‘The Planning Report’ Interviews CC Mayor Thomas Small on Transportation, Development and Mobility

Culver City is in the midst of a transformative mobility agenda that takes advantage of the expansion of Metro rail, an explosion of new development, and adjacency with the city of Los Angeles. In this TPR interview, Mayor Thomas Small reports on how Culver City has moved from innovative planning to innovative implementation, particularly through public-private partnerships that provide real-time demand research and public outreach. Small also elaborates on the city’s “smart” approach to new mobility opportunities, including on-demand micro-transit and shared electric scooters.

Thomas Small “Culver City has a populace that sees how we can ride this wave of change without losing our historic small-town feel.” —Mayor Thomas Small

The Planning Report last interviewed you just prior to your becoming Mayor of Culver City, when you were overseeing the city’s Transit Oriented Development Visioning Plan. Update readers on that TOD planning process’ implementation.

Thomas Small: The TOD Visioning Process and the report that came out of it have been hugely successful; many people in our community refer to it as the most successful public outreach in recent memory. But anyone who has worked in government knows that implementation is the hardest thing. And with any study like this one, the great fear is that it will sit on the shelf and gather dust. Our implementation is ongoing now, and there have been a lot of developments.

We’re installing more bike paths and crosswalks. We’re engaged in very specific traffic studies, taking traffic counts on every street and intersections in the neighborhoods where residents are the most concerned. We’re approaching this change from every angle. The biggest thing that has happened is that we are expecting to receive a $12 million grant to make Washington Boulevard into a more complete street by creating a protected bike path connection from the Metro station to Downtown Culver City. We want to thread the needle of creating more access for bikes, scooters, and other forms of transportation on our streets.

The community has also changed during the course of this project. Everybody is hugely affected by traffic congestion, and benefits from cultivating alternative modes of transportation and getting people out of their personal cars. As neighborhoods get more congested, they start to wake up to this fact. Now, plans are developing in neighborhoods adjacent to the original transit-oriented district.

Even so, there’s some backlash against this approach, just as there was when Los Angeles installed bike lanes on Venice Boulevard and other streets on the Westside. Some of those projects have been removed—but some have stayed, and the neighborhood is getting used to them.

We just installed, on a trial basis, a bi-directional bike track on Elenda Street near our high school and middle school in partnership with SCAG’s Go Human program. That has seen some controversy, but mostly it’s been well accepted by the neighborhoods, and we are going to make it permanent. As we start to do similar things on main arteries—like Washington Boulevard—we’re going to need continued public outreach to make it work.

TPR – Elaborate on how Culver City’s TOD Visioning Process has informed city planning and project delivery processes.

TS  – After the TOD visioning process, we saw that, following the city’s existing policy and programs, it would take us about two years to work through all the outreach we’d need to change roads, add traffic lights, create cul de sacs, and implement route changes. We knew that we had to make that happen faster. There is a big distance between the discussions practitioners and scholars have at the conferences we go to, and what we can actually do on the street. These things typically take a long time. But since completing our TOD study, we’ve found ways to accelerate the pace of change here in Culver City.

We’ve found that partnerships with the private sector can make things happen exponentially faster than when, as government, we try to do it on our own. As a government, we get bogged down by processes and outreach; we always want to try to get 51 percent of the neighbors to agree.

For example, we have a Neighborhood Traffic Management Program, in which we reach out to literally every person on every block in any neighborhood where we’re considering making interventions like creating cul-de-sacs, speed-bumps, crosswalks, or signals. That process runs at the speed of government—which is to say, very slowly.

But when we partner with the private sector, we can really accelerate things. For example, we worked with Culver Studios, who in turn engaged the RAND Corporation. RAND researchers are studying what changes we can make quickly and helping us do targeted outreach with neighborhood stakeholders in parallel to the city’s outreach process. That has worked really well for us.

We’re also working with the Harvard Behavioral Insight Group—an interdepartmental partnership of the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Public Policy—to study the scooter phenomenon by studying the use of Bird scooters. It’s fantastic because we have very rich data from the scooter companies—both cell phone data and GPS data. We know exactly where every scooter goes, and we’re going to learn exactly how much of a first/last-mile solution they are. Another new technology partnership we’re working on is the Holy Grail for many cities: on-demand microtransit. It’s like a Shared Lyft or uberPOOL that’s run in partnership with the city, to transport people in a new way that’s different from our existing transit.

TPR – Neighboring cities to Culver City—i.e. Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and Beverly Hills—have publicly struggled to manage what you’ve called the “scooter phenomenon.” How did Culver City manage to adopt its well-received regulations so quickly?

TS – We were lucky, and we were smart. As soon as the scooters appeared in Santa Monica and the Palms area of Los Angeles, we knew they’d be coming to us. It happened that I knew the head of government relations at Bird because he had previously worked for a local assemblymember. I started a conversation with him and our city manager immediately.

We were able to negotiate to keep Bird out of Culver City until we had at least a start on a regulatory regime. That way, when they did come, we already had trial regulations in place. We are in that trial period now, and we’ve been able to transition into scooters much more smoothly than any city I know of in the region.

TPR – Elaborate more on Culver City’s plans for microtransit, and on its connection to Metro’s micro-transit program.

