When Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti took office he pledged to be the city's first "high tech mayor," but did President Joe Biden's pick for the next ambassador to India make good on that?
Biden officially named Garcetti as his pick to the ambassadorship last week, after months of speculation. If confirmed by the Senate, the mayor who oversaw an ever worsening homeless crisis and lured the Olympics back to Los Angeles will cut short his term ending in December 2022.
Paul Bricault, who co-founded and is the managing director of venture capital firm Amplify.LA, said Garcetti was the city's most engaged mayor on tech in at least the last 25 years.
"He used his bully pulpit frequently to promote L.A. as a tech hub and he made himself widely available to drive interest in L.A. tech," Bricault, who sits on Garcetti's tech innovation council, said.
But did this engagement produce results or was Los Angeles ripe for an explosion of the tech sector on its own?
Bricault said it's almost impossible to measure, but he said the mayor's proselytization of tech helped.
Elected in 2013, Garcetti took the helm before creator houses emerged in the Hollywood Hills and the Uber-fueled gig economy roiled the state. Once confined to "Silicon Beach," the tech industry has erupted throughout the region during his tenure.
Silicon Valley behemoths like Google, Apple, Facebook and Netflix have opened offices in L.A. in addition to homegrown giants like SpaceX and Snap Inc.
Garcetti called it a "once-in-a-lifetime moment" for this global tech capital. In some ways, it is true the forces that have shaped Los Angeles over his tenure have also reshaped the world.
And he hasn't been shy injecting himself in the industry and pushing for public-private partnerships such as Urban Movement Lab, a transportation accelerator that's encouraged the development of delivery robots. Amid a furor in Hollywood over the lack of diversity, last year he created "L.A. Collab" with Eva Longoria to push for more Latinos in the industry.
But part of the journey has been a lot like those electric scooters that dot street corners from Venice to Eagle Rock — loved by many, but questioned by others who've seen Garcetti's grand vision sometimes careen out of control.
At times, Garcetti has faced backlash from residents who are not ready for some of the innovations he embraced and the City Council has been forced to respond to disgruntled constituents by enacting regulations to tamp down those technologies.
And civic problems that have plagued Garcetti's tenure like the homelessness and housing affordability crises have interfered with the tech industry from thriving, observers say.
"The only failure I would say that the political leadership has made in L.A. is really making a truly affordable city to make sure you have talent that want to move here and to really flourish," said Taj Eldridge, who used to lead investment at the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator and now has launched his own venture capital fund. "We should have learned from what's happening in San Francisco with a lot of displacement of not only just employees, but the support staff for employees."
Top talent graduating from UCLA and USC may rethink their plans to stay and work by the beach in sunny Los Angeles because the visibility of homelessness has grown beyond Skid Row in recent years, Eldridge said. And many of those tech companies and VC funds are attracted to L.A. because of the elite universities in the region, not necessarily because of what the mayor has done, he said.
Garcetti championed private efforts like L.A. Tech Talent Pipeline, which brings together the public and private sectors to expand training and job opportunities for future tech workers as well as PledgeLA, an effort to encourage diversity in the tech industry.
Open Data, Scooters and the Shared Economy
Less than one year after Garcetti took office, he installed the city's first chief innovation technology officer to implement "new tools and technologies" within City Hall and also to work with the city's tech leaders to "deploy innovative technology and promote local job creation."
A self-described, "amateur coder," Garcetti said he would publish data like city employee payroll records to make the bureaucracy of City Hall more transparent. But his chief data officer Abhi Nemani left a year after the city launched its open data portal in 2014. Garcetti's office bragged that it included more than 100 data sets, and although the cache of data has grown, some of it is outdated or incomplete.
Worse, said Dana Chinn, a lecturer at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the data sets weren't helpful.
"It was like the data sets that were chosen to be on the portal were the most user friendly as opposed to the ones that were really the ones that we needed to attack social issues," said Chinn, who researched open data in Los Angeles County. "Nobody was paying attention for the quality of data, as to whether or not we were getting the data sets that we really needed."
And she said Los Angeles has struggled to engage the tech community in ways that New York was able to.
Garcetti faced similar problems when he embraced electric scooters. Critics decried the city for shortsightedness.
At first the zippy scooters were hailed, but soon they flooded city streets largely concentrated on the Westside. Residents complained users of the wheeled vehicles were speeding, collided with pedestrians or were parked in front of doorways or in the middle of sidewalks.
It took months to come up with regulations as residents' frustration grew.
Garcetti said "people have loved" the scooters, but acknowledged safety concerns.
Garcetti faced an even more critical hurdle in the sharing economy.
Before short-term rentals were legalized, the Garcetti administration negotiated a deal so that homeowners who rented out their residences on platforms like Airbnb would pay a 14% tourist tax to the city. It was estimated in 2017 the rentals would generate $37 million annually.
