Beneath baking skies on Seattle’s Beacon Hill, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced Wednesday he’s selecting a top Los Angeles transportation official to direct the Seattle Department of Transportation.
Gregory Spotts is a 10-year veteran of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Street Services, recently rebranded as StreetsLA. Spotts has advocated for moving a city’s transportation system away from the car-centric visions of the mid-20th century and toward something resembling a “15-minute city” where people can easily access all of their needs.
“That sort of 1950s master-planned community, where everything’s
separated and the car’s the linkage, that’s just not going to work,” he
said on the “Government Huddle” podcast last month.
Spotts, 54, is his department’s chief sustainability officer and executive
director, one step below the bureau’s leader. He “fits the bill” of a
climate-first leader in transportation who will use both data and community
outreach to inform his decisions, Harrell said in a news conference.
“We wanted the vision in transportation work to be led by what we consider a
national leader in this space,” Harrell said.
If confirmed by the City Council, Spotts must take on the transportation demands of a growing city in a time of great transition. Enormous questions linger about how to plan a transportation system during a pandemic — whether it can or should be what it was before thousands of workers stopped commuting into downtown. At the same time, Seattle is struggling to maintain the old — bridges, roads, sidewalks — while welcoming the new, as light-rail planning builds momentum.
In an interview, Spotts acknowledged the challenges before him. Seattle must plan for the possibly dramatic shifts in transportation, housing and urban planning that may come from remote work, he said. And transit must better serve all trips throughout the city and not center on commuting. No longer can transportation departments predominantly focus on car travel, he said.
Despite those challenges, he struck an optimistic tone about the city’s future. “The combination of some density in the city, some of the great bike and pedestrian and transit infrastructure, the Sound Transit expansion — I just see a lot of ingredients for a very progressive, sustainable vision for the city that we’re missing in a lot of other cities,” he said.
Spotts has worked in government in Los Angeles since 2007. In 2011, he went to work in the mayor’s office, overseeing megaprojects in the city, including expansions of highway and transit.
Since 2015, he’s overseen the city’s efforts to mitigate dangerous heat — of the sort Seattle is experiencing — through tree planting and painting cooling surfaces onto the city’s streets.
He also took on the work of repairing and cleaning up Los Angeles’ bike
infrastructure, as injuries and lawsuits piled up in the city.
Under Mayor Eric Garcetti, Spotts was tasked with mitigating transportation related emissions, reducing serious injuries and deaths on the road and improving streets near parks and for sidewalk vendors.
Listing his top 10 projects in 2019, Spotts pointed to his work surveying the city’s trees, “creating holistic streetscapes to support walking, cycling and
transit,” legalizing vending in parks and on sidewalks and cleaning up trash. In one 2019 post on his blog, Spotts declared, “Seattle leads the way in reduced auto dependence.”
Spotts also monitors LA’s many requests for pothole repairs.
Seattle, like much of the country, has seen record traffic deaths recently, with no signs of the trend slowing. With each new report of a pedestrian, biker or driver being injured or killed, pressure increases on the department. Spotts’ history working on “Vision Zero” initiatives to eliminate deaths on the roads was among the reasons Harrell chose him.
Spotts said one of his first priorities was to do a comprehensive review of the city’s efforts to prevent death and injury and to scale up what seems to be working.
Harrell’s office has begun its process of assembling a “Seattle Transportation Plan” that will lay out priorities for the city in the coming years. Outreach has begun, and officials hope to have the plan ready by next summer. In its final state, the document could define how the city intends to balance the needs of pedestrians, bicycles and cars, a highly contentious topic.
Spotts said balancing car traffic with pedestrian and bike facilities is the “million dollar” question in his profession and the answer has shifted. “It’s gone from a profession that was following standards to improve level of traffic for many years and that’s changed, and now there’s lots of people who want a fair share of the public right of way,” he said.
Perhaps the most immediate priority for Spotts is crafting the next
transportation ballot proposal. The $930 million Move Seattle property tax
levy, approved by voters in 2015, expires at the end of 2024. The measure has
funded large portions of the city’s transportation projects. But its deployment
has been rocky.
Mayor Jenny Durkan, who took office two years after Move Seattle passed, concluded early in her term the measure had overpromised
on what it could deliver, and launched a “reset” to scale back the number of bus lines, bike lanes, repaving and other projects laid out in the original levy.
The question facing Spotts will be how large a package to put before voters and whether the city can win back trust in time to win approval. Harrell said Wednesday he’s spoken to Spotts on a “high level” about putting together a proposal, but has not touched on specifics.
Spotts will also need to coordinate with Sound Transit as the regional agency builds out its light-rail network to North Seattle and finalizes plans for its West Seattle to Ballard line. The future construction of the line is rife with difficult questions, including where to put a station in the Chinatown International District, how and where trains will come and go from West Seattle, and the rails’ path through South Lake Union and Uptown.
This week’s heat wave is also a stark reminder of the city’s climate goals, which include major reductions in transportation emissions.
Among other major issues the transportation director will inherit is a dissatisfied parking enforcement unit, a new First Avenue streetcar line that has hung in limbo for nearly four years, and an evolving scooter and bike-share landscape. Meanwhile, inflation is pushing costs of major construction projects ever higher.
A graduate of Yale, Spotts also has a brief history in the world of entertainment, including with the LA Galaxy soccer team, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Spotts was one of four candidates forwarded to Harrell by a 15-person search committee. If confirmed, Spotts would take the reins in September from interim Director Kristen Simpson, who has led the department since Harrell declined to rehire the previous SDOT head, Sam Zimbabwe.
The department has a staff of about 1,000 people and a budget of $700 million.