Since leaving Los Angeles to take over as head of the Seattle Department of Transportation in September, Greg Spotts has been busy discovering his new home.
Its staff Twitter feed is packed with photos of Seattle’s roads, bridges and restaurants as he explores the city by bike, foot and public transit, inviting citizens to join him.
Spotts also defined his number one priority in a Seattle Times op-ed: making Seattle’s streets safer. One of his first tasks was to commission a review of the city’s Vision Zero plan to end road deaths and serious injuries by 2030. Last year, Seattle had the highest number of fatalities on the roads since 2006.
Spotts is the former CEO and Chief Sustainability Officer of the Los Angeles Office 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 the tech and business sectors can support transportation in the city, electric vehicles, and more.
“I’m both a fan of Seattle and an agent of change on behalf of Seattle,” said Spotts, who founded a small music talent management company before turning to public policy.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What can business and technology leaders do to support transportation?
Greg Spotts: One of the reasons I came here is because Seattle is growing and its growth is fueled by innovation. I see so much excitement around innovation and transportation in this community. I think there is a lot of potential to work together.
Specifically, people can help us really understand where remote work is going so we can plan the transport network accordingly.
Also help your employees understand, on the days they come to work, how we put them back on public transport. What do we need to do as employers to make it really comfortable, easy, safe and enjoyable for people not to bring their own cars when they come to work, and maybe even onboard other things like micro-mobility, like scooters and e-bikes.
Micro-mobility makes the last mile faster and more fun. And right now, when you give your employees an ORCA card (enables transportation payments in the Seattle area), it doesn’t give them the ability to take advantage of those other opportunities.
If you could create a transportation app, what would it be?
Wouldn’t it be great if I could just grab one of these options on a map app and order it right away or locate it and pay for it? Some sort of omni-transportation app for multimodal city dwellers would be a lot of fun.
Talk about common sense measures that can reduce road deaths.
It’s not just a matter of common sense. It’s really about doing the most cost-effective interventions that save lives. And it 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 will we be allowed to prioritize safety over queues? waiting, delays or any other factor in the operation of the road network? And I said, “Today. Now. Do it.”
At a time when downtown office buildings are only 35-40% occupied, we can make adjustments to signal timing and other elements with a focus on safety rather than traffic flow.
What is the role of execution?
When we are short of police, it is more difficult to staff traffic control. But there’s also this added question of how traffic law enforcement has historically sometimes brought people of color into contact with the criminal justice system in inequitable ways. Automated cameras could be a way to further deter fast driving without the kind of unintended fairness impacts of human enforcement.
Which cities do you admire for their transportation infrastructure?
There are many cities that I admire, including Seattle. One of the reasons I moved here is that there were two things here that really impressed me.
One was tearing down this Alaskan Way overpass. I could see how the environment at the water’s edge has changed dramatically.
I also thought that the brand new neighborhood created in South Lake Union was a world-class streetscape: the wide pedestrian walkways and the rain gardens, narrowing the vehicular part of the street and integrating the streetcars. I chose to live in South Lake Union because I love the built environment of this type of human-sized street so much.
What lessons have you learned in Los Angeles that you are applying to your new job?
Two things, and they are very different. I enjoy co-creating projects with communities, especially underserved communities. I am very proud to have done this in various types of projects, large and small. I believe the days of transport planners drawing lines on a map and then telling the community what they were going to get must be over.
Second, for the past two years, I have been an innovator in adopting zero-emission vehicles in the city fleet that supports city operations and construction. I would really like to bring some of this leadership expertise to the SDOT fleet and maybe help other city departments as well.
What is the role of electric vehicles in the city?
I like the idea of properly sizing the vehicle and then electrifying it. I really don’t like a 5,000 pound electric SUV that delivers two pounds of pad thai. I would prefer this delivered by a small 100 pound robot. I like the idea that the type of batteries we have today open up all sorts of new form factors for different types of vehicles.
Opinions on company shuttles?
On my listening rounds, someone recently asked: if a hospital has a little shuttle that goes around the community, would it be possible for other people to use it, a cool micro-transit link? And that’s an interesting question for corporate shuttles as well. Resource sharing could be a way to help us move towards a lower carbon footprint.
How can pedestrians, scooters, bicycles and cars get along?
I’m interested in creating a public realm that’s a nice, safe, and orderly place for whatever mode you choose to use at any given time. A great example is our Madison Street project where we are building a bus rapid transit system with bus pick-up islands and protected bike lanes. We revamped the geometry of five-way intersections for safer pedestrian and bicycle crossings. It’s the kind of project where you really change a corridor to work better and more harmoniously for all users. And I find that very exciting.