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Meet our episode 27 guest Robin Hutcheson

Robin Hutcheson, the director of public works for Minneapolis, shares how the creation of the city’s Transportation Action Plan prioritizes equity, safety, and climate goals and ensures alignment with the Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive plan.

Episode Transcript

Cohen: In part two of our four-part series from my recent visit to Minneapolis, my guest today is Robin Hutcheson, the Director of Public Works for the city.  We build on my discussion in last week’s episode with Heather Worthington, as Robin and I talk through how the city’s transportation action plan prioritizes equity, safety, and climate goals, ensuring alignment with the Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive plan.  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: I am in Minneapolis.  I am meeting with Robin Hutcheson who is the Director of Public Works for the City of Minneapolis.  And we are in her office overlooking downtown. Well, thank you so much for having me, Robin. I appreciate you allowing us to have this conversation.

Hutcheson: Thanks.  I’m glad to have a conversation.

Cohen: I spent some time with Heather Worthington, and we were talking a lot about the Minneapolis 2040 plan and kind of the key drivers of that and how they use community engagement to really drive that forward.  And so I’d like to maybe jump off from there to talk about the transportation action plan because I know that certainly uses some of the elements from Minneapolis 2040 plus some others to really do that.  So I’d love if you could give our audience maybe a little bit of background on what the major elements of the transportation action plan are and what you really hope to accomplish with it.

Hutcheson: Yeah, I’d be happy to.  That Minneapolis 2040 plan has set a stage for us.  It is a broad policy direction for the city.  It’s very bold, as you must know by now. I think that’s why you’re here in Minneapolis and talking with us.  And it’s great for transportation and for public works too. And when I say it set the stage, it brought a focus to the things that we know are most important to our people in Minneapolis.

It’s not just a transportation topic.  It’s an equity topic. It’s a climate topic.  It’s a prosperity topic. And we now have an opportunity to take everything we’ve learned in the 2040, the adopted policies in the 2040, and—jargon term—operationalize them in an action plan specifically for transportation.  So much public input and feedback on the 2040, and that is all usable for us. We’re doing engagement around the action plan, because we are being more specific, but—

Cohen: So separate engagement?

Hutcheson: Building upon engagement.

Cohen: Okay, got it.

Hutcheson: So asking some deeper questions than simply the policy questions that are answered in the 2040, but really using that as the basis for the transportation action plan.  So I always think about things graphically where the big bubble on the top is Minneapolis 2040, and that’s our guiding document for the city, but there are bubbles that sort of hang off the bottom of that as a call-to-action type of plan, and that is the transportation action plan.  And we have others. We’ve got a stormwater management plan that hangs off of that too, and health has a plan, and many other departments are doing that. But the one we’re in the middle of right now is the transportation action plan.

I just came from a meeting—it was back-to-back to this meeting—hearing an update on the public engagement.  And, again, just asking deeper and more specific questions. I heard things like, “We went out to students. They’re kind of pissed off that they can’t ride scooters until they’re 18.”  So we get at much deeper questions in this more specific plan. I think the thing that I’m most excited about is in the last 10 years—just imagine how the transportation landscape has changed in the last 10 years.

Cohen: Sure.  Yeah.

Hutcheson: We’re writing new chapters that we never had before.  So very basics like transit 10 years ago was simply considered the work of someone else, not necessarily the focused work of a city.  So we didn’t have a transit chapter 10 years ago; no we will have a transit focus. I don’t want to say—

Cohen: That’s kind of amazing though.  Right? I mean, to—

Hutcheson: Well, how could we not have?  But we didn’t know what we didn’t know.  We didn’t know how crucial it would be for cities to need to define for themselves what’s important in transit.  I started this work in Salt Lake City. So prior to coming to the City of Minneapolis I was the director of transportation in Salt Lake City.  I had proposed—I hope it’s okay to mix experience from one place and another place.

Cohen: Of course.

