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'A very large undertaking': Heather Repenning on making L.A.'s public transport sustainable

Heather spoke to Gov Kandola for an episode of the Venari Podcast


Can you imagine zero-emission public transport in your area by 2030? For many people, this might sound unrealistic – but not if you’re one of the 10 million residents of Los Angeles County. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority – or Metro, for short – has pledged to make their vehicles zero-emission by the beginning of the next decade. This may seem like quite a task, not least in a city as beholden to the automobile as L.A. – but it’s one that Heather Repenning, Executive Officer for Metro, has positively embraced. Gov Kandola, who leads our Transport & Logistics practice, caught up with Heather for an episode the Venari Podcast’s Sustainability in Transport & Logistics series. Heather has been busy working on a number of initiatives helping to make L.A. a greener place – but what are these?


Funding voters’ desire for greener transport

Metro certainly has the personnel (11,000 employees) and budget ($9 billion, plus a further capital programme) to make a big difference – and it’s something that County residents actively want to see. 50% of carbon emissions in California come from the transportation sector, but, as Heather explains, there are already steps in place to make the state’s transport greener. In November 2016, locals ‘voted at over 70% to approve a measure that created a half-cent sales tax that goes to funding L.A. Metro,’ Heather explains. ‘And that sales tax does not have a sunset.’


This extra funding has gone towards ambitious projects such as shifting the city’s fleet of some 2,200 buses to zero-emission vehicles. Buses are currently fuelled with renewable natural gas, though Heather notes that they are in the process of transitioning towards battery electric vehicles – ‘a very large undertaking’ not without, in her own words, ‘growing pains’. Nonetheless, Heather is quick to point out just how exciting the initiative is – as is Metro’s ongoing rollout of 2,000 electric vehicle charging points, which they aim to have accessible in public-access park-and-ride lots by 2030. Furthermore, the organisation is ‘trying to triple our onsite renewable energy generation, also by 2030,’ as well as reducing its water consumption – a problem that has long been associated with the city. Metro’s green planning comes from the top down; in 2022, in a move that Heather describes as the ‘first of its kind’, their board passed a policy formally acknowledging ‘the relationship between public transit infrastructure and the urban canopy, which we feel is very important especially as we experience some of the extreme heat that’s part of climate change.’


Exciting work – if challenging

So, there’s ‘a lot going on’ at work for Heather – though these initiatives, while exciting, are not without their obstacles. ‘Because we serve such a large area, we’re experiencing challenges with some of the battery technology. I think we’re kind of guinea pigs,’ she notes wryly. Still, while the board’s ‘aggressive’ pursuit of the 2030 goal is aimed at driving the market to provide the necessary vehicles in time, Metro’s ground and operations staff still have to provide an excellent service – and are working tirelessly to keep this going over the million bus and rail journeys taken every day across its network.


Regulation central to Metro’s efforts

Heather also notes the importance of the organisation’s government relations team, which works closely with regulatory bodies in Washington, D.C. and Sacramento. ‘In the U.S., the last few years have been an incredible time for public infrastructure funding,’ she says, citing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act as examples. Metro have been keen to ensure that funding initiatives will benefit them – not only for the benefit of the local economy and jobs market, but ‘also in terms of climate change, and the environment.’


Talent opportunities

The sustainability sector has exploded in recent years, and it can be difficult to find talent with the necessary skills to fill in gaps in an ever-changing field. Heather recalls how there was a lot of talk about ‘”greening” things’, as well as attention around water and waste, when she first started in the industry; while this still forms a large part of traditional sustainability, particularly within organisations, attention on climate change and carbon emissions is a newer area with plenty of work for the right candidates. She mentions a conversation she had with John Kerry, in which they compared the scale of transition needed to how global economies radically shifted during the Industrial Revolution; in other words, a ‘massive’ undertaking, but one that can provide plenty of economic and professional opportunities. Heather wants schools and universities to rise to the challenge – not least for what concerns another new field, climate resilience. ‘That isn’t so much about climate action as about adaptation, and recognising that some of the impacts of climate change are already happening [...] That is a field that I think is very nascent. It’s going to need a lot of really good people’.


Looking to the Olympics

In the near future, L.A. Metro will be focusing on the 2028 Olympics alongside their existing projects. The city’s hosting was pitched as a ‘no-build’ initiative, as Heather explains. With so much existing infrastructure and stadia already in place, ‘we have the opportunity to focus on how we improve the experience of people travelling to and from venues and making sure that residents here in L.A. can get around’. The city is famously dependent on cars, but Heather believes that the Olympic Games will be a catalyst for transitioning away from automobiles. ‘It’s going to be a really exciting few years in the mobility space in L.A.’


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