Eulois Cleckley provides an introduction to Denver’s new department of transportation and infrastructure that focuses on how things move—whether that’s people, vehicles, or water—as well as how he helps keep his team focused on the long term impact of their work.
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Cleckley: Eulois Cleckley
Cohen: Eulois Cleckley is heading up a transportation department in Denver that is not only having to adjust to a new focus but also having to cope with changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. You’ll get an inside look at this transition and how they are providing an equitable and safe way for people to get some fresh air coming up now 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 is Eulois Cleckley, the executive director of the new Department of Transportation & Infrastructure for the City and County of Denver. Prior to his time in Denver, Eulois worked for the Houston-Galveston Area Council where he served as the deputy director of the metropolitan planning organization as well as serving in several positions at the Washington, D.C. District Department of Transportation. Welcome to The Movement, Eulois.
Cleckley: Thank you for the invitation. I’m very pleased and happy to be here.
Cohen: I want to dig in a little bit to this new Department of Transportation & Infrastructure that you’re leading, but before we do that there’s some more timely news that I’d love to kind of pick your brain a little bit about, which is over the last couple weeks I know that Denver has opened up, I think, over 16 miles of streets to the public to enhance social distancing during this COVID-19 pandemic. So I’d love maybe if you could give us a little context on the process that you and the mayor went through and your council so that perhaps our listeners could potentially learn from that and potentially apply some of that in their community.
Cleckley: Absolutely. So based on the city’s response to this pandemic, COVID-19, the mayor, Mayor Michael B. Hancock, he issued a stay-at-home order earlier on in the month of March. And based off of that particular decision which really was about protecting the residents of the City and County of Denver and trying to make sure we got ahead of the curve here in Denver, as Denver is the largest metropolitan area in the State of Colorado as well as the most dense city in the State of Colorado. He made that bold decision to issue that stay-at-home order, and what we saw as soon as he did that—we saw the subsequent weekend after he issued that order that people were out and about in a lot of our open spaces and parks.
And so at that time there was a strong encouragement of the social distancing order, which is staying six feet apart from each other. And at the same time while we’re trying to encourage people to be safe and go out and enjoy open space, due to the fact there were so many people out that people had a very difficult time complying with that social distance guideline. And so that’s the first thing that we saw, and we were monitoring this. And as we took a look at making sure that the city is responding and protecting our employees, we first decided to look at locations and other right-of-ways and streets around surrounding parks that provide some relief so people can comply with that social distance order.
And so we immediately got on it and identified through the feedback from our Department of Parks and Recreation where were the locations of parks that experienced the highest amount of pedestrian activity and cycling activity. So we identified those quickly, and we identified the surrounding streets around those park facilities to open up those streets to provide more spacing for folks. But we took it a little step further. So earlier, I would say, in the year we had already started to contemplate testing out temporary road closures on a weekend basis, and we were at the beginning stages of this planning effort.
So you’ll see in a lot of other international cities on the weekends they’ll close a lot of their main boulevards to encourage people walking and biking. And so we were starting to already look at that concept. The one benefit that will come out of all of our response is our ability to advance that concept to look at other areas in the city outside of park space from an equity lens to provide additional open space for people during this time to be able to enjoy the outdoors and exercise and still comply with the social distance order. So the second piece in our evaluation was based off of equity and based off of proximity within a quarter mile of open or park space.
And so we went through an analytical approach where we took our equity index, which is an index of about 11 different socio-demographic factors to really determine which specific neighborhoods within the city are least off versus other neighborhoods. And then we overlaid that with the park access information that we had, and what we found is that we had gaps. And we had gaps in areas that were communities that had a high equity index. The higher the index, the essentially worse off the data set is showing that that community is as compared to other communities. And so the second layer in this is that we went forward and we identified locations in those equity areas, closed those streets to through traffic, opened those streets up for people to walk and bike, and provide that then connection to park space and open space for people to be able to comply with social distancing and still enjoy themselves and still exercise.
So we did that within a matter of two weeks. A lot of data, a lot of our staff kind of leaned in, and we said, “Let’s do this. Let’s be aggressive. And let’s make this happen, and let’s look beyond just the traditional approach of just allowing more streets to be open around parks. Let’s get into the neighborhoods that probably need this the most during this time, and let’s close those streets and make it happen.” So I’m very proud of the team and very proud of how nimble we moved forward with that concept.
Cohen: Wow. And what kind of feedback have you heard from residents about opening up either those park streets or some of these more neighborhood streets? What kind of feedback have you heard?
