Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | June 16, 2016
A paradigm shift.
That’s what Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said is needed when thinking about Houston’s mobility needs. In a city known for its car culture and highways, his speech shortly after his election was part of a countrywide trend toward a new set of transportation priorities.
In April, Turner’s transition team released a report indicating it’s considering establishing a new transportation executive position within the city, reporting directly to the mayor and charged with coordinating transportation and mobility issues across departments. As it stands, the city has a planning department as well as a public works and engineering department, but no true “transportation” department.
The city hasn’t created that role yet. But if it does, it would join a growing number of jurisdictions across the country that are creating new positions for transportation personnel, many of whom are tasked with fostering new ways of thinking about moving people, rather than focusing primarily on roadways for automobiles.
In 2015, Atlanta got its first chief bike officer, for example. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency created a new office of innovation last year, headed by a chief innovation officer, and L.A. Metro did the same thing. Oregon has a chief electric vehicle officer, and Boston recently appointed an active transportation director as well as a chief of streets.
The positions vary in focus, level of seniority and funding — Colorado’s bike czar is a voluntary position with an annual salary of $1 — but whether in practice or symbolically, they represent a new approach to mobility starting to enter the collective consciousness of state and local governments.
Some have questioned what all these new roles really mean. “Title inflation has been running rampant in the private sector for years. In many cases, naming more people as chiefs and vice presidents has been a way of handing out prizes and in-house acclaim,” wrote Governing‘s Alan Greenblatt of the trend.
But often, new personnel are seen as critical to working across engineering, planning and transportation departments, and involving health and public safety officials, for promoting concepts such as complete streets.
“There’s a real benefit to having those positions and that philosophical approach to transportation planning,” said Gina Fiandaca, commissioner of the Boston transportation department, of the city’s new active transportation director, a role created in July 2015. Fiandaca said the job opened up when the person tasked with overseeing Boston’s bike initiatives left the city government. “We saw an opportunity to redefine the role in terms of active transportation.” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh appointed Stefanie Seskin, formerly of the National Complete Streets Coalition in Washington, D.C., to the position.
As part of the transportation department, she’s taken on a variety of initiatives already in the works, including the city’s Vision Zero, Complete Streets and bike-sharing programs, among initiatives.
“We’ve found that people really have a hunger for active transportation, and it’s sometimes the case where it sort of builds off itself,” Fiandaca said.
Boston also appointed a chief of streets — tasked with creating “a more sustainable, equitable and efficient transportation network” — shortly after Seskin was named active transportation director.
Even something as simple as adding green space to a neighborhood in East Boston has helped shift the city’s thinking. “Things like that are just transformational to the community,” Fiandaca said. “All of the sudden people realize they can move around their own neighborhoods in a different way. It’s not just the city core.”
The addition of the role may be contributing to a culture change in city government. The police department hired its own data analyst to participate in Vision Zero. And departments — particularly the engineering and transportation departments — have begun working together more. “They work hand in hand,” Fiandaca said. “(Seskin) is included in a lot of the meetings.”
But other governments have taken different approaches. Atlanta’s chief bike officer, for example, is grant-funded for five years, though the mayor committed to funding the position beyond then. And Colorado’s bike czar is a volunteer position, essentially around only as long as the current czar wants.
“It’s not like a czar with a ton of authority,” said Ken Gart, of the former sporting goods retail family, who Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper named bike czar in September 2015. Prior to his appointment, Gart served on the board of Denver’s bike sharing program, Denver B-Cycle. “I really enjoyed that because I was able to use my business skills and work with this new entity,” he said. Gart said his work as czar is similar, “kind of the same thing in terms of working across agencies and trying to be really efficient.”
As a volunteer, he said his main contribution is building relationships. “In some ways, I don’t have any real authority,” he said. “It’s more about good will and garnering enthusiasm.” But his somewhat unofficial role also has advantages. “Trying to create positions and get budgets and go through all the bureaucracy of the legislation can be really cumbersome,” he said. As it stands, Gart can work largely his own way — with the blessing of the governor. Together, they’re pushing an initiative to improve hike and bike trail connectivity around the state with $100 million in funding, largely from the federal government.
Gart is also part of the state’s health and wellness efforts and works with the nonprofit Bicycle Colorado, which recently added new positions as part of a partnership with the Colorado Department of Transportation. So while Gart is involved for an undetermined amount of time – likely until the governor leaves office – he’s helped build lasting infrastructure and political relationships. “We’ve had a lot of success with CDOT,” he said of efforts to get the department to think more about pedestrian and bike safety. “I think that might be one of the biggest, lasting impacts.”