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Mayor nominates Sam Zimbabwe to be next SDOT Director

Mayor Jenny Durkan and SDOT Director Nominee Sam Zimbabwe. Screenshot from Seattle Channel.

Mayor Jenny Durkan has nominated Washington DC’s Sam Zimbabwe to be the next Director of SDOT, emphasizing his experience in project delivery and multimodal urban planning during a Tuesday press conference.

If the City Council confirms him quickly, Zimbabwe could be on the job in the middle of January. That means he will get the keys to his office just as the city tries to adjust to the permanent closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and its downtown freeway exits.

Zimbabwe is currently the Chief Project Delivery Officer at DDOT, the same agency where Seattle’s previous permanent SDOT Director Scott Kubly cut his teeth.

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“I’m a multimodal kind of guy,” he said, noting that in DC he mostly takes the train to work but sometimes bikes or drives. He has previously worked on transit oriented development and DC’s streetcar, which had troubles of its own. And, of course, DC has been a national leader in building protected bike lanes and growing bike and scooter share.

“As more people feel like they feel safe and comfortable taking care of some of their daily needs with a bike, the less divisive the bike questions have become,” he said.

Zimbabwe is stepping into a pretty tough spot. SDOT has had a terrible year. Staff morale is low, and the department has been massively underdelivering on promised and planned projects. As we reported earlier this month, the department has nearly stopped building bike lanes, managing to complete just a tiny percentage of the bike lane miles they had planned in 2018.

Being leaderless for the past year has been hard on the Department, which has gone through two interim Directors and has seen a lot of changes at the Deputy Director level. So having a Director should hopefully help SDOT get back on its feet.

But having a good Director in place is only part of the solution. Mayor Durkan also needs to empower the Director to make bold decisions even if there might be political pushback. The SDOT Director answers to the Mayor, so they can only be as bold as the Mayor will allow. Any urban transportation project that challenges the status quo is going to get pushback. But the status quo is not working now and definitely will not work in the future are the region grows.

There are also a lot of people in Seattle eager for change and ready to support bold action. So while making the right choices to prioritize walking, biking and transit will receive pushback, the mayor and SDOT Director should know that there are also people ready to celebrate those choices. Sometimes it seems like fear of angry pushback makes leaders forget that many other people are ready to support them.

Because of all the delays in 2018, there is a huge backlog of planned and funded projects waiting to get the green light. That’s a challenge, but it’s also great opportunity for a new Director to really make an entrance and get a lot done quickly. Many of those projects are bike lane connections to and through downtown, which has enormous potential for unlocking new bike trips for a lot more people.

2019 is set up to be a big year for transportation in Seattle. It’s going to be messy. Traffic patterns are going to shift, and a lot people’s habits are going to change. This is an opportunity to invest in the city we want to be and make big steps in that direction in a short period of time.

Watch the press conference announcing the nomination:

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8 responses to “Mayor nominates Sam Zimbabwe to be next SDOT Director”

  1. (Another) Tom

    I hope he is less of the “I’m a *cough cough* cyclist but I’m still against building the missing link…” type of cyclist and more the type that is an actual person who rides bikes to get places.

  2. Southeasterner

    Is there any way for this guy to succeed? He is kind of the Theresa May of transportation in Seattle. It will be impossible to guide the city through the worst traffic mess in our history with two weeks to prepare.

    If I were him I would make sure I have very clear and measurable goals with the mayor’s office and city council. At worst he will lose half of his staff and throw downtown Seattle into horrible gridlock. At best he will lose 25% of his staff and throw downtown Seattle into horrible gridlock.

    Unfortunately just like May is going down with Brexit, Sam will go down with the Viaduct.

    I give him 6 months on the job if he is lucky and 12 months on the job if he is unlucky.

    Sam you will soon be the most hated man in the City reporting to the most hated woman in the city. Congrats!

  3. […] Seattle Bike Blog, and The Urbanist cover Tuesday’s announcement that Mayor Durkan has appointed Sam Zimbabwe […]

  4. Conrad

    Durkan is an astute politician. She knows that the only way forward in a city the size of Seattle is transit, walking, and biking. She knows that if she acts accordingly, she will be promptly shitcanned just like Nickels and McGinn were, by the residents of Seattle that dearly love their cars above all else. So what do you do? Drag your feet, kick the can down the road, and find a sacrificial lamb to throw under the bus at the last minute. No doubt this guy gets blamed for the complete lack of leadership under Murray and herself. Good luck bud.

    1. RossB

      Neither Nickels nor McGinn, nor anyone in recent memory was removed from office because they built too many bike lanes. Nickels managed to upset both the folks from The Stranger (by killing the monorail while embracing the SR 99 tunnel) and folks from the Seattle Times (by failing to plow the streets after a snow storm). McGinn was simply incompetent. Yes, he built more bike lanes, but he also pushed a stupid streetcar agenda and more importantly, couldn’t handle the most important part of his job (managing the police). Murray was kicked out because of a sex scandal.

      The point is, bike lanes and bike infrastructure are largely irrelevant to getting reelected. Durkan, like all politicians, wants to please everyone. Thus you have the long shot attempt at mediation and a kumbaya moment in Wedgwood (it didn’t work). Eventually she has to make the tough decisions, and that likely means just building the thing. The person she hired has a lot of experience with that sort of thing. That was essentially his job (to build it, not manage it). He had some success, and left a very political town being respected by all sides (https://ggwash.org/view/70247/ddots-sam-zimbabwe-is-leaving-for-seattle). That is not an easy thing to pull off.

      I would say in general I am way more optimistic about bike infrastructure than anything else. Bike infrastructure is generally fairly cheap, and much of the planning has already been done. It is just a matter of building it.

      Handling transit projects will be much tougher. The previous agency (and mayor) simply lied about the costs. That means they won’t be able to build half of what they promised. Some of the changes (like bus lanes) would be cheap, but then you have enforcement issues. On top of all that, Sound Transit is building stations, and so far, their planning looks horrible.

      Managing the agency will be difficult as well. They have made a lot of big mistakes in the past, and it is quite likely there are little fiefdoms and bad communication within the agency. Communication with other agencies (like Sound Transit and Metro) has been terrible as well. The publicized disagreement with Metro is what lead to the stupid streetcar project being rethought. He (and the mayor) have their work cut out for them, but he does look like a decent choice. Time will tell, of course.

  5. near the end of the press questioning, he was asked if Seattle could be a bike city, given hills and rain; Durkan asserted it was already a bike city; wool solved the climate; the third chain ring solved the hills.

    1. RossB

      That’s a pretty clever and quick retort.

      1. Erik

        Not really because few cyclists think that. Maybe E-bikes solved the hills for some but it is miserable, wool or not, to roll around Seattle in the Winter. Ridership in the town is extremely low in the Winter and that’s because this isn’t an easy bike city nor will bikes solve stagnation. Mind you I’m all for the bike lanes but it’s just no realistic to think the scale will reduce congestion.

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