Until this summer, like many other midsize cities, Oakland has had no Department of Transportation. Decisions about streets have fallen under the jurisdiction of public works or planning instead. Now, nearly a year after Mayor Libby Schaaf announced its creation as part of the city’s 2015-2017 budget, Oakland’s first DOT is taking shape. Earlier this month, the city announced that the transition would be led by Jeff Tumlin, a transportation consultant and director of strategy with planning firm Nelson/Nygaard. The department’s creation couldn’t come at a better time. The city is considering putting a $600 million infrastructure bond on the November ballot, which could yield $350 million for transportation if approved.
“The issues that Oakland is facing right now are the same issues that metropolitan areas around the country, indeed around the world, are going to have to grapple with in coming decades,” Tumlin says.
Among the questions he thinks a new DOT will play a role in answering: How can a mobility system be designed around inclusivity? How can cities accommodate the many who are now demanding better bike infrastructure, knowing it means some drivers will feel they are being made to give up their privileges? How does a city grow its economy while ensuring opportunities also proliferate for those who have historically been bypassed by economic growth?
Tumlin points to Oakland’s opportunity score, as calculated by Redfin. Around BART stations and in downtown, Oakland scores high, meaning that a large number of jobs are accessible within 30 minutes by transit and walking. But scores drop off in East and South Oakland, meaning it’s unlikely residents there can get to work in 30 minutes, even with a car.
“For me mobility has no independent utility,” says Tumlin. “Movement in itself is value neutral. But the opportunity for movement creates or accelerates other opportunities.”
As interim DOT director for the next eight months, he will help establish the department’s structure and philosophy. When he starts on July 11, one of his first priorities will be to get his staff talking with DOT staffers in other cities, with the help of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).
Renee Rivera, executive director of nonprofit Bike East Bay, says as interim director Tumlin is bringing what Oakland needs: vision. “That’s what Oakland lacks right now, and that’s one of the challenges when you put transportation under public works,” she says. “Transportation is very different from other kinds of city infrastructure.” The public interacts more directly with transportation infrastructure than they do with, say, storm drains. And streets have a more obvious connection to the economy than do sewers. When it all falls under the purview of the same department, Rivera thinks innovating in transportation can take a backseat to just keeping the city operating.
With the new DOT, she hopes to see Oakland take its bike infrastructure to the next level. The nonprofit and city recently partnered to complete 10 blocks of protected bike lane on the Telegraph Avenue thoroughfare, a model she hopes to see proliferate. But that project has been slow going. A policy coordinator for Bike East Bay told the East Bay Times that by the time the second phase is complete, the project will have taken more than five years from design to completion. “At least a department of transportation, we hope, will move things along more quickly than that,” he said.
Matt Nichols, transportation policy adviser to the mayor, acknowledges the shortcomings of the previous system. His role in Schaaf’s administration has brought transportation policy into the mayor’s office for the first time, and he’s been central in determining the scope of the new DOT’s work. Parking enforcement, previously in the police department, will be folded into the DOT. Storm drains and sewers won’t. About 300 people will work in the department, mostly drawn from existing ones like public works. The city put forward $1.5 million over a year and a half to hire a director (Tumlin isn’t eligible) and some staff, but has not yet created a complete transportation budget.
On July 5, the City Council will vote on whether to put a bond on the ballot this November, asking the public to approve $100 million for affordable housing, $150 million for facilities and $350 million for transportation. That would help to address Oakland’s backlog of transportation needs — like repaving its relatively poor quality streets — and to implement some of the city’s more forward-thinking policies, like Complete Streets. Oakland has adopted it and an Alameda County policy requires that 15 percent of all street paving funds be spent on Complete Street investments. The new DOT will be in charge of implementing those policies. Nichols says they’re deeply interested in instituting Vision Zero, a pedestrian safety initiative adopted by several U.S. cities, including San Francisco; that could fall under DOT’s purview.
Nichols says the department is particularly necessary now because the nature of transportation planning has changed. “Transportation isn’t a maintenance activity anymore,” he says. “It’s really keeping up with new design standards and meeting the really rapidly changing and growing needs of travelers.”
Tumlin says that means, for one, making existing transit work better, like ensuring Alameda County buses aren’t stuck in the same traffic as everyone else. Oakland’s first BRT line is underway, and the DOT will work with transit agencies like AC Transit and BART to make projects like that happen. Improving the pedestrian environment will be more complicated, allows Tumlin, where “it’s much less about the one or two major investments and more about the 500 investments” that will make it possible for a person in a wheelchair, or an eight-year-old child to safely cross the city.
Rivera seems hopeful that positive future results will show Oaklanders why having the DOT is worthwhile. “It seems really unsexy but it’s actually really exciting news,” she says.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.