Splendid Cycles

PBOT Director Leah Treat to take job with private firm

Posted by on May 14th, 2018 at 12:03 pm

Leah Treat speaking at Roosevelt High School in November 2017.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus)

The Leah Treat era at the Portland Bureau of Transportation is over.

The PBOT director hired in June 2013 announced today that she has taken a job with Nelson\Nygaard, a California-based transportation consultancy. Treat will be the managing director of the firm’s 130 employees. Nygaard is a frequent contractor with the City of Portland, working on a range of projects including the Foster Road Streetscape Plan.

In a statement about the hire on their website, Nelson\Nygaard’s current managing director Paul Jewel said, “We have found in her, hands-down, the most qualified, most capable, and most dynamic leader to take our firm to the next level—and to help deliver to our clients the most progressive transportation solutions in the world.”

For her part, Treat said, “My experiences and broad exposure to urban politics will help both Nelson\Nygaard and the firm’s clients achieve their goals of safe, smart, and equitable transportation.”

“Leah’s talent, combined with her passion and enthusiasm for her work, make her indispensable to the community she serves,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler added. “The citizens of the City of Portland —myself included — are fortunate to have benefited from her leadership over the past five years. She has helped our city to become the global exemplar of urban mobility and the gold standard for transportation innovation.”

Treat has many accomplishments to point to when looking back on her tenure. Chief among them are placing Vision Zero atop the city’s transportation priority list and sealing a deal with Nike to launch a Portland bike share system.

It’s worth remembering that when Leah Treat first started to talk about Vision Zero in early 2014, her previous boss, Commissioner of Transportation Steve Novick, had never even heard of the phrase. 15 months later it was Novick who led the charge as Portland City Council voted unanimously to make Vision Zero an official city policy.

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Treat plays the role of decoy during a crosswalk enforcement action in 2014.

The announcement of Biketown was likely the high point of her career with PBOT. Treat oversaw a $10 million contract with Nike and was able to launch a world-class system after years of stops-and-starts. To date, Biketown has been a very successful program by many measures. Most importantly, it has avoided major controversies and scandals.

A low point might have been when she got her bike stolen from outside her office. Fortunately, she got it back.

Treat was a breath of fresh air when it came to progressive transportation policy. She was a big believer in parking reform (even appearing in a launch video for PBOT’s new parking payment app with a cat rapper), she ferried PBOT’s autonomous vehicle policy across the finish line, and she set a standard for building protected bike lanes by requiring them (or a good argument against them) on all new developments.

Treat was also relentless in her pursuit of lower speeds, doing everything from dusting off a little-used state ordinance to establish an “emergency” speed reduction on a major arterial, to helping pass speed camera legislation and installing several of them on high crash corridors around town.

In one of her last major public appearances, a Business for a Better Portland event back in January, Treat urged the public to step up and support transportation reform.

“At the City of Portland, we have so many amazing projects lined up. So many things that we can deliver. We have tons of stuff we want to do,” she said. “What we need is support from the business community, from Portlanders everywhere, to help our council make some really hard decisions… If you showed up in front of council your voice will be 100 times more important than mine over the course of the year. So show up!”

Treat leaves PBOT at a time when the agency has significant funding to deliver projects for the first time in many decades thanks to a local gas tax increase and new funding passed by the Oregon Legislature last year. At the April Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting, she acknowledged the challenges that come with that. “We are having capacity issues both internally and externally,” she shared. “We are having a hard time hiring engineers because the private market is snatching them up.”

Treat is set to begin her new job on August 1st. No word yet on the search for her replacement.

For more, browse the 27 posts in our Leah Treat archives.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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46 Comments
  • mran1984 May 14, 2018 at 12:24 pm

    Vision extra zero on the next paycheck. Thanks for screwing up the street I live on. Naito is a mess too.

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    • Middle of the Road Guy May 14, 2018 at 12:28 pm

      How has the street you live on been screwed up?

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  • 9watts May 14, 2018 at 12:29 pm

    “She has helped our city to become the global exemplar of urban mobility and the gold standard for transportation innovation.”

