Share on Social

Episode 72 guest Sam Zimbabwe

Even before the racial justice protests, Seattle used their Racial Equity Toolkit to help prioritize the 20+ miles of Stay Healthy Streets in response to COVID-19. Still, Seattle Department of Transportation Director Sam Zimbabwe wants to do more to center Black voices in the process.

Did you enjoy this week’s episode? Read what some of The Movement’s most memorable guests are up to now! 


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Zimbabwe: Sam Zimbabwe

Cohen: If we’re going to overcome the equity and racial justice issues that continue to plague our country, it will be necessary for public transit professionals, city officials, and the community to work together and take a systems approach to solving the transportation and housing challenges we face. I tackle that issue and more with Sam Zimbabwe of the Seattle Department of Transportation, coming up next on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: My guest today, Sam Zimbabwe, is the Director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, a role he’s been in for a little over a year. Prior to that he was the Chief Project Delivery Officer and Associate Director of Policy, Planning, and Sustainability for the Washington, D.C. Department of Transportation. Welcome to The Movement, Sam.

Zimbabwe: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.

Cohen: I think what is on everyone’s mind, which is that there’s been some major events over the course of the last few months, COVID-19 and then the protests following George Floyd’s killing, that I think have the potential to really reshape our streets. And so I’m curious from your standpoint as a director of a department of transportation how you think these major events are going to impact how we use our streets and maybe mobility in general.

Zimbabwe: Sure. So it’s definitely something that we are thinking about daily here in Seattle. We’ve also—layered onto all of that, we had to close a major bridge in the city that serves about 100,000 people a day because of structural cracks back at the end of March too. So we’ve had a pandemic, a transportation mobility emergency, and then also with protests and George Floyd’s murder sort of a rethinking of what it means to be in our streets and what it means to be [pH] streets as well.

So Seattle has been one of the fastest growing cities in the county over the last decade. It added about 150,000 people in 10 years, which is as much as were added to the city in the 70 years prior. And what was critical to our success in doing that from a transportation perspective was really the ability of our transit system to grow, expand, and absorb a lot of those trips. We have only about a quarter of people coming into and out of Downtown Seattle in a peak hour were driving their single-occupancy vehicle, and so many more people were taking transit, people walking, people biking. And at least in the early part of the recovery it seems like transit is not going to be able to do that kind of work for us, both because of the need to maintain social distance in traveling and sort of lower carrying capacity but also some of the funding impacts that we’ve had in the city as well.

And so at least early on in the pandemic we heard a lot of need and demand for repurposing streets for safer walking and biking, allowing social distance. We still saw a lot of essential trips being taken both by healthcare workers, by retail workers, where now transit was running at a much lower capacity, lower frequency, and people were struggling to figure out how to get around. We did some work here, as a number of cities have across the country, of turning some of our neighborhood greenways in to what we called Stay Healthy Streets. We converted about 20 miles into local access only where it was safe to walk and bike in the street and really a way to expand rapidly our active transportation network.

I think some of the protests, the conversations that we’re having around racial justice and equity—we need to make sure that we continue to center Black voices in that and make sure that we don’t unintentionally create solutions for some that others don’t feel comfortable using or could even be targeted for enforcement or things like that. So that’s a very active discussion that we’re having right now as a department internally, as with our community, which is made all the more challenging just because of the pandemic and the need for social distance and the challenge of in-person communication.

Cohen: You know, even before the protests and some of these conversations that we’re having now, I imagine kind of the concept of equity had to go into some of the decisions you made about where those 20 miles of Stay Health Streets were in your community. How did you make that decision on, like, where these streets needed to be?

Zimbabwe: Sure. And I’ll say, you know, Seattle as a city has for more than 15 years had what’s called the Race and Social Justice Initiative. And I think the recent conversations have increased the urgency around that and sort of called to question some of maybe the way and how we thought about or the types of things that were going into our equity conversations. SDOT has—one of our core values is equity. And so we’ve done on all of our programs things called racial equity toolkits, trying to look at what could be disparate impacts of programs and policies and approaches to managing the transportation system.

The Stay Healthy Streets were all existing neighborhood greenways. So these were already places where we’d done some neighborhood engagement around routes and traffic calming and arterial crossings, things like that. So these were—we felt comfortable in making them Stay Healthy Streets by that we’d already done some level of community engagement. When we started to do that my team did a lot of really quick, difficult work on trying to look at where and how these connections could be useful as part of the transportation system and as part of the recreation system.

