When Seattle’s new transportation director turned 16 years old, he couldn’t wait to get a car of his own. In Scott Kubly’s suburban Texas hometown, a set of wheels meant freedom and made you cool, he says.
Twenty-four years later, Kubly commutes by foot from the Central District to an office in the Seattle Municipal Tower, and he can’t wait to get rid of his clunker.
“I probably drive somewhere once a week,” said the 40-year-old, who was appointed by Mayor Ed Murray in July and confirmed by the City Council this week.
“You do need to drive sometimes. But I hope, with things like Car2Go or Zipcar or taxis or Uber or whatever, that when my car dies, which will be soon, I won’t need to buy a new one.”
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Many Seattle drivers will never surrender their vehicles, Kubly knows, and he doesn’t want those people to feel slighted. They may have helped Murray unseat Mike McGinn, an incumbent mayor with a pedal-powered transportation agenda.
Kubly says his aim is to integrate the city’s transportation system while balancing the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and motorists.
“The mayor recognizes that we need to have a transportation system that works for all users and that isn’t biased toward one mode or another,” he said. “Sometimes people are going to walk, sometimes people are going to bike and sometimes people are going to take the bus, but sometimes they’re also going to drive.”
But his personal evolution as a motorist is instructive, nonetheless: Kubly is ready for change and he wants to make sure that Seattle is ready, as well.
“In a city that’s growing, in pretty much any city in the United States at this point, we’re not making any more streets, so we need to figure out how to use them more efficiently,” he said.
With an annual operating budget of about $400 million and more than 750 Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) employees under his command, Kubly is one of the most important leaders in the city. He makes $180,000 a year.
But his style — bluejeans and untucked dress shirt for an interview — is more coffee shop than power lunch and more Seattle than Washington, D.C., where he worked for nearly a decade.
Kubly served as planning manager at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and associate director of the District of Columbia Department of Transportation before moving to Chicago to become a managing deputy commissioner in the Windy City’s Department of Transportation.
He left that post in January to head Alta Bicycle Share, which operates public-private bike-share systems in and around D.C., Chicago, New York City and six other cities. Next up for Alta is Seattle, where the growing company will manage the Pronto bike-share system launching next month.
When Chicago picked Alta to operate its bike-share system in 2012, before Kubly got the Alta job, a rival bidder questioned ties among Alta, Kubly and his boss, Gabe Klein. But the city denied favoritism allegations.
Leading Alta made Kubly a better manager, he says. The company boasts more daily riders than many light-rail systems. “We had 15,000 bikes in nine cities,” he said. “In the summertime, we were carrying 80,000 to 90,000 people a day. That’s a big transit operation.”
In Seattle, “My pitch to the mayor was, I have experience delivering progressive transportation initiatives,” Kubly said. “But I also understand the importance of the basics: filling potholes, paving streets, trimming trees and having a traffic-management center up and running 24 hours a day so we can do a better job of handling traffic incidents.”
It’s the nation’s capital that Kubly will be looking to as a model for improving Seattle’s transportation system, he says.
Like D.C., Seattle is home to about 650,000 people. And like D.C., Seattle is growing fast.
“D.C. has added 75,000 people in the last 15 years, but car registrations there have gone down,” he said.
What D.C. has that Seattle doesn’t yet have is a complete subway and light-rail network. That’s unfortunate, Kubly says, but it means public transit in Seattle is only going to get better.
“We have a system here with a lot of good bones,” he said. “We have a really strong bus network carrying a lot of people into the city. There is a culture here of taking transit and walking and biking, which is great.”
Two projects will be essential for the city to move forward, he says.
When Link light rail reaches the University of Washington, in 2016, the line should ease congestion on Interstate 5 and Highway 99.
“Suddenly, it’ll become the most reliable way to get around,” Kubly said. “That’s going to have a profound impact on how people move north and south in the city.”
The Seattle Streetcar network’s downtown First Avenue line, which would connect the nearly complete First Hill and Capitol Hill lines to the South Lake Union line, is the other vital project, according to Kubly.
But back to the basics.
There are sidewalks that need to be built and bridges that need to be repaired, and the Highway 99 tunnel that the state is building under downtown Seattle is stalled.
“Thirty percent of the city doesn’t have sidewalks, and putting those sidewalks in is going to cost,” Kubly says. “We need to have a conversation about how we’re going to pay for transportation going forward.”
The City Council, it turns out, is exploring a new way to raise money for transportation. Seattle could charge growth-impact fees when real-estate developers construct new buildings that put additional demand on public roads.
“I think that any development does have an impact on a transportation system,” Kubly said. “I think it’s worth looking at.”
He says Chicago is charging private partners to fund public amenities along its downtown river, for example.
In the Emerald City, Kubly will grapple with the notorious “Seattle process,” which can turn sure things into pipe dreams thanks to endless debate.
But Rob Johnson, a transportation activist who sat on Murray’s SDOT director search committee, says Kubly is a man of action.
That was evident last month, when SDOT, responding to a pair of car-bike collisions, issued an impromptu ban on right turns by motorists from Dexter Avenue North onto westbound Mercer Street. And earlier this month, when Kubly and SDOT installed a protected bicycle lane on Second Avenue.
“He hasn’t been in town very long, but we’re already seeing progress,” said Johnson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for walking, biking and public transit.
Fans and a critic
Leah Treat, director at the Portland Bureau of Transportation, worked with Kubly in Chicago and said Seattle is lucky to have him, and D.C. officials said they were sorry to see him go.
But for at least one Chicagoan, Kubly-style progress has become a dirty word.
Roger Romanelli, executive director of the Randolph/Fulton Market Association, claims Kubly led an effort by the Chicago Department of Transportation to ram a bus rapid-transit line down the throat of a truck-dependent industrial district.
“It was presented to us as a done deal. It was, ‘Get out of the way,’ ” Romanelli said. “People of Seattle, remind Mr. Kubly that he’s a public servant and not an independent visionary.”
How much progress Kubly makes here may depend in part on his relationship with the City Council, where neighborhood-specific requests and concerns are due for increased attention as Seattle moves to representation based on districts.
Thus far, Kubly has the council in his corner.
Councilmember Tom Rasmussen praised Kubly’s success focusing on alternative transportation options in D.C. and Chicago and says he expects Kubly to run a more accessible SDOT than his predecessor, Peter Hahn.
“When the department proposes changes in the use of streets, it will be his role to ensure that there is a good discussion and that all voices are heard,” Rasmussen said.
“I expect him to focus on great customer service, to strengthen communication with the public about projects. That’s an area where SDOT has room for improvement.”
When Murray announced last year he would be letting Hahn go, Rasmussen praised the outgoing SDOT director for improving the agency’s capacity to respond to snowstorms.
Hahn had replaced Grace Crunican, the SDOT director who was on vacation for part of a bad snowstorm in 2008 and who admitted, “We blew it,” after her team failed to clear the city’s streets.
Kubly knows the story and others like it. That’s why Kubly’s first meeting after arriving in Seattle was snowstorm-related.
“I wanted to make sure that we had all the magnesium chloride we needed, the salt we needed. I wanted to make sure our equipment was in good shape and ready to roll,” he said
Thinking back on his teenage years and the Chevrolet Chevette he drove to high school, the soon-to-be-carless Kubly says change is unavoidable.
“I’m looking forward to Generation X taking over the world,” Kubly said.
“People 16 to 34 are driving 23 percent less than people 16 to 34 a generation ago. Young people now would rather give up their car than give up their smartphone.”
Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or firstname.lastname@example.org