LA Metro Has An Innovation 'SWAT Team' And They're Fighting For The Future
Fun fact: L.A. Metro has a team dubbed the Office of Extraordinary Innovation, or OEI for short.
Maybe your brain just went to the same place mine did: hidden elevators whisking scientists to a top-secret underground bunker where Tony Stark and Dr. Emmett Brown are building a hover train or an amphibious bus or those jetpacks we were promised.
But ask actual OEI team members and they'll tell you the work isn't science fiction. They might not work in a secret laboratory or wear capes -- they're in cubicles at the MTA building downtown like most Metro employees -- but they do have an ambitious mission: to reimagine and push the boundaries of Los Angeles County's public transit system to meet the needs of present and future Angelenos. No pressure.
The job is part "SWAT team," part "cheerleader," said Colin Peppard, senior director for public-private partnerships and innovation for team. The OEI has to be tactical in its efforts to push innovation from within while also championing fellow Metro employees, he explained.
"There's a lot of talent in this building. And if you just tell them, 'Yes, you can,' they'll do really interesting things," said Peppard, who moved to L.A. from Washington D.C. because of our region's well-documented transportation challenges.
"If you can solve it here, you can solve it anywhere," he said.
'I WILL OWN WELL-INTENTIONED FAILURE. YOU WILL OWN THE SUCCESS.'
The office was created in 2015 by then-newly arrived Metro CEO Phillip Washington, who spent more than 15 years working and eventually leading the Denver Regional Transportation District. It was there where he oversaw the agency's Eagle commuter rail project, billed as the nation's first public-private partnership for a mass transit line.
Washington's experience informed a key tenant of the team's work: understanding that technology and industry are accelerating faster than government agencies can keep up with, and that more can be accomplished by getting the private sector aboard the public transit train (or bus or sky gondola or monorail).
"I will own well-intentioned failure. You will own the success," Washington told Metro staff in a message explaining his goals for the innovation team.
Rani Narula-Woods, an L.A. native who leads new mobility work for OEI, is used to that, often taking on "projects that are set to fail."
"A lot of what we spend our time on is really being able to not necessarily come up with new ideas and innovations from our office, but really be a platform for other departments to elevate concepts and ideas that they'd like to see executed," she said.
There's also a level of "good cop, bad cop" going on, said Nolan Borgman, a transportation planning manager for the team. Challenging other Metro departments helps keep the agency from becoming "static" -- which can happen far too easily, he added.
Borgman said his personal mission is to "make it so that you don't have to own a car in L.A."
"L.A. is a very unapparent city, and I think part of that is because it's really difficult to get around it any way but by driving," he said. "And when you're driving -- which is also very difficult -- you're not really experiencing as much."
So, what are these ordinary people at the Office of Extraordinary Innovation actually working on? Here's a glimpse at a few projects they're most excited about.
DODGER GAME TRAFFIC: HERE TODAY, GONDOLA TOMORROW
Project: A shiny new sky tram that takes you from Union Station to Dodger Stadium (without the traffic and offensive parking price)
Maybe you've heard that Metro is exploring a plan for an aerial gondola that would ferry game-goers from Union Station to Dodger Stadium and back. That idea came through the OEI team.
Aerial Rapid Transit Technologies LLC, the company behind that proposal, have pitched the tram as a privately funded, "zero-emission" option for fans to get to games in a matter of minutes (but it's not the first time an aerial tramway has been floated for the stadium).
The project is "still very, very, very -- and add another very -- early in this process," according to Metro spokesman Brian Haas. But partnerships director Colin Peppard highlighted it as an example of what's possible through Metro's unsolicited proposal process, which gives private businesses an opening to bring their ideas to the team directly.
"That open door is what allows people with really big and interesting ideas to come and bring them to us," he said. "Some of them work out, and some of them don't, but it's important that that door is there."
Borgman said inspiration was drawn from the success of similar aerial tram networks elsewhere in the U.S. and beyond.
"I got to ride the gondola in Medellín (Colombia), Koblenz [in] Germany, Portland [and] Palm Springs," he said. "There's a lot of places around the world that are using this mode in pretty amazing ways."
LAW AND ORDER: BUS LANE UNIT
Project: Use mounted cameras to catch drivers who don't respect bus lane rules and cause more gridlock for everyone.
Maybe you saw this GIF from Metro make the rounds on L.A. Twitter a couple weeks ago.
The short clip of drone footage shows just how quickly buses can move hundreds of commuters as motorists (many driving solo) crawl along the same roadway. That public transit possibility is the expectation, but as several pointed out on Twitter, it's not always the reality for the peak-hour dedicated bus lanes along Wilshire Boulevard.
As the OEI team summed up in a recent report: "Illegally parked cars and idling cars clog the lanes, create adverse operating conditions and slow down buses. Enforcement of the lane is not a priority for law enforcement."
