Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (left) talks to the Atlantic's Steve Clemons.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (left) talks to the Atlantic's Steve Clemons at CityLab Paris. Melanie Leigh Wilbur

If Eric Garcetti were president, he says he’d be a maintainer.

Los Angeles has become an unlikely leader in the world of public transportation. Thanks to a sales tax approved by an overwhelming majority in 2016, new rail and rapid bus lines are set to unspool through the Westside, South L.A., East Hollywood, and the Valley.

It’s a transit build-out of a scale not seen in decades in any U.S. metropolis—and much of it is accelerated for completion by L.A.’s 2028 Olympic Games.

“People think they are free when they’re sitting by themselves in traffic,” said L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti on a panel at CityLab Paris Tuesday morning. “We’re trying to get people to realize that that’s not what liberation looks like.”

In Garcetti’s eyes, freedom is sharing a ride, and not strictly on new Metro lines. It could be inside a ZipCar or an Uber, he suggests, hailing a shuttle or renting a bike, or eventually, inside a shared, self-driving car. That’s a long way off, but L.A. was one of, if not the first metro in the U.S. to articulate specific policies related to autonomous vehicles inside its mobility strategy released in 2016.

In a town where some 70 percent of commuters drive to work, it will take time for citizens’ behavior to match their leader’s aspirations. But L.A.’s famed orientation towards the car is decidedly shifting—and Angelenos are aboard, said Garcetti. He pointed to not only county voters’ overwhelming support for Measure M, the 2016 ballot measure, but also the fact that it is a “forever tax.” The $120 billion it’s estimated to generate over the next 40 years will help build out L.A.’s clutch of transit plans. But the tax won’t turn off after that, as many ballot-driven increases do. That way, Garcetti said, L.A.’s future leaders will still have money to maintain it all.

“Thirty years from now, whoever is your successor as mayor needs dollars to maintain and innovate,” he said.

Garcetti, who was recently reelected mayor in a landslide, is rumored to have presidential aspirations. Steve Clemons, the editor-at-large of Atlantic Live and the panel moderator, acknowledged these rumors and asked how Garcetti would would translate his progressive transportation policies on a national stage, given the opportunity. The mayor did not miss a step.

First, he described an infrastructure bill that would fund transportation projects that “prize innovation.” “[We don’t want] to lock in modes, when everything is changing between autonomous vehicles, vertical take-offs, tunneling technology, even Hyperloop,” he said. Second, he’d want to fund the full lifetime of transportation projects—not just their construction. “Everyone likes to build, but no one likes to maintain,” he said, drawing claps from the audience, comprised mostly of city leaders.

Before Measure M went to vote in L.A., officials were surprised by polls that showed voters would be supportive if the tax lasted forever rather than a few decades, Garcetti said. “But people said that this was like education,” he said. “This is something we need to support, permanently, over time.”

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