Durkan Names D.C.’s Sam Zimbabwe to Head Seattle Transportation Department

Sam Zimbabwe, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s pick for Seattle Department of Transportation director, will (assuming he’s confirmed by the city council) walk into his new office early next year facing an immense amount of scrutiny: From bike and pedestrian advocates, who are (understandably) skeptical about Durkan’s commitment to the Bike Master Plan; to supporters of the downtown streetcar, which remains on hold; to transportation advocates of all stripes who have criticized the mayor for appointing one interim director after another to replace former SDOT leader Scott Kubly, who stepped down shortly after Durkan was elected. Since Kubly’s departure, SDOT has been led by a series of interim directors.

Zimbabwe’s resume includes a stint as director of the Center for Transit-Oriented Development at Reconnecting America, a D.C.-based smart growth nonprofit, and seven years at the District Department of Transportation as associate director for planning, policy and sustainability. When he took that job in 2011, the urbanist transit nerds at Greater Greater Washington hailed it as  “a very exciting choice.”

Since 2017, he has been the D.C. agency’s chief delivery officer, a new position created under current D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser in 2017. Opinions vary on whether Zimbabwe ultimately delivered for multimodal advocates in D.C., where bus riders have spent years asking for bus lanes on 16th Street, a central thoroughfare.

And, regarding the latest flash point for transit advocates—scooters, which Durkan has said she considers too dangerous and risky unless the city is indemnified from crash-related lawsuits: They are allowed in D.C., but only under conditions that scooter companies have criticized as too onerous.

At a press conference today, both Durkan and Zimbabwe  avoided directly answering questions about how much autonomy Zimbabwe would have as director.  Instead, they both swerved to sound bites about “the city of the future” (Durkan) and “a safe, equitable, multimodal transportation system” (Zimbabwe.)

Observers of Zimbabwe’s time in D.C. describe him as a capable administrator, but more of a “process guy” than a “vision guy,” which raises questions about whether he’s likely to push back when Durkan calls for more process and deliberation on contentious proposals like bike lanes and transit investments that take lanes back from cars. (On the other hand, people who don’t like “vision guys” may be relieved to hear that Zimbabwe doesn’t take after his elbow-throwing predecessor Kubly, who also preceded him at DDOT).

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Durkan said she expects that “when we go to the city council and when the SDOT team members get to know Sam as I’ve been able to do, that they will think that Sam is actually from Seattle.”

But Seattle is different than D.C., in ways that have sometimes confounded outsiders who come here for high-profile jobs in the city. (Kubly, a D.C. transplant, experienced this first hand.) For one thing, the other Washington tends to be a transient place—people come for jobs, stay for a few years, then move on to another place. Seattle is more settled—the people lobbying against bike lanes or or transit-oriented development in 2018 are pretty much the same people who were arguing against those things 20 years ago, and they’ve spent decades honing their arguments against “big-city” ideas (like, say, bikesharing.) As an outsider, Zimbabwe will be subjected to a level of neighborhood processing which he may not be fully prepared for.

Zimbabwe hasn’t witnessed the Seattle Process, wherein leaders and stakeholders debate and focus-group and charrette ideas for years on end, and sometimes to death. Will  he be the kind of leader who will put his foot down when (for example), neighborhood activists delay and stall and file endless appeals to stop a bike project that has been on planning maps for nearly a decade? Or will he follow the lead of his new boss, whom urbanists and bike and transit advocates have criticized for delaying the implementation of projects that would make streets safer for all users?

Asked about his capacity for dealing with pushback from the public, Zimbabwe responded, “I come from a place—Washington, D.C.—where we’ve met a similar set of growth challenges. … It’s something that I relish and that I look forward to.”

City council member Rob Johnson, who chairs the planning and land use committee, says he “really likes” Durkan’s pick. “His pedigree and work experience and track record lead me to think he’s going to be very strong on the multimodal investments that we want to continue to make as a city,” Johnson says.  “I think about Sam as the kind of person who has a good, strong set of values but isn’t going to try to be in your face about them or spend a lot of time trying to convince you of the righteousness of those arguments—he’s going to use data and expertise to make those arguments.” That assumes, of course, Durkan lets him.

One final note on today’s SDOT announcement: The three finalists for the position, whose names were first reported by Crosscut, were all white men. (One, Sound Transit north corridor development director Kameron Gurol, apparently dropped out of the process before Durkan made her pick). SDOT has only had one female director in its history—Grace Crunican, who served under former mayor Greg Nickels between 2002 and 2009.

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