Cleckley: Very positive. I would say that Denver, by way of its culture, is an outdoor community, a very active community. And so people were really clamoring for opportunities to be able to get out of the house, not have to drive somewhere, and still be able to experience the outdoor nature and culture of Denver, and so extremely positive feedback. People were very appreciative. And the feedback has been so positive that folks want us to consider making these things permanent or even expanding the locations where we’ve initiated these temporary road closures.
So I think it’s been well received. And the one aspect that we’re excited about is that we’re going to learn a lot of information around the operations of these particular road closures and how through this time we can refine it and make it as safe as possible but also begin to integrate these concepts into some future projects that we have moving forward, which are going to be more of a shared-street-design type of approach that we’re going to have for some of our projects in certain areas of the city. And so we just really think that although during this time it’s unfortunate, at the same time we’re going to learn a lot from this action that we took.
Cohen: You know, what that recalled to me—and you motioned this briefly, how a lot of international cities have done this shutting of streets on the weekends to encourage biking and so forth—is I had a conversation with Romel Pascual of CicLAvia in Los Angeles. And one of the things that he talked about in the course of that conversation, which I think kind of speaks to a little bit of what you’re talking about and also a conversation I had with Warren Logan in Oakland last week about their street closures as well, is that he said, you know, the real value of shutting down those streets—you know, even if someone drives down those streets the next day or whatever, is that you’ve seeded something in their mind about what it could be, and you’ve changed them just a little bit. And, you know, Warren talked about that a little bit as almost like helping them see what could be and seeing this vision. And I think that’s a really, really compelling part of this whole thing that I think is the silver lining, that obviously this is a really challenging time, but if we can take that silver lining from that, I think that could be really positive.
Cleckley: Absolutely. And I’d say really there’s three levels of the audience that, I think, we’re going to be able to hit as a part of this action. One is, of course, the people that are already there; they’re already excited about biking and walking and like it and want the city to be able to build these types of projects that accommodate those two different modes. Then we have folks that perhaps may not be as focused on walking and biking as a way of getting around in the city and now because essentially they are forced to stay at home still want to be active. Now they’re going to be in a position to actually experience how it feels to ride and walk and reimagine the street a little bit differently, where perhaps they wouldn’t have had that type of focus in their day-to-day life.
And then there’s the folks, to your point, of people that are still going to drive. And we get it, but the fact that now motorists are seeing the new allocation and a new repurposing of these streets and they’re figuring out how to interact with pedestrians and cyclists a little bit better. And so whenever we get back to a point of normalcy hopefully we will see that people will—if you’re a motorist, you will understand how to navigate around our streets where we have protected bike lanes or striped bike lanes a little bit better so people will be more aware. And then the people that we’re trying to encourage to take these other modes of transportation and not to rely on a vehicle, they will feel a little bit more comfortable that, “Yes, I can do this, and it’s okay. And I can navigate around my community on a bike or figure out ways to walk to where I need to go, and I don’t have to jump in a car.”
So those three kind of levels of the audience, I think that we’ll be able to integrate this idea of how we can re-envision our streets and you can take advantage of it. And as we go into a community and look at installing a new bike lane that might have the tradeoff of parking or something of that nature, people won’t be as afraid to accept that new type of infrastructure. So, to your point, I think that the silver lining is more people will understand the value of repurposing our streets for other modes outside of the vehicle.
Cohen: Well, let’s maybe transition to kind of the big news before this recent big news, which was in 2019 Denver voters approved a change to the city charter to green-light the creation of the department that you are now heading, which is the Department of Transportation & Infrastructure. So I’d love for you to maybe share a little bit about kind of the decision to create this department and what it will mean for Denver, especially for those of us who aren’t as familiar with the unique situation there in Denver.
Cleckley: Right. So we went through about a two-year process to reorganize our department and set a new vision and mission for at that time the Department of Public Works. And so Denver public works was a department that had a 110-year-long history for the City and County of Denver. It’s probably one of the first departments that was created as the city itself was actually chartered. And the focus of Denver public works at that time was really about building infrastructure. And so it was basically the city’s contractor. So if there was anything from roads and bridges to even our vertical public facilities, public works was the group to go build it.
