Rina Cutler on transportation advocacy and ‘evolution not revolution’

Deputy Mayor for Transportation and Utilities Rina Cutler was half of a panel about the future of transportation in the city and state on Monday evening at PennDesign. The conversation ranged widely, from the impact autonomous vehicles will have on transportation planning to dreams of an “aerotropolis,” but the most interesting parts were Cutler’s thoughts from the last seven years at the helm of the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU).

In her years with the Nutter administration Cutler said she counts the new South Street Bridge, MOTU’s success bringing outside funding for city projects (particularly in scoring six rounds of federal TIGER grants- a feat no other place has done), and building Philly Bike Share among her biggest points of pride. One of her biggest regrets, she said, is not getting to install a truly protected bike lane. Cutler noted that designs for protected lanes on JFK Boulevard and Market Street exist, but the political will just isn’t there yet.

Cutler discussed the often challenging political dimensions of MOTU’s work to create more complete streets, such as needing approval from City Council to remove a traffic lane to install a bike lane. As she quipped, we may be moving away from SEPTA tokens, but not councilmanic privilege. Of late, the battle is over a stretch of the 22nd Street bike lane that Councilman Bill Greenle does not want to see installed. But Cutler wants advocates for a better, more balanced transportation system to play the long game and be way more strategic in picking their battles.

MOTU often implements change through pilot projects first, in order to circumvent political barriers, to help people get used to changes and cultivate public support. The pilot approach has proven successful for both bike lanes and parklets. The idea is that because pilot projects are temporary, they can be reversed if they don’t work well. For those interested in seeing change happen faster, Cutler offers this mantra: Evolution not revolution. 

After the discussion I asked Cutler what it would take to see the city could move from piloting to implementing smart transportation infrastructure more smoothly. She replied that informed citizens need to engage with elected officials, telling officials what kinds of change they support (not just oppose). To that end, here’s an excerpt from our exchange (edited for clarity):

RINA CUTLER: “I think the power of the discussion is really in the advocacy community. I think there is huge strength in numbers. I think there is a dialogue to be had with elected officials to get them to at least consider a different world view than they may have…While I do think a bike lane is not something that ought to be legislated, I do understand that [councilmembers] have a perspective of a city and a neighborhood that is probably not the same anymore than when they first got elected. I just don’t think they’ve heard from people in those communities that they’re looking for things to change. So I do think the advocacy community has the power here to really make a collective difference as to how the politics come together. And it’s not just about transportation.”

AH: You really think it’s about citizen engagement?

RC: “In a huge way.”

AH: Why is it so hard to implement the bike plan?

RC: “Because there were no politics involved in the creation of the bike plan.”

AH: But Council passed it.

RC: “They did. But I think there is not enough education of Council. Sometimes they pass things and they don’t stop to think about the unintended consequences…They’re used to having councilmanic prerogative that would have them engage when somebody wanted to put a bike lane in, their theory is, I like that concept up here. But when it comes down to actual day-to-day implementation, they wish to be heard. They want people to explain it and they want to make sure they have enough support.”

AH: So Council is looking for cover?

RC: “I often say I no longer seek consensus, I seek consent. Once I have enough consent to move something forward I will do so. I think they’re looking for the same thing…. They’re also looking for enough of their community to give them consent to do something differently.”

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