Episode 16: An Opportunity for “Green Commuting”



Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:02

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged all sectors and industries to adapt to a new normal, oftentimes forcing a switch change in operations. The transportation sector has been hit particularly hard, as millions of residents minimize their travel and shelter-at-home. At the same time, essential workers, including health care workers at the UCLA, Ronald Reagan Hospital, rely on public transportation to get safely to and from work. Today, I chat with Renee Fortier, the executive director of UCLA Events and Transportation, about how UCLA has responded to ensure safe transportation during these uncertain times. Renee, it’s so great to have you join us today. You know, over the past couple of months, we’ve seen how COVID-19 has affected different industries and sectors in profound ways. I’m really excited to talk to you about how UCLA Events and Transportation has responded to COVID-19. So I’d like to start off broadly and learn from you how COVID-19 has affected your work, and also the shelter-in-place orders.


Dr. Renee Fortier  01:18

So COVID-19 and the shelter-in-place orders have had a really significant impact on events and transportation operations, and on our revenues that support all our services, including our sustainable and active transportation. From an operations perspective, we had to really quickly shift into high gear to put in measures to keep our bus drivers and mechanics and parking valet staff and the customers safe, because we’re continuing to provide essential services in support of the Ronald Reagan Medical Center. And we also had to really quickly bring our Customer Service Center to remote operations in order to continue to answer the questions that are coming in from students, staff, and faculty about their commute. And also, some of them wanted to change their mode of transportation. So we had to assist them with that remotely. But from a financial perspective, it’s also been really difficult. It’s been a really major reduction in funding that will be available to support our projects or our services. But really, we’re fortunate that we’d already put in over seven miles of bike lanes on campus and a lot of pedestrian and other improvements for mobility. So we’re also rethinking how we do business so that we can continue to provide mobility and access for the UCLA community, even as our resources are stretched thin. So personally, I have never been busier. I really thought perhaps when I was working from home, it might be less busy. But any time that I might have saved on my commute has been more than taken up by having even more things that we are looking into and having to track and deal with from COVID. And also figuring out how we’re going to work differently as we begin to return to campus.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:11

Yeah, well, it’s certainly ironic for you in particular, and transportation, who’s not transporting yourself back and forth to the campus to be even more full of your days fuller for the work you do. And you have always been a huge champion of active transport. And I’d like to understand, you know, when you think about a disaster, you think about it in four stages, right? Preparedness, response, recovery, and resurgence. And I have to get my hat off for you to really give you recognition on the preparedness that you’ve done in regards to active transport. I’d like to understand what does that mean, as you recover and research? Where do you think you’re going to go with the shifts that might be happening due to COVID-19?


Dr. Renee Fortier  04:03

For one of the things that we’re trying to do, Wendy, is to look at this as an opportunity. So right now, the streets are pretty empty, and there have been other cities around the world who have used that as an opportunity to turn over more of the real estate on the streets to walking and biking. So we are going to be pushing with the city to see if it’s possible to get a jumpstart on some of the bike lane projects that we have been talking about for years with them, particularly to see whether or not it wouldn’t be possible to get either a study going for the Westwood bike lane or even better a pilot, so we’re going to be pushing on it. Hopefully we’ll have success on it. But it is an opportunity to look at things differently. Now that we have less cars on the streets and to encourage active transportation because people may be more reluctant to do some of the other, especially ride sharing modes, this is a great time to have more people walking and biking.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:05

One thing that Renee that really has stuck with me for so long is your capacity to market active transport in a way that is supporting health and well being. And that was a huge selling point compared to the environmental impacts of active transport. I’d love to hear more about your reflection on that for our listeners.


Dr. Renee Fortier  05:28

So we’ve been really successful in marketing that. We have had hundreds of people on the campus give up their parking permits with our Earn-a-Bike program. And that is something that people understand the health benefits of really well of cycling. What is probably more surprising is that public transit is actually a quite active transportation mode. There’s a really significant connection between health and public transit commutes. So for example, there was a study done in the city of Charlotte, that transit users lost an average of 6.5 pounds, and 1.18 BMI points, and had an 81% reduce odds of becoming obese. And of course, that’s because they’re actually getting more exercise going to and from public transit.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  06:20

That’s, that’s incredible. And I know that we use that in medicine. We suggest with active transport, getting out a stop earlier or stop later to add a few more blocks here, walk to and from the stop you’re at, form of active transport, which usually, I guess is the bus, or now we have trolleys and some other opportunities. You know, Rahm Emanuel, came out with a quote that I think is very apropos of this time, which is, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” Is there something that you think you could not have done before this COVID-19 that maybe is in the horizon now in terms of transportation or other work that you do?


