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“My book will be called, ‘you can’t make this sh*t up,” said Rina Cutler, deputy mayor for transportation and utilities, Philadelphia, at a National Complete Streets Coalition dinner in Washington, D.C. In a review of her experience serving seven mayors and governors, Cutler revealed the sometimes painful truths about pushing for positive change in urban transportation.

“Politicians respond to noise and money,” said Cutler. Advocacy organizations like the National Complete Streets Coalition, Smart Growth America, and ASLA, have made lots of noise about the value of complete streets, streets that safely serve all users (pedestrians, bicyclists, and car riders). As a result, on the 10th anniversary of the National Complete Streets Coalition, Roger Millar at Smart Growth America said 600 complete street policies have been adopted across the country.

The noise influenced transportation policy makers because it was the right noise. Cutler said city government traffic planners and engineers largely bought on to the complete streets approach because they saw it as a way to improve pedestrian safety. As she articulated, “in a city, everyone is a pedestrian.” The complete streets movement got a further boost when the “population of bicyclists increased,” and their safety on streets became a pressing issue.

While noise brings attention to issues, the hard art of making changes in urban transportation systems takes much effort. Cutler said she couldn’t step up to a microphone and say, “I want to change transportation mode-share.” She had to go about it more subtly, with a slew of pilot programs for which she didn’t need approval.

Before Michael Nutter was elected mayor of Philadelphia, “bike lanes were an abstract idea.” The idea of taking out a car lane for a bike lane wasn’t even a possibility. When she started to pilot lanes in residential areas, the press was all over it. “I’d say bike and 400 reporters would show up.” Bike lane stories regularly appeared at the top of the local Metro news. “In Philadelphia, people will embrace change as long as it looks exactly the same when it’s done.”

In 2009, the city created its complete streets policy, then began taking car lanes out in favor of bike lanes in earnest. Cutler said in other cities, “this would be a day at the beach.” In Philadelphia, “everyone thought I was moving too fast, except for the bicyclists, who thought I was moving to slow.”

Before installation of the lanes, teams from her office would have to “knock on every door along every street with a new lane,” explaining the changes. Taxis initially thought the new green lanes were specially for them, so “we had to send them a letter.” There was one compromise for car users: they were allowed to park in a bike lane to unload deliveries and such.

Further complicating issues for cities: urban transportation policy also sits within a greater context, the framework of state and federal transportation policies. Cutler said “federal, state, and city agendas are not always aligned. We need the right alignments in place.”

To encourage that to happen, she said “cities need to define their own agendas or someone else will.” Furthermore, that “urban agenda needs to the broader agenda of change.” She thinks this has happened within the Obama administration. “We’ve heard words we’ve never heard before – livability, walkability. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been a phenomenal advocate for cities.” The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has also been critical in promoting an urban transportation agenda. “It’s about cities doing it for themselves.” One of NACTO’s goals is to get more federal transportation straight to cities, bypassing state governments.

As for introducing further changes in urban transportation, Cutler said it’s important to be non-ideological. “I’m not pro-car or anti-car, I’m pro-mobility.” She added that she was “agnostic about how people move around. My job is to provide viable alternatives so you can decide.”

With a rapidly aging population – and young people who are increasingly forgoing the car — mobility is certain to transform, particularly in the areas surrounding cities. “Out in the suburbs, there is a quiet movement for change. People are realizing it’s not fun to be stuck in car-centric communities. But they are not yet committed to urban-style street fighting.” She said politicians will soon have to hear the voices of both the young and old when making transportation infrastructure decisions.

She also said the “language needs to change” when promoting more sustainable forms of transportation. “We need to be conscious about how we communicate about biking. Bicyclists can’t be portrayed as elitists who want to fly through the city wearing spandex.” The reality is “social equity is key” to successfully rolling out new bicycle infrastructure. “There are bicyclists who need to commute to work. It needs to be about how these things will impact local neighborhoods.”

All of Cutler’s hard-won experience will be needed as Philadelphia rolls out a new bike share system in 2014.

Image credit: Philadelphia Bike Lane / Green Philly blog