The dedicated bus lanes are "only during the peak times, and right-turners are allowed in, so we can't really section them off," Borgman said. "But we still need people to respect them, which they currently don't -- and cops are really expensive."
Metro staff tested a vehicle-mounted camera app called CarmaCam and found it pretty easy to catch misbehaving motorists. But the tricky part, Borgman explained, will be figuring out a way to hold them accountable (a.k.a. give them traffic tickets) since Metro officials "don't necessarily have the legislative authority" at the moment.
Project: "Plant" artificial greenery at transit stations to deter tagging.
Not every idea the OEI team works on deals directly with Metro's trains and buses. There are also ideas to address the sense of place of transit stations and the costs of maintaining it. For example: combating graffiti hotspots with artificial ivy.
"We spend a lot of money each year abating graffiti, because graffiti is a blight," Borgman said. "We think it's important to a pleasant and safe experience to have a very clean station."
Metro is testing the synthetic greenery at seven properties. The first was installed on a Blue Line soundwall in Long Beach along Del Mar Avenue.
"I don't think that putting up some artificial ivy changes the entire nature of the problem that we're dealing with [but] we are wondering if somehow we could lessen the sort of tag-ability... at our stations," Borgman said.
GOING METRO BY GOING MICRO
Project: Bring Metro rides directly to riders to close gaps between transit stops and their final destinations.
For Rani Narula-Woods, the rise of transportation companies like Lyft and Uber puts pressure on L.A. Metro to self-reflect and stay competitive.
"There's this question about what a transit agency is and what a transit agency will be... because of the really impressive level of customer experience that has been brought forth by the private sector," she said. "I think it really forced the public sector to look internally."
One way Narula-Woods is working to address that question is through a pair of pilot programs focusing on the so-called first-mile, last-mile challenge.
For the first project, Metro partnered with the New York-based ride-hailing service Via to offer affordable car rides within three specific service zones in El Monte, Artesia and North Hollywood. That initiative launched in January. Metro's main goal is to study how customers are using the service to fill the gap between traditional transit stops and their final destinations.
The second, dubbed the MicroTransit Pilot Project, is slated to launch next year with the hope of creating a new on-demand, multi-passenger, shared-ride vehicle fleet that will be cheaper than private ride-share services.
"Essentially, you'll have one or multiple mobile applications that you'll be able to hail a Metro ride, and that will link up to the rest of our transit network," Narula-Woods said.
Three private companies are competing to be selected as the provider of the vehicles and the technology behind them.
Narula-Woods didn't provide many details about what the microtransit vehicles could look like, other than to describe them as smaller and "a bit more intimate" than the typical bus or shuttle.
"We expect vehicles that will probably seat between five to 15 customers," she said.
Renderings for the project have not yet been released, though not for lack of trying, Peppard explained.
"I made an early one in Microsoft Paint was quickly told I could never do that again," he said.
TOLLING WITHOUT TRANSPONDERS
Project: Replace freeway express lanes transponders with a mobile app that makes driving toll lanes more accessible, convenient (and maybe cheaper).
Solving Southern California's infamous congestion has proven futile so far, but one method Metro is currently studying has been shown to provide relief elsewhere: congestion fees -- as in charging motorists to drive at certain times on certain roadways.
A form of that is already in place through freeway express lanes, where drivers pay a fee, put a transponder in their car and get tracked when they use the lanes to zip past us regular chumps trapped in our metal coffins, inching slowly toward death (I'm fine).
But a new OEI project has Metro testing a way to make freeway tolling simpler and more convenient.
If Metro can accurately track smartphones' GPS to pinpoint vehicles in toll lanes "within the tiniest margin of error," Borgman said, "we definitely see a future where you can access the express lanes with an app instead of a transponder."
"The technology is cool, and it's there," Peppard explained, but the potential doesn't stop at express lanes.
It could also pave the way for a single mobile app that would let people pay for all forms of transit trips in the region, he said, which could save both commuters and transit agencies money. Using the phone you already own saves you from buying a metal transponder -- and could save Metro from needing to build the physical infrastructure used to track those transponders.
HELPING BUSES BEAT THE LIGHT
Project: Use algorithms to help bus drivers optimize their speeds to hit more green lights.
Here's a project plenty of drivers might get jealous about: "a speed advisory software that analyzes LADOT street signals against bus movements to broadcast a suggested speed to Operators."
In other words, a system that tells bus drivers how fast to drive so that they can avoid red lights.
The potential benefits go beyond just the pure joy of seeing all green, according to Borgman.
"It can lead to less fuel consumption, a smoother and faster ride with less hard braking, less wear-and-tear on vehicles... [and] part of this vision is this idea [of dwelling] at the stations instead of red lights, so you can pick up that extra passenger," he said.
There are about a dozen other projects highlighted in OEI's 2019 Innovation Portfolio, ranging from straight-forward transit goals to "straight-up quirky," as Borgman put it, including drones, mobile charger vending machines and smart bike racks. You can explore them all here.