Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Proposed changes to DC's transportation agency structure as another example of acting without solid planning: Part 1, the problem

The Washington Post ("D.C. Council’s Cheh gains early support for major overhaul of city transportation agencies") and GGW report ("Mary Cheh wants to break up DC's transportation agency") that Councilmember Mary Cheh, chair of the City Council's Transportation and Environment Committee, proposes a bunch of changes to the organization of transportation functions within the DC government.

-- Bill B20-0759,  Transportation Reorganization Act of 2014 

While I do think it's definitely time to "perform a check up" on DDOT since it's been 12 years since it's been an independent agency and about 15 years since it was set up to be split off from the Department of Public Works, I don't think the proposals for change are well-founded--and it is disturbing that both of the 2014 candidates for Mayor, Muriel Bowser, recently winning the Democratic primary, and David Catania, who has announced his bid as an Independent candidate, have signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation.

The proposed changes (graphic right, from the DC City Council) are to create a separate transit and multimodal agency, a separate parking agency, combining some DDOT, DMV, and DPW functions, moving the Urban Forestry Administration to the Department of the Environment, and merging the DC Taxicab Commission into the new transit agency.

It's another example of why I say "reform" just means "change," but it doesn't necessarily mean "improvement."

Rather than break up DDOT, I have argued for quite some time that the agency should be bulked up even more, to include full parking management responsibilities, oversight over taxicab services, and even the traffic enforcement-safety functions of the Metropolitan Police Department, comparable to how the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is set up, and somewhat comparable to Transport for London.

Instead the proposed legislation shifts things around, in ways that could be very damaging to the concept of sustainable transportation and placemaking, because the responsibilities for streets, transit and multimodal planning, and parking will be split across four different agencies.

What should happen specifically is the subject of the second piece in this series, "Proposed changes to DC's transportation agency structure as another example of acting without solid planning: Part 2, what should happen to DDOT."

DDOT's opportunity to be great.  DC has the most ability of any city in North America to be innovative and transformational in the operation of all of its government agencies, because city, county, and state functions are unified into one single, local government, and comparatively speaking, the city now is relatively wealthy because it collects 100% of the income tax on residents, and higher income residents are becoming an increasing percentage of the population as the city adds population.

Sadly, failure of vision within the Executive and Legislative Branches of local government means that DC rarely is able to take advantage of being North America's only city-state.

DDOT is no exception.  While DDOT's original launch and first few years was accomplished by some great initiatives which were path-breaking and national best practice at the time:

(1) the city's original streetscape program from the late 1990s-early 2000s was at the time national best practice (although has since been outspanned by other cities);

(2) the "DC Transit Alternatives" planning initiative was an example of a major city considering streetcars, when at the time only a couple cities were doing such planning or had streetcars in operation;

(3) the 2005 bus shelter contract led to improved bus shelters, was supposed to bring bike share to the city;

(4) and the revenue was going to be used to fund the city's newly announced "Great Streets" program, which was a kind of urban renewal initiative through streetscape and transportation improvements, and was aimed at less well off areas of the city;

the day to day politics of the city--the Mayor and the bickering Councilmembers--and lack of enough personnel and managerial heft within the agency has meant that many of these programs have not achieved anywhere near their original intentions.

For example, DC and Seattle started planning for streetcars at the same time, but Seattle's service opened in 2007 (it will expand again this year), while DC's first streetcar line will enter revenue service this year, and that will happen only because of how citizen advocacy led to the installation of streetcar tracks into H Street NE during that street's reconstruction, which made it possible to run the streetcars on existing track.

The problems with DDOT are both external and internal--vision, personnel and planning--which an agency reorganization won't address.  The real problems with the agency are failures in vision--within the department, the Executive Branch, and the City Council--a failure to build a fully robust planning function for the agency, a failure to "shrug off" some of the traditional road biases of a traffic engineering dominated profession, a failure to hire top notch directors (compare DC for example to New York City in this area), and the lack of budget for adding personnel in some areas where it is sorely needed.

Reorganizing the transportation functions into different agencies isn't all of a sudden going to make the Executive Branch hire a top notch director or create a robust planning function or convert civil engineers into sustainable transportation advocates.