But outrage ensued in many residential neighborhoods as short-term rentals proliferated.
And after three years of debate, city councilmembers heeded those constituents' calls and approved regulations that limited hosts to renting out their homes to 120 days a year. Amid pressure, Garcetti ultimately supported the new rules, even though Airbnb said the city would lose out on millions of dollars.
Garcetti's bullishness on tech sometimes conflicted with the conciliatory tone that the mayor often took.
"Sometimes he was willing to say, 'Okay be upset with me,' like Airbnb, and sometimes there were moments where it looked like he didn't want to make the tough calls," said Loyola Law School Professor Jessica Levinson.
The Airbnb battle was an example of how L.A.'s weak mayor system stymied Garcetti's power and forced him to rely on the bully pulpit, she said. He lured in businesses with promises, but ultimately it was the City Council that set rules and regulations that could undermine those relationships.
Judith Goldman, co-founder of Keep Neighborhoods First, which is part of a broader coalition working to track enforcement of the city's home sharing ordinance, accused Garcetti of working behind the scenes to entice Airbnbs and others into L.A. to generate tourism dollars.
"I think he encouraged it and I think he was hypocritical because he knew that we were trying to regulate it and he was obstructive in the regulation and he has been obstructive in the enforcement," she said.
Garcetti, who co-founded the Climate Mayors, has promoted himself as an environmental steward. Shortly after taking office he appointed Matt Petersen to a new post as chief sustainability officer.
And in 2019, he introduced a "Green New Deal'" that would make the city's power supply 100% renewable by 2050. But it was met with criticism by activists who said it didn't go far enough.
A year later, he updated the plan to accelerate the city's goals.
With L.A.'s legendary traffic and pollution generated by gas-powered vehicles, Garcetti has sought ways to reduce emissions.
The city made history last year when it purchased 155 electric buses last year, making it the largest-ever single order for electric buses in the U.S. and Garcetti pledged to make L.A.'s bus fleet entirely emissions-free in time for the 2028 Olympic Games.
"Mayor Garcetti really prioritized inviting the world to deploy their innovations to Los Angeles and I think he lived up to that," said Petersen, who now leads LACI.
Last year Garcetti announced the formation of a new Transportation Technology Innovation Zone, under the auspices of Urban Movement Lab, at the Warner Center in the West San Fernando Valley. Described as a testing ground for new mobility technology, it is helping develop robots and drones that will deliver food and other goods across the region.
But already, there are questions about the technology taking jobs from people and what it will mean for robots to flood communities.
Still Valley Industry Commerce Association President Stuart Waldman gives Garcetti credit for carving out tech as an issue.
"I can think of a lot of failures but not in the context of the tech industry," he said. "When the bar is so low because of the previous administrations, just doing anything would be considered movement and he had quite a few successes."
Rachel Uranga and Francesca Billington contributed to this story.
This story has been updated to correctTaj Eldridge's former role at LACI.
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Los Angeles has more electric vehicle chargers than any other American city.
There are over 10,000 chargers across the city thanks to the city's own aggressive "Green New Deal" and the resulting partnerships with local EV companies. The move has attracted several companies to the region.
And the effort got supercharged Wednesday when President Joseph Biden laid out his own $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan focused on clean energy that could bring billions of dollars into the electric car economy.
"We're going to provide tax incentives and point-of-sale rebates to help all American families afford clean vehicles of the future," Biden said in unveiling his plan. "Imagine knowing that you are handing your children and grandchildren a country that will lead the world in producing clean energy technology."
Later on Wednesday, Mayor Eric Garcetti spoke in support of Biden's plan, which allocates $174 billion in spending toward electric vehicles and infrastructure.
"This legislation is about winning the future, it's about a just transition for folks working in fossil fuel industries, and electrical vehicle infrastructure that will reduce air pollution here in L.A., and it has justice and racial equity as the centerpiece of all of it," Garcetti said. "L.A.'s fingerprints are all over this legislation, because we've been a model for so much of this work."
For Los Angeles's EV goals, the next challenge will be to actually get Angelenos to buy the electric cars for all those stations.
Mayor Eric Garcetti's office estimates there are 62,851 electric cars being driven around the city. That's less than 1% of the total of cars registered in the county last year, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
If Garcetti's is to reach his goal of having a city where 25% of the cars are zero emissions by 2025, tens of thousands of Angelenos will need to buy an electric vehicle over the next few years.
"You can't expect someone who is a low-income resident of Los Angeles to be an early adopter, because cost is still an issue," said Seth Jacobson, the managing director of Climate Resolve, a nonprofit that advocates for policy to combat climate change. "So we really need to not be overly focused on EV single-passenger vehicles as a silver bullet."
