Sam Zimbabwe. Image from Reconnecting America.

DDOT has made a very exciting choice in hiring a new Associate Director for Planning, Policy and Sustainability. Sam Zimbabwe, the director of the Center for Transit-Oriented Development at Reconnecting America, will fill the hole left when Karina Ricks departed in May.

Ricks is also staying in Washington: She’s been hired by transportation consulting firm Nelson\\Nygaard, which is well-known for its high-quality work on progressive transportation issues.

The planning head is an extremely critical post for DDOT and for the city. A good planning director could maintain the department’s energy and forward motion, while a bad one could cement a sluggish pace and bad, outmoded policies for many years to come.

The planning department (or, in DDOT parlance, “administration”) handles bicycle and pedestrian project design and parking policy. Its members review proposed developments to approve or disapprove transportation elements like curb cuts. Their decisions shape buildings that will last 50 years or more, for better or worse.

One of the trickiest pieces of DDOT’s task is to balance the use of public space. How do we trade off the needs of people driving, walking, biking, riding buses, sitting in sidewalk cafes, and more? It’s the planning department that makes most of these judgments (except if engineers overrule them and refuse to implement elements of a plan).

As more top people left DDOT, many became nervous that the department would lapse into a period of stagnation. While Director Terry Bellamy and most of the rank and file DDOT employees believe in the right goals and visions for the city, would DDOT simply choose the path of least resistance and low activity, like shelving the L and M Street bike lanes (which are now back on track)?

The jury is still out until DDOT actually implements some potentially controversial yet significant innovations, like those cycle tracks or bus priority lanes. But by choosing Zimbabwe, Director Bellamy has sent a signal that he’s looking for top-notch people who strongly believe in DC’s stated visions of improving non-automotive options for everyone.

I haven’t yet worked with Zimbabwe extensively, but we’ve interacted a number of times and other advocates for sustainable transportation praise him highly. “Sam is a great choice to help DC continue implementing innovative urban transportation practices,” said Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “Sam brings a wealth of experience working with communities around the country. DC will benefit greatly from his insights and demonstrated leadership.”

Reconnecting America, Zimbabwe’s previous employer, is a DC-based national nonprofit that helps communities implement a smart growth and sustainable transportation vision. He and his center helped local transportation and planning agencies think about designing their communities around making good use of their transit systems and maximizing choices.

Zimbabwe holds a Master of City Planning degree in Urban Design from the University of California, Berkley and a Bachelor of Science in Urban and Regional Studies from Cornell. Before Reconnecting America, Zimbabwe worked as an urban designer for Community Design + Architecture Firm and Van Meter Williams Pollack, and was a planning associate with the Port of San Francisco.

Zimbabwe said, “I am really looking forward to working with all of the talented and committed people already at DDOT who have been doing such great work in recent years, and bringing what I’ve learned about other cities across the country to help build on the successes here.”

One of Zimbabwe’s first priorities will be to fill some of the open positions funded in the DC budget that took effect this month. Councilmember Tommy Wells (Ward 6) funded 6 vacant positions in planning, including a “parking czar,” ward planners for wards 2, 3, and 5, and two development reviewers. All of these folks have the opportunity to make significant positive (or negative) impacts on transportation in DC.

Please welcome Sam, and wish him best of luck in helping keep DC a leader in innovative and effective transportation policies and programs.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.