Early on in the pandemic we saw a lot of our citywide parks’ tremendous resources get really crowded with people trying to go and get recreation, and so we tried to figure out how we could de-densify some of our parks and [pH] people with maybe fewer recreational options near their houses to be able to do that safely in streets. And so those neighborhoods that are more underserved by parks, have more challenges with transportation connections also tend to be our communities of color and underinvested communities overall. So we did build out this network of Stay Healthy Streets starting from that perspective, but we also soon heard some concern from—you know, our quick approach was to say, “Street closed. Local traffic only.”

We heard from a number of communities, particularly the Black community, that they were concerned about what enforcement meant in that and that it felt unwelcoming and it could lead to conflict between neighbors trying to say that this—questioning who the street was open for and who should be in that street.

Cohen: Sure. I do think these conversations are—you know, you mentioned some of the reflection that you and your team are doing about some of the work that’s been done in the past and how, you know, maybe the way you might have looked at in the past is upon further reflection maybe is not quite enough. And, I think, we’re all kind of going through that process right now. You know, I do think if we’re going to really achieve the mobility outcomes that we want, we’re not going to be able to think about this in silos. Right?

You know, so this is not just a transportation issue that you’re dealing with; it’s obviously a public health issue; it’s a planning issue; it’s a zoning issue, economic development. Obviously, you talked about enforcement. I know that’s been a big conversation right now with the role of the police and enforcement in public transit. So I’m curious just kind of your thoughts as somebody who kind of has to think about these things at a high level; how are you and how do we more broadly as the mobility industry need to think about systems as far as solving these problems?

Zimbabwe: Yeah. So, you know, I think that’s absolutely essential. And I came to public sector transportation agencies a little bit less than a decade ago, worked in D.C. and then now work here. Before that I started out my career working on more of the development side of the world, both from an urban design sort of community planning perspective and then working at an organization called the Center for Transit-Oriented Development where we were looking at regional growth patters, transit investments, and how those could be leveraged to build equitable communities.

So when we looked at the effectiveness of transit investments and transit systems, a lot of that is tied to how well they connect to regional employment centers and how many jobs are connected to transit networks. When we think about why people make transportation choices that they make, it might be related to community safety feelings, to time that they are expected to be at work and the transit service available at that point, the safety of people’s walk to and from transit, and there’s these systemic issues throughout history tended to perpetuate systemic racism that we have to work to undo at the same time as we’re making transit investments, transportation investments overall that seek to undo those past disinvestments or past harms.

So it’s absolutely essential for us as transportation professionals to be questioning and thinking about what we do. The City of Seattle and many large employers in Washington State because of a statewide policy provide employee transit passes. And so for an employee of the City of Seattle it’s free to take transit. It’s great. It drives a lot of that transit ridership growth that we talked about. It also makes it harder for us as transportation professionals to see the economic impact of what transit fares have on communities that maybe don’t get that through their job. Not every employer extends that same benefit, and many people who aren’t employed then have a hard time accessing the transit system.

So we have to be constantly thinking. Even if we say, “Yeah. We’re making great transit service available,” that still may not be accessible to people within our community. If we’re making walking and biking more accessible, if people don’t feel safe from a physical safety perspective, all the infrastructure in the world can’t overcome some of those things. So it is incumbent upon us as transportation professionals to think about how these larger systems impact our work.

Cohen: I think you’re definitely right. And I guess where my mind goes with that is as a city employee you have a finite amount of resources, you have a finite amount of staff, and, I think, to really do these things well, even those examples that you gave—you know, if someone doesn’t physically feel safe walking to the bus stop or walking to work or walking to the park, it’s going to impact their mode choice. Right? And Dr. Destiny Thomas wrote an article in CityLab last week that really kind of addressed that very directly. My question related to that is are our systems even set up to really do that well?