    I think I missed that.
    Yes to Vision Zero and lower speeds and protected bike lanes, but none of those were things we pioneered but things others have done for decades. Hm.

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    • q May 14, 2018 at 10:57 pm

      It would be a true statement if not for things other cities are doing equally well or better.

      If Portland was second to Seattle in something, Portland’s government would say Portland finished in the top two, and Seattle came in next to last.

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      • Hello, Kitty
        Hello, Kitty May 15, 2018 at 1:10 am

        Seattle’s a bunch of losers. Always next to last!

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  • Clicky Freewheel May 14, 2018 at 12:36 pm

    I certainly don’t blame her. Who in their right mind would want to work the public sector in Portland anyway? Between the elected officials who have no idea what they’re talking about to the constituents who constantly berate you, the job must be a constant struggle of frustration. Not to mention having basically zero autonomy over the direction of your bureau; having to run all major decisions by an elected official who bases all their knowledge of your bureau on personal anecdotes no one cares about. Good luck to ya, Portland’s revolving door of talent will continue onward towards mediocrity.

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    • Chris I May 15, 2018 at 8:34 am

      Definitely better to get paid for your access to public officials in the private sector.

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    • 9watts May 16, 2018 at 11:11 am

      “I certainly don’t blame her.”

      Your post suggests the politics, logistics, details make it impossible to actually accomplish bold things. I don’t think I agree. Seems like buck-passing rather than a willingness to explore what she has/has not accomplished.

      “Not to mention having basically zero autonomy over the direction of your bureau”

      Is that really true? Then why is she getting credit at all? Or was paid $140,000/yr?

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  • John Liu May 14, 2018 at 12:45 pm

    This is too bad. To Treat’s accomplishments in her five years at PBOT, I’d add the lower speed limits and the major roadway safety/bike/ped projects in East Portland that are now underway or soon to start. Thinking back to when she arrived in 2013, there didn’t seem to be budget for anything beyond chasing potholes and we weren’t seeing much attention to East Portland’s car sewer streets. Now PBOT seems to have money to do a substantial number of projects and bike/ped safety improvements appear to be included in all of them. As far as I can tell, she leaves Portland’s transportation system a better place than she found it. The good thing is that PBOT seems to have momentum and the next director can build on that. My hope is that that next director will crack the code on some knotty problems: real BRT especially for North and East Portland, bike routes over the West Hills, the bike-unfriendly roads and limited transit in SW Portland. A lot has been done to make the central city and close-in eastside rideable, but bike commuting from Kenton, St Johns, Parkrose, Centennial, Brentwood-Darlinton remains quite challenging. I’m willing to assume that in the coming decade, e-bikes will make 6-10 mile bike commutes physically feasible for more people, but the roads have to be bike friendly and transit has to be a lot faster for the great majority of people who still aren’t going to ride a bike or e-bike for 45 minutes in our lovely winter weather.

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  • Evan Manvel May 14, 2018 at 12:53 pm

    Many thanks to Leah for all her hard work, and leadership on Vision Zero (Portland’s efforts, including its equity focus, get national attention).

    The PBOT Director job is one of the hardest in the city (or most any city). Everyone has transportation challenges and points fingers.

    Making it five years, including through two different mayors, demonstrates her ability to navigate tough waters.

    Luckily she’ll be sharing her skills nationwide at Nelson\Nygaard, meaning many more cities will improve.

    Congrats Leah!

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  • B. Carfree May 14, 2018 at 1:02 pm

    The results, in terms of modal shares for cycling and walking, of Treat’s tenure are pretty much a nothing-burger. That might simply be the nature of the job or it might be that she just didn’t know how to or was unwilling to pay the price to truly make a difference.

    I’d say it’s mostly that she was simply unwilling to pay the price to get the job done, but in fairness that price was going to by terribly high (likely career ending). Is it fair to blame someone for not being a full-on hero just because we needed one and she was in the best position to deliver? Probably not.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) May 14, 2018 at 1:09 pm

    Just an FYI that I just added this to the story:

    Treat leaves PBOT at a time when the agency has significant funding to deliver projects for the first time in many decades thanks to a local gas tax increase and new funding passed by the Oregon Legislature last year. At the April Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting, she acknowledged the challenges that come with that. “We are having capacity issues both internally and externally,” she shared. “We are having a hard time hiring engineers because the private market is snatching them up.”

