Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

How Cities Can Solve Transportation Problems and Deliver Better Service

Transportation projects often get delayed because of unclear structures and procedures within city agencies. A new report examines how the right mix of structure, people and processes can achieve success.

Does it take your city 10 years and untold millions of dollars to design and install a few miles of bike lanes, only to find, as the paint is still drying, that the water department says it’s time to dig up the street and replace the mains? You might have a structural problem.

That’s the premise behind a new report from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) that examines the structural and procedural practices that make some local transportation agencies more effective than others. Structured for Success builds on research that NACTO conducted as part of a previous effort, called Green Light for Great Streets.

In the new report, the group defines several typologies of organizational structures, from “transportation-focused” to “transportation-diffuse.” Those typologies help illuminate various challenges in cities that consolidate all transportation-related activities under one department versus those that have people working on transportation issues spread throughout multiple departments. A key finding of the research is that, “For an agency to deliver on its priorities, it needs someone to champion them at the highest levels of decision-making.”

Governing recently spoke with Jenny O’Connell, a senior program manager at NACTO who helped lead the Structured for Success project, about how cities can identify structural and procedural problems that prevent cities from delivering good projects quickly. The conversation has been edited.

Governing: This report is about organizational hierarchies and bureaucratic workflows. Why does that kind of thing matter if you want transportation to work better? 

Jenny O’Connell: A lot of times there are legacy structures or legacy processes that have existed at transportation agencies for a long time. Sometimes they were put in place long before transportation agencies updated their goals for the modern era. A lot of agencies are trying really hard to be responsive to their residents, but the systems that they have in place — challenging procurement processes, difficult contracting processes, administrative red tape — can make it really hard.

Specifically, it’s things like unreliable or nonrecurring funding, having no real champion who can speak for the transportation agency’s needs at the top and to the mayor, not knowing the process for coordinating and handing off projects, not having any access to specialists outside of the agency who can help with projects. All of those things make it really difficult to efficiently and effectively build projects. And building projects is related to building trust and getting support from the community and ultimately creating change on the ground.

Governing: Is there an example of a type of project that can be improved by looking at structural issues? 

O’Connell: It’s not a specific project, but in the city of Tampa, for example, they have been wanting to be more proactive about their Vision Zero goals for a number of years. Their mayor, Jane Castor, who was elected in 2019, recommended that they consolidate all of their transportation functions under one city administrator.

The real goal with that was that they were going to have one empowered transportation team who could communicate directly with the mayor and that would help them retain good staff, build a really good team, and have sufficient resources to be able to proactively deliver Vision Zero projects.

They’re in the process of doing that. They’ve just recently restructured that Vision Zero team to be more strategic and proactive. Generally what we’re hearing is that people are happier, the team is able to be more effective and it’s been a good solution to that challenge.

Governing: How would a city know if it has a problem related to the structure of its transportation agency or governance in general? How do you diagnose a structural problem or a process problem?

O’Connell: There are so many variables and every agency is unique, but there are some challenges that come up in similar ways across agencies and some of them are really good signals that they’re major structural issues or procedural issues. Sometimes you’ll have these really high-priority projects or programs that exist across multiple agencies or divisions, so things fall through the cracks because there’s no single team focused on that. That’s generally a structural issue.

Another good sign of a structural issue is when there’s a lot of competition over funding between divisions or agencies and there’s not enough staffing and resources for those projects. Another example is when there’s a lot of redundancy across teams and those teams aren’t communicating. People are doing similar work. They’re located all across the city and the roles aren’t clear. It’s not clear who’s doing what and when. That often also indicates a structural issue. When projects or programs are spread thin and wide, that’s a good indicator of structure challenges.

Process challenges often manifest in ways like project handoffs creating major shifts in the direction of the project, or projects really morphing over time as they change hands. That tends to signal that there’s some sort of process issue because there’s no good project management process from A to Z. A really good sign that you have a process issue is that nobody can actually tell you what the process is. Sometimes somebody will say, “To get my project figured out I go to this guy in this department.” That’s not a process — that’s a person. That’s a really good sign that you don’t have a good process and you can’t articulate the process at all.

Governing: You have these different typologies of different structures — transportation-focused, transportation-inclusive, transportation-diffuse — but it doesn’t seem like there’s one formulation that’s the best one to use across the board. Is that right? 

O’Connell: Generally what we see is that the agencies that are transportation-focused or transportation-inclusive tend to be able to solve some of those big structural challenges. They don’t have really widespread project teams. They create a more effective scaffolding for being able to address those problems. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have those problems, but it means that solving those problems within the existing structure is often easier than if you have, say, a Department of Engineering, a Department of Public Works, and a Department of Community Development, and you’ve got transportation people sprinkled across all three.
O'Connell Linked In Photo.jpg
Jenny O’Connell, a senior program manager at the National Association of City Transportation Officials. (NACTO)

Governing: So the more you can have a transportation champion at the head of an agency that deals with all of the transportation functions of a city, the better it tends to be? 

O’Connell: Yes. And that person can take all sorts of different forms. Sometimes they’re the head of the agency. Sometimes they’re a chief of streets, like in Boston, who reports directly to the mayor. He oversees all of the agencies that have anything to do with the streets in Boston and he can really champion, in a consolidated and strategic way, for the kinds of transportation projects that the Department of Transportation is trying to accomplish.

That helps to resolve things like funding disputes or lack of recurrent funding. That can really help with providing a high-level view of whether there are issues with project handoffs or miscommunication about who owns what. That transportation champion, depending on the structure of the city as a whole, can live in a variety of different places. They can be the head of a team, they can be the head of a division, they can be the head of a department, they can be reporting to the mayor. And we’ve seen all of those be a functional place for a transportation champion to be.

Governing: How do hyperlocal politics around dealing with space and the built environment come into play around these issues? Do these agencies run into challenges around organization or procedures that are related to politics? 

O’Connell: Politics exists everywhere, and it creates different environments in every city. But there are some interesting examples of process changes that are intended to be focused around the types of projects that are strategically important for the city. The city of Minneapolis is a good example. They developed a really detailed project prioritization process for their capital improvement program, basically prioritizing the limited amount of dollars they have every year to do capital improvement projects, and they created an equity-driven process with a series of metrics.

They tested it out for one year and then went back to the community and talked about whether they were weighting these factors correctly or not. Part of the value in creating a robust structure that is carefully thought through and that’s been developed in partnership and collaboration with the community is that it’s not as subject to the way politics can influence how projects are done in cities.

Councilmembers play an important role. Community members showing up to meetings and participating in the engagement process play a really important role. Having a good process that a city can lean on and point to and say, “This is our strategy, this is the direction we’re going in, this is why, and here’s who contributed” — that is also a really powerful tool in enabling them to put projects in the ground.

Governing: What else would you like to add? 

O’Connell: Transportation is playing an enormous role in the climate, economic, safety, equity and health challenges that cities are facing. And rethinking structure and process within an agency is a worthwhile action for city agencies to be taking to make sure that they’re best delivering the projects they can for the people they serve.
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
From Our Partners