Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

City introduces Leah Treat, new Director of Transportation

Posted by on July 23rd, 2013 at 4:53 pm

PBOT Director Leah Treat

Leah Treat is now calling the shots at PBOT.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Newly minted Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Leah Treat made her official media debut at City Hall today. Just two days into her Portland career, PBOT made Treat available to local media (just me and KXL Radio showed up) for an informal briefing session where she appeared alongside her new boss, Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick. It was an opportunity to learn a bit more about Treat, see how she interacts with Novick, and to get a sense of what we might expect from this (hopefully dynamic) duo down the road.

“People are biking, walking and taking transit more. People are moving to cities more. But it’s not my agenda to make the car go away.”
— Leah Treat, Director of PBOT

At the outset of the event, Novick said PBOT currently has “a mess of challenges.” Among them are a road maintenance backlog that Novick said has ballooned to $750 million, parts of the city with “unimproved streets,” and “areas that don’t have the transit service we’d like them to have.” But compared to a lot of places, Novick added Portland has “great transit and great walkability and bikeability.” In the end, he said, Portland needs to “Recognize our challenges and build on our strengths.”

As for his hopes for Treat, Novick said, “She has phenomenal experience in terms of managing money and that’s a skill set we definitely need.”

For her part, Treat is still very fresh on the job. She is starting from scratch as the head of an agency with 700 employees and a $275 million (or so) annual budget. “I’m doing a cannonball,” is how she described her big leap into the new job. Prior to her first day yesterday, Treat hadn’t met any of her PBOT staffers, and she even managed to get lost while biking into work on Monday (she said she typed in “SE” on Google Maps instead of “SW”).

Treat, 42, said she’s hoping to close escrow soon on a house in the Alameda neighborhood. She’s currently living with a friend until she can bring her family out from Chicago. Since she’s been in Portland for the past few days, Treat has been riding her bike around town, purposely (and accidentally) getting lost to learn more about the streets.

Her first impressions? “I’ve ridden my bike over some pretty rough roads on the way home and I think I’m living in one of the better neighborhoods.”

While the poor surface of many of our streets made an impact, Treat said she’s thrilled at how courteous most drivers are. “The thing that has impressed me beyond belief is when I come up to an intersection with a crosswalk, cars stop for you and let you cross the street. In Chicago or DC, you have to sit and wait for all the traffic to come by. I think it’s amazing. I feel like calling Gabe and saying, ‘You won’t believe this!'”

In her limited riding, Treat has already sampled North Going Street, one of Portland’s finest neighborhood greenways. “I like that there are really big lane markings in the road [a reference to sharrows]. And it helps that there are orange things on top of the signs [PBOT’s “sign toppers”] that designate bike routes. All the bike signage is helping me get around.”

Treat and Novick

The new duo.

But closer to downtown, it appears Treat has had some trouble finding her way. She’s gotten lost on the Esplanade and while trying to return home on the Hawthorne Bridge.

I asked Treat if she plans on riding her bike to work. Once settled into the Alameda neighborhood, she said she’ll likely take the bus; but she’s clearly a fan of biking. “It’s amazing to ride by a river on your way to work,” she said, describing her commute, “I love it.”

Treat said her family has one car and that it’s always an option if she needs it. “If something comes up, I’ll be realistic. I’m a mom with four kids, if I have to pick them up and them to the pediatrician during the day… There are realities I’m going to have to deal with. And if I have to go pick up something from the grocery store; yes, I will use a car but it’s not my first choice for transportation.”

When it came to policy questions, Treat avoided answering them, saying repeatedly that she simply doesn’t know enough yet to wade into any substantive issues. She did say that her top priority is “safety” and that to her, safety “starts with pedestrians because everyone is a pedestrian.”

During her job interview, Treat said Portland had started “stagnating” when it comes to doing things differently on the transportation front. Asked about that perspective today, Treat was quick to walk those comments back. Turning to her boss, she said, “I definitely want to comment about complacency. I would not attribute that adjective to Commissioner Novick at all. That definitely has changed under his leadership.”

A reporter from KXL asked Treat if Portland is “changing from a car-centric transportation system to more of a multi-vehicle system.” Treat deferred that answer to Novick. “In terms of the country as a whole,” he said, “that seems like a reasonable thing to say.”

Treat then added: “Data shows car registrations are going down. People are biking, walking and taking transit more. People are moving to cities more.” Then, perhaps showing her experience in dealing with the public and the meda, she said, “But it’s not my agenda to make the car go away.”

I’m hopeful for Treat, especially because she’s surrounded by people that “get it.” Novick seems ready to do big things, Mayor Hales seems like he’s ready to support them, and the PBOT rank-and-file have been champing at the bit for City Hall politics to get more lined up to their agenda (which it appears to be now more than any other time in the past five years).

Treat faces a steep learning curve; but she’s a very smart woman (she graduated with honors from her undergraduate and graduate schools) with a record of figuring things out and the experience of the scrutiny that comes with working in major cities like Chicago and DC. That being said, whether or not she can untangle Portland’s unique “mess of challenges” remains to be seen.

