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Insights 2012: Michael Lejeune (in conversation with Lisa Middag)

Minneapolis and Los Angeles transportation histories run parallel: both had extensive streetcar systems, now dismantled, and both are now working to rebuild that infrastructure. In a new interview, Metro LA creative director Michael Lejeune and Hennepin County planner Lisa Middag discuss transit, opportunity, and jettisoning, as Lejeune puts it, “that road rage that’s sucking up your soul.”

As seemingly dissimilar as two cities could be, Minneapolis and Los Angeles have parallel histories in terms of public transportation. Minneapolis once had 530 miles of streetcar service, while LA’s extensive streetcar network was the envy of the country. Both have since been dismantled, and both cities are now working to rebuild their transitway systems. Part and parcel of that process is the communication necessary to promote public transportation options in these car-centric locales. For a discussion on the topic, we invited Michael Lejeune, creative director of Metro LA (and speaker at next week’s Insights Design Lecture), to join Hennepin County planner Lisa Middag to talk about transit, opportunity, and jettisoning “that road rage that’s sucking up your soul.”

LA Metro Rail and Liner map

Hey Lisa and Michael, let’s start by telling us what do you do at Metro LA and Hennepin County.

Michael Lejeune: I lead a team of talented designers who collectively are responsible for all things visible at Metro, the nation’s third largest public transportation system. We create every element of Metro’s visual communication, including brand elements, advertising, wayfinding, and environmental graphics, timetables, maps, fare media, and customer information, bus and rail fleet design, web, and mobile presence, and merchandising. Day to day, I design, I review and approve design, I art direct, I set strategy, I do a lot of writing as the primary author of Metro’s voice. And I cajole, plead, and bargain to keep a couple thousand projects per year moving toward deadlines.

Minneapolis/St. Paul transitway map that includes the planned Southwest LRT and Bottineau lines

Lisa Middag: I’m a planner working on Southwest LRT and the Bottineau Transitway—two major transit projects in Hennepin County. We work collaboratively with the cities along these corridors and other partners (including the local transit authority) to develop land-use policies and plans that will leverage the best economic development outcomes from these large transit investments. So, we’re working to provide a full range of housing options, stimulate business and job growth, and enable transit-oriented development along these transit corridors.

What got you interested in working in public transportation?

Michael: I cannot tell a lie. I wasn’t seeking a job in the public sector, or at an in-house studio, or in transportation. The position of creative director had just been created and a colleague let me know about it. It was the right time in my life for a change, and I threw my hat in the candidate ring. Now, nine years later, this job has brought me to so many interesting new frontiers (like having the thrill of speaking at the Walker). And I have grown to love the wonky side of public transportation, and all the vital ideas and advances that this sector brings. It’s proved, for me, a job with the perfect combination of high-level strategic thinking and everyday making. I’m really lucky: I get to roll up my sleeves and think about LA’s future and how transportation can make that future really work. And every day I also hit the boards and actually design as well. Plus, working with a smart, dedicated, passionate team. It’s heaven, mostly.

Lisa: It’s one of the most critical issues to the long-term sustainability of our region. With our growing immigrant and senior communities, we are becoming a much more transit-dependent population, and we can’t build our way out of our traffic congestion problems (we cannot even maintain the roads we have). People are spending increasingly higher percentages of their income on housing and transportation, so it’s really about equity and sustainability for me… and with boomers and the younger generation competing for housing in smart growth communities, the low-income folks are going to be priced out of these markets. And that’s not even touching on the health and environmental benefits, which are equally compelling.

Traffic on LA's 405...


...on a Gold Line train

How about your own experience? Any great stories on your daily commute?

Michael: Being here at Metro at this point in my life feels like karmic payback for all the time I’ve spent in LA traffic over the years. When I joined Metro, I went from two-plus hours a day in the car to the dream commute: many days, I walk or ride my bike to my local Metro Rail station, hop on board for a 16-minute ride, and then walk out of Union Station and into my office building. Of course, I am like most LA commuters: public transit doesn’t work for me every day, and I do still drive when the situation demands, but more often than not, I’m using our system and doing some great people-watching at the same time.

A sample of Metro LA's personality

No one story of my rides comes to mind, but plenty of colorful memories are playing across my brain as I think of my time on Metro. The thing that I love—and that may at first seem unappealing to the single car driver—is that you really see your city and all its varied inhabitants when you use public transit. I’m remembering many groups of young children, riding Metro on their field trips, shouting with glee every time the train would stop and start; the stout middle-aged man I saw last week waiting for the bus near my house, dressed from head to toe in bright gold Lakers shorts and jersey, including purple socks and matching wristbands and headband; the faces of people I see weekly, my fellow Gold Line riders, who I nod and smile with, though we don’t know each other’s names or stories; the woman shouting loudly about Armageddon and how today is our last chance to be saved from the fires of hell. To me, these snippets are icing on the cake, and I see them as part and parcel to being out in my city and sharing the ride.

