the problem.  

I think there’s basic things.  Cities create economic value and sustainability on the backs of public transit, so I’m hoping to see—I was at the City of Tomorrow event two years ago in San Francisco.  I’m hoping to see maybe some more enlightened thinking around sort of recognizing that the public sector and public transit are really the core to the city of tomorrow; it’s the base.  And unfortunately with some of these amazing technological innovations in just basically the smartphone we are seeing that things like developments like Uber and Lyft and all of the choice that people have and all the immediacy and DoorDash and everything, that VMT is up, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation sector are not being corralled, public transit is losing ridership, and we really have to ask ourselves, like, “How do we reverse those things?”  

Cohen: No, totally, because I think it’s almost like the easy thing.  You know, like it’s almost like we can easily move towards those conveniences which kind of just move further and further towards that cliff where we fall off, and it really takes that kind of mindful approach to say, “No, this doesn’t reflect our values,” which is as a community how do we all create this green and equitable and accessible future we all want to live in.  And I think you’re right; I think it definitely does require that. Well, Ryan, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat. And I hope you have a great day today.

Russo: Great.  Thanks. It was a lot of fun.  

Cohen: Next up is Diego de la Garza, Associate Director of Transportation for LA Mayor Eric Garcetti.  Being entrusted with billions of dollars to invest in transportation from the people of Los Angeles requires that he and his team engage with the public on their wants and needs and then determine how to practically make that a reality.  Welcome to The Movement.  

Garza: Josh, thank you for having me here.  I’m looking forward to the conversation.  I’ve had a long career, like you said, doing policy work and observing the leadership up close, so I’m looking forward to the conversation.

Cohen: Yeah, and so we were kind of talking a little bit before we got started.  We’re here at the City of Tomorrow Symposium, and that’s why you hear the background noise.  And there’s a lot of great conversations that are going on right now, and it’s going to be a really neat day.  And kind of the gist of our conversation today is really around this concept of the leadership necessary, the innovative thinking, the bold decision-making that’s going to be necessary.  Certainly, you’re working for a mayor who’s got some pretty bold decisions and already made some big ideas move forward towards the Olympics in—I guess, what is that—nine years now.  

Garza: Right.  

Cohen: So maybe give us a little context there to kind of lay the foundation for how you’re thinking and how the mayor is thinking about transportation especially as it relates to a lot of work that needs to be done in the next nine years.  

Garza: Sure.  Our work on transportation and work with the Olympics are related in that we’re trying to prepare for having all of these people come see Los Angeles, and we want everybody to have their best experience.  Right? And it’s something that the city has done before. When we last hosted the Olympics in 1984, we actually pioneered what’s called here the ATSAC, which is essentially a system for controlling all of the lights to ensure that traffic moves through.  Right? So if there are no cars coming, the light turns green to let the cars that need to go, go; and it really revolutionized how signals work.  

And it’s been something that’s been replicated in other cities, not to the extent that we have.  I mean, we have many more streets and many more traffic lights than most other cities. But it’s sort of that thinking that always puts us at the forefront of how to deal with new folks coming in.  And it’s what’s putting us—it’s our thinking for 2028. It’s several years away, but we still have to—we want to make a transition so that people can come and get to the airport and get on public transportation, get to where they need to go, get their quickly and safely and fun.  

Cohen: Yeah.  And, you know, obviously the Olympics are actually really interesting because it’s this concentrated time where everything is focused on you, but the reality is you have millions of Angelenos who depend on you every day— 

Garza: Every day.

Cohen: —for the next nine years until then.  Right? So you’ve got to really focus on them.

Garza: Every day now and after.

Cohen: Yeah, totally.  

Garza: And so I think it all really started for us with Measure R which was passed over a decade ago.  When I first started working in transportation 20 years ago I started with TEA-21 and so in the mid-90s.  Right? And back then most of everything was about highways and freeways and things like that. And at the time one of the big things was that local governments were expected to put in about 10% to 20% and then the rest was the federal government.  And there was a big change where the federal government said, “No, we’re not going to be putting in 80% funds for transportation projects.”  

And Los Angeles was the first to recognize this and pass this sales tax, a half-cent sales tax to dedicate funds towards transportation.  And it really enabled the county to start self-funding its projects and say, “Look; we’re going to put in 60% to 70%,” and we’re able to leverage this to bring in federal dollars, state dollars, and to bring in private dollars as well.  Our financing is one of the most important aspects. You have your plan and you get your money. Right? And then you start.  