Dr. Renee Fortier  07:10

You know, the number one thing is the grand experiment that we’ve all been doing with telecommuting and COVID-19. There was a lot of resistance before among managers, in particular, to do telecommuting. And now what we’re seeing is that it’s working. So it’s great to have a green commute, but it’s also great to have no commute sometimes. So this is going to be, I think, a great opportunity. It will have, I believe, long lasting impacts on the remote work as an option. Because people are seeing that not only are they getting productivity, in some cases, they’re even getting more productivity out of employees who are telecommuting. So hopefully, as COVID-19 fades out, and we have herd immunity from a vaccine, folks are going to both return to sharing a ride on public transit, but also to look at not having a commute at all on days of the week, so this is something I think is going to stay around.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  08:15

And are you finding that with your staff as well, that the productivity’s gone up?


Dr. Renee Fortier  08:21

Oh, yes. Yeah, in fact, one of my managers was working from home and his wife is working from home too. And she said to him, “Oh, I didn’t realize that you work so hard.” And it’s interesting, because I also read an article that many people are seeing that they’re actually working an average of two to three hours more a day, telecommuting. So I guess maybe one of the other benefits of this is people’s partners and spouses may be appreciating them even more.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  08:58

Yeah, it’s a really nice silver lining. I love that. You know, moving to the other form of commuting outside of the act of transport, although buses are considered active transport, what would you say to students, faculty and staff who relied heavily on buses to get to campus? Once campus reopens, what what kind of assurances are you going to be offering up to these students and staff and I happen to be one of them–faculty members–who takes the bus frequently. And in fact, when we closed down the campus, I was probably one of the last people to take the bus–me and another grad student back home that day.


Dr. Renee Fortier  09:42

Well, I’m glad you’re still taking in and I just wanted to say that in terms of what the public transit agencies are doing, the CDC has guidelines that they are asking the transit agencies to run additional service, lower the number of people allowed on board and even install physical guides to ensure riders can stay six feet apart. They also recommend daily health checks for transit workers. And both the CDC and LA Public Health have also issued guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting procedures. Now in terms of our Bruin Bus, and we carry about 1.3 million rides per year on it, we’re going to be also limiting the number of passengers and requiring them to wear face coverings while they’re on board. We’re also fully disinfecting our Bruin Buses daily. And we’re going to be doing all throughout the day, cleaning of handrails and hand straps and doors and providing hand sanitizer on the buses and asking patrons to use it. And we will be doing temperature checks of our drivers at the start of every shift and installing plexiglass barriers in the driver compartments as well. We’re also going to ask our customers that they not board the buses if they’re experiencing any symptoms, and ask them to maintain six feet from other passengers while they’re on board. So all of these things should give some assurance to people that this is not only a good way to get around, but that we are doing everything we can to minimize their exposure. And the transit agencies are going to be doing the same sorts of things to public transit agencies.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  11:19

And so currently, Renee, you said you are one of the essential workers on campus. So you’re continuing the rides, especially be given the health care workers that are coming and going. Is your operation at a different level in terms of numbers of buses running or how is that playing out right now?


Dr. Renee Fortier  11:40

Oh, it’s it’s very, very much truncated. We’re just helping with transport of medical personnel right now. And we are also doing maintenance and doing things like cleaning the ambulances. So our maintenance staff are also helping out with the medical employees. And then we also have our valet attendants at the Medical Center at Reagan. And they are continuing to help patients with their parking.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  12:10

Right, right. So I forgot about the ambulances, because we run a series of ambulances as well. Is that under your purview of transportation?


Dr. Renee Fortier  12:21

No, the ambulances are actually with the Medical Center. And the fire department actually has an ambulance that runs on the campus as well, our UC Fire Department


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  12:34

So it sounds like from your point of view, you’ve got some good guidance from the CDC, you’ve got some good guidance from the city. And you’re following these steps as we speak now. So the only difference will be, once we reopen that you’ll just have a higher number of buses in your fleet operating. Is that how much you forsee?