Lisa: I ride the train almost every day, but like Michael, it doesn’t work for everything, and there are definitely days where I have a meeting at the end of the day, and I’ll be in a nearby suburb, and I do the math. It’s just faster for me to get from certain point As to certain point Bs by car. But I really believe transit is something you practice, and you get better at it. I’m much more likely to take buses now that I ride the train than I use to be. And now I carry a system map in my purse—to fend off those notions of being stranded, because our bus system is pretty good, but our mobile app is really only helpful if you know the number you want to take.

One of my favorite stories is about a guy—I think his name was Clarence—and it was his 47th birthday. He was carrying his beer right with him on the bus celebrating. But he was drawing everyone around into a conversation in honor of his birthday, talking about his grandkids, and it gave all the other riders permission to participate (because in the Twin Cities, there is a cone of silence that people observe on public transit). And into this loosened atmosphere, a guy asked which bus he’d need to catch downtown in order to get to his sister’s place in South St. Paul. And I’m sitting there with this system map, and we all start discussing the best route. Many people offered suggestions about what to avoid, so a lot of folks know this system really well, because they depend on it. It’s a choice for me, but for a lot of folks it’s a necessity.

A simulated earthquake at Universal Studios Hollywood  takes place in a subway station

Can you describe the public perception of these transit options in Los Angeles and Minneapolis?

Michael: Matt Raymond, our chief communications officer, who joined Metro just before I did, has observed that LA had a ton of great service, both bus and rail, but that it seemed that very few Angelenos knew about it. This is mostly true, and it made the first leg of our design journey clear: make Metro cool, and get people to notice. But we had to do more than just say, “Here we are, give us a try.” We had to start chipping away at this idea, born and bred in LA, that the car is king, that it’s the only way to go. (Of course, having the nation’s worst traffic 26 years in a row helps us a lot in this regard.) What we have tried to do is present Metro—our bus and rail service, the idea of carpools and vanpools and biking to work and in general, sharing the ride—as an option that beats the car. At the same time, a potent portion of our messaging has been aimed at shoring up support for public transportation as a fundable idea. This means that we have, with demonstrated success, advanced recognition of the need to invest in our infrastructure. LA County has voted to tax itself not once, not twice, but three times in the last 25 years, specifically to build more rail lines, improve our highways, add bus service, and expand and improve our system. And our designed communications program has had quite a bit to do with persuading people to support this idea over the past nine years.

Lisa: Hmmm. There are a lot of transit riders in Minneapolis—there were around 80 million rides last year. But most of our ridership is by city bus with lots of stops and transfers, which means slower service. We definitely have strong commuter express service to park-and-rides in the suburbs, but this is still a region where people “drive to qualify,” so there are way more drivers than riders. Although I think (hope) these attitudes are starting to change. I love our train—I get on the Hiawatha line every day to go to work, but until the Central Corridor LRT opens in 2014, it’s still a single, high-frequency line, not a real network. (We have Northstar Commuter Rail too, which is a great addition, but it’s limited service.) And I’m one of those peculiar folks who will walk a little farther for the reliability and quality of train service (over bus).

Northstar Train in Minneapolis

The political and public piece is so important. The Twin Cities area also was successful in getting a regional transit tax passed in 2008. In fact, transit referenda have been remarkably successful across the country—I think something like more than 70 percent successful—and even in more recent years during the recession economy. So people really see a need for public investment in a working transit system. And it’s not just the general public, but our business community—the local and regional chambers of commerce—who are speaking out these days on behalf of expanding our system. They understand how it contributes to the competitiveness of an entire region and their ability to build their businesses and attract first-rate talent. Unfortunately, some of our legislators are a little behind on grasping this connection, and at the federal level it’s really a challenge.

Michael: We think of it this way: everyone who lives, works or plays in LA County is a Metro customer. We operate transit, but we also plan carpool lanes (and build them in partnership with CalTrans). We plan bikepaths and promote biking as a mode. We are the bank that parses out money for small and large local transportation projects, from local dial-a-ride service to improving pedestrian pathways around transit. We are implementing LA’s first ExpressLanes toll roads. We have the largest vanpool program in the country.