Cohen: Yeah, yeah, totally.

Garza: And I think that’s really the big change that put us on the path that we’re on today, and it led to the passage of Measure M, which was just two years ago, and gives us $120 billion to spend over needed transportation projects over the next 40 years and beyond.  So this didn’t happen because we had the Olympics coming, but these things helped us get the Olympics. And because we have the Olympics coming, we’re looking at ways to, “Okay, how do we leverage the money that we have now, accelerate projects, and bring more of these things online before the Olympics are here?”  

Cohen: And so I wanted to ask that.  It’s almost like a focusing mechanism to some degree.  Right? I mean, these issues that Angelenos deal with every day are obviously important.  To have that kind of stake in the sand nine years from now to say, like, “We need to have some critical things done by then to kind of make sure this big event works,” but it almost kind of gives you—it makes sure you have a clear deadline there.  Right?

Garza: Right.  Yeah, absolutely, because voters when they passed Measure M, they didn’t say, “We’re doing this because we want the Olympics.”  They did it because they said, “We’re tired of traffic. We want you to do something about it. We trust you to do something about it.”  And for us having that trust from the voters was a big deal, and so we thought, “Okay, we’re entrusted with billions of dollars. Now we have to deliver and focus on implementation.”  

So we’ve been spending a lot of time looking at our business practices and how we need to change the way that we do things, get away from, “Well, we’ve always done it this way,” to, “Okay, how do we implement things faster?  How do we take away the red tape? How do we create mechanisms for bringing in more money to Los Angeles to be able to build these projects faster?”

Cohen: Yeah, and so how do you balance all of the different priorities?  Right? I mean—look—you could spend much, much more money than you have on kind of making the transportation in this area as great as possible.  How do you balance the different priorities, because you’ve got lots of different stakeholders that have lots of different needs? You’ve got cars.  You know, I rode a bike downtown last night. It was delightful.  

Garza: That’s good to hear.  

Cohen: Well, it was.  I mean, there’s definitely some areas that made me a little bit more nervous, but there was a protected bike lane, I think, on Spring that just made me feel fantastic.

Garza: Right.

Cohen: So you know, you’ve got, I’m sure, bicycle advocates who are pushing for more protected lanes.  You’ve got, now, scooter folks who also could benefit from that. You’ve got potholes that you need to fill in your city.  You’ve got bussing. You know, you’ve got all these things that kind of need to get done. How are you prioritizing those?  

Garza: Right.  Well, part of it is that we already have a list that we’re going off of that sort of spells out our priorities.  And I think the key here as far as leadership is having the strength to stay with that list and understanding that despite ideas that might come along, it’s important to stay focused on what you’re trying to achieve and not start dividing up into other projects and becoming unfocused.  And so that’s a key for us. The rest of it, when it comes to leadership, is understanding the perspective of the people and getting to what is it they’re really saying and what do they want and then also gathering enough information to be able to make decisions that bring them into the process and help us get to where we need to be.  

Cohen: And tactically how is your department and your colleagues doing that?  To really get that feel from the community as far as what they really need, what are the best ways to do that?

Garza: The best way to do it is to reach out and to listen.  I mean, people come to us all the time. Part of it is outreach, but really in the mayor’s office we’re getting hundreds of calls.  Everybody wants to tell us how to do things.  

Cohen: It’s a blessing and a curse, I’m sure.

Garza: It definitely adds to the workload, but the thing is that we’re here to serve the public.  And really all we have to do is listen and really hear what it is that you’re saying and incorporate as best that we can what they’re saying into the overall needs of what we’re trying to accomplish.  

Cohen: So what are some of the things that you’re working on now that you’re particularly excited about, that you feel like have maybe an outsized impact maybe relative to either what they cost or what people may think when they hear it, but you’re like, “You know what?  Actually this is going to be a critical project or a critical initiative that you’re particularly excited about”?

Garza: I’m excited about all of them.  All of them have an impact, and there’s no way that I could pick one and say, “This is my baby.”

Cohen: Yeah, “This is my best child.”  Right?

Garza: Right.  Exactly.  This is my best child.  I’ll name several examples.  So there’s one project, Crenshaw/LAX, that is going to connect the LAX People Mover, which is another project that I think is incredible, to the rest of the rest of the city.  I mean, right now you can’t necessarily take public transportation from LA—you can, but it’s not easy, and we want to make things easier for people. So that’s a project that makes me excited.  