As Denver started to grow over the past seven years or so, where you had 110,000 people migrate to the city, it started to become very apparent that transportation and mobility was a huge topic that needed to be addressed. Any time you have a huge influx of people into a city—and if you didn’t plan and/or prepare your infrastructure for that, you’re going to have some constraints. And that was what happened, I would say, over the past seven years or so. And so as a part of that the mayor back in 2016 came out with his Mobility Action Plan which really set some visionary targets on mode shift and mode-share and really trying to encourage people to get out of their cars and use biking and transit and walking as ways to get to work. But that needed to be supported by an organization that was focused on transportation and mobility.
And so I was appointed to come in and kind of help provide a little bit different direction, a little bit of a different vision for the department and restructure the department more appropriately to be able to deliver mobility projects quicker. And so we went through an 18-month to two-year process to essentially change and completely reorganize the entire department. Through that exercise, what we were required to do—and this is part of the intricacies here in Denver, is that anytime you create a new department, you actually have to change the city charter. And when you change the city charter it has to go to a vote of the people to approve that new charter change that you’re recommending.
So the process by which I went about doing this was first to reorganize the department and set it up as if we had already got approved by the voters to be a new department. Right? So it’s one of these things you have to weigh the risk. You would think that the voters would be okay with the department, but I didn’t feel at that time that we needed to wait to get approval. I said, “Well, we can reorganize now.” And so we spent about 18 months going through and reorganizing the entire department, got to a point where we were able to announce not only did we reorganize and we had the functional areas really set up and a streamlined approach, we created this new concept to be able to deliver projects called One Build, which is an integrated approach to do as much infrastructure improvements at one time in one neighborhood and get out of that neighborhood to minimize disruption.
We set both of those things out and then got to the ballot. And at the end of late last year in November of 2019 we got to the ballot. Voters approved this new department with 74% of the vote, and then on January 1st of 2020 we became the Department of Transportation & Infrastructure. So it was more than—initially the thought from the mayor is that we needed to have a separate department from public works, but as I kind of got in and reevaluated everything I felt that we didn’t need the separate department; we needed to just reorganize our functional areas and have the right people in the right position and redo our philosophy around how we deliver infrastructure and have the guiding star be mobility and transportation as opposed to just being the city’s contractor.
And those are two changes and mindsets that we needed to move forward. And all the staff kind of bought in, and we’ve really been accelerating a lot of our projects. And we’ve been moving forward with modernizing our processes and just making sure that we are creating a more sophisticated and modern transportation system here in Denver.
Cohen: And so prior to the creation of this department, where were these transportation and mobility projects? How were they being managed, or what department were they under? Where they still under public works?
Cleckley: Yeah. So they were under public works, and at that time there was one group in the department called transportation and mobility. They did a little bit of planning, a little bit of operations in the right-of-way, and they were primarily focused on multimodal projects. There were 125 or so people within that small group, and that’s one group in a department that has 1,400 people. And what I quickly realized is that these were folks that were trying to advance projects, but we had a separate group, a capital infrastructure group that was building out transportation projects as well. And then we had separate operational groups that were doing signals and right-of-way enforcement and things of this nature. So there were disparate and kind of segmented and siloed functions in different divisions within the department. So there wasn’t as much coordination as what needed to be, based off of the previous structure.
So essentially what we did is that instead of carving that one group out and creating a department around that one group, we essentially diffused that group and put those individuals into other areas within the department and then organized the department in a functional standpoint. And so now instead of just having one division trying to push mobility projects, it’s the entire department pushing mobility projects. So that’s been the biggest benefit, is that now the full heft of my capital infrastructure team which would build large projects that had large scopes and the like, that that expertise that we were so good at is now integrated into even our smallest projects, as in, you know, putting out striping and painting or doing bike lanes.
And so, you know, again, I go back to the philosophy change that we had to embark upon to get people to understand that all of this is integrated and our entire department deals with what’s in the right-of-way. And what’s in the right-of-way is the street and the sidewalk, things on top of it like signs and signals and the infrastructure below it, which is our sewer and sanitary systems. And our entire department touches every single piece of that infrastructure. The general public sees at the end of the day a finished product regardless if it’s an underground utility project or anything else—it’s you’re touching a transportation system.
So we were already a transportation department, we just didn’t know it. And so, I think, through that reorganization and kind of stepping back a little bit and making sure we understood what our role was really helped and, again, getting the right people in the right position and having the department set up functionally to be able to deliver these projects in a quick manner.
