EXIT INTERVIEW: Charles Carmalt, Philadelphia’s first bicycle and pedestrian coordinator

Alex Vuocolo Features, Issue 2 0 Comments

Outgoing Mayor Michael Nutter has cut many a red ribbon, more than a few of which marked the completion of new trail segments, bike lanes and pedestrian improvements. These photo-ready moments reinforced Nutter’s image as a champion of a more walkable and bikeable Philadelphia. But while mayors make good spokespeople, a new generation of city officials worked behind the scenes to bring these projects to fruition.

Charles Carmalt, who retired earlier this spring, served in the Philadelphia Streets Department as the city’s first bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. Hired in 2008, he had a hand in many of the projects that took place over the last eight years. We sat down with Carmalt to look back at his time in government and talk about the position he came to shape.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did there come to be a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator position in Philadelphia?

When Mayor Nutter was running for office, he made a commitment that he would appoint such a person. Cities and states had pedestrian and bicycle coordinators largely because of the 1992 [Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act] that authorized how transportation dollars were spent. That law required that regional and state governments have bicycle/pedestrian coordinators. There was a requirement that Philadelphia have people doing this, but it wasn’t a formally designated position.

Philadelphia during the 1990s had two phenomenal people working for them, Tom Branigan and Gihon Jordan. But both had left city government by 2004, and there was sort of a void there. Mayor Nutter was running for election. The Bicycle Coalition posed it to him that there should be a bicycle/pedestrian coordinator, and he promised to create one.

What did your day-to-day look like? With whom did you work inside and outside city government?

As the first coordinator, I had to figure out what I was going to do. There’s a learning curve, there’s a need to coordinate with lots of different people, and there are a lot of different issues that rose up.

The major way that projects have been implemented in Philadelphia is to piggyback a bicycle project into the normal routine paving of roadways. Part of my job was identifying where facilities should be located and then keeping abreast of when roads were going to be resurfaced. Some of those were state projects, some of those were city projects. We also took a look as best we could at all of the development applications to see what we could do to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists. Sometimes we did a good job. Sometimes we did not do a good job.

What was it like working in the Nutter administration?

As is often the case with government, in the beginning it was filled with energy. Lots of people were really excited to be here and have this opportunity to serve. But then things became more routine over time. [Nutter] is such a bright, thoughtful person that it’s always been good to be here. The hard part has been the lack of resources. That was particularly the case in the first three years, from 2008 to 2011. The city was just hanging on. They were closing libraries, fire stations, laying off police. The Streets Department lost a lot of people from 2000 going forward.

I found it exciting, though. One of things I wasn’t expecting was working with people younger than my daughters. It’s kind of fun.

Was advocating for cycling a part of your job?

There’s a difference between a coordinator and an advocate. We have our advocate in the [Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia]. My job is more to figure out how to implement the things that the Coalition is advocating for.

So you weren’t necessarily a public advocate, but behind the scenes was it your role to make sure cycling issues were on the agenda?

Of course, that’s a major part of it: Not only making sure they’re on the agenda, but also helping people recognize why they’re on the agenda, why it’s important to do this. In most cases, we were tweaking the system and advocating for the inclusion of cycling into a project. I needed to be able to work with people and make sure they had trust in me.

I just came back from this trip where I met an old colleague who used to be the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Oregon [Department of Transportation] for years and years. He’d been doing some counseling for young people who wanted to work in bicycle and pedestrian jobs, and he said to them: “It’s one thing to know what’s a good thing to do, and a completely different thing to figure how to convince people to do it.” If you come across too strong, you won’t get anything done. It’s really a matter of how to work your network, how to establish trust, how to build confidence, and how to slowly work at convincing people that this is the right thing to do.

What do you think the biggest victory for cyclists and pedestrians has been during your time at the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities?

Obviously we are very proud of Spruce and Pine streets. Everybody loves them. People still talk about how they’re such great facilities. Really they’re just a set of painted lines, and they’re not perfect, but they do provide access to cyclists. I think 13th Street was just as exciting. My biggest disappointment was 10th Street, where people in Chinatown rose up in opposition to a bike lane.

