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‘Mobility’ Is Starting to Get the Attention It Deserves

Housing, jobs and health care depend on it. Pittsburgh has become a national leader in setting clear, intuitive transportation goals.

The Pittsburgh skyline, including the incline
Pittsburgh has installed AI-enabled traffic lights.
(David Kidd)
A question I am often asked is what the top concerns for city leaders are. The answer is usually clear: affordable housing, jobs and health care. But there is another concern that is beginning to get the attention it deserves in some of the most forward-thinking cities. That issue is mobility, a word encompassing all of the ways in which people and goods move about a city. Mobility is a crucial factor in determining how well a city can meet its challenges in the other three areas. 

Bill Peduto, who became mayor of Pittsburgh in January 2014, made mobility one of his top priorities early on. He focused on reshaping the way the city’s transportation functions were organized and delivered so that they would support and facilitate Pittsburgh’s ongoing renewal.

In 2015, Peduto approached the National Association of City Transportation Officials for guidance. The result was a project undertaken by Sam Salkin, who was then a graduate student at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Salkin spent several months studying transportation in several cities and interviewing transportation experts and stakeholders in Pittsburgh. Ultimately, he issued a report recommending that Pittsburgh “reorganize its city government to create an agency with clear responsibility for everything encompassing transportation from end-to-end.” 

First, though, Salkin called for the city to create a position reporting directly to the mayor “with organizational responsibility for transportation.” As a result, in May 2017 Peduto hired Karina Ricks to create a new Department of Mobility and Infrastructure. Ricks had spent about 20 years working in transportation in Washington, D.C., during that city’s dramatic economic recovery. When I heard Ricks’ presentation at a conference last fall, I could see that she had a view of transportation that I would call human-scale, grounded in the idea that it should bring people together in ways that build community. You can see this reflected in the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure’s goals, which because they are so clear, intuitive and nontechnical, are worth quoting verbatim:

• No one dies or is seriously injured traveling on city streets.

• Every household in Pittsburgh can access fresh fruits and vegetables within 20 minutes’ travel of home, without the requirement of a private vehicle.

• All trips less than one mile are easily and enjoyably achieved by non-vehicle travel.

• Streets and intersections can be intuitively navigated by an adolescent.

• The combined cost of transportation, housing and energy does not exceed 45 percent of household income for any income group.

The first goal, for example, has been widely adopted by other cities and is known as Vision Zero. Pittsburgh, however, articulates the goal more directly and starkly. You have to explain what Vision Zero is to most folks, but Pittsburghers understand that it means that “no one dies” on city streets. It’s also clear that equity and inclusion are embedded in the department’s goals.

With Carnegie Mellon University serving, in Ricks’ words, “as the research arm of the city,” Pittsburgh is emerging as a leader in the smart city movement. An important part of being smart is learning from and building on the experiences of others. Ricks is an active participant in what she refers to as “a small and swirling community” of experts in cities including Minneapolis, Oakland, Calif., San Francisco and Washington, D.C., who share ideas on how to meet the challenges of mobility. To the extent that they succeed, we will have created more access to affordable housing, jobs and health care, and we’ll have made our cities work better for all the people who live in them.

Mark Funkhouser, a former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City, is president of Funkhouse & Associates, an independent consulting firm. He can be reached at mark@mayorfunk.com.
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