Much like Seattle, Washington, D.C.'s, transportation department has changed its vision in recent years, shifting the focus from fast car travel to making streets safer and more efficient for people in buses, on foot and on bicycles.
Drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and municipal transportation departments disagree all the time about all sorts of stuff.
But in Washington, D.C., they all seem to agree on one thing: They all pretty much love Sam Zimbabwe, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s choice to run the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).
Durkan plucked Zimbabwe from the nation’s capital, where he’s been a senior transportation official for the past seven years. Much like Seattle, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has changed its vision in recent years, shifting the focus from fast car travel to making streets safer and more efficient for people in buses, on foot and on bicycles.
When Durkan introduced Zimbabwe, she spoke of creating more transportation choices “that make it easier and safer for residents to get around on foot, by bike, on transit.” She conspicuously did not mention cars.
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But while Durkan has consistently touted transit and pedestrian priority, she has earned the ire of some advocacy groups for decisions like halting the First Avenue streetcar expansion and delaying the construction of bike lanes.
“People reasonably want to know the new director’s vision for transportation, but the real question may be whether Mayor Durkan will abandon her car-centric vision,” former Mayor Mike McGinn, who’s been critical of Durkan, wrote on Twitter. “Because when visions diverge, it’s usually a mayor’s vision that prevails.”
If confirmed by the City Council, Zimbabwe will take charge of SDOT at a time a mélange of megaprojects — an old viaduct, a new tunnel, a bigger convention center, a rebuilt ferry dock, a re-imagined waterfront, a re-prioritized transit tunnel — make traveling through downtown as difficult as it has ever been.
He will make $200,000 a year.
In D.C., Zimbabwe’s job as chief project development officer was to move new projects from traffic engineers’ blue prints, through the planning and permitting process, to actually getting things built. His boss at DDOT, Director Jeff Marootian, called Zimbabwe an “excellent colleague and leader” and an integral part of the department.
He was one of four “chief officers” who reported to the department’s lone deputy director, who reported to Marootian.
“For a long time they had good folks working on bike and pedestrian projects and what was sort of missing was somebody whose responsibility it was to get it out of the planning department,” said Colin Browne, communications director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “He was sort of tasked with taking things from ‘this is a great plan,’ to ‘this is something you can actually use,’ which is always a challenge.”
Browne called Zimbabwe (who took his unusual surname after marriage; a portmanteau of his and his wife’s family names) a “strong voice for bicycling in the District.”
The D.C.-area subway system, whose service has drastically deteriorated in recent years, is run by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, a separate agency from DDOT.
In the constant tussle for urban street-space, John Townsend has often been on the unsuccessful side in recent years, as D.C. has added bike lanes and bike infrastructure as fast as any city in the country.
Townsend, public-affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic, isn’t shy about blasting DDOT — he referred to one agency proposal as a “kind of mealy-mouthed mush-brained thing” — but he has only fulsome praise for Zimbabwe.
He calls him a data-driven, methodical administrator who gets the complexities of building transportation projects in big cities.
In particular, he praised Zimbabwe and DDOT for moving slowly and compromising on a project to put bike lanes on a street running past a historic African-American church, which claimed the lanes would reduce parking and disrupt services.
“He understands the value of consensus building and working with communities and impacted groups,” Townsend said. “Although I represent motorists, I never felt one time that Sam was not receptive to what we were saying.”
Zimbabwe referred back to his D.C. experience when asked in his introductory news conference about Seattle’s never-ending bike-lane battles.
“As more people feel like they feel safe and comfortable taking care of some of their daily needs with a bike, the less divisive bike questions have become,” he said. “People are not either bicyclists or not bicyclists, but sometimes bicyclists, or know somebody who’s a bicyclist.”
David Alpert, founder and president of Greater Greater Washington, a nonprofit that advocates for pedestrian-friendly urban communities, said Zimbabwe led a reorganization that got DDOT’s planning and engineering departments to operate together more smoothly, and made the agency more professional.
“Sam pushed DDOT to be more effective at actually following through on its promises,” Alpert wrote in a blog post. “I and other advocates often pushed him to be more ambitious, while he was concerned about limiting DDOT to more achievable promises and having definitive studies to back up its decisions.”