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    • Middle of the Road Guy May 15, 2018 at 9:22 am

      There are so many engineering experts here on BP alone, it should be no problem to find some.

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  • maxadders May 14, 2018 at 1:14 pm

    Vision Zero’s seeing push-back from NIMBYs and Bikeytown’s about to get eclipsed by LimeBike. Probably a good time for Treat to exit before things get any uglier out there, because Portland’s growing pains are NOT being addressed by our leaders.

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    • Doug Hecker May 14, 2018 at 3:17 pm

      You think Vision Zero shouldn’t be questioned? And you’re blaming the NIMBY’s for it? Wouldn’t your second statement be the encapsulation of NIMBY, fight or flight? No need for doom and gloom, we’re still #1 in biking in America for our population group. We’ll be fine. 🙂

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    • Hello, Kitty
      Hello, Kitty May 15, 2018 at 1:14 am

      NIMBY? Really? VisionZero/20 Is Plenty is about as NIMBY as you get.

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      • SD May 15, 2018 at 8:20 am

        Ultimately, it is NIABY.

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      • Chris I May 15, 2018 at 8:35 am

        20 is plenty is more “don’t kill my kid in my front yard”.

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        • Middle of the Road Guy May 15, 2018 at 9:23 am

          How many kids were getting killed before?

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          • Chris I May 16, 2018 at 11:05 am

            Several children have died in traffic crashes in Portland over the past few years. Are you saying that it doesn’t happen?

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      • Hello, Kitty
        Hello, Kitty May 15, 2018 at 9:08 am

        Speeding traffic is a scourge. I certainly don’t want it here, there, or anywhere (except the freeway).

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        • Dan A May 15, 2018 at 8:43 pm

          And human fatalities aren’t the only measuring stick, though some folks (even here) seem to think it is.

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  • Caitlin D May 14, 2018 at 1:19 pm

    Aw, man! Sad to see her go. I think she has done a good job given the challenges that the PBOT Director faces. Best of luck with your new job, Leah!

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  • eawriste May 14, 2018 at 1:21 pm

    Having a lot of talent and potential for change under indecisive and directionless leadership would be frustrating. I wish her all the best, and Pland a new mayor–again.

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  • Racer X May 14, 2018 at 2:01 pm

    We will see what here project pipeline still provides…though perhaps her legacy at PBOT would have been greater, if the political leadership had really cleared the street for Chicago/NYC level of traffic safety work and generational multimodal capital projects.

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    • Doug Hecker May 14, 2018 at 3:18 pm

      You ever live in Chicago? I never knew it to be a place where biking was on the side of the politicians.

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      • Middle of the Road Guy May 14, 2018 at 4:56 pm

        It started that way, though. Back in the mid-90’s I was fresh outta grad school and was interning at the Chicago Department of Environment. I was the guy (note taker, essentially) who went to the meetings for Mayor Daley’s Bicycle Action Plan, where they were trying to implement safer cycling infrastructure way back then.

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        • Doug Hecker May 14, 2018 at 6:32 pm

          Nice! I lived in Logan square for 5+ years and although the biking lanes were there, the road diets weren’t. Although I experienced my fair share of accidents, I did enjoy cycling there more then I do here.

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          • Middle of the Road Guy May 15, 2018 at 9:25 am

            Man, how some neighborhoods have changed!

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  • mh May 14, 2018 at 3:44 pm

    So it will be another national search? If so, what happens in the (probably long) interim?

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    • Middle of the Road Guy May 14, 2018 at 4:57 pm

      Maybe some of our local experts can fill in 🙂

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    • David Hampsten May 15, 2018 at 7:22 pm

      She’s leaving sometime before August 1st, The last interim director was on the job for roughly 6-8 months before Leah was hired and on the job.