So through all these programs and many more, we touch the life of every resident and visitor every day. We want people to share the ride, but we know that the majority of Angelenos don’t or won’t try transit. For them, the important message is this: the more people who do take transit, the less cars on the road with them. With the right storytelling, that translates into a compelling case for supporting public transit through legislation and more important, tax measures that insure a steady, unraidable fund for LA County. We have voted to tax ourselves three times, and we’re looking at another ballot measure for November 2012.

Metro LA ad

So yes, Lisa is right. The public “gets it.” Sadly, Congress isn’t altogether there yet, and the dialogue of balanced budgets and reducing the national debt becomes a tool for starving transit. The big idea we are pushing now (and one that has always been true) is that transit means jobs, both to operate and build. It’s good for the economy, and it will prove good for LA County’s economy in the next 20 years. The hard part in our business is timelines: people are put off by the idea that it will take 20 years to build our subway all the way to the sea, and it will be really, really expensive. But if we don’t start now, if we don’t make steady, sometimes painful progress, we will be in serious trouble later.

So we keep the dialogue going with a steady but varied toolbox of ideas. For some: “Go Metro now; you save money, time and jettison that road rage that’s sucking up your soul.” (Wording TBD!)

But what do you think it is about cars that draws people away from these other commuting options?

Michael: I don’t know if it’s the same in other cities, because I imagine every place has its own vibe and commuting “norm,” if there is such a thing. But in LA, when you are a regular car commuter, your vehicle becomes your extended home. I’ve seen women applying eyeliner, men using their electric shaver, kids changing clothes in the back. And there are the cell phone warriors, the folks eating any- and everything for breakfast while they drive, the smokers who toss their butts out the window (what, that car doesn’t have an ashtray?), the folks with their superduper titanium travel mugs of joe. My father used to commute just 12 miles to his downtown LA job, but he would read the paper in traffic, and that habit was the undoing of his beloved BMW Bavaria when he rear-ended someone while perusing the sports section. I think people cling to their cars because, spending so much time in them, they start to fill that time with the activity they don’t have time for because they are spending so much time in the car. Vicious circle, yes?

BMW Bavaria, circa 1974

But the irony is, you can do just about all these things while riding public transit. And it’s safer and more relaxing. And you can practically hear your piggy bank filling up with extra coin with each and every trip.

Lisa: Well, I know this is a generalization, and that it’s changing as we diversify, but I think, as Michael said, the car is an extension of personal space, and people around here like their privacy. If you engage as Clarence did, it’s considered aggressive, inappropriate, or just irritating. People don’t want to be bothered to deal with the public nature of transit space. It’s like the people on the airplane who have their earbuds in even when they can’t be listening to their players. They’re avoiding being part of a social space. But this is one of the things I love about public transit, that it is public in this sense of belonging to the community, and it’s an extension of the community’s space.

Pacific Electric Railway Map, 1920

This brings up something interesting. For the amount of time we spend in cars, and how heavily they’re advertised and promoted, both LA and the Twin Cities were actually known for their extensive streetcar systems before they were dismantled in the ’60s and ’70s. Los Angeles had the largest system in the world by 1925, and most Minneapolitans were within a few blocks from a station at any given location. Do you ever look to that past for insight on our relationship with public transportation today?

Michael: That’s a painful question. LA was truly the envy of the nation in the early 20th century. You could ride from the top of the San Gabriel Mountains to the water’s edge in Santa Monica, all on a Red Car. Today, we are at least moving toward that once-comprehensive system by building more rail, and the irony is that we are using some of the same rail right-of-ways that still linger from those glorious days. But LA, like so many cities, sprawled during the postwar boom, when housing was cheap and plentiful and everyone wanted a suburban lawn and a garage for their shiny new car. It was grand then, too, as you zoomed along mostly clear freeways and could crisscross Southern California with ease. Metro’s Transportation Library is one of the best in the nation, a treasure trove of maps, data, and photos from both those eras. The insight there is not a new one, but that doesn’t make it any less urgent: Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

Twin Cities Rapid Transit Route Map, 1914

Lisa: Yes, so painful to lovers of transit. One of our transportation planners at Hennepin County had an old streetcar system map out the other day, and it was truly amazing—you could go all the way from Stillwater to Lake Minnetonka.

One takeaway for me from the streetcar history is the persistent connection between transit and business/development. Many streetcar lines came about as the result of collaborations between would-be transit operators and businessmen or developers who were interested in the opportunities along and at the end of the lines. And this is part of what made building and operating transit affordable back in the day—not just farebox revenues. (We struggle against perceptions that transit operations should be self-sustaining, when roads and bridges are anything but, and transit is such a public good.) At least the new federal guidelines for transit projects seem poised to make streetcars more fundable in the future, which is a really interesting change.