Cohen: What that recalls to me is, you know, sometimes I think about things like framing. Because, like, what essentially you’re doing there is you’re kind of reframing kind of the department around the concept of transportation. Whether you’re moving people, whether you’re moving sewage and fresh water, so forth, you’re kind of helping to move things. And, you know, sometimes I think the thinking about framing in that way seems kind of silly, but a lot of times then I reflect. It’s like, “You know? That—” it really has a lot of power when you can have that real compelling and simple way of looking at it and framing this out so that everyone understands, like, that’s what your department does, is, “We move things and we move things to help our city work better,” you know, and live better. You know?
Cleckley: Absolutely. Yeah, and I would say that a lot of public agencies struggle with taking the time to step back and reframe and create a vision that’s really focused on how does the department operate. And the reason being is that, you know, in public sector life you are focused on implementing a plan. Right? And that’s a plan for an asset. That’s not something that is focused on how is your department performing, how does the staff understand what their day-to-day role should be in meeting this vision of the department which should tie into the vision and the focus of the city.
And, you know, I’ve been on both the private sector and the public sector side. You see that on the business side a lot where it’s about, “Well, how do we engage our employees? And how do we get our employees to buy into the vision of a company or a business?” It’s amazing that on a public sector side we sometimes don’t start from that standpoint. We start from a plan, a project, or a political initiative and trying to advance that. And sometimes there’s a disconnect. So I would say that it’s very difficult to step back, and it’s very difficult to go through the proactive steps to do this re-visioning exercise, but if you do it you will see that it will reap benefits in the long run. And every single employee should know every single day when they come in what their purpose is and what their day-to-day job and activity is and how it relates to the vision of a department. And so we’ve had to do that exercise, and it’s not a quick fix. It takes some time to get people comfortable with it, but we’re to a point now where we’ve set four strategic focus areas. We have our department goals that are focused on how well we perform not on a plan but how well we perform, how well are we delivering our projects on time, you know, how well are we going through even hiring the resources to be able to deliver our projects, how safe are we when we’re doing our work.
It’s those basic, fundamental things that every single employee can buy into, and they understand, “Everyday, I am contributing to the overall department performance.” So that would be the one thing that I would encourage other leaders to do, is take the time sometimes, especially if you’re coming in into a new role, to take those couple of months to do an evaluation and to make sure that your vision of the department lines up with the vision of the city, and make sure that all your staff understands how they could contribute on a daily basis to advancing that vision of that department.
Cohen: Yeah. That’s fantastic. We’ve got about time for one more question, and I really wanted to get your perspective on this, which is decision making is critical for a leader. And so I’m curios from your stop either in Denver or one of your prior roles, I’m really curious what the hardest decision that you had to make—maybe what tools or resources you use to help you make that decision?
Cleckley: Yeah. It’s a great question. There’s a lot of hard and difficult decision that I’ve had to make here in Denver and other locations as well. And I would say first is that any decision that has to do with a personnel action, I think, can be always difficult. And I kind of have a philosophy that I want to make sure that any department that I’m a part of we can kind of help invest in our people and maximize the potential of all of our employees. And I would say one of the more difficult decisions that I’ve had to make, you know, over time is, you know, relieving somebody of their duties. But the one specifically that we had to encounter here in Denver is that we had some significant manager issues in certain areas of the department.
And it got to the point where it was eroding the morale of one of our divisions to the point that people were physically feeling ill and would miss work. And so, you know, it was disappointing as you kind of come in and you’re trying to reengage staff and you’re trying to push staff and energize staff to do more and at the same time you have somebody on your management team that’s completely going against the vision that you’re trying to set forward. And so we had to make a decision to basically gut the management in one of our divisions and let those individuals go. And as soon as we did that, as soon as we did that we automatically saw morale improve. And then we noticed that there were people that were within that group that were suppressed, never had the opportunity to showcase their skills. And we found that we had some strong leaders within this department.
And so part of getting to that decision is, one, trying to figure out, “Well, what’s going on here?” taking the time to talk to people, working with our HR partners and figuring out what the true issues were, and then being quick to make a decision and then move forward. And so that’s always difficult, but it’s completely necessary. On the project side, I think one of the more difficult projects that I had to deal with was back in my time in D.C. where we had to work with one of our Class I railroads at the time that was building a significant project in Washington, D.C.
And so CSX is one of the main Class I railroads that goes through Washington, D.C. And at the time they were building out what was called the national gateway system, which made connections from the northeast part of the city through Ohio and D.C. and all the way down to Florida. And one of their largest projects in this entire system was in D.C. It was a nine-block tunnel that was a single-track tunnel and a single-stack tunnel that was called the Virginia Avenue Tunnel, and it ran kind of behind the capitol. And I would say that it was some significant negotiations, a lot of back and forth to get to a resolution there.
