5 Key Takeaways From “A Day in the Life of a Transportation Planner: COVID Planning and Recovery"


The pandemic is a time of rapid change, and it can be overwhelming to address a growing list of new need

Transportation planning staff are facing unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. How are these challenges being addressed, and what lessons can we use in the coming weeks and months? 

Recently, Remix hosted a discussion with planners from three early COVID hot spots — New Orleans, Seattle, and Oakland. The participants were:

  • Dan Jatres, the Policy and Program Manager for the City of New Orleans Mayor’s Office of Transportation (MOT). In his role, Dan is tasked with implementing the Moving New Orleans Transportation Action Plan, with current focuses including the citywide bicycle network blueprint implementation, the New Links Transit Redesign, and the development of a Vision Zero Plan. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, he has also led the Mayor’s Transportation Coordinating Committee.
  • Heather Marx, the Director of Downtown Mobility and Program Director for the West Seattle Bridge Safety Program. Following the public safety closure of the West Seattle Bridge, Heather was asked to lead the capital delivery, communications, and transportation management and mitigation efforts associated with the loss of SDOT’s most crucial transportation asset. In addition, Heather serves as the Seattle Department of Transportation’s Director of Downtown Mobility, guiding SDOT’s approach to ensuring mobility for the traveling public through an unprecedented era of public and private development.
  • Manuel Corona, the Transportation Planner at Oakland Department of Transportation. Manuel works to create complete streets projects in Oakland with equitable, community driven design in underserved neighborhoods. Manuel has worked on Oakland's citywide bike plan update and is the Staff on the East Oakland Mobility Action Plan, a community driven plan focused on improving all modes of transportation to provide better access to key services locally and regionally. Manuel’s work centers on sustainable transportation improvements, which reflect the culture of the surrounding community.

These three DOTs discussed how they’ve been addressing the challenges of pandemic planning for the past couple months. A few central themes emerged during the session.

1. Keep Communication Open

In March, the mayor of New Orleans formed a COVID-19 coordinating committee for pandemic planning. The group has 14 sub-committees, including a Transportation planning subcommittee chaired by the MOT. Dan explained this has provided excellent structure for New Orleans. Twice-weekly meetings give agencies a forum to air concerns and make requests, such as asking for more PPE for employees.

2. Prioritize Equity

Manuel emphasized, “It’s important to prioritize equity in fast-moving COVID-19 responses.” Oakland’s Slow Streets program, which creates space for social distancing while walking, wheelchair rolling, jogging, and biking, is very popular with white, higher-income residents. However, many POC and low-income residents complained that the program didn’t address their needs and was tone-deaf to the community’s actual problems. The city adopted “Slow Streets: Essential Places” in response to this feedback. With the new program, a mix of permanent and temporary signage, daylighting, and pedestrian signals help to enable safe access to essential services like grocery stores and COVID-19 test sites.

3. Focus on Community Outreach and Engagement

All the transportation planners who presented have been working hard to communicate with their communities and respond to feedback. Manuel’s office uses online surveys and community forums to discover how different segments of the population respond to their efforts. Heather attends online meetings to engage with constituents and colleagues every day from 7:00 am until 7:00 pm. Her Seattle office also uses virtual press conferences, social media, A-frame and yard signs, and blog posts to disseminate information.

4. Identify Inequality in Environment Impact

Transportation and environmental concerns go hand-in-hand. This is especially true during pandemic planning. The closing of the West Seattle Bridge on March 23 created a transportation emergency. The bridge had to be closed due to the rapid expansion of cracks that the city had been monitoring. Heather said, “We’ve identified some really significant race, environmental, and social justice impacts of the closure of the bridge.” She explained how the situation exacerbated an environmental issue for the mostly BIPOC communities that were already dealing with air pollution near the remaining bridges to the south. She referenced the usefulness of the best practiced outlined in the Black Space Manifesto. Now the city is engaged in a discussion about repair versus replacement of the bridge.

5. Stay Flexible

One theme that ran through all the presentations was flexibility and adaptation. Transportation planning during a pandemic is a brand-new challenge for American cities. All the planners who presented at the webinar had to adapt on the fly: 

  • The Oakland Slow Streets program has been constantly responding to feedback from the community and exists now as a very different version from its original implementation.
  • New Orleans constantly adjusts its city-wide approach as committees work together to balance the needs and priorities of all the different departments. 

Staying flexible has allowed these planners to respond to feedback and serve their communities well during both shelter-in-place and recovery planning periods.

This is a time of rapid change, and it can be overwhelming to address a growing list of new needs. Prioritization is critical to deliver on the greatest needs. Remix surveyed the webinar participants, the majority of whom are Transportation Planners, to better understand their top priorities in recovery planning. Results included: active/slow streets, bike infrastructure projects, virtual public engagement, and streateries. It’s clear that pandemic planning will continue to focus on these issues in the coming months.