You know, maybe to put a finer point on this, like, it kind of seems like you kind of do the best you can with the limited resources you have, but, like, it seems like until we totally recalibrate how the city is funded or the tax dollars available or the resources available to you, it seems like trying to do some of these things—it seems like you’re kind of in some way hamstrung a little bit on that or there’s just—I don’t know. I’m still processing what I’m asking there, but I think you’re probably following me a little bit. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Zimbabwe: Yeah. I do. And I think you’re right on. I think, especially in places like Seattle where we have a lot of voter-approved initiatives too that fund a lot of our work, you know, we have a nine-year transportation levy that funds about half of our department’s annual budget, huge capital investments, leverages—we leverage federal funding streams with that resource. We also have voter-approved sales tax that we use. We have to go to voters and seek renewal of those on a regular basis too; so even as we look to overcome past harms, we’re going to have to go back to voters and show the broad electorate what we’ve done to satisfy all of their various transportation needs.

I think, from my perspective that starts with some real authentic review within the department of transportation of those and then real authentic engagement with community about what challenges people face and if those are outside of the transportation system, not simply dismissing that and saying, “Oh, well. You know, that’s somebody else. That’s the housing department,” or something like that, but really say, “Okay. Let’s see how we can bring those other partners to the table as we talk about mobility from a community perspective.” I think, we face a challenge within SDOT where we have a lot of different programs. We have our paving programs and our bike lane programs and, you know, we’re under a consent decree to build 1,250 ADA-compliant curb ramps a year for the next 17 years. We’ve got a lot of these different programs, and when we go and we work in community we often are talking or sending the person who is talking about the project that they are tasked with implementing and not grounding that in a larger community conversation about transportation, what people’s needs are, you know, how they might have shifted even in the last six months in the COVID response or things like that.

And so that, I think, is a place where we can do better in terms of how we approach community for those conversations but also in making sure that we continue to be introspective, review the work that we’re doing and whether it’s having the impacts positive or unanticipated negative ones that we need to call to question or we need to say, “Are these the right things?” And if they’re not we need to be ready to shift and change in partnership with communities.

Cohen: Yeah. Well, and, I mean, just hearing you describe that about some of those changes that you might need to make, I mean, again, where my mind goes is, like, “Well, that obviously takes a lot more work than just kind of continuing the, you know, copying the previous row on Excel down to the next row.” Like, that obviously requires a lot more work and a lot more effort. And you need the support from both your peers and also the mayor.

You also need the support of the community as well. And, you know, what I’m wondering—and, you know, obviously I don’t think anybody really has the answer to this, but I’m wondering if this is, like, there’s kind of a change going on right now where folks are saying, “Well, look. I recognize this may take more work. This may take more time to do this well, but we’re willing to invest in that to make sure that we’re actually really addressing these root causes and really ensuring that we’re actually helping the community move around safely, equitably, and sustainably.” It’s kind of the Holy Grail. And, I think, trying to get there, that’s the hard part. Right?

Zimbabwe: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think it is something where, you know, it’s both an urgency to get things done but also an urgency to take some space and listen to communities and figure out how and what we are doing. And, I think, a lot of those challenges really do extend beyond transportation but get magnified and really do intersect with the transportation system and how people get around.

I think, the way that we built our cities for a long time from both a transportation and housing and jobs perspective—I would say cities and regions have exacerbated systemic racism. You know, things like everything from redlining to white flight to suburban job centers that are disconnected from a transit network all reinforce racial disparities in our cities. And so we have to work to undo those things and at the same time do those in a collaborate way and not have too much pride of ownership or too much idea that we within a department of transportation know what is best for a community and can’t learn and adapt and understand.

I think a lot of the designs that we’re building on our streets now, you know, protected bike lanes, the way that we operate our signals, cities across the country have sort of rapidly thought differently, you know, rapid in bureaucratic time—right—not necessarily—it still feels like it takes a long time sometimes—but thought differently about how we design streets that do make them broadly more safe, more multimodal, support people getting around in a variety of different ways. It still is important to reflect on those and make sure that we’re making the best possible decisions, look at potential harms we might still be causing and things like that. So, I think, it’s also just the constant evolution and growth both as individual transportation professionals but also as an industry.

Cohen: That’s a great way to put it. I think, you know, mobility is such an important part of life; we want to make sure everyone has as much access to that as possible. Well, Sam, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me today and to introduce us a little bit to some of the work you’re doing there in Seattle. I know it’s been a busy year, but hopefully the rollout of these Stay Healthy Streets will go as seamlessly as possible and more people will have access to moving around their community safely. So thank you so much for sharing a little bit more about that.

Zimbabwe: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.


Did you enjoy this week’s episode? Read what some of The Movement’s most memorable guests are up to now!