Dr. Renee Fortier  12:59

So, we actually have a plan that’s not only increasing the number of buses that we have running today. But we also know that that’s not going to be enough with social distancing. So we are working with Santa Monica Big Blue Bus to reroute one of its lines so that it can pick up more passengers at places that we have very heavy loads at certain times a day. So one of those is the Weyburn Terrace Graduate Student Housing. So we’re hoping that they can help with this because otherwise, it will be an issue, because we don’t want crowding on the buses, nor do we really want people to be left behind.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:39

Very interesting. Yeah. So you’re working with the city and figuring out ways to leverage each other’s resources. That sounds very promising. Of course, my pipe dream is to see more bike lanes and see them go up during our resurgence or even our recovery phase.  Are there any opportunities with the monies that are coming from the federal government that could actually kickstart some of this work?


Dr. Renee Fortier  14:07

Well, I’m not sure about whether or not there would be any funding from the federal government. But good news is that this is a very good time to do construction, because there’s less traffic on the roadways, and the City of Santa Monica has actually started some of the work on the health pathway study, so we’re very excited about that. And we’re hopeful that we can kind of use that the City of Santa Monica has already started to prod the City of Los Angeles to do the work on its section of the health pathways. It’s a great opportunity to do it when there’s very, very little car traffic on the roads.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:46

Yeah, could you explain? That’s such a good point. Can you explain for the listeners with the health pathway is referring to?


Dr. Renee Fortier  14:53

So, we had a study done between the two hospitals: the Santa Monica UCLA Hospital and the Ronald Reagan UCLA Hospital. Because there are a lot of employees that go back and forth between the two places, and patients to some extent as well, and there is not a good bike route today. So that study recommended some changes both within the City of Santa Monica city limits and on the streets that are in the City of LA as well, such as Ohio, and they’re not huge changes, but they would make it so much safer and so much better to get between the two hospitals. And Wendy, as a cyclist, I’m sure you know that there are many times during the day when you can actually get faster on your bicycle than you could if you’re driving a car.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  15:44

Oh yeah easily, like three times faster or three times less time. Yeah, 20 minutes versus an hour by car, 20 minutes by bike, yeah. And I’m so grateful to you for doing that since I have been doored, hit by a car, flew over my handlebars on Ohio, so having a bike route that doesn’t have cars that could potentially do one of those three things would be probably much more encouraging for people to actually bike in general. I think people are picking up their bikes and biking right now because of the concern about public transportation, but also because there are less cars on the road. So this is exciting, very exciting to hear that that’s moving ahead at this stage, but also employing people so that is like a win win win for everybody.  Well, you know, one of the things that, I’m sure you have a lot of worries on your mind, but what is the biggest thing that keeps you up at night? Like if you were to wake up and have your mind sort of ticking away, what are you worried about?


Dr. Renee Fortier  16:52

So currently what’s keeping me up at night is concern about our staff’s safety. You know, we are still supporting the Medical Center during this first phase of COVID-19. We’re doing everything we can to supply them with masks and gloves and regular disinfecting and cleaning their vehicles and their workplaces, but exposure is always a worry. But looking forward, my concern is more that as a campus we continue to embrace healthy and sustainable transportation options and continue to stay out of driving alone and continue to reduce traffic and the resultant air pollution for the good of the community the planet us as individuals. So if there’s really been a silver lining with this deadly pandemic, it’s been a dramatic drop in traffic and the resultant wonderful clean blue skies in Los Angeles. So how can we make that crisis an opportunity and have the campus continue to embrace sustainable healthy commutes or even commute free days as the stay-at-home orders ease we return back to campus?


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:58

Yeah, I mean I could see the flip side of everybody being afraid of group travel and go more in their single occupancy car, which is counterproductive to all of the sustainability goals and health goals, really. That’s probably one of the single forms of poor commuting, I mean commuting that contributes to poor health right, single occupancy cars, social and physical well being?


Dr. Renee Fortier  18:26

Yeah that’s why it’s one of my worries. We’ve made such great progress over the years and it would be just too bad to have it backslide during this, so I’m hoping that we can use things like having people telecommute, but also encouraging more bicycling and walking as ways that would counter the fears that people might have of being on vanpools or buses.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  18:52

Well it’s really reassuring and comforting to know that you’re in charge of transportation during this time that is going to have to redefine the new normal, and really, I think take on some opportunities that can enhance our well-being coming out of this pandemic. And I’d love to know from your own personal point of view, what would you like to see as part of the resurgence for our campus and for our society? What would you like to see that might not have been there before COVID-19 in a big manner?


