Oakland has a new Department of Transportation as of 2016 and with it, the chance to do urban transportation planning right — to enhance quality of life, provide accessibility for all residents, boost economic opportunities and connect neighbors. OakDOT is off to a good start with its recently released strategic plan, but as the department moves toward its future goals, I see four requirements for success.
Oakland’s failing infrastructure and budget constraints require creative solutions. As described in the Federal Highway Administration’s “The Innovative DOT,” good ways to overcome such challenges include integrating land use considerations into transportation planning, finding new revenue sources and improving multimodal access. A good start: Last May, Oakland City Council approved a transportation impact fee on private development that is estimated to bring in $11.9 million in the first 10 years.
2. Public Engagement
Educating the public about transportation projects is critical. Citizen outreach must be done with more than public workshops, which only reach a small percentage of the community that a project will impact. Other DOTs have used several effective outreach tools such as an informative website, online surveys, a discussion board, videos, social media, relationships with key local bloggers, online scenario testing and a public outreach team. OakDOT does plan to have some of these, including a website and a public outreach team.
It could go one step further with interactive displays at project locations. These would show the public what a project may look like and describe the impacts, as well as offer an opportunity to fill out a simple questionnaire. The public must be given convenient opportunities to express their concerns about the transportation system and the effectiveness of the department.
To be effective, the public information office has to be set up to manage a vast amount of daily public inquiries. To this end, OakDOT should also consider turning to the Bay Area tech community, which could help convert user data into manageable information for analysis by decision-makers.
Building and maintaining partnerships is critical to accomplishing broad goals such as improving the movement of goods across the city, strengthening accessibility and adopting equitable transportation decision-making frameworks.
While OakDOT’s plan notes a few ways to create these vital relationships, there are unmentioned opportunities for fruitful partnerships in the areas of data management, bond funding measure approval and the environmental review process.
Officials should keep an eye on the city of Columbus, which won U.S. DOT’s Smart City Challenge in 2016 — and $50 million in funding — to work in increasing mobility through technology.
In terms of raising money, the November 2016 election saw the advocacy efforts of nonprofit organizations such as Transport Oakland and SPUR result in the passage of bond measure KK, which will fund transportation projects in the city. OakDOT’s continued success in passing such measures will rely on these organizations.
To get projects done efficiently, DOTs must also leverage connections with other government agencies. Many permitting processes are complex and extensive. OakDOT can establish a streamlined process with other agencies to save time and money.
4. Employee Engagement
Staff are the heart of OakDOT and will be the champions working to meet the goals of the department. The strategic plan sets aims for increased productivity, employee training, and the attraction and retention of great staff. While this is promising, distinguishing between internal wins and external wins could also help with employee effectiveness. Improving biking and walking numbers is an external win, but effecting that boost through changes in design or staff priorities is an internal win. Internal wins come first, and make external wins possible. They also require teamwork, communication, leadership, adaptability, continuous learning and integrity, which can all be fostered in the right environment.
Oakland has recognized that transportation is not just a means to get from point A to B, but also a medium through which a more vibrant, livable and sustainable city can be created. OakDOT’s strategic plan is one step toward to realizing this idea. The next step is for the city to choose a leader who can follow through with achieving goals through innovation, public engagement, partnerships and employee engagement.
Eric DeNardo is a transportation practitioner who seeks to find sustainable transportation solutions to create livable communities. He works for the California Department of Transportation in the Bay Area as a senior environmental planner.