8 things we learned from Metro's innovation chief

Joshua Schank, Chief Innovation Officer at LA Metro's Office of Extraordinary Innovation.
Joshua Schank, Chief Innovation Officer at LA Metro's Office of Extraordinary Innovation.
Courtesy of LA Metro

Joshua Schank has one of those titles. He's the Chief Innovation Officer for L.A. Metro's Office of Extraordinary Innovation. That's a lot of innovating for one human — and a lot of big words for one transportation agency.

What does a CIO do? It's not all riding a Segway and shouting "Tofutti break!"

Schank moved to Los Angeles in August 2015 after working for five years at the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington D.C. think tank. He now lives in Studio City where he takes the Red Line from Universal City to Union Station to get to his downtown office. It's not seamless, he admits. 

"The problem is that I live four miles from that stop so I have to drive to that stop," Schank says. "I've tried all kinds of other strategies like biking and taking a bus and getting dropped off — and almost none of them have worked. So I'm a living example of the first last mile problem." 

1. What appealed to you about L.A. — aside from all the obvious things?
"The sheer diversity and size of this place compared to D.C.," says Schank. "It is not just a haven for people who want to come and work nerdy government jobs. This is a place that's got every type of person from around the world. Also, I've been so happy as a transportation person to live in a city where transportation is the #1 issue that people care about. On one hand, you might think that's sad because we have a real problem. But it gets attention from elected officials. It's something people care about and are actively trying to solve. And that's not true in Washington D.C." 

2. What is the Office of Extraordinary Innovation?
It's a small division — four full-time staffers and a handful of fellows — within Metro, which employs between 9,000 and 10,000 people. 

Its basic function is to bring the private sector to the table on major infrastructure projects. These arrangements, which mingle private funding and public oversight, are known as P3 partnerships. Long Beach's new city hall and civic center are being built via a P3 deal.

3. Great. But what will this division accomplish that the rest of the agency can't?
"Large government agencies are typically not designed to accept the latest innovations from the private sector and integrate them into their business model," Schank says. "The idea isn't that we're going to come in and impose things over the agency. Anything we want to get done, we need to work with other departments within Metro. I think that's quite intentional. We are a vehicle by which we can figure out how to do the new stuff that needs to get done to adjust Metro to the modern era." 

4. Why is that important?
"Think about how fast transportation is changing. A few years ago, there was no such thing as Uber and Lyft. Private sector providers are out there doing what they're doing whether or not we work with them. But they're not looking out for public policy goals. They're not particularly interested in making sure people with disabilities have equal access to transportation. They aren't necessarily interested in making sure low income individuals are able to be part of the accessible transportation network. We are. It's not enough to have that technology out there and being developed. We have to find a way to integrate it with the public sector network." 

5. On a practical level, what kind of projects will you focus on?
"Several projects in region that have been identified as potential P3 candidates. The West Santa Ana branch eco rapid transit. The Sepulveda Pass project. People have talked about the high desert corridor as a potential P3. Also, the 710 south project. We're going to let market tell us where they see an opportunity."

6. So when can we expect our hoverboards?
"If and when that technology is ready and there's a reason for us to partner with them, absolutely."

7. It feels like we've hit a tipping point with public transit. People who didn't care about it or had opposed it seem like they're finally paying attention. Where is L.A. in terms of that conversation?
"I think that's part of a national trend. Los Angeles is a little bit behind the trend. Most cities 10, 20 years ago started to realize if they didn't get their act together and invest in transportation and modes that allow people a lifestyle that doesn't require being in a car all the time, that they were going to lose some of their appeal. Perhaps the pressure here wasn't as great because plenty of people were still coming. You can't keep growing and keep packing more and more people into crowded highways forever." 

8. What's the biggest problem about public transit here?
"With a place that has been so auto-focused for so long, trying to change it is like turning a ship. It's going to take a while. It's not something that can be done overnight. It's not like you had this base of a dense and walkable city. You have downtown but most of the city is not like that. Putting a transit [system] on top of that is challenging."