By: Alex Sang-O Kim
“Do you believe that transportation has the power to change our community?” asked Laura Cornejo, Deputy Executive Officer at Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), as she began her highly anticipated presentation on January 30th, 2019 at the USC campus to a standing room only audience of students and transportation practitioners, centering on the future of transportation in Los Angeles. Undoubtedly, this was a question shared by all the students and professionals who filled up the room. Everyone had a sense of conviction, appreciation, or at least concern for such role that Metro plays for the communities of the Los Angeles County.
Photo Credit: Metro - Los Angeles
For those of you who don’t know, Metro is the lead transportation planning agency for the Los Angeles County, and is responsible for not just operation but also the planning and building of the network itself. It is precisely because Metro is endowed with such tremendous power and responsibility that the challenges that lie ahead are truly immense as well.
While Metro has already achieved so much with new high capacity transit corridors, Metro Rail lines, and light-rail lines, the geographical expansiveness of LA means that there is still a vast swath of transit void zones and disconnected communities. With many of the existing bus fleets and subways over 20 years old, providing modern and welcoming user experiences to both Angelenos and international visitors is becoming a more pressing issue. Los Angeles is hosting the Olympics in 2028, and in order to make this event accessible to all people, many of the projects and investments must follow set timelines and be ready for service by 2028. In other words, there is absolutely no time for Metro to decelerate its progress – there can be only acceleration.
Cornejo took the time to highlight one particular challenging area – how to effectively navigate through complex inter-jurisdictional and inter-agency boundaries of the region. The greater Los Angeles area contains big-name agencies like Caltrans, LADOT and SCAG, as well as many local jurisdictions and cities across the County. Cornejo presented two reasons why this aspect is of utmost importance. First, many of the Metro’s key projects, especially first-mile and last-mile initiatives, require extensive improvements. This includes pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure which local jurisdictions, not Metro, control. Secondly, to fully harness the accessibility potential of transportation, we must change the way we think about land use and density to foster transit orientated development and community (TOD/TOC). However, local jurisdictions often don’t have the capacity and resources to engage in such long-term planning in conjunction with Metro’s multiyear plans. Thus, Metro must engage and collaborate with local jurisdictions to comprehensively envision land use changes and economic development opportunities that will benefit everyone.
To help Metro navigate through these challenges and reaffirm its commitment, a series of resolutions have been passed in the last few years. The ‘28 by 2028 Initiative’ and ‘Vision 2028’ both set out specific projects and strategic goals that Metro will achieve by 2028 in time for the Olympics. In 2016, Los Angeles voters approved Measure M which set a permanent increase in sales tax sending $120 billion to Metro. Combined, these visions and initiatives represent not just guidelines but also a de facto “contract to the people of Los Angeles” that Metro is committed to and promises to deliver.
While all of this sounds exciting, the most fundamental change that is happening is Metro’s change in paradigm. “We acknowledge that…all communities do not have the same transportation needs…and they have not been given the same level of service,” noted Cornejo. Such acknowledgement of a need for an equity-based approach to transportation is a significant shift from the economic principles of demand and cost that governed public transit for decades. This paradigm shift puts people and their differing needs at the center and guides projects to places where increased accessibility benefits will be the greatest. Moreover, it inevitably highlights the importance of community voices and thus, legitimizes their greater involvement in the planning process in a formal way.
For many of us in the room, the talk was enlightening and insightful. The candid yet passionate tone by which Cornejo interacted no doubt inspired many of the to-be planners among the audience as well. “It's inspiring to see a fellow Latina planning professional in an executive level position at a place as influential as Metro,” said Alina Borja, USC Master of Planning student. Perhaps the most important take-away from the talk was the reminder of the question of what we should strive for and how we are going to achieve it. As students, we are accustomed to thinking about normative visions and goals, while lacking insight about the field. In this context, Cornejo’s talk would certainly help us bridge that gap and better prepare for a life as professional after graduation.
At the start of the presentation Cornejo asked if we believed in the power of transportation to change our society and community. I have every confidence that people left the room with a renewed sense of conviction.
About the Author:
Sang-O Kim is a Master of Planning student at the University of Southern California with a concentration in Transportation. Sang-O is originally from Republic of Korea and has received B.A in Geography from King's College London and M.A in International Relations from Korea University.