Another is the Regional Connector here in Downtown.  We have two subway lines that are essentially shaped like U’s.  Right? And so you have to get off of one and get on the other. And that ends up adding several minutes to your trip, so we wanted to make those faster.  Speed, of course, is important to people when they’re trying to get around, so instead of two U’s facing each other we have an X, and you get a one-seat ride from the beach to anywhere in the eastern parts of the county.  So going from Pasadena to Santa Monica, I think, is something that people want.  

Cohen: Yeah.  No, I definitely think that’s true.  And what was interesting is I had a meeting at union station yesterday.  I was actually interviewing someone for the podcast. And it was so great because when she arrived there—she took the Metro rail there—she said it was a packed train.  And she’s a New Yorker, and it was just really interesting. She’s like, “I’m here in LA, and it’s just like—” you know, it was at rush hour, of course, but still. She’s like, “I was not expecting to literally, like, pushing people onto the train to get on the train,” which is, again, a blessing a curse.  Right? I mean, it’s really great that the assets are being used. The challenge is how do we do it in a way that make sure you have enough cars and enough frequency to move all of these people that want to use it. Right?

Garza: Yeah.  You know what?  What I’ve learned is that people don’t really know LA.  Even everybody who visits is surprised by what is actually here.  It’s a place that has everything. And I don’t think people quite realize that.  Right? It’s just they’re so ingrained with these images that they see on television, that when they get here and find that it’s something completely different it always ends up surprising people.  

Cohen: Yeah.  No, totally.  And I even took Metro last night.  So I took a bike to a meeting; then I took the Metro rail back.  And it was, I think, 10:00, and it was still hopping. So, I mean, it was— 

Garza: Well, that’s LA.

Cohen: Yeah.  No, I mean, that’s great. 

Garza: There’s a reason that you can get into a traffic jam at 3:00 a.m. in LA.  Right?

Cohen: That’s right.  That’s right.  

Garza: And that goes for public transportation as well.

Cohen: Yeah.  Well, it’s neat for me.  I haven’t been to LA in several years, and it’s neat to kind of see some of the progress that’s being made and, obviously, all the investments that you and your team are making and the mayor are making.

Garza: But I want to say that that actually lends to ___________________________________________________ for us when it comes to leadership, and that’s understanding people’s perspectives.  People come to LA; they have certain perspectives of what it’s going to be. And the people who live here all have different perspectives as well. And it takes a real leader to sit down and listen to all those perspectives and come up and combine for a real answer and set a real goal.  Right?

Cohen: Yeah.

Garza: You know, we were talking about barbeque earlier.  I’ll give you an example. I’m originally from Texas, and when I moved to D.C. for my first job I was invited over to someone’s house for a barbeque.  And in my mind, being somebody from Texas, I expected something very specific. Right?

Cohen: Oh, yeah.

Garza: I thought—to me that meant they were probably going to cook about three different animals.  

Cohen: Yeah, yeah, smoked.

Garza: And they were going to be smoked, big pieces of steak; some chicken breast; kielbasas stuff and sausage.  Right?

Cohen: Yeah, of course.  My mouth is watering thinking about it now.

Garza: I showed up and they had hotdogs and hamburgers.  And I thought, “This is not a barbeque. What are you doing to me?”  But, you know, I could have gotten mad and said, “How dare you invite me to this?  This isn’t a barbeque,” but really the big picture was they were just inviting me over to have my company and to have a good time.  And it’s important to keep those types of things in mind. Right?  

When it comes to somebody saying, “I want a bike lane from east to west,” you have to keep in mind always that the goal is just to get that bike lane from east to west.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be a big thing. Somebody could say, “Well, I want the bike lane down the middle of Ulta-Mega Boulevard, and we’re going to have to remove lanes.”  Well, if there is one street north and it’s “Lazy Lane” and another one south that’s, you know, “Empty Avenue,” and they’re both traveling the same direction, but “Ultra-Mega” has 50,000 AADT and these other two have less than 10,000—if your real goal is to get from east to west on a bicycle, does it make more sense to just put the bike lane in one of these or to try and disrupt things on “Ulta-Mega?”  Right? And so understanding sort of what the practical is and what the ultimate goal is and focusing on that, I think, is always important, whether it’s barbeque or bike lanes on big roads. 

Cohen: No, that’s totally true.  And that is a balance. Right?  I mean, you’re always trying to balance kind of the needs of the community with kind of the practical realities of infrastructure and stuff like that.  

Garza: Right.