Jacobson argues the city's goals don't account for the vast majority of Angelenos who may not be in a position to buy a new car. Eighteen percent of Angelenos live below the poverty line, according to the United States Census, and on average, most new electric cars cost $19,000 more than a gasoline-powered vehicle, estimates the National Resource Defense Council.
Jacobson advocates for subsidies for pre-owned vehicles, but he admits even that has its problems, since older electric cars often need new, expensive batteries.
EVgo now has 160 operational stations and 290 chargers across Los Angeles County.
LA's EV Infrastructure Development
Encouraged by the city's bullish stance on electric vehicles, a rush of companies have planted their flag in L.A.; the county is already home to several EV manufacturers, like Canoo, Faraday Future and XOS trucks.
EVgo is one company that saw a big opportunity in public partnership with L.A. The company moved to the city in 2017 and now has 160 operational stations and 290 chargers across Los Angeles County, with several more still in construction. It recently announced a partnership with Uber to launch Uber Green in L.A., providing discounted charging to Uber drivers with electric vehicles.
"As an L.A. company, we see the impacts of EV adoption first hand, with Teslas, Nissan LEAFs, Kia Niros, Chevy Bolts, and more and more models on the roads every day," said Jonathan Levy, EVgo's chief commercial officer. "EVs are no longer a rare sighting in and around L.A., and we've been building out the charging infrastructure to support them."
Greenlots is another EV charging company based in Los Angeles. It was acquired by Shell in 2019, and announced this month a plan to roll out half a million charging stations over the next four years. Like EVgo, one of the company's partners is the city itself.
"Given the size of the market in California and automakers' aversion to manufacturing different vehicles for different U.S. markets, California will lead the whole U.S. market towards electrification," said Tom Ashley, Greenlots' vice president of policy and market development.
Despite upcoming challenges, California remains the largest market for EVs. The state is home to 45% of EVs in the U.S., according to a report by the California Energy Commission
Future EV Goals and Challenges
Los Angeles is now aiming to create another 15,000 charging stations by 2025, according to Julia Thayne from the Mayor's Office of Mobility and Innovation.
Many of the stations are subsidized by the city's Department of Water and Power. The bulk of them — about 8,500 — are located at offices or multi-unit apartment buildings. The city hopes that this encourages residents who don't have access to a charger at home to consider electric vehicles.
"We do need to make sure that that affordability is addressed, and there are programs to make power more affordable for utility customers, and there should be programs in place to make sure that the EVs are more affordable for low income customers as well," said Jacobson.
But, it's hard to say whether the distribution of the public chargers across the city is equitable. Most appear to be located around downtown, but there hasn't yet been quantitative research released as to whether the chargers are serving communities that need and use them.
Despite the challenges ahead, Los Angeles is ahead of the game in comparison to other American cities, to utilize the funds Biden is promising and continue developing electric vehicles and infrastructure.
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Dodger Stadium will become a vaccination site by the end of the week, as Los Angeles officials close the nation's largest testing operations Monday.
City and county officials hope as many as 12,000 people will be vaccinated each day at the site as the effort to vaccinate Americans ramps up.
So far, vaccinations across the state have been distributed in phases to individuals in the top tier, which include health workers and those in nursing homes. Los Angeles officials have not clarified when residents in lower tiers will become eligible. But in New York, this week the governor began giving frontline workers including teachers, mass transit workers and older residents access to the vaccine.
A spokesperson for Curative, Pasqualle Gianni said Monday morning the company had been contracted to administer the testing at Dodger Stadium, but later that afternoon said "Curative does not yet know our role."
The company came under scrutiny in the last week after the FDA released a warning that their COVID tests could carry false negatives. The one-year-old startup run by Fred Turner had a previous contract with the city and state to distribute and administer the Moderna vaccines at skilled nursing centers in Los Angeles County.
"Vaccines are the surest route to defeating this virus and charting a course to recovery, so the City, County, and our entire team are putting our best resources on the field to get Angelenos vaccinated as quickly, safely, and efficiently as possible," Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement on Sunday.
The shift in resources in L.A. will lead to a drop in testing capacity, but will triple the number of vaccines available to residents, officials said in Sunday's announcement. The plan also halts COVID-19 testing at the Veterans Affairs Parking Lot 15 near Jackie Robinson Stadium.
Over one million L.A. residents have been tested at Dodger Stadium since it began operations in May of last year. The change will not impact existing testing appointments made for this week.
Free tests will still be offered at eight permanent locations and six mobile sites across L.A. and the city said it's opening additional mobile teams and a site at Pierce College in Woodland Hills.
This story has been updated and corrected to reflect comments from a Curative spokesman regarding their role in administering vaccinations for the city.
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