Transportation Policy — Part I

Why Elected Officials Make Policy

Nathan S. Holmes
5 min readFeb 24, 2020


LA City Hall

I’ve written at some length here about the main governmental organizations that oversee transportation in Los Angeles and California.

But in truth, none of the departments or agencies described in these articles (Metro, LADOT, Caltrans) are completely “in charge” of either the street or transportation.

These departments do manage things happening on the street. They are full of people who know a lot about transportation and are heavily involved in the decision-making process for projects and policies. They make recommendations and they may even execute decisions within the context of an approved program or policy.

But all of these organizations might be better described as transportation “implementers.” They are the people who put transportation policy and projects into effect.

They do the work, but they do not decide what gets done. They do not make the big transportation decisions. They are not the primary transportation policy-makers.

This article is the first of a 3-part series about who decides what gets done — the official transportation decision-makers and policy-makers — and how they do it.

Or as they are also known: elected officials.

(See part #2 here, and part #3 here, and you can also later read this article and for more on how elected officials relate to their communities.)

Y Diaz

Though we hear the word a lot, it helps to define what policy means:

Policy (def): a course of action adopted by a government

Basically, a policy is a decision by the government to direct attention and resources to do something.

In a representative democracy, the people we elect are the ones who become the primary decision-makers on how we direct our attention and resources.

Elected officials are expressly vested with the legal power to say: “Hey transportation departments- we would like you to devote your time and energy to crafting this project/program/policy that we think will help us get around better.”

Which elected officials make transportation policy? It depends on the level of government.

  • In the city of LA and other cities in LA County, the elected officials who make transportation decisions are the Mayor and the City’s 15 councilmembers.
  • At the regional LA level, the decision-makers are the different elected officials that make up the “Governing Board” of each organization: for instance, Metro has its 13-member board, Metrolink has an 11-member board, and SCAG has a large 86-member board.
  • At the state level, transportation decisions for departments like Caltrans, the Air Resources Board, and High Speed Rail are made by the Governor plus the 40 State Senators and 80 State Assemblymembers that make up the two houses of the State Legislature.

It’s worth tackling an obvious question up front here: why don’t elected officials defer the big decisions to the transportation specialists in the implementing departments? After all, most elected officials do not have experience or expertise in transportation. Why don’t they go to LADOT, Metro, Caltrans, and all the others and say: “You’ve spent more time studying this stuff — tell us what to do!”

The abbreviated response is that elected officials actually do ask transportation experts for advice about what to do. And they do factor this advice into their decisions.

Y Diaz

But transportation policy is not a scientific concept or a math equation with a “correct” result or interpretation. Rather, transportation policy is a realm of activity in which ordinary people express their values about how they want to use the street and move around the city. And values are messy- we have a multitude of ideas about what we value in getting around the city, many of which clash with each other.

We want free-flowing traffic, high-quality public transit options, plentiful free parking, cheap gas, clean air, safe walking and biking options, and lowered greenhouse gas emissions. See any contradictions in there?

Or maybe you want safer walking and biking options, but your neighbor is more concerned about the perceived increase in traffic delay such changes might incur.

Elected officials are the people we ask to reconcile these competing values into some kind of path forward.

There is no amount of transportation expertise that can say: “Here is the exact blend of policies and projects that gets us the best transportation system possible for LA.” Any such policy proposal inevitably has specific values embedded in it, and values are never objective or neutral.

Transportation experts can only say things like : “If you want to achieve THIS goal, then here are policies and projects most likely to achieve the goal” or “Enacting THAT policy is likely to result in the following consequences…”

At the end of the day, elected officials listen to their constituents about what they value, receive input from various interest groups and stakeholders, and then work with transplantation departments to express a mash-up of these values via our transportation system.

If you think the result of this process is often flawed, I wouldn’t disagree. But the process is what it is- and to have an influence on achieving better results you need to understand how it works.

For the purposes of providing a very general overview of transportation policy, I will split the topic into two categories: direct policy-making and indirect policy-making. Taken together these articles attempt to show how elected officials exert their considerable influence on transportation.

You can read about direct policy-making through the legislative process here.

You can read about indirect policy-making through appointments, budgeting, and oversight here.

See an overview of the other things I’ve written, transportation-related and otherwise, at the link here.