When DDOT was created, it represented best practice among large cities.  Ironically, the creation of DDOT was best practice at the time, an example of splitting off Transportation functions from Public Works functions out of the recognition that transportation (mobility) is key to a city's success at many levels -- within neighborhoods, within the city, within the region, and nationally.

But two other local examples prove that creating a separate agency for transportation isn't necessarily going to be transformational in and of itself.

Unlike most counties in Maryland, Montgomery County, following the DC example, split off its transportation functions from the Department of Public Works, and it runs the county bus service, RideOn, but it isn't particularly transformational, and is still very much focused on facilitating motor vehicle throughput.

Interestingly, when RideOn was created it too was an example of best practice suburban transit, built around moving people to and from the new Red Line subway transit stations.  But RideOn hasn't necessarily kept up with best practice either.

And Arlington County, Virginia, considered a national best practice example for transportation management at the local government level for many reasons:

-- its decision to bet the future of the then declining county on heavy rail transportation by having the orange line subway routed through the center of the county rather than within the I-66 median, and the county's land use changed in concert in remarkable ways

-- its transportation demand management function and emphasis on sustainable mobility with the focus on "moving more people without more traffic"

-- their Master Transportation Plan is one of the best in the US (although the Parking and Curb Space Management element could be a little more robust)

-- the citizen appointed Transportation Commission provides oversight and input into the county's transportation agenda and operations

-- and especially the commitment of at least until recently ("John Vihstadt wins Arlington County Board seat; first non-Democrat since 1999," Washington Post), all of its County Board elected officials have been strong proponents of sustainable transportation and smart growth;

still runs its transportation functions within its public works agency, which it calls the Department of Environmental Services.

Both examples demonstrate that transportational transformation is a function of vision, management, organizational culture, planning, and top notch personnel and not just where and how the agency is located within the government structure.

DDOT's mission and organizational culture didn't fully change in concert with the new organizational structure.  The "problem" is that the agency remained a collection of units (like all transportation functions in comparable agencies) and an overarching commitment to sustainable mobility wasn't built into all of the units going forward.

But it did add people in biking, pedestrian, and eventually transportation demand management, added bike share, supported car sharing, etc., so there was a lot of progress, but these people are planners and don't do the actual construction.

The construction unit remained road oriented.  The mass transit administration's planning remained somewhat independent of the planning unit.  Managing parking issues was kept separate from planning. 

In most transportation agencies the "Chief Engineer" is the most important official when it comes to day to day activities of the agency concerning the streets, and DDOT hasn't had many chief engineers that are at the forefront of sustainable transportation as opposed to more traditional backgrounds in traffic engineering.

And while highly respected public administrator Dan Tangherlini (now director of the US General Services Administration) was the agency's first director, and many people tout the leadership of Gabe Klein under Mayor Adrian Fenty, even they weren't perfect, and the other people who have served in the position besides those two haven't been particularly transformational, definitely not particularly well known within the urban transportation field as innovators.  The current DDOT director and chief engineer just announced that, given that Mayor Gray will not continue in office, they will be leaving.

The City Council reorganization initiative is premature, but there is no question that it's time to evaluate DDOT functioning and the organization of transportation responsibilities within DC government.   One difference between DC and Montgomery County Council is that the Montgomery County Council has an "Office of Legislative Oversight" that is tasked with evaluating government agencies and policies and recommending to the Council a course of action.

DC Council lacks similar research capacity.  Instead the various Councilmembers and Committees come up with initiatives and ideas that frequently are not fully vetted or researched before they end up being embodied in legislation.

I was impressed that a recent transit planning initiative in Seattle also involved the production of a peer review report that benchmarked and compared Seattle transit initiatives to other cities across North America that they consider to be peers.

--  City of Seattle Transit Master Plan Briefing Book, PEER REVIEW of transit systems

There is no question that it is long overdue for a review of DDOT and how the various transportation functions within the DC Government are organized and the potential for improvements.

But that isn't how the process is proceeding.  Instead, a reorganization is being proposed, without first conducting a comprehensive review and evaluation.

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