Seattle’s new transportation director on electric vehicles, remote work, company shuttles, and more – GeekWire

Greg Spotts, the new director of Seattle’s Department of Transportation. (SDOT Photo)

Since moving from Los Angeles to take the helm of Seattle’s Department of Transportation in September, Greg Spotts has been busy learning about his new home.

His personal Twitter feed is full of photos of Seattle roads, bridges, and restaurants as he explores the city by bicycle, foot and transit, inviting citizens to come along with him.

Spotts also staked out his number one priority in a Seattle Times editorial: making Seattle’s streets safer. One of his first tasks was ordering a review of the city’s Vision Zero plan to end traffic deaths and serious injury by 2030. Last year, Seattle saw the highest number of traffic fatalities since 2006.

Spotts is the former executive officer and chief of sustainability officer at the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services, where he led efforts to make the city more walkable, bikeable and transit-friendly.

In an interview with GeekWire, Spotts talked about the importance of engaging with communities, how tech and business sectors can support transportation in the city, electric vehicles, and more.

“I’m both an admirer of Seattle and a change agent on behalf of Seattle,” said Spotts, who founded a small music talent management business before turning to public policy.

The following interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

What can business and tech leaders do to support transportation?

Greg Spotts: One of the reasons why I came here is that Seattle is growing and its growth is powered by innovation. I see so much excitement around innovation and transportation in this community. I think there’s a tremendous amount of potential to work together.

Specifically, folks can help us really understand where remote work is going so that we can plan the transportation network accordingly.

Also, help your employees figure out, on the days they are coming to work, how we get them back onto transit. What do we need to do as employers to really make it comfortable, easy, safe and pleasant for folks to not bring their own car when they are coming to work, and maybe even integrate other things like micro-mobility, such as scooters and e-bikes.

Micro-mobility makes the last mile quicker and more fun. And right now, when you give your employees an ORCA card (enables transportation payments in the Seattle region), it doesn’t provide the ability to tap into those other opportunities.

If you could build one transportation app, what would it be?

Wouldn’t be great if I could just take one of those options on a map app and immediately order that up or locate it and pay for it? A sort of omni-transportation app for urban dwellers who are multimodal would be a heck of a lot of fun.

Greg Spotts. (SDOT Photo / Jeanné Clark)

Talk about common sense measures that can reduce traffic deaths.

It isn’t just about common sense. It’s actually about making the most cost-effective interventions that save lives. And that needs to be data-driven and community-informed.

But one thing I can tell you is that at a recent meeting, our traffic engineer asked me, “when do we have license to fully prioritize safety over queuing or delays or any other factor in operating the road system?” And I said, “Today. Now. Do it.”  

At a time where the downtown office buildings are only 35-to-40% occupied, we can make adjustments to signal timing and other things with a focus on safety rather than traffic throughput.

What is the role of enforcement?

When we’re short police officers, it’s harder to staff traffic enforcement. But then there’s also this additional question of how traffic enforcement has historically sometimes brought people of color in contact with the criminal justice system in ways that are inequitable. Automated cameras might be a way to create more of a disincentive to drive fast without the kind of unintended equity impacts of human enforcement.

What cities do you admire for their transportation infrastructure?

There are a lot of cities that I admire, including Seattle. One of the reasons why I moved here is there were two things here that really impressed me.

One was tearing down that Alaskan Way Viaduct. I got to see how the environment at the waterfront radically changed.

I also thought the brand new neighborhood that was made in South Lake Union was world class streetscape: the wide pedestrian ways and rain gardens, narrowing the vehicular part of the street and integrating the streetcars. I chose to live in South Lake Union because I like the built environment so much of that type of more human-scale street.

“I believe that the era of transportation planners drawing lines on a map and then telling the community what they’re going to get needs to be over.”

What are some lessons you learned in Los Angeles that you are taking to your new job?

Two things, and they are very different. I like to co-create projects with communities, especially underserved communities. I’m very proud to have done that in variety of different kinds of projects large and small. I believe that the era of transportation planners drawing lines on a map and then telling the community what they’re going to get needs to be over.

Secondly, the last couple of years I’ve been an innovator in adopting zero emissions vehicles into the municipal fleet that supports city operations and construction. I’d really like to bring some of that leadership expertise to SDOT’s fleet and maybe also help other city departments.

What is the role of electric vehicles in the city?

I like the idea of right-sizing the vehicle and then electrifying. I really don’t like a 5,000-pound electric SUV delivering two pounds of pad thai. I’d rather have that delivered by a 100-pound little robot. I love the idea that the kind of batteries we have today open up all kinds of new form factors for different types of vehicles.

Any thoughts on company shuttles?

In my listening tours, someone recently asked: if a hospital has a little shuttle bus that circulates around the community, would it be possible for other people to use that, a cool micro-transit linkage? And that’s an interesting question for the corporate shuttles as well. Sharing resources could be a way to help us move towards a lower carbon footprint.

How can people on foot, scooters, bicycles and cars all get along?

I’m interested in creating a public realm that’s a pleasant, safe and orderly place to be for whatever mode you choose to use at a given time. A really great example is our Madison Street project where we’re building bus rapid transit with center bus boarding islands and protected bike lanes. We’ve reorganized the geometry of five-way intersections for safer pedestrian and bike crossings. That’s the kind of project where we’re really changing a corridor to work better and more harmoniously for all users. And I find that very exciting.

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