Sam Zimbabwe: The SNG Interview

SamZimbabwePortraitSam Zimbabwe, Seattle’s new Director of Transportation, appointed by Mayor Jenny Durkan in February of this year, is a familiar figure in local news by now. In early Seattle coverage, he was praised by former Washington, DC colleagues as a consensus-builder, and as someone who knows what it takes to make ambitious change. In the short months since his arrival, he’s been faced with the first waves of the multi-year Seattle Squeeze and the death-by-driver of a bicyclist on Rainier Ave. He announced the City’s cancellation of a 35th Ave N bike lane, and he oversaw the release of a disappointing Bicycle Implementation Plan. Just weeks after his arrival, on March 12, David Goldberg, board president of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, sat down with Sam for an interview to help our community learn more about the new SDOT director, his safe streets philosophy, and where he wants to take Seattle’s streets and transportation. The transcript of that interview has been edited for length and clarity (with occasional bold text for emphasis, by the editors). Sam comes to Seattle from Washington, D.C., where he most recently served as the transportation department’s Chief Project Delivery Officer, working to streamline planning and construction of capital projects. During his seven years at DDOT, Sam oversaw the implementation of app-based bike and scooter rentals as well as implementation of Vision Zero and efforts to speed transit and add bike capacity. Before that, he directed the Center for Transit-Oriented Development, a national nonprofit partnership to promote the equitable development of neighborhoods around transit.   What drew you to make this move to Seattle? First, I have long looked to SDOT and Seattle as a place to find a lot of innovative things around transportation. At DDOT we would communicate with SDOT as a similar-sized city with similar issues. We were both working on free-floating car-share programs around the same time, for example. Seattle has made more progress on transit investment than we were able to in DC. The idea of being in a place that was in the forefront of that was exciting to me.  

At one point, this region had the highest per-capita car ownership in the country, and a level of opposition to transit investment. The change has been dramatic in a generation’s time, and it came about because of advocacy.

  What are your big three aspirations for your time here?

1. SDOT has done a lot of hard work over the last year to identify where there are organizational challenges, particularly in how we deliver on commitments. So much of our work has a strong accountability focus because it is funded through taxpayer-passed measures. In DC., there were very few special purpose funds that only went to transportation. The Levy to Move Seattle was a huge jump in how we fund projects on our streets. The Transit Benefit District was a huge jump in how we deliver transit. So, my first goal is to deliver on those commitments.

2. Vision Zero is a real imperative. Making sure we are doing the full circle of things we can do to improve safety – engineering, education, and enforcement. Seattle has made a lot of strides there, but the last margin is really, really difficult.

3. This region is catching up really quickly in terms of transit investment. You see that in the 25 percent drive-alone modal share to downtown. It will be interesting to see how we can fill the gaps in the transit system and how we continue building on that success. There is a need for SDOT and regional transit providers to be in lock step to make those things happen together.

Those are three big ones, all in the context of having potholes to fill and lines to stripe and all the things SDOT does on a day-to-day basis. And snow to clear, sometimes. Are there projects or initiatives that you are excited about right off the bat? There are big multimodal corridor investments that are exciting but will be a real challenge to get done. AT DDOT, we had modal plans that didn’t really overlay with each other. When I got there, there was a bike plan, there was a pedestrian plan, a sort of unwritten plan for cars in terms of the functional classification system. Seattle is much clearer about where the investments will go, but our communication about how the plans will be implemented is not very good. So, when we get into the project-level stuff we often run into stakeholder – and agency – confusion, and we don’t have a great way to resolve differences in a way that makes people feel like we are accomplishing the goals of all the plans. Do you have a philosophy or guiding principles as to how the public right of way should be allocated, and for prioritizing modes? The goal of the transportation network overall is to provide reliable, safe connections by multiple options. To do that you need to have connected networks. I don’t think that means that every street has to do everything for everybody. I don’t think that’s feasible. Building a connected network is important. Then figuring out how investment in individual streets should flow from that. SamZimbabweCathyTuttleMarkOstroVolunteerPartyAt some point in every trip, just about everybody is a pedestrian. So, a lot of building a citywide livable transportation system is figuring out the network for how people walk and how that is connected and safe. Making reliable options for all people is hard because people make decisions about what works best for them in very different ways. Really achieving an all-ages-and-abilities network for all modes, whether transit, walking, biking, driving, is a challenge, and even more so to make it feel inclusive. For example, with biking, research has been replicated in many places about who will bike regardless, who will never bike regardless, and the large segment of those in between that are willing or would like to bike if conditions feel safe.  

We have big, overriding imperatives like climate change, like safety, that require big shifts over time but we can’t do it if we don’t address the factors that make people resistant.

