PennDOT CEO emphasizes community engagement, active transportation

By Robbie Webber

Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Transportation wants more diversity in decision making; more equal concern for people walking, biking and driving; and more early communication with communities about PennDOT projects. These were the themes of an interview with Leslie Richards published last month in Governing.

And she says that many of her colleagues agree that those sorts of changes are needed in other DOTs as well.

Leslie Richards was trained as a planner, and she says that has shaped her views on multimodal transportation and community involvement. Since she has been in charge of PennDOT, she says, she has seen some positive changes: more women in top positions and more attention to the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists. Richards chairs AASHTO’s newly formed Active Transportation Council and has pushed for changes in the group’s structure that will give pedestrian and bicycle experts equal footing with highway experts in drafting national design and safety standards. Although AASHTO has historically been criticized as too highway-centric, Richards sees little resistance to including all road users.

Richards has also pushed for PennDOT to be more proactive in working with local communities that will be affected by state projects. Early discussions and coordination with utilities mean that the project will proceed more smoothly and that local residents will be happier with the results.

Conversations outside the circle of traditional decision makers is another change that Richards finds welcome. “People in their 30s move around an urban area very differently than I move around an urban area,” she says.  Richards also feels that PennDOT has benefitted from more gender parity and input from people coming from different disciplines.

I’m biased, because I’m the one leading the agency right now, but I think a lot of the things that we’ve been able to do and a lot of the awards we’re winning nationally—on innovation, on promoting diversity and inclusion, on advancing technology, even real technical awards and design awards—I think it is a direct relation to the fact that we have more diverse perspectives now making decisions.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.