Then how do you go about engaging the public in promoting these spaces and options?

Michael: This idea of engagement is a very real, everyday thing for us. I look at what we do as this ongoing conversation with everyone in LA County, whether they use Metro service or not. And lucky for us, we have a pretty big canvas. We use our livery, the interiors and exteriors of thousands of buses and trains that traverse the landscape, as space to engage. We use the web in a much more robust way now, and with a million unique visits a month, there’s a lot of opportunity. We use public art and marketing messages in our stations to inform, engage, delight, and challenge riders. We tweet; we post; we make little films. And more and more, we are deputizing our customers to contribute to and expand the conversation, from sponsoring a video contest on “Why I Ride” to commission original works from artists who have never “published” before. Our English- and Spanish-language blogs are read avidly and we use these to make sure all sides of the transportation conversation are being heard.

Metro LA ad featuring local artists

We do all this because we know that adopting transit as your “ride” isn’t easy, certainly not at first. You have to change your routine. You have to open up a bit, learn how to use the system, and then move beyond the cocoon of your car and share the ride with others. So when we do convince folks to try it and then stick with it, we want them to have an experience that is safe, reliable, friendly, and feels as unique and of-the-place as LA does. LA is this sun-drenched, colorful polyglot. We want what we say and design to feel that way, too. Our first art director, Neil Sadler, used to say, “Let’s not make anything boring.” And for the most part, we’ve lived up to that as best we can.

Above the escalators to the Metro Rail subway, artist Bill Bell has installed 12 vertical light sticks producing varying patterns of light and color. Passersby may discover unexpected images that are hidden in the light patterns, and by speaking near a hidden microphone can activate a responsive sound system. Among the over 300 electronic images viewers may see and sounds they may hear are a passing freight train, taxis, Duke Ellington, Rin Tin Tin, and Marilyn Monroe. “Some will get it, some won’t,” Bell says. “Don’t worry, it’s supposed to be fun.”

Lisa: Well, they are public spaces—owned by the public, really—so you have to if you hope for their support. But you also need quality community engagement if you want the best possible outcomes. If you’re hoping to provide great access to jobs, affordable housing, businesses, services, natural amenities, etc., you need to talk with folks about how they hope to use the service, how it should be woven into the fabric of their existing communities, and what they want for their communities in the future.

I was really intrigued by your comments about creating a felt sense of the public transit “space” and a transit experience “that is safe, reliable, friendly and feels as unique and of-the-place as LA does. LA is this sun-drenched, colorful polyglot.” Because Metro LA’s work on their neighborhood ticket stations/kiosks and obviously their campaigns really embrace this idea. I think we are so utilitarian in terms of our view of transit as a public service here locally, but we really don’t embrace the platforms, the vehicles, as this great opportunity for creating public spaces. We have some interesting stations with public art that attempts to do this, but I don’t think we’ve been terribly successful. It’s kind of the old idea of poetry on the subway will change the nature of the ride, right?

Michael: We’re changing the face of LA County. We’re going to make a bit of a mess doing so, and it will take awhile, but it will be worth it, for the long-term growth and health of this amazing place we live. Stay with us while we build the future. And here’s another, so important for our core group of “transit dependent” riders who are with us day in and day out: we’re going to give you the best system of bus and rail transportation we can. We’re going to enliven your day with beautiful and thoughtful art, with poets reading on your bus, with engaging reminders of how you can save even more or where Metro can take you. We’re going to give you progressive digital tools that help you know when your bus or train will arrive, where your next stop is, and how you hop from this line to that. (Including a smartcard that you can load and reuse every day, that you can lose without worry about losing your balance, and that you can also use for other purchases.) And we’re going to do all we can to make your ride safe and pleasant, and get you there on time.

And finally, what’s your goal at the end of the day?

1. Create something, anything, that compels some part of our vast audience to try going Metro.
2. Meet deadlines.
3. Be kind and have fun.

Lisa: I like Michael’s pattern here: 1) what are we trying to do?, 2) accountability strategy, and 3) philosophy. So, what about:
1. Connect people to more opportunity via transit and transit-oriented development.
2. Listen better.
3. Do something that intrigues you and has the power to change the world (even if it’s just your slice of it).

Michael will speak on March 20 at the Walker Cinema. You can take the 4, 6, 12, or 25 Metro Transit buses here, or plan your own trip!

Update: Watch Michael Lejeune’s talk on the Walker Channel:

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