Hutcheson: I’m going to come back to Minneapolis, I promise, but—

Cohen: Mix away.

Hutcheson: —I proposed doing an update to Salt Lake City’s transportation master plan, and the city council said, “That’s great, only we only want you to do transit.”  And I was like, “I could live with that. We can do that.” So that city—and it was completed just after I left—did a specific plan for transit that resulted in making a deal with the Utah Transit Authority to bring more money from the city into transit for the city, so basically contracting for better transit service within Salt Lake City.

I haven’t proposed that here.  I think it’s a model that’s worth looking at, but it all started—that all starts with the city defining for itself what is most important about transit.  And it doesn’t create an adversarial conversation; it creates a partnership, and I’m really looking forward to that. We are working very closely with Metro Transit on this.  I believe they see it as a partnership; we see it as a partnership. So brand-new focus area for us in our action planning is, “What are we doing about transit?”

We’re not waiting for the adoption of the action plan.  We have a lot of policies in place that allow us to try things, and we’ve got three bus-only lane pilots rolling out in 2019.  One of them is very close. The red paint has been purchased.

Cohen: Oh, wow.

Hutcheson: I won’t say I’m not nervous, but it’s going to be great; it’s going to be awesome.  And just but better definition through that action plan. Another new chapters is advanced mobility.

Cohen: Yeah.

Hutcheson: Call that what you want, but we all know what scooters look like and that it’s not really about the scooter; it’s about the technology and the phone and bike sharing or dockless bikes or back to bike sharing or electric bikes, but then not electric bikes, but then electric bikes are back and—

Cohen: I know.  It’s amazing.

Hutcheson: It is.  And we’ve got car sharing that was here, that went away, that maybe is coming back, and we’ve got this concept of mobility hubs that we’re testing and piloting.  And then the incessant discussion—I fully anticipate Tom Fisher to enlighten you on this subject. I truly mean that—on autonomous vehicles, the incessant conversation around autonomy and how that will change, and sharing, how autonomy and sharing are connected.  That is a chapter that we could have never dreamed up 10 years ago. In our wildest imagination we could have never dreamed this up 10 years ago, but yet it dominates most transportation conversations.

And then maybe the last one I’ll highlight—because we’ve got a lot of very—like, you would expect to see a pedestrian focused and a bicycle one.  All that’s great. Another one is freight, which, you know, I remember the first transportation plan I worked on in my career; I was in charge of doing the freight.  And it was just, like, “The trucks take this route and take this route.” And the microphone can’t see this, but I’m using my hands to just like two truck routes and your planning is done.  That is not what freight is any more because freight is inextricably linked to advanced mobility, and that whole landscape is changing as well, so a couple of new chapters.

In every single part of this plan there is first and foremost a focus on the city’s most pressing needs and goals.  We had an opportunity to kind of prioritize them. I had a heavy hand in that, and I put climate first because my value system is very focused on climate and transportation’s key role in mitigating climate and reducing future impacts on the climate.  But equity is right there and is a huge value for the City of Minneapolis. And a lot of that comes out in our outreach. How we’ve done our outreach on it is very equity forward, equity first. These are vital principles that are throughout every single piece of what we’re doing.  In the very same way that they are the underpinnings of the Minneapolis 2040 plan, they continue to be the underpinnings of everything that comes after that.

Cohen: Sure.  And that makes sense.  Right. The alignment just continues.

Hutcheson: Yeah.

Cohen: Which I think is important.

Hutcheson: Yeah.

Cohen: So, I mean, you mention obviously these themes and, you know, pedestrian and biking and so forth.  And then you also mention how you’re not even waiting for it to be adopted; you’re just kind of going ahead and moving forward.  And I guess I’d like to maybe dig into that a little bit to say, you know, there’s many communities that have Vision Zero plans, but then when you actually look at what actually is delivered to the community, there’s a little bit of a disconnect.  How do you balance? How do you balance kind of these ideas versus the reality? And, like, you know, maybe that has to deal with how you have to engage with the elected officials, maybe that’s how you have to engage with your colleagues.