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  • Anne Hawley July 23, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    Best of luck to Leah. She sounds politically savvy, and I can’t fault her bike-riding adventurousness in a brand new city. I just hope she doesn’t fall victim to the City’s byzantine political system. We desperately need fresh perspectives from outside the region, and I’d hate to see her run away screaming too soon.

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  • Scott July 23, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    Welcome to Portland Mrs. Treat! Looking forward to what the future holds.

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  • dwainedibbly July 23, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    I think she sounds perfect for what we need right now. A mom who bikes? Indicator species! Her perspective is exactly what we need to get the interested but concerned out there.

    Welcome to Portland, Ms. Treat!

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  • wsbob July 23, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    Definitely seems to have some of the right stuff. Looking forward to advances Treat may be able to help Portland make towards having the city become a better, easier place to get around in, on foot and bike.

    Portland’s a city with great beauty. Wandering around the city by bike most recently, Treat has perhaps seen more of that than ever before. It’s a shame that so many people have to spend so much time inside, as they go from A to B, simply because prevailing use of the city’s streets and roads so often don’t allow walking and biking to be what many people can regard as practical transportation.

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  • Steph C. July 23, 2013 at 10:09 pm

    I am genuinely offering – if she’s up on Alameda Ridge, I am happy to meet her and be a bike buddy for the ride downtown. I live just across Killinsgworth and just east of 42nd and work a few blocks from City Hall. And, from experience, taking the 75 to Hollywood and then taking the 12 or Max into downtown takes approximately twice as long as biking there. Multi-modal commute options are swell, but bikes are a whole lot more practical between NE and downtown most days.

    Plus, you know, that whole notion of unfettered access to someone with a sympathetic ear and positional authority to fix shit (see: poor road surfaces and uncontrolled major road crossings along Going, the Williams bike lane flip planned to put me directly between car commuters and their entrance to the New Seasons at Fremont and the ever-stressful four-way stop at NW Couch and Broadway).

    Anyone else want to be part of our bike train?

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    • Craig Harlow July 24, 2013 at 9:42 am

      Ditto here, Ms. Treat.

      I live just below Alameda Ridge in Irvington–in the path of your daily commute–and would be pleased to provide some commute camaraderie and route assistance during your morning or evening commutes.

      As a father of four who ditched the minivan for a cargo bike, and as a member of the Lloyd TMA Bike Committee (if you’re riding to downtown from NE, it’s hard to “avoid the Lloyd”), I’d also be gently nudging you in the direction of the bee-busy community of family biking enthusiasts.

      Also, just four more days until… http://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/456583 !!!

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  • Hart Noecker July 23, 2013 at 11:10 pm

    “it’s not my agenda to make the car go away.”

    Of course not, that would require the kinds of vision and leadership that happens in Europe, not the United States.

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    • Anne Hawley July 24, 2013 at 9:40 am

      It would require the kind of vision and leadership that insure you won’t get a job in an American city where you could at least push the window a little away from cars.

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      • spare_wheel July 24, 2013 at 10:55 am

        “push the window a little…”

        e.g. more stagnation.

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        • Anne Hawley July 24, 2013 at 12:11 pm

          Political reality sucks, huh?

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    • Andrew K July 24, 2013 at 1:18 pm

      This statement is entirely unfair.

      If you think the whole of Europe is some bike utopia you are incredibly wrong.

      Like or not cars exist and people want to use them. Leah Treat needs to work for the benefit of those people too even if they’ve made a different choice from you and I.

      A true visionary is someone who is going to work with both political and physical reality and come up with solutions that work for everyone.

      Statements like yours are just as bad as car centrist people who constantly treat bikes as an “us vs. them” proposition.

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      • Hart Noecker July 24, 2013 at 1:20 pm

        You’re right, her statement was entirely unfair.

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        • A.K. July 24, 2013 at 2:27 pm

          I don’t think Portland is the type of city you were looking for when you moved here.

          Try Berkeley?

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      • BURR July 24, 2013 at 2:46 pm

        It’s not the bike infrastructure or the cars per se, but rather, the attitude of the motorists inside them, that makes the US suck when compared to many places in the EU.

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    • wsbob July 24, 2013 at 7:01 pm

      Leadership with visions of better transportation, in Europe, Amsterdam, Copenhagen…hasn’t made the car go away. It has though, encouraged and helped implement infrastructure that enables people to once again rely on and enjoy simple means of travel such as walking and biking to get around, as they once used to be able to do.

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    • mike July 27, 2013 at 9:39 pm

      Does europe push cars away or is it a by product of being too dense and too expensive? How much of the bike culture there is due to political will?

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  • Cota July 24, 2013 at 9:53 am

    “There are realities I’m going to have to deal with. And if I have to go pick up something from the grocery store; yes, I will use a car ”

    Picking something up at the grocery store was the exact reason I bought my first bike as an adult about five years ago. I haven’t done my grocery shopping in a car since.


