To Build Back Better, StreetsLA’s Adel Hagekhalil on ‘One Infrastructure’ Through Integration, Innovation, & Inclusion

Adel Hagekhalil

StreetsLA, under the leadership of General Manager Adel Hagekhalil has made its mission to enhance quality of life for all by making LA’s street network safe, mobile, and sustainable through a culture of innovation, integration, and inclusion. VXNews interviewed Adel to elaborate on how StreetsLA leveraged resources and partnerships in a year of budget scarcity to continue its work to transform LA’s streets into urban oases that provide shade, stormwater capture, active transportation, urban cooling and more for communities across the City. Adel highlights the recent $31 million award by the California Transportation Commission for the Canoga Park Active Transportation Plan as an exemplar of multi-benefit, inclusive, and functionally integrated  “One Infrastructure” investment that can serve as  a national model for “building back better.”

StreetsLA has been, under your leadership, internationally recognized for its work and innovation on Cool Streets. As we move into the summer in California, could you elaborate on StreetsLA’s technological innovation and strategy for mitigating extreme heat and turning streets into urban oases?

Adel Hagekhalil: Mayor Garcetti, as the chair of the C40, has really developed a sustainability plan—LA’s Green New Deal—that's anchored in addressing climate change and making our City resilient and sustainable. In Los Angeles, we're facing a huge challenge when it comes to climate change. We expect the number of days with 93 degrees and hotter tripling in Los Angeles over the next 20 to 30 years. 

We know heat is related to safety, and to me it's important that StreetsLA has rebranded its mission to enhance the quality of life for everyone. We understand that, in the middle of climate change and racial inequity, people who suffer the most walk or use transit—they can't afford cars. That's really in the areas of Northeast and South LA. We wanted to develop a plan to cool our city, make it resilient when it comes to the heat, and protect people. 

We started testing cool pavement, and we've done that over the last five years and doubled down over the last three years since I've taken over. We're looking for ways to cool communities using data about the heat impacts, tree canopy,  transit use and underserved communities to find the most critical places to place that effort. 

We're evolving from just applying a cold pavement cover on a blacktop asphalt to cool a streets to a complete and integrated urban community cooling project, including shade, trees, and transit shelters. a way to cool our communities by 10-20 degrees to allow our residents, specially the most vulnerable, underserved and transit dependents. It will allow our residents to safely walk, excercise, got to schools, bike, shop and more.

We actually went to NASA and the International Space Station, who work with JPL and Caltech, and we got some imaging of some of the Cool Streets that we've applied, and it's impressive to see that from space they can see the difference these streets have made. You can actually zoom and see the red pixels, the orange pixels, and our cool streets had the blue/cool pixels. 

Now, we're doubling down. We plan to develop 200 city blocks in eight communities to go ahead and develop urban community cooling. It's not just the pavement, we're adding shade through shade structures and trees. We will be planting 1,900 trees, applying cool pavement to 60 lane miles, 200 city blocks, and providing integration with our street furniture program. That would allow people to walk safely from school to their home or from the senior citizen center to their home and make it safe. Most importatnly, it is anchored in equity where these projects are focused on underserved and vulnerable communities.

We need to adapt and adjust. This is one area that I brought in through my integration approach, because I believe that the only way for us to solve our issues—whether it’s public health, climate change, the economy, or racial equity—is to work together through integration, innovation, and inclusion.  

I'm proud that we are taking the lead and working with the mayor's office and the city council to move this forward and implement this. I've read some stories from Phoenix, Qatar, and other places in the world that have used us in LA as a model for urban cooling.

Comment on the recent grant from the California Transportation Commission for the Canoga Park active transportation plan.

It was great to get the approval of $31 million to be invested in Canoga Park, in Councilman Bob Blumenfield's district. That project came together in partnership with Climate Resolve and the community in the Canoga Park area. This project  is a first/last mile connection with the Orange (G) Line. In seven miles of connection, we are going in and transforming the connectivity to the transit, to the community, and to the river to provide folks bike lanes, shade, bioswales, and active transportation while at the same time providing cooling with cool pavement. 