Hutcheson: Mm-hmm.  We are in such a fortunate position in Minneapolis, and that is—I just will say we have had and continue to have great political leadership on this that has bestowed upon us resources for us to move forward quickly.  Two years ago the city council passed a resolution, an ordinance that effectively devoted approximately $20 million a year, each year, in addition to a base amount towards the streets. It sounds like a boring proposal until we start to pick it apart.

So, yes, our streets need to be redone.  Like every major United States city where we don’t have enough resources to keep our infrastructure in the state of good repair that is required to reduce long-term cost for maintenance, I think every city is in this position.  Just before my time, a great staff here did a report that said if we don’t invest now it will cost so much more later. Same formula, either fix it now or fix it at much greater cost later, and it was enough to compel the political leadership, our mayor and our city council to get behind this.

But that’s not enough because if you don’t have some other policy things in place you’re just going to repave and reconstruct your streets, and you won’t really be benefitting much except the smooth ride of a car.  At the same time a completes-streets ordinance was adopted. And that complete-streets ordinance said, “Every time you redo a street, you put the pedestrians first. You put the bikes and transit next. And then you consider the cars.”

Cohen: Right.

Hutcheson: Every time we construct street, we are able to make real improvements.  We just gave our 2018 report to the city council, and this is where we are able to say, “With those extra resources, we can meet our city goals much broader than just what’s on the surface of the pavement.”  Let me start with equity. We developed our criteria to base the selection of streets about half on the condition of the street, because you don’t fix a problem that you don’t have. Like, start with where you have the problem.  But the other half is equity.

One part of equity being, “Is this street located in a racially concentrated area of poverty?” an RCAP, as we say, as designated by the metropolitan council.  The second, “Is there a modal inequity that needs to be righted in this neighborhood or on this corridor?” From that we create a five-year program that emphasizes in essentially an overinvestment in areas of the city that were typically underinvested in.  So we’re starting to make some progress. We’re in year three right now. We’ll have 17 more of this.

Cohen: Wow.  That’s amazing.

Hutcheson: And I think we’re already making good progress.  So, for example, we had just in 2018 74 intersections upgrades that included either traffic circles, bump outs, or medians.  We upgraded 27 signals, which improved safety, 31 transit-priority signals upgrades, so making investments in transit.

Cohen: Wow.

Hutcheson: We did 34-and-a-half miles of paving work and about two-thirds of that were in what we call ACP, areas of concentrated poverty, two-thirds of that being in areas of concentrated poverty.  We did 363 ADA ramps. We did 132 curb extensions. We did eight miles of improved pedestrian realm sidewalks and boulevards. You know, coming from Salt Lake where we didn’t have these resources, this is like a gift to the people of Minneapolis.

Cohen: Yeah.  I love the statutory aspect of that, because that removes a little bit of the political there.  Right? So Cambridge did this with their bike lanes now, that every time they do that.

Hutcheson: Yeah.  Yes.

Cohen: So it’s like now—it’s like so the council is like, “Well, we’d have to change a law, so it’s—”

Hutcheson: Right.  Yeah.

Cohen: So I love that.  My concern—and I’d love to see how you’ve dealt with this—is that, you know, depending on where that work is done, you might end up with a patchwork of pedestrian improvements, bike improvements, and so forth.

Hutcheson: Hmm.

Cohen: So how have you navigated that?

Hutcheson: A great question.  Yes. Okay, so we need some balance here.  This is not the only part of our capital improvement program.  This is the accelerated part of our program that allows us to do things that we wouldn’t have been able to do before because we have more funding to redo our streets.

Cohen: Got it.

Hutcheson: But we have a number of other programs that are being reoriented towards safety.

Cohen: Got it.