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    • Chris I July 24, 2013 at 12:31 pm

      Baby steps. Get people to start replacing short trips that don’t involve 20lbs of groceries. Then when they realize they just need a rack and a few pannier bags, you can add those trips. It’s a transition.

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      • BURR July 24, 2013 at 2:48 pm

        Depending on how you count, it’s already been ‘baby steps’ for the last 20, 50 or 100+ years already. Some of us may never be around to finally see that baby grow up.

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    • MadKnowledge July 24, 2013 at 10:08 pm

      I was thinking a similar thing about this statment… someone needs to help Ms. Treat outfit herself with a rack and some panniers. Alameda has a Safewaym a Fred Meyer and a New Seasons all within easy biking distance.

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  • Gaye July 24, 2013 at 10:12 am

    Question: was there really no equally qualified local, or at least, state resident available for this position?

    P.s. think of the carbon footprint to move a family with 4 children from Chicago to Portland?

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    • Andrew K July 24, 2013 at 1:23 pm

      Sooooo, are you saying the city of Portland should never hire anyone from out of state for fear of the carbon footprint it would cause? Seriously?

      Anyone who has ever owned a business or worked for a large organization knows that sometimes new perspectives are just the ticket to get things done. Given our own constant complaining that Portland has stagnated one would think more people would be happy about this.

      Besides, the hiring process the city went through for this position is well documented.

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    • Anne Hawley July 24, 2013 at 4:21 pm

      I’ve spent my career at the City of Portland, and I feel comfortable saying that there’s a real need for “outsiders” around here, especially in high-impact positions like the director of transportation. We do a lot of inside and local hiring, and that’s great, but the only way out of our parochialism sometimes is to recruit and hire “national level” talent and bring in some fresh air from far away.

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  • A.K. July 24, 2013 at 10:35 am

    ” PBOT made Treat available to local media (just me and KXL Radio showed up)”

    Man, that is just sad, considering how many people complain about road construction, potholes, PBOT, etc. No one from The Snoregonian was there? Maybe they fired everyone who cared?

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    • Andrew K July 24, 2013 at 1:07 pm

      The Oregonian is just about siring the pot now, not about actually finding answers or getting engaged in solutions.

      I am surprised OPB didn’t bother to show though.

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  • Trick or Treat July 24, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    Trick or Treat
    Portland you really sound like a nice bunch of folks reading some of your emails welcoming Ms. Treat. Unfortunately you probably will soon be in for the “trick or treat” roadshow. This woman had no “stellar” credentials in the District she was a political appointee from a Secretary level staffer to a Chief of Staff for a boss who was fired as she was eventually from the Department of Real Estate Services in DC. Truth be told, I think she realized she had worn out her welcome in the Agency and used her connections to get back to DDOT while on maternity leave to avoid the embarrassment of being fired. She knew little substantively. Now she was in Chicago for (2) years and heard it was the same roadshow as DC. Now Portland again via a Political connection. Here’s hoping it works out for you guys there the fact that she would not answer even one substantive policy issue says enough….the bet is she again knows little but a few buzz words…in DC she used to say she was not there to “do the work” just to manage the process….hopefully she manages it better in Portland than those of us with geniune financial backgrounds witnessed in DC….oh yes all those over 45 and non-white also be careful in DC she was all into hiring 20 somethings who were well connected politically with no experience at anything and paying them $80,000 +++ to start while those on the job had to train them what to do only to learn they would now be replaced by the 20 somethings……she is 42 now um…..let’s see how she plays in the sandbox now this was one of her favorite expresssions along with a need to leave at 4:45 PM sharp because my nanny needs to leave.Good luck Portland hope you do not wind up with a “trick or treat” like we did in DC! Stay as nice as all your posts sound it is really refreshing…sorry for this downer post but you needed to be warned. This women is a fake political appointee with not much else.

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  • Ted Buehler July 25, 2013 at 1:06 am

    Welcome and good luck, Leah!

    Portland sure-as-heck needs better wayfinding to navigate the bike route system.

    I hope that as the first outsider to this position in a long time that you’ll be able to convince your engineers of this. And a few other things. Rock this town, make our bikeways hum with will behaved bicyclist on well marked, well maintained routes.

    Ted Buehler

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  • CaptainKarma July 25, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    How about “well behaved street users”? In the past few days, I have narrowly avoided killing two different maniac motorcyclists who apparently thought they had superpowers, almost got creamed by a fatcat in a lincoln pulling a u-turn in the middle of the block while engrossed in a cellcall, was closely tailgated by car drivers while at the speed limit, and saw probably a couple hundred stop-sign violations by combustion drivers, not to mention right-turn-on-red cruise-throughs. Won’t even highlight the fact that I impede traffic because I only travel at the speed limit. Don’t talk about making bicyclists well-behaved.

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