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Inside the mothership: A visit to USDOT headquarters

Posted by on March 11th, 2013 at 8:46 am

A visit to the US DOT-4
The home field of America’s transportation team.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Masked by the state and regional agencies that disperse its grant funds and shrouded behind the veil of a federal government bureaucracy with 60,000 employees, the enigmatic and powerful United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) sits at the top of the transportation world. While in DC this past week, I wanted to try and lift that veil with a visit to its home base and by getting to know a few of the people who work there.

My ultimate goal was to sit down for an interview with USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood; but despite being told I was on a short-list, my name never got called. That will happen someday, but on this trip I was more than happy to get a tour of the headquarters building from LaHood’s public affairs staffer Todd Solomon.

Todd Solomon USDOT
Todd Solomon

I’ve worked with Solomon via email for several years, so it was great to finally put a face to a name. While you’ve likely never heard of him, you’ve almost certainly read his work. Sec. LaHood revealed during a speech at the National Bike Summit that Solomon is the editor of the popular Fast Lane blog which has done an effective job over the years at frothing up bike advocates with bold proclamations like Tuesday’s, “A safe lane for bicycles means more than just painting a stripe in the road.”

Before sharing a bit about my tour and the folks I met; it’s worth noting a few things about the USDOT building itself. Who would have thought that the USDOT, the agency despised by many for its highway-centric legacy and old-school, auto-centric policies, is located smack dab in the middle of a new urbanists’ dream. Built in 2007, the first thing I noticed about the LEED certified building was the Capital Bikeshare station located just steps away from its front door.

A visit to the US DOT-18

Also mere meters from the building is a Metro station and several bus stops. In every direction, blocks are being torn up to build new high-rise, mixed-use residential towers. It sort of feels like a mix between Portland’s South Waterfront and a more working-class Pearl District. It’s not all great though. The main road outside the building, New Jersey Avenue SE, is a classic urban highway where cars, trucks and buses rule and bicycling isn’t something most people would do. And unfortunately even with the bikeshare station, there aren’t good bikeways in any direction.

A visit to the US DOT-16
A visit to the US DOT-19

New Jersey Ave could use a road diet:

A visit to the US DOT-17

This DOT employee grabbed a bike to head home…

DC bike people-3

But unfortunately doesn’t have great bike infrastructure to get him there…

DC bike infrastructure-3

Even with these quibbles, I can’t help but think the fledgling example of smart urban growth right outside its door is a good influence on the 5,000 or so USDOT employees that work at this location.

Back inside, Todd Solomon took me up an elevator to a sea of cubicles and we poked our heads into one belong to to Lilly Shoup. Shoup is a policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary. Among other things, Shoup works on the Partnership for Livable Communities, a collaboration between the USDOT, Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency. She’s also part of the policy team that will look to make the USDOT’s roadway design standards more bike friendly. A bike rider herself, she said there’s a strong core of bike commuters at USDOT. They have an internal bike rider email list, they host and participate in events that promote bicycling, and the building has an indoor bike parking facility.

From there, Solomon introduced me to Robert Ritter with the FHWA’s Office of Safety Integration. Ritter is the man tapped with putting together the bike safety summits LaHood announced earlier this week. He said the summits will bring together people from different disciplines and interest groups to find out what works — and what doesn’t — when it comes to bike safety. The locations, dates and other details of the summit are still up in the air, so stay tuned.

I then followed Todd across the building to the FTA wing of the building. As we walked through a large atrium, I looked up and saw this big bike symbol hanging over the entryway.

A visit to the US DOT-2

And here’s Sec. LaHood’s office:

A visit to the US DOT-3
Coverage from Washington D.C.
made possible by:

The next person I met was Matthew Lesh, a transportation program specialist in the FTA’s Office of Mobility Innovation. Lesh seemed like one of those creative and brilliant types that’s always thinking a few years ahead of everyone else. He’s tracking everything from pod cars to personal transit vehicles and he’s one of their bikesharing experts. Lesh has also done a lot of policy work on the integration of bicycles and transit. He helped write the program guidelines that allow FTA grants to fund biking facilities near transit stations. I asked Lesh if the FTA would ever accept bikeshare as an officially recognized public transit option. He said it’s too early for that; but it could happen in a few years.

Several other folks Solomon wanted me to meet weren’t immediately available, so he and I chatted for a bit before I rode back downtown. It was great to finally get inside the DOT. Knowing the places and faces behind the acronyms, programs and policies makes it much easier to understand them. And it’s great to have a few more people I can call on to help me track USDOT news.

Thanks Rob, Lilly, and Matt for letting me bug you; and thanks to Todd for showing me around.

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Comments
  • Robin Robertson March 11, 2013 at 9:31 am

    Cool that you took the time to see and meet the people at the genesis for bike policy that gets implemented (or not) in our own home towns. It is good to believe that we have planners with an optimistic vision!

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Alexis March 11, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    I love that you call it the mothership. It even looks like one. :)

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  • Alan 1.0 March 11, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    I find it remarkable that one of the best funded US departments has such a shabby grand entrance to its new headquarters. Tubular columns, no entasis? No base or capitals? Unadorned cornice? Oh, and an odd number of columns so that people are blocked from the center. Maybe their own highway engineers designed it?

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  • Lucia March 12, 2013 at 5:24 am

    Great article! It may be worth mentioning that although the roads immediately in front of the DOT building aren’t very bike-friendly, several of the streets nearby and on the back side of the building, like 4th St. and 6th St., do have bike lanes. Now if we could just get free shower facilities for cyclists at the DOT building, we’d be all set!

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  • Nancy March 12, 2013 at 5:27 am

    You should have seen DC when I first moved here from Oregon in the ’80s. No bike lanes anywhere and the only bikers daring to travel downtown were the messengers who rode like crazy people. We’re not Eugene yet (ah those lovely days in Eugene’s bike-loving 70s–miss them), but we’ve come a long way baby.

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  • TOM MURPHY March 12, 2013 at 7:10 am

    You travel all the way to Washington, DC, to kvetch about their local bike facilities? I’m sure the folks back home will be delighted.

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    • Andrew Seger March 12, 2013 at 7:47 am

      I’m really glad Jonathan mentioned the conditions around the DOT building. A lot of bike infrastructure is of the “seeing is believing” type. It’s good to know what the policy makers experience everyday going to work. For better or worse it shapes how they view things.

      That goes double for bike share-which has many skeptics in Portland right now. Once you try out a good bike share system (ie, one with comprehensive coverage like DC or Paris) it makes many converts.

      Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Todd Solomon March 12, 2013 at 7:36 am

    Thanks for the visit, Jonathan, and the kind write-up (it’s true that M St SE could use some protections for its bicyclists). I hope Portland readers recognize what a great resource they have in Bike Portland. I read way too much transpo media, and I don’t know of many locally-focused bicycling blogs offering the depth of coverage that BP provides to Portland. Keep up the ruckus-
    -TS

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • art fuldodger March 13, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    i love the bollards around the building, which look like little decapitated Washington Monuments. Such stylish terrorist protection!

    Recommended Thumb up 0

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