ODOT’s new Climate Office director was leader of Seattle bike nonprofit

Posted by on July 26th, 2021 at 4:46 pm

Suzanne Carlson is the new director of ODOT’s Climate Office.

Hopefully Suzanne Carlson hasn’t forgotten her roots.

The newly-hired director of the Oregon Department of Transportation Climate Office got her start in the transportation world in the 1990s by starting Bike Works, a Seattle-based nonprofit that runs a community bike shop and teaches young people how to refurbish used bikes (similar to Portland’s Community Cycling Center).

Carlson will lead an effort to make Oregon’s transportation system less harmful to the environment. Or, according to the official job description, Carlson will, “… integrate climate considerations throughout Agency decisions, pursue climate actions that reduce pollution and adapt the transportation system to climate and extreme weather.”

Given the fact that cars and trucks make up 40% of Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions (the largest of any sector), and that “extreme weather” has never been harder to ignore, Carlson has her work cut out.

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After living in Seattle (one source said she participated in Critical Mass back in the day, but I haven’t been able to confirm that), Carlson went on to hold several positions that should make her a solid leader at ODOT: She was director of environmental affairs for Chicago Public Schools; pedestrian program manager for the Chicago Department of Transportation; transportation and sustainability program manager at Innovate Memphis; and most recently was director of the Multimodal Division of the Tennessee Department of Transportation (where she developed the state’s Active Transportation Plan).

ODOT’s Climate Office was established via executive order in 2020 by Governor Kate Brown. In October of that year, Pietz said the state was “headed in the complete wrong direction” on climate change efforts. A new ODOT Climate Action Plan, due out later this month, should give us a clearer picture of where things stand.

Carlson takes on this position in a very interesting time. As the nation’s largest wildfire rages in Oregon, activists’ finger-pointing at ODOT has reached a fever pitch and the agency faces major headwinds (in large part from climate activists) on the I-5 Rose Quarter project, which is the state’s top priority project.

Carlson takes over Tuesday (July 27th) for former Climate Office Director Amanda Pietz, who was named Policy, Data & Analysis Division administrator back in April.

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

If this were a position of any real consequence then the most obvious thing she could do would be to advise ODOT to halt all further freeway expansions and redirect significant portions of ODOT funds towards expanding transit, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. ODOT would listen and then put her in the lead to actually make it all happen.

However I bet that very soon you’ll see her out there justifying the line, “Yes, The Climate, but also other priorities, and also more capacity will actually reduce the overall carbon footprint because fewer cars will be idling in traffic, and the Rose Quarter is part of our strategy to reduce carbon emissions. Also EVs and self driving cars! Can’t wait!”

After that most of us will quietly forget she exists and in a few more years she’ll move on to her next gig, likely outside of Oregon.

mh
Subscriber

She probably will, after some period of settling in, advise ODOT of exactly that. And ODOT will ignore that advice.

Roberta Robles
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Roberta Robles

I don’t trust ODOT, and more and more I don’t trust white women who use their critical mass chops to convert their activism into top dollar bureaucracy jobs. She’s not the first import to take Oregon tax dollars and spin it into a lucrative career. Whatever happened to Lea at PBOT? So much hope. So much let down. We have women of color here in Oregon getting ignored and dismissed. I hope the state pers benefits are worth it.

buildwithjoe
Member

This is a good question Roberta. We should look for patterns of NGO transit workers who move to/from Government work on transit.

Some of you might feel that street design can cause pedestrian deaths like Fallon Smart. Some of you might feel it’s just the driver fault.

To move to/from government and NGO work you have to be loyal. Leah Treat was very loyal. She’s now Leah Riley and working in San Francisco for a contractor Nelson Nygaard who helps government implement urbanist designs.

“I don’t know there is anything anybody could have done to have prevented that fatality except for the driver,” said Leah Treat, director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

https://www.oregonlive.com/commuting/2016/09/teens_death_illustrates_portla.html

Sara X
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Sara X

Roberta, your comments are straight up racist.

David Hampsten
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David Hampsten

In the nonprofit world, it’s known as the “Nonprofit Industrial Complex.” Once an organization has hired their first part-time employee, it’s a long slow downward-spiral of chasing grants, mission creep, completely neglecting the core mission, hiring a new director at a high cost to “get leadership” and take the organization in a new direction, them jumping ship to a government job (or getting elected), and so on. Nonprofits are really low-cost discount extensions of government, a necessary evil during lean times (more-or-less always), one of two faces of the same coin.

I’m in that industry, in the thick of it now, and quite frankly I’m jealous of Suzanne Carlson and others who get such good opportunities for career advancement.

soren
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soren

“Nonprofits are really low-cost discount extensions of government”
…that are used by local governments to avoid providing essential services to poor and working class people.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

True enough. Nonprofits are also used by state and national governments for the same purposes (NGO is the international term – Non-Governmental Organization). On the other hand, there are many poor and working-class people who simply don’t trust any sort of government but are willing to receive services from nonprofits such as churches, hospitals, social service providers, YMCA, United Way, etc. And finally there’s the biggest commercial nonprofit in the USA, Underwriters Laboratory, who test all sorts of electrical equipment for safety – UL Listed.

Of course there’s also personal foundations, 501c4 nonprofits – PACS, and 501c9 nonprofits – government pension funds like PERS.

Raylena
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Raylena

Jonathan,
Would you allow this post if Roberta said “….and more I don’t trust women of color….” ?
I am gobsmacked you would allow this to be posted.

Middle of the Road Guy
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Middle of the Road Guy

Perhaps she was the most qualified of the applicants.

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

I don’t trust white women who use their critical mass chops to convert their activism into top dollar bureaucracy jobs.

Uh… did she do that? From my reading of the article, it seems like someone JM talked to said she participated in critical mass. Is that on her resume or something?

buildwithjoe
Member

I see a pattern here. Rex Burkholder is often given credit for Founding Portland’s bike non profit (BTA/StreetTrust) Rex also fast tracked the CRC freeway after being elected to Metro Council. LUFO was made to fast track the BLUE/RED max line creation. Rex “amends the 1998 Land Use Final Order (LUFO) … adopts the LUFO for the Columbia River Crossing” https://www.oregonmetro.gov/sites/default/files/2014/04/25/08122011_Metro_Council_resolution_adopting_CRC_LUFO_unsigned.pdf

Mike Quigley
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Mike Quigley

Largely a public relations job. But, I give her credit for making it work for her, if she does. In today’s America, follow the lead of the Big Boys.

Mark smith
Guest
Mark smith

Would a man be questioned in an article as such “I hope HE doesn’t forget his bicycle roots”?

I doubt it.

Let’s try and not eat our own once in a while.

Granpa
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Granpa

I am as cynical as anyone on this forum but rather than welcoming Carlson with dismissal as window dressing And a eulogy, I hope she succeeds in changing the culture and priorities of ODOT One has to have hope

Paul
Guest
Paul

It’s pretty weird that when a bike activist takes a job at ODOT the reaction in the comments is “she must be a sell out” instead of “hopefully she can do some good there.” I don’t get it. How else are we supposed to improve ODOT?

SolarEclipse
Guest
SolarEclipse

If you look at the Climate Office’s website you’ll quickly realize (well at least I did) that it’s an internal “feel good” department that though may teach about climate affairs to ODOT staff, but in reality will have no say in the actual projects.
We need bike advocates in the top leadership and engineering positions.
I wish Suzanne all the best and hope I’m wrong, but I’ve seen this kind of stuff in government all too often.