Cohen: So I certainly feel you from that standpoint.  From your standpoint, what are some of the barriers that are getting in the way of the green and equitable and accessible mobility future we all want to live in?  What are some of those barriers today that you think we need to be aware of?  

Garza: Well, money and financing is always one thing.  The available technology is something that we hear pretty frequently.  We’ve made a big push to get all of the busses on the Metro system and all the buses controlled by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation to go electric by 2030.  We found a plan on how to move forward with it, but before we were able to get to that plan the one thing that we heard again and again is, “You don’t have—these types of buses don’t exist.”  Right? They do now, but at the time that was one component.  

Another thing is, where are we going to charge all these things?  Right? When people say, “Well, the buses we have now run on natural liquefied gas.  You don’t need to park them in a big lot; you just put them in this spot here for two minutes and then you drive them off.”  Right? So the infrastructure on where to charge all the vehicles is a barrier as well and the cost of doing that. So space and cost, technology, those are some of the barriers that we’ve run into, but all of them we always end up finding answers to.  

Cohen: Yeah.  Well, and again I would argue that the leadership displayed from saying, “Hey, we want to make this commitment to have these vehicles be electric by a certain time,” that leaderships can kind of help push some of that technology forward too—right—by you saying, “Hey, look.  We want to do this. We need the technology to catch up to our desire.”

Garza: Yes.

Cohen: And I think that really helps push the needle too.

Garza: But it takes knowing what’s out there as well.  Right? Having the information to make the decision to say, “This is the right goal,” is key.  Without that information then, sure, you’re making a bold pronouncement, but you’re not going to get there.

Cohen: Yeah.  Right. You don’t want an ignorant and then—

Garza: Exactly.  So, you know, I don’t think that—as somebody who is now on his fifth elected official and been working with elected officials for 20 years, I would say it’s a stressful job.  I’m glad that I’m not the mayor because you’re making decisions that impact millions of people, and you’re using public funds, billions of dollars of public funds, and you better make the right decision.  Right?

Cohen: Sure.

Garza: And it’s easy to be second-guessed.  And the way to make the right decision—at least for me as a staffer, I have to provide my boss with all the information available necessary for them to make that decision.  And I can even connect him with as many constituents as possible so that he can hear the different perspectives and make the right decision, because you’re doing this as a public service and we can’t mess up.

Cohen: No, and well—I mean, it’s a tough line to walk.  Right?  

Garza: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: Because I think this idea that you can’t mess up is challenging.  Right? Like, that’s not true in anything else in life. Right? You tell you kids—it’s like, “Go out and practice your soccer game.”  You know? And it’s like, “Yeah, I lost today, dad. I tried this move and it didn’t work, and the other team scored a goal.” It’s like, “Yeah, that stinks, kid, but you learned something from that.  Right?” And so I want to make sure the public sector can try some of these things, in a mindful way—right—not ignorant, not—

Garza: Right.  And we do that, and we test things out stuff like that.

Cohen: Yeah, of course.  Good.  

Garza: But there’s really not a lot of practice when it comes to doing things in government— 

Cohen: Multi-billion dollar projects.

Garza: Right.  You know, it would be great to have that time, but it’s a trail by fire.  And so when we make decisions—that’s why decisions in government aren’t often made quickly, or people say, “You know, it just seems so easy.  Why don’t they just blah?” Right? And it’s because maybe your first time out you might say, “Well, this is easy. I’m just going to do X.” Right?

Cohen: Yeah.

Garza: And then a million people come screaming at you, and you realize, “Oh, man.  I’ve messed up people’s lives.” And that’s not something that you can do more than once.  And so it helps to do things on a small scale first. It helps to have really accurate modeling.  Those types of things really help.

Cohen: So maybe transitioning to today.  What do you hope to learn or see or find out about here today?  What are some of the goals that you have today here?

Garza: I’m always excited to see what people are thinking.  I come here and I see all these people with great ideas and enthusiasm to implement them.  And I’m always looking to find out, “Well, what’s new out there that we haven’t tried before?”  Like I said, one of the biggest hassles of working in government is, “We’ve always done it this way.”  These rules have existed for 30, 40 years. Right? And so as somebody who is in the service of the public, I know that to make that service happen and to give people what they want you have to go out and see, “Well, what’s new?” and figure out if it could work.  And I think that these types of things give you that chance. 

Cohen: Well, thank you so much, Diego.  I really appreciate your time.

Garza: Thank you.  This was great. 

F: Thanks for listening.  If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast.  You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.  

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