Hutcheson: So the equity criteria still comes into play, but safety and the work we’re doing—I did not mention this before, but in concert with the transportation action plan we have a simultaneous plan for Vision Zero underway.  It’s actually going to be—it’s a little bit ahead of the transportation action plan. It’s a much more focused topic. So our Vision Zero action plan will inform the transportation action plan and will rely on both this infusion of dollars as we redo the streets that need redoing, but also we can select projects that are on our high crash corridors.  You know, there’s some challenges there. Again, every city faces it. Not all the high crash corridors are City of Minneapolis corridors.

Cohen: Right.

Hutcheson: So there’s so much partnership that’s going to be needed.  But we have a number of other tools that will help us address some other problems.

Cohen: Good.  Yeah.

Hutcheson: And all of that is on the mobility side.  And climate is—we all know the link between that behavior change shifting from a single-occupant vehicle and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions.  We’ve been working with these concepts for a long time. I’m new to the public works world. Been in transportation a long time, and I am so energized by a few of the things that are now within the purview of Public Works that we have available to us as we are rethinking our streets and our infrastructure on the whole.  And if we just think and talk about stormwater the opportunities are tremendous.

Cohen: I really like that the focus.  I mean, it seems like the hard work of getting the goals and the alignment and then once you have that it seems like all the good stuff can just go.  Right?

Hutcheson: I mean, there’s still major challenges.

Cohen: Of course.

Hutcheson: It’s not, “Yes, we can just go,” and we experience hurdles just like everybody else does, you know, a public that sometimes doesn’t want what you’re doing and—

Cohen: How do you deal with that?

Hutcheson: Well, we listen and we acknowledge.  So let’s just start with that. So there are many, many supporters for Minneapolis 2040, for what we’re doing, what we’re proposing, starting to propose in the transportation action plan for the bus-only lanes, for all the things we’re working on.  But for those who don’t support it I think it’s really important, and I encourage my staff to acknowledge that there is disagreement, to listen, and to rely on the momentum in the policy that has been created because that’s been created by people, with people, for people of Minneapolis.

Cohen: By a lot of people.

Hutcheson: By a lot of people, in a very broad process.

Cohen: Yeah.

Hutcheson: I think too—sometimes when I’m in a conversation with someone who maybe is less supportive like, “You’re making it impossible to drive.  Why are you trying to prevent people from driving in the City of Minneapolis?” Listen, acknowledge their concern, sometimes I’m even able to acknowledge, “Yes, I know we have a lot of construction this summer, and I know it’s really difficult,” and it is really difficult right now in Minneapolis.  We have a really short construction season.

Cohen: Right.

Hutcheson: And when you get to the heart of the matter they’re not as upset and concerned as maybe what they first portrayed when you start explaining the investments in traffic signals.  There’s so much investment that goes into the entire network that benefits everyone, that just people, they see the new thing. They see that a bike lane went in on their street, and they then support it, or they lost their parking space, and they don’t like that.  But when you zoom out and look at the broader investments for people to get around, you sometimes can make friends.

Cohen: Yeah.  No, I think that’s a good point.  So I want to maybe transition to this quite that I read of yours.

Hutcheson: Uh-oh.

Cohen: Uh-oh.  We’ll see if it was a real quote here.  So, “Transportation has become a field of exponential technological change.  To resist the reactionary mode that tends to come with rapid change, Minneapolis has to first define what is most important to us as a city and then find the matching approaching in technology to help us meet those goals.”  So what struck me about that quote is certainly you and I talking makes complete sense. We’re kind of very close to the mobility world; we’re in it every day. I guess my question is, like, how does the general public respond to that?  Because I could see that certainly when you read the papers and so forth, like, there is—and not within the industry—there seems to be a lot of techno-fetishism maybe is the right word. I’m not sure. But, like, “Autonomous vehicles will save us.”  Right?

Hutcheson: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And so I want to kind of—so I’m curious.  Kind of as you go out and you have to explain to people, it’s like, “Why are we investing in this bus lane?  Autonomous vehicles are going to solve all of this. Why?” you know, like, I imagine you must get that question occasionally.

