John Rossant Hosts the Next Generation of Urban Mobility at CoMotionLA '23

John Rossant

With greater housing density all but guaranteed in California, urban mobility and traffic congestion have become pressing public policy issues. VX News, to inform public discussion, spoke with John Rossant, CEO of CoMotion, about both the future of mobility and his upcoming CoMotionLA conference in LA November 14-16th. The latter will draw to Los Angeles some of the world’s most influential leaders and innovative companies (public & private), as well as the municipalities who are pushing the boundaries of mobility. In doing so, it will offer conference participants opportunities to meet, connect and strike deals with many of Mobility’s key stakeholders Additionally addressed at CoMotionLA will be the challenges of rewiring cities.

VX News: John, share with our VXNews readers both CoMotionLA’s history and mission.

John Rossant: The origins of CoMotion go back seven or eight years, initially on the East Coast. I was in charge, and still am, of a large nonprofit called NewCities Foundation, which looks at cities and city building around the world. When you look at cities, you very quickly look at the aspect of mobility and transportation.

In 2016, LA came onto our radar. Measure M had just been passed by voters with over 70% accepting the ½ cent sales tax that went to a war chest to build out transportation infrastructure. This massive move caught our attention. Who would have thought that in LA, the city that invented car culture, voters would vote monies to expand public transit? That same year, Seleta Reynolds at LADOT published a groundbreaking document, Urban Mobility in a Digital Age, which was a roadmap for new digitally-enabled mobility like micro-mobility and car sharing at scale. It was very future oriented- LA was really the first municipality in the country to look at these issues. Eric Garcetti’s administration was fond of describing Los Angeles as the transportation technology capital of the world.

I met with the Mayor and Seleta Reynolds, and realized we were in the very beginning stages of a mobility revolution. Fundamentally transforming how goods and people move around cities and urban areas, including the beginnings of electrification, connected mobility, cars in a networked arena and communicating with each other. We brought a small, high level conference on the future of mobility to Los Angeles to concentrate our efforts in the region, and CoMotion was launched seven years ago. 

John, you bring to CoMotionLA significant global experience with both mobility and sustainability, as well as a large number, every year, of urban & international market leaders and mobility innovators. Share what entices both you and CoMotion’s international speakers to Southern California and Los Angeles? 

We've always prided ourselves on having strong partners overseas including with the British and Canadian governments, the city of Paris, and the greater Paris region. They understand that mobility and transportation are big business, and that Southern California and the LA area are a massive market. Historically Europe and Asia have concentrated their innovation efforts on Silicon Valley, but now entities know the really large market is here. 

For added context, elaborate on the evolution of CoMotionLA, including who has been exhibited & featured in your programs over the years.

We think of mobility differently from other players. We know that mobility and transportation take place in the public. Driving a private car or taking an Uber are always going to be highly regulated. 

We can facilitate a strategic conversation between public and private players. We see that as our role, perhaps like the role of the VerdeXchange and the Planning Report. The public and private sector must speak to one another, and I think it's so important, particularly in the  transportation landscape. 

Our mission is to facilitate that conversation. It's also to create a sustainable, multimodal future for cities, and ensure nobody is left behind in a transportation desert. 

We want it to be easy to leave your car at home, or to not even own a car. We want a rider, for example, to seamlessly transition from their rented e-bike to the metro, and then take Uber the last mile to their house. The seamless transitions are incredibly important. 

One of the afflictions of this great city of ours in this part of the 21st century is congestion; getting from point A to point B is very complicated now. Going to LAX at rush hour is a nightmare. The 405 and the 10 are clogged up. Eric Garcetti used to talk about the golden age of the freeways where everything in LA was 20 minutes away - Beverly Hills, East LA. That's no longer the case, but we want those connections to be restored.

Having clean air is also part of this vision. If you remember that incredible moment after the outbreak of the pandemic, when everything stopped for a while, you could see the Sierra Nevadas and the air of Los Angeles was pristine. That's the future we want, and we will have it. I hope it comes quickly. 

Expand on CoMotionLA’s past panelists and attendees, and how the event’s audience has changed over time, if it has.

From the beginning, both speakers and participants were equally split 50% public, and 50% private.

We look at air, sea, and land mobility in urban areas. We look at policies for regulating traffic and micro mobility.

In the first years of CoMotion, there was a big discussion around regulating micro mobility, and other new forms of mobility. CoMotion launched in 2017, about two months after a small startup in Santa Monica called Bird released their first Birds into the wild, leaving thousands of electric scooters on the street. There was no regulatory framework for them. 

In November of this year, there will be discussion about the regulation of autonomous vehicles in cities, including robo-taxis. They are already in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In our view, they can bring a lot of good to cities, but also have the potential to be a disaster. If they are unregulated, there could be hundreds of thousands roaming the streets contributing to even more congestion. 

I wrote an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, using the analogy of the first years of ride hailing at scale. People thought that Uber would solve congestion. You would not have to own your own car and could share rides with other people in UberPool. Eventually though, there was a massive increase in congestion and pollution, which now must be dealt with. Sometimes you have to be careful about what you wish for. 

New technologies can spark fear, especially fear of the unknown. In San Francisco, there was a Cruise autonomous vehicle that pinned a woman down and trapped her. It was very unfortunate, and not clear if it was the fault of the autonomous vehicle. However, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, there have been a few accidents involving autonomous vehicles, but they're infinitely safer than cars driven by human beings. We forget about the hundreds of thousands of injuries and deaths from traffic accidents, which are caused by humans. 

Re your audience, the LA Auto Show & CoMotionLA take place at the same time. What,  for potential attendees, distinguishes the two mobility events? 