We're providing plazas and other ways that people can enjoy themselves and enjoy people, places for weekend vending with shade where people can enjoy a farmer’s market atmosphere. It’s about what the community wanted, and this project is really the example of how we can replicate this to revitalize communities and make people’s lives better. It was recognized by the chair, Hilary Norton of CTC, as an example for the future of active transportation projects. This is a big award. They don't give that many projects this much money, but they said this award was to set an example of what we can do as a state and as a city to transform that relationship, and connect people with transit, nature, active transportation, and water. It's transformational, and we're excited about it. 

My hope is to take this and start working on replicating this way up in the San Fernando Valley, in Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez' district by Sepulveda and Rinaldi (Sepulveda Mile Project) —taking away some traffic on the median and transforming that to active transportation, bioswales,  trees, shade, and parks. It's a transformation of our future, transit, climate adaptation, and it's all coming together. 

I'm very proud of the team we have and the partnerships we built, but that only can happen when you have leadership in the city that supports innovation and the idea of integration. When people see it, people are going to want more, so we need to be ready. Hopefully, President Biden and Secretary Buttigieg will start thinking about incentivizing communities for doing these kinds of projects. We can build back better through integration, innovation, and inclusion. We need to leverage resources to connects dots, drops and hearts.

Adel, drawing from your role at LA City Sanitation and your board leadership at NACWA, elaborate on how your advocacy for “One Water” has influenced StreetsLA’s  “One Infrastructure” strategy citywide.   

I'm very proud that I was able to really lead the birth of the integrated One Water movement across the country. Radhika Fox, now the Assistant Secretary of Water, was a partner in the US Water Alliance and NACWA when we created the One Water concept and award. And we did the same thing with stormwater. People saw that stormwater was enhancing communities, making green streets, making communities better, creating wetlands parks. Stormwater was no longer pollution that's why Prop O was successful and we were able to pass Measure W.

What we're doing now is continuing to build on this. When the Mayor asked me what we’re going to do with stormwater as I transitioned to StreetsLA, I told him that I really wanted to keep my feet wet. I wanted to bring active transportation, urban cooling, and water management together because we have limited resources. We have so much that if we can work together and leverage resources, we can do much more. Whether it's through building bioswales—stormwater capture for watering —fixing water lines as we build these active transportation corridors, I want to bring this culture of One infrastructure.

One infrastructure is all of us coming together, and I believe that that's what the future looks like; we cannot work in silos. We broke silos in the water area, but I want to do the same thing with us at the city. Working with transportation at Metro, LADOT, LADWP, LA Sanitation, and others to come together and build these projects, to not only to create bike and bus lanes and active transportation but provide shade and safety for the community and clean water for our environment.

We can no longer build a project just for active transportation. The question should be what can we do to enhance the future of that project, and I think we're seeing that. Yesterday, I was talking to a few folks in South LA working on an idea for enhancing the area around Figueroa and Slauson. They talked to me about adding trees and shade, but also adding dry wells and infiltration galleries—to not only have trees but also capture water.

One Infrastructure is not just about integration and innovation, it's about inclusion—Including the community, helping the community, creating the new workforce from the community, and training people. We're excited about how we do this, and this urban cooling project has a component of working with folks at the Conservation Corps and others to help bring workers from the community to work on these projects, and hopefully they become trained to be our new workforce for the future.

Speak to the advantages of a multi-benefit One Infrastructure approach to encouraging collaboration across city agency silos.

There are two ways those relationships are built. One is with directives, but the second and the most effective way is when it's from within; a culture of ‘we can do better if we work together, trust each other, and break down those silos.’

I usually ask, "are we uplifting people as we do this, and what can we do differently?" I'm working now with our new general manager of Street Lighting (LA Lights), Miguel Sangalang, and Miguel is all about innovation and integration. I'm meeting with him regularly to come up with ideas of how we can collaborate together and find solutions.