  You can do the same sort of thing for who rides transit – how far they walk, the time they are commuting, how frequent the bus is, the whole series of factors that people weigh in deciding how to get around. A lot of things in transportation are very perception-based. It’s hard to change habits, or to make people feel that they can change how they get around. … Like, “I don’t feel safe walking home from the bus stop when I get home at 10 at night.” To say everybody should ride the bus if we can’t address those personal feelings. It’s hard to make overall system change, without people feeling like something is being done to them. It’s hard to have a system-level discussion when you’ve got to figure out how to reallocate space or not in this particular place, right now. We have big, overriding imperatives like climate change, like safety, that require big shifts over time but we can’t do it if we don’t address the factors that make people resistant. What about that climate imperative? What does that say about how we shape our transportation system? We can’t keep driving at the level we are. Transportation in Seattle is the major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change drives us, literally, to reduce the carbon footprint of transportation, and I don’t think electrifying the vehicle fleet will get us there. So, I think we have to figure out how to move more people more efficiently. Electric cars are an aspect, perhaps, but we don’t have the time to change out the fleet, for one thing. Our family car is a 2007 Ford Focus, it’s at 70,000 miles and going fine, there’s no reason to replace it so why would we? Waiting out the vehicle lifecycle for the entire vehicle fleet is not a luxury we have when addressing climate change.  

I don’t think electrifying the vehicle fleet will get us there.

  But apart from climate, there are many reasons for change. Driving has a land-use impact, there is a safety impact, the exposure that increases the likelihood there will be crashes. The time we spend driving as traffic grows when we could be doing something else. All sorts of things. Could people hear that and accuse you of being anti-car? Today 25% of commuters are driving to the central city to access 250,000 jobs. If you ask them why, many have pretty strong reasons why they drive alone – they live far away, they have family members to pick up or take care of, any number of reasons. The number that say, “I want to drive to the central city because it’s a great experience,” is pretty small at this point. So how we think about what’s impeding people from using other ways to get around is a real issue. Should we just get over the notion that on-street parking is the highest and best use of limited right of way in busy corridors? That’s hard to answer in the abstract. There’s a role for parking. It’s not higher and better than every other use, but sometimes, for example, it’s important as a buffer between pedestrian space and moving traffic. A sub-par pedestrian realm next to moving traffic is not a comfortable place to walk. What is your approach to gaining buy-in for projects and programs? How do you handle opposition to planned projects? One of the things that I found in my time in D.C. is almost every transportation investment has some level of impact to somebody. Discussing and disclosing those impacts in a public way of like, “Here’s the challenge we’re trying to address,” builds more trust in what we’re doing and how. I won’t profess to have solved the problem, but we do build credibility when we come out and say, “Hey, we’re not promising it will all be perfect — there are some real impacts and trade-offs here and we need to work through these.” We will mitigate them as best we can, but there might be times in evaluating those trade-offs that we have to make some hard choices, and do it more slowly than some would like it to be. Most opposition to transportation projects comes from some form of legitimacy; I don’t think that people spend time and energy opposing things just because they want to. It’s a personal, visceral thing that people have very ingrained ways of doing and thinking about things and they come from legitimate places. So, opposition to changes to individual streets need to be listened to and understood to then be responded to. I do think that engagement can lead to better outcomes. How do we make Seattle neighborhoods more walkable? To make streets feel safer and more comfortable, with construction happening all over, “beg buttons” popping up, obstructions for people with disabilities, speed continuing to be a major issue? On one level, I think, Seattle has made some really good progress on what causes crashes, where they are, and what counter-measures we can take. We know the conditions that tend to lead to crashes with pedestrians. There are places where we think we have done all the right things professionally, but we still get crashes because of other factors that are hard to figure out. Figuring out what is making people feel unsafe, and knowing what we can do from a design perspective, have to get married up. How we operate from a signals perspective is an open conversation within SDOT and we’re having that discussion. I don’t know if I’ve had enough time to hear from people, but again the age of the system is one thing that is limiting our ability to make some of the changes that we’ve heard people ask for. An interesting aspect of “beg buttons”, in some places we are putting in signals that are not actuated for some or all of the day, but ADA requirements tell us to put in audible pedestrian signals which require a push-button. Sometimes the perception is that it’s pedestrian actuation. There are certainly places where we have pedestrian actuation where I understand people’s frustration. And certain types of signals that are pedestrian-focused will only be actuated by pedestrians. We seem to have plateaued on our goal for zero fatalities and serious injuries by 2030. Why do you think that is? 71% of pedestrian collisions in 2017 occurred in a crosswalk, six in ten marked. What gives? We have an issue – not just in Seattle – that drivers do not understand crosswalks, and what they mean. The threat to pedestrians crossing at uncontrolled intersections on multi-lane streets is probably the biggest threat out there. Having more ped crossing points that are controlled, that are convenient, that work in an overall system is a real challenge. It’s easier downtown when blocks are shorter, crossings are frequent. How that works outside of downtown is much more challenging to figure out. SDOT has been systematically addressing those locations that are challenging. What should SDOT do – and how long should it take – to address roads like Rainier Ave and Lake City Way, where low-income people and people of color are disproportionately hurt and killed? I’m new here, so I hope I get a small grace period. The recent bicycle fatality on Rainier – SDOT had made crossing improvements at one intersection upstream and one downstream of that crash. That crossing we had not made improvements at. That was a hit-and-run, multiple-threat crash – I don’t know the conditions. But Vision Zero compels us to act methodically to address these corridors and investigate what can be done about each crash.  

