Taking on New Challenges

Next week will mark the completion of my first 90-days as the Executive Director of Urban Movement Labs (UML). Having spent the last 21 (or slightly more) years working on both the private and public sides of transportation planning and engineering in Southern California and across the (mostly Western) United States (and a little rock concert in upstate New York in the summer of 1999), taking on a leadership role in a nonprofit organization represented a new challenge. This has been an exciting first three-months, and the complexity of running a nonprofit organization and delivering across three pillars of a distinct mission is both personally satisfying and provides a unique opportunity to make an impact.

It’s not a mad scientist’s laboratory; I mean, technically, we don’t even have office space yet. UML is a first-of-its-kind mobility-innovation organization that brings together public agencies, businesses, and community members to match technology solutions to mobility problems and test them in Los Angeles’ urban contexts. Launched in late 2019 and initially incubated by the City of Los Angeles Mayor’s Office, UML is now an independent nonprofit that aims to make Los Angeles a global model for safe, sustainable, and efficient movement of people and goods. We partner with both the City of Los Angeles and a variety of private transportation technology partners to ensure that new transportation technology solutions address real mobility challenges faced by Angelenos, in a way that doesn’t create more problems and even attempts to mitigate historic impacts and inequities.

The mission and work of UML spans three primary pillars:

  • The Ideas Accelerator: The Ideas Accelerator brings multi-stakeholder groups together to develop actionable solutions to the most critical transportation issues in L.A., starting the journey with a design workshop. This is where we match potential technological solutions to specific issues faced by people in Los Angeles.
  • The Urban Proving Grounds: Through a network of transportation technology innovation zones (TTIZs), mobility solutions can be tested and measured against their positive impacts on people’s everyday lives, from making streets safer and air cleaner to quicker commutes and equitable access. Our first TTIZ was established in the Warner Center community in the West San Fernando Valley in 2020, and this year we hope to designate one or two more TTIZs in other parts of LA.
  • Workforce Development: The Workforce Development Initiative is accelerating the transportation workforce of the future in industries already clustering in the LA region. Specifically, we at UML are focused on developing the skills and knowledge that will be required of future public agency staff, so that they can engage new technological solutions in an agile manner, in a way that supports continued advancements in transportation technology that support the safe, efficient, and equitable movement of people and goods in LA.

I’ve been most excited to dive into active projects the UML team began before my arrival. Some of the projects include:

  • Personal Delivery Device (PDD) pilot deployments: These small robots (think R2D2 on wheels) can deliver goods or other products without any personal contact. We are testing the effectiveness of these devices within the Warner Center TTIZ and other parts of LA. In one case, we helped one of our partner companies pivot their business model, as the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the potential market for deliveries. Instead, we helped revise the project scope to focus on using the PDDs to gather improved data on sidewalk conditions, creating a digitized version of the public right-of-way.
  • Curb Management: Something near and dear to my heart is the use of curb space. Maybe it’s the grumpy old man in me, maybe I’m channeling my time as Manager of Parking and Traffic in the City of Santa Monica, or maybe it’s because I find the curbs of a busy downtown area to be the epicenter of activity. We are working with two of our partners to both develop digital maps of the curbs and associated regulations, as well as use camera technology to monitor (and ultimately) manage curb utilization and access.
  • Electric Vehicles and Charging Infrastructure: There are a number of entities focused on expanding access to electric vehicles and associated charging infrastructure, including one of our founding partners, the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator. Rather than reinvent the wheel or duplicate other efforts, UML brought on a Fellow to first research the landscape of EVs and charging infrastructure, and then convene an ideas accelerator workshop to identify niche areas where future UML work could be focused. Following our workshop, we’ve identified some exciting areas related to “ad hoc” carshare (e.g., TNCs or Uber and Lyft) fleets, the need for expanded EV charging infrastructure within multi-unit dwellings, and financing for new EV infrastructure deployment. Our Fellow is currently wrapping up her work, and later this summer we will embark on further efforts in this area.
  • Urban Aerial Mobility (UAM): This is the area where I was most skeptical before joining UML. I mean, come on, flying cars or flying taxi service? From where I stood, we have enough problems with cars on the road, let alone having to deal with them flying around over the roads! Through my involvement in UML, I’ve come to understand that we are building on past efforts like the World Economic Forum’s “Principles of the Urban Sky” and have a dedicated Fellow working to develop policies as a part of the Urban Aerial Mobility Partnership. I’ll write more about this separately, as it presents an exciting opportunity for UML to prove its value to the City and the people of Los Angeles by getting ahead of a new technology to ensure that its arrival will help improve, and not degrade, mobility in and around LA.

Outside of projects, it has been exciting to connect with counterparts in similar organizations across the United States and Canada, to learn how other cities are approaching potential new technologies entering an already crowded mobility market. Getting to know each of the sponsoring partners has been equally, if not more, exciting. Every day I’m meeting and speaking with people who are passionate about their work, the companies and technologies they are working with, and how they can apply that passion to current and future mobility-related challenges.

It has also been a pleasure to continue working with partners on requests for funding and grant applications. This time, though, instead of being a public sector employee scrambling to find “unrestricted funds” to pay for interesting projects not included in approved budgets, and instead of being a paid consultant helping public agencies craft applications that will catch the attention of funding agencies and win grant funds, I’m at an organization that is poised to receive and manage funds to support our public sector partners and advance our mission. In these few short weeks since I started at UML, I’ve been lucky enough to participate in state and federal budgetary requests. What has been most enjoyable to me has been the opportunity to steer the conversations to define realistic project scopes that align with funding requests.

Probably my favorite part of starting in any new leadership position is the opportunity to meet each member of the organization and learn more about them. At UML, I started with our small staff of four people. I scheduled one-on-one meetings with each person, mostly via web conference, and asked them a number of questions. The main questions centered around “the big three” questions that were a core element of one of the classes in my MBA program. The big three questions are: 1) What do you like about your role at UML, 2) what don’t you like about your role, and 3) what would you do to fix what you don’t like? It’s amazing what you can learn about an organization and people by asking these three simple questions. I learned so much about each staff member, and made sure to ask follow-up questions to learn more about them, their interests, their professional aspirations, and what motivates them. After I met with all the staff, I next held similar meetings with the Board members. While I’ve known many of the Board members professionally since before joining UML, it was refreshing to get to know them a little better and specifically learn about their involvement in UML.

As a young organization, there’s a lot of work still to be done building the administrative and back-end systems of the organization. From managing our payroll, working with a legal and accounting team to develop robust fiscal reporting systems, and navigating the complexities of nonprofit governance and finance, there is a lot to sort out. For me, it’s been fun to apply some of the things I learned in business school, and I’ve been very impressed with the multitude of resources available to help nonprofit organizations plan and grow.

I’m lucky to be in this role at this time, and it will be my honor to help this organization grow and flourish. I’m not shy in saying that I hope we can grow UML to cover a geographic area larger than the City of Los Angeles, bigger than Southern California, bigger than the State of California, and maybe even nationwide. Someday. For now, I’m going to lead our small and capable team forward in a methodical way, to continue to deliver on active projects while expanding our portfolio of partners and initiatives. If there are technologies out there that can solve mobility problems, or mobility-related problems that are in need of a new solution, please let us know. Our singular mission is to create a Los Angeles where new transportation technologies are tested, proven, and brought to life.

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Sam Morrissey

Transport enthusiast — VP, Transportation at LA28 - Past VP of Urban Movement Labs — Past lecturer at @UCLA. These are my personal posts.