If you want to learn about congestion pricing, come to CoMotion LA. If you want to hear about the timeline of autonomous air taxis, come to CoMotion LA. If you want to learn about how electric steel gliders will revolutionize transit, come to CoMotion LA.

If you want to look at fancy new vehicles, go to the LA Auto Show. They do a great job, and I have admiration for their work. However, we know that cars are only part of the picture of mobility and transportation in the city. 

Re Program and Panels. What would an AI-CoMotionLA, as opposed to an AutoShow panel feature/address? 

CoMotion LA will be discussing AI and autonomous mobility, because an autonomous vehicle is AI in action. We recently teamed up with BMW Design Works and AI LA on a discussion series to look at the impact of AI on mobility. AI will be used to facilitate the future of seamless, multimodal mobility in cities. It will also impact the car industry, including how cars are designed and manufactured.

What’s been the impact on urban mobility’s transformation of both the COVID Pandemic  & the growth of work-from-home? And, is AI likely to be more impactful on urban mobility than has been the aforementioned? 

The main impact of Covid has been to drive more remote work, which I believe is here to stay. I'm currently speaking to you from my home, not my office. CoMotion is run remotely. This is a huge challenge for downtown Los Angeles. It's not as severe as downtown San Francisco, but it does pose questions for commercial real estate in downtowns. However, I think that artificial intelligence will have much more of an impact on transportation flows than work from home. AI will transform a lot of work in the United States and globally

True to CoMotion’s mission and drawing from your many hosted events around the globe, you have documented the origins, promise and opportunities of our current mobility revolution in a book.  

Our CoMotion mission, as I have shared, is supporting the future of sustainable, multimodal mobility in cities everywhere. Public-private partnerships can facilitate working together to make that future a reality. My book Hop, Skip, Go: How the Mobility Revolution is Transforming Our Lives discusses this. 

The book begins with the start of the mobility revolution in Europe, in places like Helsinki, which was an early adopter of mobility as a service. Mobility as a service uses network systems, i.e. an app on your phone, to find the optimal way of getting from point A to point B and paying for it on the platform. This was about 10 years ago. 

Urban air mobility at scale was also promised and could be part of our lives in the future, especially in poli-centric cities like Los Angeles. This could be through electric or hydrogen power to make them sustainable. A future could look like living in the Valley, needing to catch your 5pm flight out of LAX, and hopping onto one of these vehicles and landing at your terminal within 15 minutes. It might be a higher price in the first year but will be reduced to the same price as Uber Black in the following years. That's the future that's coming, and the technology is already here. Some hurdles include the lengthy FAA certification, but I think by the 2028 Olympics we will see a few of these flying in the air in LA County.  

Who is driving urban mobility’s transformation more:  private operators or public transit agencies?  The question is asked because VXNEWS, a few years ago, interviewed the Director of Transportation for USC – the largest private employer in LA County. He shared that despite University literally being adjacent to a number of public rail lines and Metro bus corridors, USC basically contracts with an array of private sector transportation companies to service their students, faculty and administrative staff needs. The latter appear to prefer the reliability and cleaner services of the private operators more than Metro’s services. What’s the take away?

That's unfortunate. I think it's really, really important for LA Metro, as well as any other big city transportation agency, to make public transportation a more compelling experience. I'm just appalled and embarrassed as an Angeleno when people come from around the world for CoMmotion LA, people who love public transportation, and they say that they have a terrible experience and will rent a car the next time they are in town. They say it's unsafe and filthy. We have to make people feel safe on the train, and we have to clean it up. 

To build on the above Q&A, recently Metro appropriated money for Metro Micro for the third time. Is Metro’s Metro-Micro on the cutting edge of transportation urban last mile mobility? 

It all goes back to seamless multimodal mobility. The Metro can only take you so far. How do you organize that last mile from the metro station to your house, or office or meeting place? This gap can be accomplished very creatively with public-private partnerships. It can be with Uber and Lyft, or micro transit groups that run electric vans with dynamic demand pricing like Via or Circuit. That is the future. We want the metro passenger not to see the intricacies, but to feel the seamless experience. 

We also support active mobility like walking and riding a bicycle. LA is a dangerous city to ride a bike, and we need protected bike lanes. Our glorious LA weather is perfect for biking.

My poor wife was hit by a car while riding her bike earlier this year, and this happens all too frequently. 

But Metro Micro perhaps is less an innovative public-private solution, than it is a $40 subsidy for $1 ride that can be accommodated less expensively by cabs and existing shared-ride operators. What explains Metro heavily investing for a third time in Metro Micro, rather than in an available public-private alternative? 

I don't know enough about that particular program, but I will say that the underlying mission of LA Metro is to get people out of the cars and onto Metro. Whatever it takes to do that is good. Metro recently released a program in Santa Monica called the One Car Challenge, which will pay participants to not use their car and to use public transit instead. It's kind of the inverse of congestion pricing.

Lastly, CoMotion has hosted events in Canada, i.e., Montreal and Vancouver. Elaborate on Canada’s innovation ecosystems, and what attracts their leadership & companies to LA and California. 

We have been close to the Canadian government who have resources to support Canadian companies. It's the same logic that motivates the British and French - they want to be here in this big, vibrant, dynamic market. Vancouver has a strong and innovative ecosystem, particularly around clean tech, and sustainable transportation, but it's a small market and small city. So, it's critically important for their future to expand into the US economy, and LA is the place to be for clean tech and advanced transportation.

“Our mission is to facilitate (a mobility) conversation. It's also to create a sustainable, multimodal future for cities, and ensure nobody is left behind in a transportation desert.” - John Rossant