In recent years, Philadelphia has fallen behind other large U.S. cities, such as New York and Boston, in adding new bike lanes. What have been the logistical and political barriers to expanding the bike network?

Our biggest problem is not that we’re not keeping up. Our biggest problem is how we maintain what we have, and how we then do the more difficult projects. We ought to be devoting as much energy to maintaining or enhancing what we have out there rather than worrying about lots of new bike lanes just because we’re not implementing as many.

As I mentioned before, another big barrier is going to continue to be money. Washington, D.C., Austin, Texas, and New York City are able to spend a lot more money on bicycle facilities. New York has a whole group of people doing nothing but pedestrian projects. Then they have a bicycle group, while we have three people doing bicycle and pedestrian work. Now, we want all of our engineers to be bicycle/pedestrian experts, but that’s not the same thing as getting new infrastructure on the ground.

“Our biggest problem is not that we’re not keeping up. Our biggest problem is how we maintain what we have.”

My biggest problem in getting political support for projects is that bicyclists don’t seem to respect laws and they don’t behave in a rational fashion on the streets. You can do more for helping bicycling by riding your bike with a little respect than anything else. Now, most bicyclists are very reasonable, and most of our traffic regulations were written to address how we operate 1-10 ton hunks of metal with powerful engines in an environment that was designed for pedestrians. It’s not surprising, then, that bicyclists have to adjust their behavior and to do things that aren’t necessarily legal. But it’s one thing to do that and another to go 10 miles an hour into intersection without looking. That really upsets people, and that in turn creates opposition to bicycle facilities.

What is the attitude toward cyclists and their needs among those in City Hall? Is there a divide between the new and old political guards?

There’s a large number of people out there who don’t ride bicycles, don’t want to ride bicycles, and aren’t going to be supportive of bicycling, including people who work in the Streets Department and serve on City Council. It would be nice to have a few more advocates for bicycling on the Council. I think we have a lot of councilmembers who are supportive, but they’re not advocates. We have one real advocate up in North Philly [Councilmember Bobby Henon] who really wants more bike facilities, but he’s the exception.

What was your relationship with City Council? How often did you communicate with them?

Initially, not at all. We had been doing more communication recently. And it wasn’t that we didn’t let them know about this plan or that plan, but it also wasn’t like in Chicago where bicycle advocates meet with aldermen on regular basis in their districts to talk about what type of things they plan to do. We don’t do that, and maybe we should.

How has the City Council’s ability to effectively veto new bike lanes that remove a parking lane or travel lane affected the addition of new lanes? Can we expect more 22nd Street-like interferences in the future?

I think we’re dealing with a specific councilmember there, so I don’t think we’re going to have the same problem elsewhere. The real problem is that I didn’t know 22nd Street would be resurfaced until May of last year, and it was going to resurfaced in July. So there was no way I could go through the process that Council has created to establish the political support. It takes a year or two.

Why was there a lack of communication about the resurfacing?

That’s been a problem for quite a long time, in terms of finding out what the local paving schedule is. We’ve been working on the problem. I was actually shocked that [22nd Street] was being resurfaced. The Streets Department develops that list, unless it’s a state road. Allegheny Avenue, for example, is a state road. Most of our major and minor arterials are state jurisdiction. [Pennsylvania Department of Transportation officials] play with their region-wide and statewide resurfacing budget, and sometimes we get a long lead time, sometimes we get a short lead time.

What do you think the next administration needs to do to make Philadelphia a better city for bikes?

We’ve talked about maintaining the system we’ve got, and I think that’s absolutely urgent. It would be wonderful for them to find a way to reestablish a more aggressive paving program, but if they can’t do that, go back in every five years or so and mark the lanes so it’s understood they’re out there. Drivers tend to respect them, as long as they can see them. As the lane disappears, drivers begin driving in the lanes, which makes them disappear that much faster.

The other issue, and it’s not my expertise, but we need to keep encouraging people to be bicyclists. To some extent that job is done better outside government, but there’s still a role for the government to play.

Photo by Justin Durner

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