Hutcheson: I do.  But first—but less so from the people of Minneapolis.  It’s more if you’re like maybe talking to folks that are outside of Minneapolis.

Cohen: Okay.  That’s fair.  That’s fair.

Hutcheson: But I’m going to come back to that.  I just want to say I like that quote.  I actually wrote that. That was really me.

Cohen: Good.  All right.

Hutcheson: Okay?

Cohen: Yay.

Hutcheson: It’s not always the case, but that was really me, and that is—I was going to come to that at some point during this interview.  I was going to say that again.

Cohen: Well, good.

Hutcheson: Maybe not the first part, but the technological fetishism is causing people to lose sight, in my opinion, people to lose sight of what is really important, because you’re just chasing something that is new and bright and claims to be a solution.  And it might be a solution, but it’s not a solution if you don’t define where you want to go first. So this is—the Minneapolis 2040 does this, and the transportation action plan is essential to defining what are we trying to accomplish, what do people want, what are we trying to accomplish, eye on the goals of the city.

And then invite with gusto the technology that can help us get to those goals, help us make progress towards those goals.  I love tech—actually, I’m not great at technology. I was going to say I love technology, but the truth is that, like, sometimes I can’t work my iPhone.  So that’s just who I am, but I understand that there are a lot of people that love technology. And I think that there are solutions that are right for the city that we don’t even know about yet.

Cohen: Yeah.

Hutcheson: So that’s—I’m pretty focused on that.  Now, let’s talk about autonomous vehicles.  That’s probably top of the list of technological fetishism, what you said.  They’re already being manufactured. You know, like, they are. They’re running around streets in a lot of places.  I do think that they are coming to a city near you soon. So my take on this is, “What policies do you need in place now to harness that for good?”

You can let it come and affect you, or you can harness it for good.  You asked how the public is responding to this. I don’t think we’ve moved passed—at least here, I’m not sure we’ve moved past the fixation on it to dig deeper onto how can it hurt and how can it help.

Cohen: Mm-hmm.

Hutcheson: Professionals, you know, me and you sitting around here, we can probably talk a long time about how it can hurt and how it can help.  I know I talk about it a lot when I’m presenting. To this end, this is why I have Danielle Elkins here, why we have a specialized fellow who is really working in this space.  Like, interestingly when we initially wrote her scope of work, I wanted her to develop a curriculum, and now I realize how ridiculous that is, because it’s a continuous learning process and a continuous teaching process.

So learn, teach, learn, teach, learn, teach has become a lot of what she is doing.  There’s just a lot of speculation, misunderstanding, fear, and we don’t need to fear it.  In fact, we could welcome it, if it were according to the view of Minneapolis, if it helped seniors be more mobile, if it helped reduce the equity gap, if it were available to all so that it didn’t increase the digital divide.  If it were shared, only shared in cities—I don’t know—maybe that’s a good solution. If it’s the other version of it where it’s just unchecked, we don’t like that.

Cohen: Robin Chase, the founder of Zipcar, I think, describes it as the autonomous heaven or the autonomous hell.

Hutcheson: Yeah, I’ve seen that.  I’ve read that. Yeah.

Cohen: Yeah.  Depending on some of the statutory stuff and some of the regulatory stuff.  So you’ve mentioned how lucky you are here that you’ve got some funding to do this, and maybe in Salt Lake you maybe weren’t as lucky.  And I want to dig on that a little bit, which is obviously there’s always more needs than what you can do even though you’re very lucky here.  How do you balance what you can do with what you cannot do? Right? I mean, you only have so much time. Your staff only has so much time.

Hutcheson: Consistency with the goals of the city.  Is this aligned? How well? To what degree?  How many of these goals does it meet? One, five?

Cohen: So not just a binary yes or no but a real scale there.