My partner at LADOT, Seleta Reynolds, and I talked about how we can partner to enhance safety and mobility as we did by implementing mobility elements as part of the ADAPT paving program during the pandemic. We quickly came together and I realized that there is so much opportunity; if we partner and start aligning our paving with the needs for mobility, we can start integrating those projects. To me, when people see that success, it builds trust.

I'll tell you about the project in Canoga Park that's opening doors with Metro. Heather Repenning, who is a leader in Metro's sustainability efforts, is a big proponent of One Water and One Infrastructure. They see now what we've talked about, the first and last mile discussion with transit, as a real thing and we need to replicate it and double down on it.

The Canoga Park Urban Colling grant project that we just got from the CTC is going to help us build more trust, more relationships, and more projects, and we're going to do more together because they see that their mission is fulfilled. LADOT has its Vision Zero effort, StreetsLA is making our streets safe, mobile, and sustainable, and Metro wants to enhance the experience of transit users. When we come together and build trust and build those relationships, there is nothing we can’t do and that integrated partnership becomes the expectation and culture. Nobody should see a project as StreetsLA’s, LADOT’s, or Metro’s, they should just say that this is a good smart project or an  "LA" project.  I am sure that this transformation is going to happen as we've done with water as part of the one water plan. 

At the end of the day, what we need is flexibility. Money sometimes gets in the way because there are different sources of money that have restrictions, and we need to free some of these restrictions. Federal government funding, when it comes to transportation funding, should be more flexible and actually require that we bring in other partners to incentivize grants and funding. Similarly water projects should also leverage other resources to maximize benefits.

Share how StreetsLA using a One Infrastructure approach and is innovating to reduce emissions and increase use of recycled materials

We have a Fuse fellow working with us to review our operations to reduce our carbon footprint and our emissions. Finding ways to reduce our emissions and recycling is critical for StreetsLA. The first thing is we want to make sure that the asphalt we grind is being recycled.  Our new asphalt plant that we just rebuilt is using 50 percent recycled asphalt so that our old streets are being recycled back into the streets. That's one area.

 The second area that we looked at over the last two years is bringing recycled plastic into our paving. We worked closely with a company called Neo and started doing testing, in a partnership, initially, with Department of the Energy. So we started looking at this idea, tested it, and we found that the results were promising and amazing. The strength of the asphalt that uses plastic—what I call super asphalt—was almost the strength of concrete with the characteristics of asphalt. We were able to take the worst street in Los Angeles— 1st Street right by Grand close at the Disney Hall. The street looked like a wave in an ocean because of the weight of the heavy buses uses it. We transformed the section using the plastic asphalt. 

There's no heat and it's recycling the same asphalt by mixing it with resin from recycled plastic and doing it in one application. So, there's no emissions, no smell, and it recycles plastic; to me, there's a huge benefit. So, we're doing testing in the field now and we're optimistic. I'm looking forward to the future of this and how we can link the waste stream. We have an opportunity maybe to transform one of our asphalt plants can become the future plant that can bring in a waste from the plastic, transform it and make it into this resin that we can apply in our streets so it's exciting and it's not going to be everywhere, but it's probably going to be in the major corridors that have a huge impact.

I'm excited about this and hopefully, we're going to have more discussions with policymakers about how we move forward.  This is a creative way we can transform how we do business. All of these things are critical for our future resiliency and sustainability. And at the end of the day, it's making people's lives better, making our environment better for the future, and I’m so excited that we're uplifting communities. As our mayor always says, “Let's reach beyond our grasp.” And by all means, we're doing that. We're reaching and we're tiptoeing and we're jumping—trying to go beyond, and we're very excited.

StreetsLA has an RFP out for its street furniture. How has that RFP incorporated a multibenefit strategy to accomplish the goals you've just been addressing?

