After a full year without a permanent director for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), Mayor Jenny Durkan announced her pick for the job: DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) Chief Project Delivery Officer Sam Zimbabwe. Monday, the Seattle City Council officially confirmed the nomination.
“I look forward to working with you and all the residents and businesses of Seattle to build a safe and equitable transportation system,” said Zimbabwe in prepared remarks to the city council. “I also look forward to fostering an inclusive and collaborative dept where good ideas come from throughout the organization.”
In his previous position, Zimbabwe guided DDOT’s “multimodal transportation network,” which includes overseeing DC’s dockless bike and scooter program. Formerly an associate policy director, Zimbabwe guided efforts around Vision Zero—in DC, it’s a goal for zero traffic deaths by the year 2024, as opposed to 2030 in Seattle—along with helping to shepherd Move DC, an ambitious plan to boost transit and bike lane capacity while deprioritizing cars. Notably, Move DC called for congestion pricing, a tactic that Durkan’s administration has prioritized studying.
Over the past month or so, as the city has held public hearings in advance of the nomination, Zimbabwe has been acting as director in preparation of the role, including working with the city on its extreme weather response during a February snowstorm.
“I’ve been here for about four weeks and there’s never been a dull moment,” said Zimbabwe to council.
Zimbabwe is inheriting SDOT during a precarious time for Seattle: what urban planners are calling the “period of maximum constraint,” when multiple road and construction projects are expected to converge into heavy bottlenecks on downtown streets. That includes ongoing Alaskan Way Viaduct demolition, continued construction on Alaskan Way and on Coleman Dock, and Washington State Convention Center construction.
SDOT is also currently facing timelines to implement a “basic bike network” and handling the delayed Center City Connector streetcar project—something Zimbabwe has experience with. DC’s streetcar line has been open to some of the same perils of public perception as Seattle’s.
Zimbabwe isn’t just inheriting transportation projects. While those projects “make SDOT an exciting place to work,” read a prepared statement by the Seattle Silence Breakers, a group of current and former city employees that speak out against workplace harassment and toxicity, “there are other challenges faced city-wide and by SDOT ... regarding anti-harassment and anti-discrimination, that make SDOT a intimidating place to work.”
The Silence Breakers read anonymous accounts they’d received from 20 different SDOT employees to the city council before the confirmation—particularly instances of sexism, compounded in women of color—and asked Zimbabwe to “encourage your future staff to report their concerns to the Office of the Employee Ombud.”
SDOT was previously led by Linea Laird, who took over the interim director position from Goran Sparrman back in August. The last permanent director, Scott Kubly, left to take a job at Lime last year.
Zimbabwe’s nomination had a largely positive public response before a city council vote Monday, with optimistic messages from city employee labor union PROTEC 17 and transit advocates.
“It’s my belief that Sam has a deep commitment to building people-centered and sustainable cities,” said councilmember Rob Johnson during Zimbabwe’s appointment. “He’s been in charge of planning and delivering major capital projects in a complex political environment... and has done an exemplary job in doing that.”
This article has been updated to expand comments made by the Silence Breakers.