Dr. Renee Fortier  19:33

Well what I’d really like to see is people seeing how wonderful it is to have the clean air and the blue skies right now and not so much traffic on the streets and saying, hey this is a really great lifestyle change, we support more bike lanes, we support more walking and that would be a wonderful thing if people can say, let’s take this time to rethink how we interact and how we commute and put health and well-being ahead of the few minutes maybe that people might save, who are driving, and think about, I’m gonna do a healthier mode, I’m going to get on public transit, because it’s healthier, and I will be less stressed. Or I’m going to bicycle or walk because I am going to use this time to make myself healthier, and at the same time, it will make the whole community healthier. So that’s my hope. I’m hoping that people will realize that we can have a better and healthier way forward.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  20:44

So on your buses, you often have these great encouraging kinds of statements or advertisements that do promote health and well-being. What do you foresee for the next ad campaign? What will it be?


Dr. Renee Fortier  21:00

I think we’re going to be heavily pushing, walking and biking. These are great ways to get to and from campus, and we’ve had a lot of people successfully switching to both of those modes, and I’m hoping that that will continue. But that’s what we plan to really push for the Fall, along with continuing to embrace telecommuting. Right now we all have to, and maybe people are getting tired of telecommuting every single day of the week. But there are advantages to it, too, for doing it maybe two days a week or three days a week if you can, because it allows you to not have a commute to be productive, but to also maybe have more time to spend, with your family or taking breaks that are maybe not as easy to attain when you’re in the office. So this is something that I think will stay. And I think that, along with active transportation, are where we really see things more heading as we go back.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:01

Yeah, I agree.


Dr. Renee Fortier  22:03

If I look forward to the future, the subway construction is beginning. It’s beginning later this month. We we actually have mass transit on the move in Los Angeles, and that is going to be a real game changer for the city as well.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:18

Well, the telecommuting piece that you’re describing, Michael Pfeffer, from the UC Health System IT, he found that it actually retained more of his employees by instituting telecommuting and it saved on rent. And it also made people much happier in his division, and he was able to retain people more. So I think you’re right, and they are very personalized in how they determine who should telecommute and who shouldn’t. And for what days, there’s a contract written up for each person. So it can be very individualized. But it also can be a real game changer in terms of emotional well-being, social well-being, and also our planet’s well-being. So I think that between that and your active transport messaging, it will be really important moving forward for us to continue this conversation. The subway is definitely going to be another kind of interesting step forward. Hopefully, by the time it opens, there won’t be a COVID-19 pandemic, but I’m sure they’ll continue the kinds of practices that we’re doing now, because there’s probably going to be other threats in the future that will come our way. And we have to recognize that we are all a community, our world as a community, and we have to be respectful of each other, other communities, and also respectful of our planet. And this is a big, I think wake up call for all of us.


Dr. Renee Fortier  23:56

Yeah, Wendy, I really think that there’s going to be a lot of change that’s lasting out of this, and hopefully those changes or changes that are going to make us all work toward a healthier individual lifestyle, but also a healthier lifestyle for our communities and for our planet. So, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that out of what is a crisis and what is not so good, there will be good that comes out of it in terms of how we view our individual health and the health of our community, our planet as well.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  24:32

Yes. Well, I think that’s a great note to end on. I am with you on the hope and the hopefulness and together we are stronger so we’ll do it together. Thank you for all you do, Renee, and leading also the BEWell Pod and all the work you do for Semel Healthy Campus Initiative, but for the entire university. You’re a real trendsetter and leader in our community on so many levels, and you’ve also really been supportive and inspiring for other campuses in terms of your active transport campaigns, and also you’re reducing the number of parking spaces on campus that would potentially have held another single occupancy car parked. So all of that, we thank you for that.


Dr. Renee Fortier  25:24

Thank you, Wendy. And thank you for your leadership. It’s really been great to have transportation really married in a really good way with health through the BEWell Pod and Healthy Campus Initiative. So it’s really been a wonderful experience, and we hopefully will continue to do even greater things going forward.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  25:49

Yes, exactly. In our recovery and research enstasis, we’re going to do great things. Who knows what will be the next step? We don’t know. Thanks again. And have a great day.


Dr. Renee Fortier  26:02

You too. Thank you.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:06

Thank you for tuning into 6 feet apart, a special series of the LiveWell Podcast. Today’s episode was brought to you by UCLA Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center. To stay up to date on the rest of the episodes in this special series, and to get more information on maintaining your mental, social, and physical well being during COVID-19, please visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/LiveWellPodcast. Thank you, and stay remote.

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