Many of our underserved communities use transit, and in the middle of the heat or the rain they still come to work; they're all essential workers. We really want to have a new future for our transit system and experience for people riding our buses and walking in the streets. We want to reimagine our street furniture program to be a program that is centered around people, enhances the experience of people using transit or walking and enhances the experience of visitors. We want to provide shade. We want to provide a better way to get information, wayfinding, and other digital information, so if there's an emergency, we can get messages out to the public in certain areas. We also want to partner with Caltech on ideas of how we can capture some of the earthquake information to help deploy first responders. 

The big one is increasing the number of shelters to cover, at a minimum, 75 percent of the transit riders in our communities especially the underserved communities. On our website, you can go to street furniture, and there are two things, a survey and an interactive map. The interactive map has a heat map that shows where people have the most exposure to heat, information on the transit use, schools, and the highest-use venues. We're aligning all of these to prioritize where we deploy our street furniture.

Our street furniture is not going to be just any street furniture, it's going to be LA-style street furniture and it's going to be sustainable. We have four proposals that we're reviewing right now. Some of the money and the revenue we're getting from advertising is going to be invested in place, around transit shelters to ensure that sidewalks, access ramps, and trees are all taken care of. We want to invest back and make sure that that money is put back to make the streets and the infrastructure is safe for the transit users and to provide accessibility for the visitors to get them shade, shelter, but also information.

Lastly, what's been StreetsLA’s experience during the last year with leveraging resources to maintain high quality operations and service?

The last year has been tough but we never stopped working and serving. We continued to work every single day. When people were staying at home, we decided that this was an opportunity to adapt and go to commercial corridors that have not been looked at for a long time because of impact on businesses and traffic. But what we decided to do is actually link it with mobility, so we worked with LADOT, Metro and other partners for how we can implement mobility elements and dedicated bus lanes as we're repaving. So, we actually leveraged a lot of that effort and resources. 

I partnered with Water & Power, which experiences water blowouts that causes damage to the streets. So now we are fixing and repairing the streets as a result and that brings in revenue from Water & Power, which is used to allow us to not only sustain the operation but take care of the street and make it better.  as my partner Marty Adams would say “Let's make it better than when we left it.” So, we're doing that, and we have fixed close to 30-plus locations. 

We're also working with Metro, which has a need on the Expo Line to have some reconstruction of streets and some work. We went and actually brought in some revenue from them to help us sustain the funding shortfall during the pandemic to do work for them. We are continuing to apply for more grants and opportunities for thinking differently.  

One of the messages I tell my staff is that we need to think and look for ways to do things better. So, while we are dealing with this pandemic, we thought of innovation.  We are implementing a state-of-the-art asset management system that surgically determines how to better deploy resources. To me, this is the time to do what we need to do, which is bring in technology that improves efficiency. I have a vision for creating a virtual assets inventory system where we have cameras like Nexar and others that capture data across the city to help better prioritize and allow us to be proactive in responding to repairs, so we’re not just waiting for people to call. 

We're going to be doing a lot of innovation, but this pandemic allowed us to also step back and start thinking about how we can do more with less? So, we partnered with other agencies to bring in revenue but also, we started looking for technology solutions, which can really help us move forward. I'm excited that we're going to bring our streets into the 21st century. I'm very proud, and as I promised, I'm going to bring my collaborative skills and my innovation skills into making this department. I'm proud of the workers and the people at StreetsLA because they embraced change and transformation. They have a new culture of service and innovation, and they're very proud of it and that really speaks volumes to what we're doing. But the journey continues as we move upward and forward to connect the dots, drops and hearts as we uplift communities for today and tomorrow. We all have to put on the hat of integration, lead with a mind full of innovation, and influence communities with a heart full with equity and inclusion.

“I believe that the only way for us to solve our issues—whether it's the public health, climate change, the economy, or racial equity—is to work together through integration, innovation, and inclusion."—Adel Hagekhalil