Advocacy helps hold those needs up so they can be addressed.

  How else can advocates help you make Seattle a beacon of hope for people-centered and climate-friendly streets? Part of what drew me here is the progress that the city has been able to make. At one point, this region had the highest per-capita car ownership in the country, and a level of opposition to transit investment. The change has been dramatic in a generation’s time, and it came about because of advocacy. It’s critically important. SamZimbabweClaraCantorVolunteerParty2 Advocates also help with a certain amount of storytelling: It’s very hard in transportation to have the voices spoken for who are not yet doing X or Y – bicycling, taking transit for example. Advocacy helps hold those needs up so they can be addressed. The grassroots voice is a good way for a public agency to engage in a place. If it’s all data- and numbers-based, it doesn’t resonate with people who could be impacted and you might miss how people feel about things. How aggressively should we act to give buses a time advantage, and what should we do? It is very important. This region has been a leader in the country in expanding transit and expanding space for transit. SDOT just installed bus lanes on 5th and 6th Avenues in preparation for the tunnel change, and yes, there was a lot of groundwork that was done, but we just reallocated a lot of space for transit – and people are generally supportive. 3rd Ave went to all-day transit, with very little disruption, if any. We will keep going. We have the seven Transit+ Multimodal corridors and we will work on implementing them. In four years, we’ll have light rail to the east side, and up north. There will be massive shifts in how people get around this region. What are your thoughts about congestion pricing? There are a lot of ways to think about what it actually means and how it addresses underlying issues we want to address. It’s hard to say you have to pay for access to drive downtown before we make it easier to get there. We have to think about values and what role pricing plays in upholding those values. In Seattle we have done pricing of curbside uses. We have a tax on transactional parking that is going up to help fund the waterfront. I don’t know that we need to figure out a cordon charge to figure out how to address the impact of congestion downtown. And we have to figure what we mean by addressing congestion – bus speed and reliability, car speed, re-allocating space. Congestion might not be the best metric if we want to reallocate space for public use, because if we promise a time-savings for drivers we might not be able to take the space. We need a very frank and open discussion about what we want out of pricing, if we do it. I wanted to get your quick take on a few other issues:

Bike share, e-scooters and other “micro-mobility” options? It was not even two years ago that dockless bike share became a thing and in that time the landscape of who is in, what it is, and how they are managed, has changed quite a bit. Bike share is important for expanding who bikes and how. I don’t think we’ve perfected the system.

It will be interesting to see what scooters mean in the long term. I’ve seen evidence that people use scooters who would never bike, but there are challenges that other cities are seeing in how they can be accommodated in the pedestrian sphere.

Nationally, I don’t think we know yet how to manage private companies operating in public space to provide mobility, and the responsibility of the users isn’t always clear or enforceable.

Ride-hailing companies: If they don’t make money, will they continue to exist? My guess is they will continue to exist, despite the failure to make money to this point, because it is an upgrade to the mobility people had before. Will they be the same companies? I’m not smart enough to know.

We don’t know what it means for transit. Seattle is one of the only regions that has sustained transit growth; some of that is geographical and land use, in addition to transit investment. Research shows pretty consistently that contribute to congestion. How do you weigh the congestion impacts with the real mobility benefits? If we can have people leave their houses without driving and using their own car throughout the day, that’s a benefit. This is still pretty new stuff and we have to work on balancing the benefits and impacts.

Driverless vehicles? We are farther away from fully autonomous vehicles than futurists would have us believe. As a city we need to decide what transportation system we want rather than say we have to build a system for autonomous vehicles.

We are building a LOT of transit around the city with rail and new Rapid Ride lines. And we can’t stop there, we have to think about subsequent rounds of investment.

  You used to work on promoting transit-oriented development. How is Seattle doing, and what are your thoughts around planning for northside Link and future West Seattle-Ballard light rail? We are building a LOT of transit around the city with rail and new Rapid Ride lines. And we can’t stop there, we have to think about subsequent rounds of investment. It’s not SDOT’s job to do land use planning, but there is an important role for SDOT in planning for development and transportation investments to support plans for future land use. Is there a book about cities or streets you would recommend everyone on your staff read? This isn’t necessarily the book for Seattle, but one that changed my thinking quite a bit in DC was Dream City by Tom Sherwood and HarryJaffe. There are lots of good technical books about street design. But to understand how that interacts with the history of a city, the history of under-investment, of disinvestment -- those things are as important, or more important, to understand. I haven’t yet found that one for Seattle, but if you have it let me know. So far I have been reading Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle by Murray Morgan. It’s very engaging about the early history of the city, but only goes up through 1960 or so, and so much has changed in this city in the last 60 years.