First the Olympics, then Seattle Transportation: Meet Nicole Freedman

By Josh Cohen
Crosscut archive image.
By Josh Cohen

As Mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle Department of Transportation Director, Scott Kubly, tout the $930 million Move Seattle transportation levy, their common refrain is, “we can’t build our way out of congestion.”

But with no space to widen roads, Seattle has to figure out how to maximize what infrastructure and resources it has. Improving transit is critical, but much of the answer lies in increasing the number of people who walk or bike.

In the name of just that, SDOT recently hired its first “Active Transportation Director,” Nicole Freedman, whose career already contains no shortage of bike-related victories. As Director of Boston Bikes – the city of Boston’s bike program that she helped to launch in 2007 – Freedman helped to build the city’s first bike lane network, double the number bicyclists, start the Hubway bike share system and transform what used to be one of America’s worst cities for biking, among other things.

Oh, and she was an Olympian.

As she wrapped up her second week at SDOT, I asked her a few questions.

What are your first impressions of Seattle's bike and pedestrian infrastructure?

There are some really exciting things happening and already in the ground.

[The] Broadway [protected bike lane] uses all the best practices, from the bike light to the intersection treatments to how you do a two-way cycle track correctly. It's amazing when you can pull everything into a single project.

What will your role as Active Transportation Director entail? What do you hope to accomplish?

The goal is to hit the city’s mode-share goals and to do everything possible to get more people walking and biking.

For me, that [means] talking to a lot of the advocate groups for walking and biking. We’ll also be looking around the country at some of the best cities for walking and biking [to] cull best practices and figure out what our most powerful tools are.

When you started as the Director of Boston Bikes, Boston had zero miles of bike lanes and was ranked among the worst cities for biking. How did things change during your tenure?

I always say that's an exaggeration because we had 180 feet of bike lane. [But] Bicycling magazine had, three times, rated us the worst bicycling city in the country. We might've had international recognition as the worst cycling city in the world.

When I began, we were starting from ground zero. [But] we had tremendous success. We installed 92 miles of bike lanes. The mode share doubled. We got up to over two percent. Seattle is over four percent right now, of course. We became one of the first cities in the country to launch a bike share system and it's doing very well – there are 140 stations now. Boston’s ranking went up the top-five biking cities and earned a Silver in the Bike Friendly Community rankings from the League of American Bicyclists.

I was most proud of creating a nationally recognized community bike program: We donated bikes to low-income residents and about 6,000 youths a year. We had a women's bike initiative [and] one of the most successful bike share equity programs, which put stations in low-income neighborhoods and provided subsidized memberships. We sold about 1,500 subsidized memberships.

Tell me more about Hubway’s equity initiatives. One of Pronto's stated goals is to expand into lower-income neighborhoods.

The most important thing to remember with bike share is that you need all stations tied tightly into the network. We would get calls to put in stations in a low-income neighborhood called Mattapan – at the very southern tip of Boston. We said, “We'll get there, but if we put in those stations now, it's not going to serve anyone.” That's not what bike share is.

Boston has 90 of the 140 stations [in the metro area]. Thirteen stations were in what I would call very low-income neighborhoods. Twenty of the stations were in mixed neighborhoods with substantial low-income populations.

Once we had stations in those neighborhoods, we asked: What do we need to do to help low-income residents use bikes?

We recognized that money is the primary barrier. We allowed low-income residents get a membership for $5. That worked. A lot of cities stall when they hear the myth that low-income residents are “unbanked.” The reality, at least in Boston, was that the vast majority of low-income residents do have credit cards.

Then we looked at how the system was being marketed. In general, it wasn't being marketed in a way that was compelling to low-income residents. We did specific outreach in low-income neighborhoods. We worked with existing social service agencies, nonprofits and public housing [organizations]. About 200 partners helped to spread the word about subsidized memberships.

The experience in Boston shed light on some of the myths about low-income riders. We hear, all the time, that they're not interested in riding, that it’s not part of their culture. In Boston, we found that people of all incomes were equally interested in riding.

How did you go from being a professional cyclist and Olympian to working on the policy side of cycling?

I started racing my senior year in college at Stanford. It was fantastic. I raced for 12 straight years … I got to retire when I wanted [to] and I'd achieved all my goals. In sports, that's as good as it gets.

From 1995 – 1999, I [also] worked part-time in the transportation program at Stanford. I was working in the "transportation demand management" side of things, looking at biking and shuttles and ways to get people to not drive to work. I was dabbling in all of this.

What’s going to be the greatest challenge for improving walking and biking in Seattle?

Ultimately, we're trying to create great streets for walking, transit and biking. Historically, many cities were built around: how do you move cars as fast as possible?

[Also], there are far too many people who are killed on streets. We need to think about safety. People want to be outside walking and biking to work but we’ve created an environment that strongly discourages that.

I'm really excited to be here. Seattle could be one of the leaders in repurposing our streets and making them great. We've got an amazing mayor and a very strong Director of Transportation. [When] I look at my colleagues, the thing that stands out is how smart the staff is and how well they work together. You're going to see great things coming from Seattle.

This is an edited version of the interview.

Crosscut will hold its next Community Idea Lab on June 17 to discuss transportation. More information and a link to registration is here. 


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