Hutcheson: Mm-hmm.  The city is divided into 13 wards, and we are asked to look at a lot of different things.  And I can’t do every request because we would just be chasing the reactive requests, and most of those are for stop sign, quite frankly.  “I need a stop sign here. I need a stop sign there. I need a stop sign here. I need a stop sign there.” We evaluate every traffic request, but our focus never wavers.

Is that intersection—as we’re doing our evaluation, “Oh, that intersection is in our Vision Zero action plan because it’s on a high crash corridor.  Elevate. That intersection, though perceived as difficult, we’ve evaluated it; it maybe doesn’t rise to the same level as something that’s been identified in Vision Zero.”  That’s maybe one example of how you test the priorities of being reactionary or really being thoughtful about the set of improvements that you’re making.

Cohen: And I assume the public knows that that’s kind of the decision-making criteria that you’re using.

Hutcheson: Hmm.

Cohen: Not always, maybe?

Hutcheson: Well, it’s very astute.  We should better explain it.  We are getting better at it, and we need to get better at explaining it.  You know, traffic—I’m not an engineer, but I’ve worked with a lot of engineers.  And there used to be—you know, let’s go back 10 years; the answer was, “It doesn’t meet the warrant,” and we don’t really say that any more.  I mean, it might not meet the warrant; that might be true, but you have to explain what tool do you need to best solve your problem. You might have picked a tool that actually doesn’t solve the problem that you have, but let us help you pick a tool.  So communication is different than it used to be, and it’s better, and we need to get better at it.

Cohen: Yeah, I mean, it seems like that’s a stance almost or like it’s a—like, you really have to integrate that into everything you do.  Right? Like—

Hutcheson: Yeah, explaining, planning, telling the story of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Cohen: Yeah, and obviously it’s never going to be perfect.

Hutcheson: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: But that’s interesting.  So I maybe want to wrap up with this, which is, as you’re thinking about others who are in a similar place or want to have a similar impact in their communities, what are some practical tips that you would say—and, again, this doesn’t have to be transportation specific; this could be things like communication or something like that.  But what are some practical tips that you could share that might help them be more effective?

Hutcheson: Neither success nor failure is the work of one person.  As you grow in your career and you find yourself in increasingly responsible and exposed positions, the people that you are surrounded by become sometimes the only way you do your job and you’re fulfilled by your job.  That is very true of the position I have. And increasingly my job is—it’s actually somewhat esoteric, I would say. Sometimes I don’t think my staff has any idea what I do, except what I really do is enable them to do and remove obstacles.  And that has become the most rewarding part of my whole career.

So the transition between, “Look at this great thing I’ve done.  I’m going to build my career on this thing,” it’s you transition out of that to, “What network of smart people of every background, race, amount of diversity as much as we can get here, what network can I built that is about opportunity for others?”  And then you’re really cooking. Then it’s not one or two; then it’s like a whole—I have 1,000 people here in Public Works. I won’t say 1,000 people are all rowing together, but as many of us are rowing together is really the power in making change. That’s one thing that’s a little bit inspirational.

Two, you really got to hone your communications skills.  Let’s go back 10 years ago. No social media, the communication channels were like damp at best, and now it is an expectation and a high need to be able to deliver your message and tell your story and do it in the most compassionate way that you can with people because you’ve got to lose your position on something and acknowledge and listen.  It’s just it’s so essential.

Maybe I’ll say too, like, find like a network of peers that you grow up together with.  I have it. I kind of grew up professionally with this network that is still my network, and they’re all over the place.  And I chose my mentors, and they’re still my mentors. And I have colleagues and friends that help me from all corners.

Cohen: Well, I think that’s a great place to wrap up.  Robin, thank you for sharing some perspective on what you’re doing here with the transportation action plan in Minneapolis and also sharing some of these tips and lessons that you’ve learned and have begun to apply and have really helped you in the work you’ve done in Salt Lake and also here.  So thank you so much.

Hutcheson: Thanks.  I feel so tired.  That was a lot of talking.

Cohen: [LAUGHS]

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