TS – We have a terrific relationship with Metro. I was just elected chair of the Metro Sustainability Council, which is part of the Metro Board. And Culver City’s Director of Transportation, Art Ida, is chair of the Regional Association of Transportation Directors, so he has an excellent direct relationship with Metro and with transportation directors from all the surrounding cities. We work hand-in-hand with Metro. We are very aware of their microtransit program, and we are excited to be starting our own program soon—particularly as a public-private partnership. Typically, there are some risks to microtransit: It’s very expensive, especially starting out. A company like Uber or Lyft pays for that with investor money; they’re running at a loss, and planning on the advent of the automated cars to reduce their operational costs tremendously.

As a city, we can’t afford to put a lot of money in as a loss leader. But by approaching a partnership with a private firm, we can fund it in a different way that can really work in a much more sustainable fashion. We have a better idea of how many vehicles we can start with, how long we can run the program, and, if it’s successful, how to grow it without it becoming overwhelmed. We’ll be starting the program in one geofenced area of town, concentrating particularly on the first/last-mile connection to the train. The target users are businesses in our high-tech sector, largely in the Hayden Tract.

TPR – Metro, as our readers know, is undertaking a three-year NextGen Bus Study with the goal of redesigning its bus routes countywide—many of which serve Culver City. Is the model of public bus mobility still valuable to Culver City residents, given the many new first/last-mile transit options the city has been pursuing?

TS – It is absolutely valuable. Light rail is fantastic, but the great challenge is that it doesn’t go everywhere. In Culver City, it goes east and west: downtown and to the beach. But many people come from the north and south. If you’re going to the South Bay or the San Fernando Valley, it doesn’t work very well. So we definitely need buses, and the reality is that we will continue to have cars as well for quite some time as we work to create a more densely knit transportation system.

Our hope for Metro’s NextGen Bus study is that it will enable more people, and people across a wider demographic, to use the bus system.

TPR – Address the promise of Culver City’s Ivy Station development in the context of the City’s mobility planning.

TS – For a city of our size, we have a tremendous amount of construction going on. There are more cranes working in Culver City than in Phoenix, Arizona. Ivy Station alone is going to give us the equivalent of half of a new city right around the train station. That is going to be a complete gamechanger. It’s already affecting the neighborhood with both challenges and good things. In particular, that neighborhood has really awakened to the value of alternative modes of transportation and the infrastructure to accommodate them.

We’re looking at a number of large projects to build on that awareness. One is a project to extend the bike path along Ballona Creek further into Los Angeles. That’s going to be a huge amenity that will connect Culver City and LA neighborhoods all the way to the beach—and, importantly, to the Metro station, which is currently not accessible by bike—through active transportation away from the street.

TPR – With regard to regional connectivity, what are the challenges—both political and for planning—of aligning Culver City’s vision and goals with neighboring cities?

TS – The border condition between the city of Los Angeles, the county of Los Angeles, and Culver City is fascinating from an urban planning standpoint.

On one hand, we’ve tried to create our own distinct identity with urban design, wayfinding, and signage, so that people know when they’re entering Culver City. But we’re also working on improving our interface across the border. I’m working with the city of LA’s new chief design officer, Christopher Hawthorne, to find ways to make this border a positive—to take advantage of the place where our jurisdictions meet as an opportunity to increase communication. For example, there are Los Angeles projects that are just over our border, which we have no jurisdiction over but which use our services and affect us. The Cumulus project is one—a very large project at La Cienega Boulevard and Jefferson. I’m eager for us to collaborate with Los Angeles to make that area better for all of us.

We’re also very aware of the changes in planning and zoning that the city of LA is enacting, and we’re thinking about how to react to that as we enter our General Plan update. We’re certainly preparing for greater density in our surrounding areas, which I think will be a great benefit to us as we work to bring more housing downtown and more density around transit.

Adding residential density downtown will create a better market for more retail and other types of businesses as well as restaurants. Our downtown is already walkable and attractive, with a great mix of historic and modern buildings. And our restaurant scene is hugely successful; according to our beloved Jonathan Gold, both the best restaurant and the fourth best restaurant of Los Angeles are here in Culver City. But the challenge, in the age of Amazon and online retail, is to have a diversity of businesses downtown. We need things for people to do downtown once they’ve finished their meals. That’s definitely in our future.

TPR – Regarding regional mobility, would Culver City support a proposal from the Boring Company to bore through the Sepulveda Pass from Culver to the San Fernando Valley?

TS – We are completely interested in innovation in technology and mobility, so theoretically, we are excited about the idea. I’m eager to continue our dialogue with the Boring Company and see what can be done. Of course, we want to have the proper environmental review and careful planning for anything we would approve going through Culver City. But we are totally in favor of every innovation we can make work here; we’re also looking into gondolas, for example.

TPR – Lastly, share with our readers how it is that Culver City is relatively unique among Los Angeles County’s 88 cities in committing political will & leadership to creating a livable, walkable, sustainable city with good design—as opposed to simply giving itself up to the market to determine what is built, where, and how.

That is absolutely where our political will is headed: toward creating a walkable, transit-rich city that is the heart of the Westside of Los Angeles. We’re looking to partner with the private sector to make that happen.

It’s wonderfully satisfying to see the progress that we’re making and to see that our citizenry is supporting our efforts. We have a populace that wants these things—that sees how we can ride this wave of change without losing our historic small-town feel.

We have the terrific advantage of being a small city in the midst of a metropolis. We can make decisions faster than many jurisdictions can. We know each other; we know our neighbors. That’s a huge advantage, because we can communicate with our residents in a very direct way and reach consensus on developments that improve the quality of life here.

From The Planning Report 

www.culvercitysymphony.org

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