At the same time, you know, there was conflicts with the tunnel and one of our major projects in D.C. CSX was going through the environmental process, and it was just a lot of gnashing of teeth around that. However, got through it and ended up getting all the clearance that was necessary, and CSX was able to complete their project. But that was a difficult one. And any time—and anybody who knows—if you’re in the public life, you know, kind of working with our railroad partners can be onerous at times. But, again, I think at the end of the day the project worked out and we were able to get through.
Cohen: Were there any particular ways of approaching that negotiation or that project that you really needed to rely on?
Cleckley: Yeah. I think in that particular instance it boils down to making sure you have as much accurate information as possible and you have enough data to help you make sound decisions. I think a lot of major decisions really comes down to that, is that we try to figure out how to get to the facts firsts before you start dealing with the personalities for negotiating. And what made it a little difficult in the CSX Virginia Avenue Tunnel projects is that there was gaps in information because you’re dealing with a 100-year-old tunnel. And the primary issue had to deal with just right-of-way and who owns what in this particular space.
And there was so much ambiguity that the hardest part of negotiation was to say, “Okay, the folks a hundred years ago, which probably should have done a better job and articulated who has ownership here, at the time they probably thought they did it, but now, fast-forward, we have a high level of ambiguity here. Let’s figure out how to not have this happen 100 years from now.” And so, you know, a lot of research had to go into that on both parties. I had to work with our legal team a lot, work with our other planners and engineers within the department to understand the full context of what was going on and start from a point of facts and then negotiate off of that. So we tried to take a data approach and an information based approach, but some information just we did not have. And so that’s what made the negotiations a little bit onerous.
Cohen: For sure. Yeah. No, that’s a—I like having that 100-year timeline though to think about, which is, you know, “What do I need to do to make sure that 100 years from now folks can do this well?” And that’s a particular challenge on the public sector side, because you’re dealing with—you know, you’re living in a city; you’re working for a city or a state or government of some sort. And, you know, in 100 years people are going to have to deal with that. On the private sector side there’s few companies that have been around that long, so—
Cohen: But on the public sector side you’ve got many that have been around that long. So that’s a particular challenge that I think you as a public sector leader have to navigate.
Cleckley: Absolutely. And I would say—and I state this a lot to my staff, is that we have to remind ourselves that what we are building today is setting the city up for the next 50 years. And I sometimes remind folks that, you know, our infrastructure and how it looks today was a decision that was made 50, 60, 70 years ago. Think about, you know, who and what the focus was around mobility 50 to 60 years ago. And, you know, our transportation infrastructure shows up in other areas of the city. And I mentioned our equity index where we have what is called an inverted L. So, you know, there’s the neighborhoods that are the least of these, are completely tied back to barriers of transportation and infrastructure that created the separation between neighborhoods. Those decisions were made at the time where people were fleeing inner cities, and they were going to the suburbs, and they were more focused on ways to utilize a vehicle to be able to get around as opposed to connecting neighborhoods.
So now what we’re trying to do is connect neighborhoods. So our decisions will impact how people will live their lives 50 years from now. And so it’s, to your point, if we don’t think about it in those multi-decade chunks, we’re missing opportunities for future generations to take advantage of cities that we’re trying to build and build better cities and connect our neighborhoods and just improve the livability of everybody that chooses to live in Denver.
Cohen: For sure. Speaking of that, where can folks learn more about the work you’re doing with the Department of Transportation & Infrastructure there in Denver?
Cleckley: Yeah, sure. So we have a website. If folks go on to DenverGov.org, DenverGov.org/transportation-infrastructure, you will find our updated webpage that will have a lot of the information that I discussed today with you, but also we have a blog that we have attached at our website that provides a lot of updates on the innovative projects that we’re moving forward. And you’ll see updates on all of our major projects and all of our programs that we are considering priority initiatives right now. So it’s everything from Vision Zero to projects dealing with our storm water and sanitary systems that we’re improving, our vertical projects that we have going on. Anything that you want to learn about the department can be available at DenverGov.org/transportation-infrastructure.
Cohen: Awesome. Well, Eulois, thanks so much for joining me on The Movement podcast. I loved hearing a little bit of the things you’ve learned from your time in leadership as well as the opportunities available with this new Department of Transportation & Infrastructure there. Good luck, and thanks for joining me.
Cleckley: I appreciate your time, and thank you for this fantastic podcast. So, well done.
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 TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.