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  • Scott Kocher May 14, 2018 at 4:29 pm

    Thank you Director Treat for your service to Portland.

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  • Michael Andersen (Contributor)
    Michael Andersen (Contributor) May 14, 2018 at 9:06 pm

    There have been some times I’ve wished Treat could have done more or gotten to a better outcome, and I assume she’d agree. But in five years of watching pretty closely, I’ve never seen her say anything I fully disagree with. That’s remarkable, because I feel pretty far out there on the progressive transportation wing of the city!

    No one is perfect, and given the problems before us we should expect a lot. But I would be overjoyed if our next transpo director were either as aggressive or as effective as Treat at pushing for change.

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    • 9watts May 15, 2018 at 8:11 am

      “I’ve never seen her say anything I fully disagree with. ”

      Michael,
      with all due respect, that isn’t saying much. Our previous president didn’t [i]say[/i] all that much I disagreed with, but if you look at the changes in our country (inequality, carbon dioxide emissions, racial sensitivity, automobility, wars, etc.) we didn’t get much for those eight years.
      Speech and results are hardly equally important.

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  • David Sweet May 14, 2018 at 9:53 pm

    What makes the job especially difficult is that everyone who walks, bikes, drives or rides TriMet is a transportation expert. Thanks, Leah. It’s been a real pleasure having you here. I hope we can find another good one, but I suspect we’re really going to miss you before long.

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  • Kittens May 14, 2018 at 10:57 pm

    Apparently I’m in the minority here but I for one won’t miss her presence in Portland. What with the insistence that technology is a panacea and relentless pursuit of transpo fads ungrounded in reality beyond YouTube and Ted X. I feel like she just proves the point that conservatives are constantly harping on that elite policy makers are hopelessly out of touch and do not understand how the other half live. Vizon Zero is everything wrong with progressive democratic tendencies in a tidy two word catchphrase.

    We need visionary leaders who is not afraid of choosing sides and has Real vision beyond yard signs and happy talk. Time is running out!

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  • Jim Lee May 15, 2018 at 10:50 am

    Do not forget “courageous conversations!”

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  • Dween May 15, 2018 at 2:16 pm

    If you look at the comments here and at the Oregonian piece, you can see how much criticism she received… from both sides! The tone is slightly more genteel here, but the “I won’t miss her when she is gone” type of comments I am sure make her glad she is going! What a hard job.

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  • David Hampsten May 15, 2018 at 2:47 pm

    I was involved in the process of interviewing Treat way back in 2013 – ancient history now, I know.

    I have no doubt the city will do a national search for qualified candidates and find a bevy of excellent people, both from outside the region and within PBOT. I also have equal confidence that the candidates from within PBOT will not measure up to the outside candidates, not because they are not qualified or excellent, but because Council and their interviewing group normally have a bias towards outsiders – I know we did.

    If you want to profoundly influence the way PBOT does business, now is the time to lobby your City Councilors on what qualifications the next PBOT director should have.

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  • Buzz May 15, 2018 at 3:34 pm

    IMO, she never planned to stay for more than five years, she was just using the PBOT job as a stepping stone to better opportunities in the private sector on the west coast.

    FWIW, City of Portland has a revolving door policy in City Code, she’s not supposed to work on any projects for her new employer involving or related to City of Portland for at least a year after she leaves.

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    • David Hampsten May 15, 2018 at 7:08 pm

      When we hired her, we honestly thought she would move on after 2 or 3 years, which is typical in most big-city DOTs. The fact that she’s lasted 5 years without being either fired nor stressed-out to the point of quitting is rather amazing, really.

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  • Jim Lee May 15, 2018 at 3:56 pm

    Is anyone surprised by this?

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  • Jim Lee May 15, 2018 at 4:12 pm

    Now we know the circumstances of your decamping to North Carolina, David.

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    • David Hampsten May 15, 2018 at 7:10 pm

      Yup, not good enough for PBOT, alas. Enjoy your weather, y’all!

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  • Al M May 16, 2018 at 6:40 am

    At least the revolving door between government and the ‘free’ market is still working properly

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