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DDOT brain drain no more: Sam Zimbabwe to head planning

DDOT has made a very exciting choice in hiring a new Associate Director for Planning, Policy and Sustainability. Sam Zimbabwe, the director of the Center for Transit-Oriented Development at Reconnecting America, will fill the hole left when Karina Ricks departed in May.

Sam Zimbabwe. Image from Reconnecting America.

Ricks is also staying in Washington: She's been hired by transportation consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard, which is well-known for its high-quality work on progressive transportation issues.

The planning head is an extremely critical post for DDOT and for the city. A good planning director could maintain the department's energy and forward motion, while a bad one could cement a sluggish pace and bad, outmoded policies for many years to come.

The planning department (or, in DDOT parlance, "administration") handles bicycle and pedestrian project design and parking policy. Its members review proposed developments to approve or disapprove transportation elements like curb cuts. Their decisions shape buildings that will last 50 years or more, for better or worse.

One of the trickiest pieces of DDOT's task is to balance the use of public space. How do we trade off the needs of people driving, walking, biking, riding buses, sitting in sidewalk cafes, and more? It's the planning department that makes most of these judgments (except if engineers overrule them and refuse to implement elements of a plan).

As more top people left DDOT, many became nervous that the department would lapse into a period of stagnation. While Director Terry Bellamy and most of the rank and file DDOT employees believe in the right goals and visions for the city, would DDOT simply choose the path of least resistance and low activity, like shelving the L and M Street bike lanes (which are now back on track)?

The jury is still out until DDOT actually implements some potentially controversial yet significant innovations, like those cycle tracks or bus priority lanes. But by choosing Zimbabwe, Director Bellamy has sent a signal that he's looking for top-notch people who strongly believe in DC's stated visions of improving non-automotive options for everyone.

I haven't yet worked with Zimbabwe extensively, but we've interacted a number of times and other advocates for sustainable transportation praise him highly. "Sam is a great choice to help DC continue implementing innovative urban transportation practices," said Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "Sam brings a wealth of experience working with communities around the country. DC will benefit greatly from his insights and demonstrated leadership."

Reconnecting America, Zimbabwe's previous employer, is a DC-based national nonprofit that helps communities implement a smart growth and sustainable transportation vision. He and his center helped local transportation and planning agencies think about designing their communities around making good use of their transit systems and maximizing choices.

Zimbabwe holds a Master of City Planning degree in Urban Design from the University of California, Berkley and a Bachelor of Science in Urban and Regional Studies from Cornell. Before Reconnecting America, Zimbabwe worked as an urban designer for Community Design + Architecture Firm and Van Meter Williams Pollack, and was a planning associate with the Port of San Francisco.

Zimbabwe said, "I am really looking forward to working with all of the talented and committed people already at DDOT who have been doing such great work in recent years, and bringing what I've learned about other cities across the country to help build on the successes here."

One of Zimbabwe's first priorities will be to fill some of the open positions funded in the DC budget that took effect this month. Councilmember Tommy Wells (Ward 6) funded 6 vacant positions in planning, including a "parking czar," ward planners for wards 2, 3, and 5, and two development reviewers. All of these folks have the opportunity to make significant positive (or negative) impacts on transportation in DC.

Please welcome Sam, and wish him best of luck in helping keep DC a leader in innovative and effective transportation policies and programs.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Is this guy in the witness protection program? How do you get a last name like Zimbabwe? Just seems odd.

by Doug on Oct 26, 2011 12:21 pm • linkreport

"parking czar" maybe a cute name to transit nerds but I think it would be best to shelf that moniker in terms of something more official. It is terms like "czar" that that can make people who don't understand the mission of the position dismissing it for the wrong reasons.

by Paul on Oct 26, 2011 12:27 pm • linkreport

Win-Win for DC! We get Sam at DDOT (thank you Director Bellamy)and we have Karina back with her new gig at Nelson\Nygaard, one of the nation's premier transportation planning firms. This adds to the wealth of creative, reform-minded individuals helping our city and region implement vibrant, walkable/bikeable and transit-accessible communities. Yes, I'm biased and enthusiastic.

by Stewart Schwartz on Oct 26, 2011 12:30 pm • linkreport

What gives? I don't remember him running against Fenty.

by aaa on Oct 26, 2011 12:38 pm • linkreport

Agree wholeheartedly with Stewart that the good news about both Zimbabwe and Ricks is a win-win for DC!

by Jaime Fearer on Oct 26, 2011 12:47 pm • linkreport

I love his name- Zimbabwe?! How do you get a last name like Zimbabwe? Family of African colonizers perhaps? Either way, it's a really cool name. Hope he brings positive changes to DDOT.

by Kevin on Oct 26, 2011 1:03 pm • linkreport

Yeah! Keep kicking New York's butt!

Sorry, don't know where that came from. Anywho, welcome Mr. Zimbabwe! I look forward to associating that name with many wonderful transit-oriented things.

by OctaviusIII on Oct 26, 2011 1:07 pm • linkreport

@ Doug who wrote: "How do you get a last name like Zimbabwe? Just seems odd."

With a name like Zimbabwe, maybe Vince Gray can tell his east of the river base that his hire is "African-American."

by Lazlo on Oct 26, 2011 1:07 pm • linkreport

Progressive transportation options? When is Alpert going to start a movement called Occupy Every Parking Spot?

by TGEOA on Oct 26, 2011 1:36 pm • linkreport

Well, obviously he used to be Sam Rhodesia, but that was so unusual so he changed it.

by TM on Oct 26, 2011 1:40 pm • linkreport

@Lazlo, With a name like Zimbabwe, maybe Vince Gray can tell his east of the river base that his hire is "African-American."

Hmph! As a EOTR resident and unabashed supporter of Gray, why exactly would I need to be led to believe that a Gray appointee is "african" american? Are there serious complaints about Gray not hiring blacks? That's a new one.

If I were to play your game, I could say that the cool and positive reception Zimbabwe is getting from those WOTR is because they don't realize he's possibly an "african" american.

BTW, I think it's fair to suggest that the people "nervous" about future DDOT implementations barely knew what they were even nervous about or at a minimum nervous about much of nothing.

by HogWash on Oct 26, 2011 1:47 pm • linkreport

His current last name is a hybrid of his former last name and his wife's maiden name. I don't have any reason to think he's African, -American or otherwise.

by MDE on Oct 26, 2011 2:05 pm • linkreport

@ David

The planning department (or, in DDOT parlance, "administration") handles bicycle and pedestrian project design and parking policy. Its members review proposed developments to approve or disapprove transportation elements like curb cuts. Their decisions shape buildings that will last 50 years or more, for better or worse.

I think you identified one of the major problems at DDOT -- they've forgotten there are cars on the road and they aren't going away any time soon!

by Karl on Oct 26, 2011 3:22 pm • linkreport

Maybe Paul Farmer will know who Sam is now.

by CHW on Oct 26, 2011 5:05 pm • linkreport

Karina Ricks was very willing to deploy her traffic calming tool kit, like speed humps and various restrictions to mitigate traffic impacts from infill development and institutional expansion. It was smart politics, too, because it diffused some developer (or institution) vs. neighborhood issues. Of course, some motorists don't like these measures. Will Mr. Zimbabwe be similarly aggressive/creative?

by Sarah on Oct 26, 2011 5:43 pm • linkreport

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