The Woman Leading Salt Lake City's Transportation Revolution

Robin Hutcheson is part of a new class of female DOT heads stressing alternatives to cars.

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Ben Bolte

SALT LAKE CITY—Here are a few things to know about Robin Hutcheson. She's a Connecticut native who came to Utah in 1994 for the skiing, and except for a few years in Europe, has lived here ever since. Since 2011, she's been head of the transportation planning division of Salt Lake City, the state's capital and biggest metropolis, often commuting by bike, at other times running one way and taking public transit on the return trip. Also, as you have noted by now, she is a woman.

That last part shouldn't be a big deal. And most of the time, it isn't. Every now and then, though, as the 43-year-old Hutcheson has climbed the ranks of her chosen profession, she gets a reminder: being a woman in a leadership position in American transportation is not the norm.

Sometimes Hutcheson finds that she's the only female sitting at a table full of men who hold power over some aspect of urban transportation or another. Sometimes, she says, people look a little surprised when she speaks up and asks a hard question, which she does as a matter of course. And then, she recalls, there was the time she was giving an important presentation at a town in suburban Utah.

Back then, she was a consultant with a private firm, putting forward a plan for the community's future transportation needs. When she got up in front of the room to speak, an older man, one of the people who was going to be making a decision, took one look at her and said, "Well aren't you just as cute as a button!"

Hutcheson says her blood began to boil. "It was a fight or flight moment," she recalls. But she neither fought nor fled. She just did her job. "I did not let the temper flare," she says, smiling at the memory. "And my plan got passed."

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Pretty much every job in the transportation profession, from mechanics to road engineers, from truck drivers to airline pilots, has traditionally been dominated by men. That reality is what's driven the work of the nonprofit group WTS, founded as Women’s Transportation Seminar in 1977. The WTS has as its mission "advancing women in transportation," and president and CEO Marcia Ferranto explains that it's not just for the benefit of women.

"There's a real crisis going on globally in transportation workforce development," she says. "We need to attract more people to transportation." And women are a big, largely untapped pool of talent. They may also come equipped with some inherent advantages. Ferranto cites research showing that companies headed by women are more successful than those headed by men, perhaps in part because of the way they tend to manage and their ability to see things from other people's point of view.

In the transportation field, specifically, women are more likely to see the world through a lens that is not exclusively focused on peak commuting hours and maximum throughput on roads. They can relate to the concerns of a woman who must get to and from a night shift, and who dreads the long wait at the dark bus stop. Many of them have, or have had, primary responsibility in their own families for transporting children on multiple trips daily. As a result, they are perhaps more sensitive to how hard it is for people with different needs, schedules, and challenges to get from point A to point B — which is, after all, the whole point of transportation systems.

The question for WTS members is how to get women into leadership positions where they can make a difference, whether in the corporate world or in government. In a nation where STEM education lags in general, and where girls are chronically underrepresented in particular, helping women get to the top is a process that plays out on several fronts, says Ferranto. "You can't talk about attracting without retaining," she says. "You can't talk about retaining without advancement." To that end, the organization runs several mentorship and scholarship programs for girls and women, at the local, national, and international levels. It involves men as well: about 20 percent of the membership is male. "We're very inclusive of men," she says. "Who better to advance things than the men in power?"

Women in transportation leadership positions remain hard to find. Only a handful head state departments of transportation, and top executives at major private transportation firms are also in short supply. (There are some exceptions, such as Jacqueline Hinman, CEO of the Denver-based engineering firm CH2M Hill.) At the city level, several women have taken charge of DOTs and led them in exciting new directions — breaking the traditional mold of traffic engineers eager to build roads.

Examples include Leah Treat, who was appointed to lead the Portland Bureau of Transportation in 2013 and describes herself in her Twitter bio as a "good government gal with a passion for change in the trans industry." And Rebekah Scheinfeld, who just took the reins of Chicago's DOT, arriving with a strong record in developing transit, as well as a background in housing and parks. And Polly Trottenberg, who came in as New York City's DOT commissioner in January (the third consecutive woman to hold that post) from a job as undersecretary of the U.S. DOT, where she had a reputation as someone who supported transit funding and forward-thinking street design. She follows Janette Sadik-Khan, a former executive at engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff who became one of the best-known (and most controversial) figures in the Bloomberg Administration by promoting pedestrianized streets, public plazas, and a major expansion of bike infrastructure, including the nation's largest bike-share program.

And then there's Salt Lake's Hutcheson, founder of the Utah WTS chapter and newly minted executive-board member of the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

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On the Monday morning when she picks me up, Hutcheson is keeping a close eye on her phone. Just two days earlier, the city had launched a new low-cost transit card called the Hive Pass for Salt Lake residents. The pass costs only $360 a year (or $30 a month in installments) and gives holders unlimited access to buses, light rail within the city, and commuter trains. It's a pilot program designed to take into account the type of trips made by the 190,000 residents of Salt Lake, which are often shorter and more numerous than those of the 1.2 million who live in the larger, suburban metropolitan area.

The TRAX light rail weaves through Salt Lake City. (Flickr user Photo Dean)

The lines at City Hall and the two other locations where the pass first went on sale were long. Wait times stretched into hours as city employees painstakingly verified proof of residency, snapped photos of the pass applicant, and issued the cards. Hutcheson is concerned that this second sale day will bring a repeat of those long waits, and warns me that she might have to take off to deal with any glitches that arise.

She never does. Sales go smoothly: after less than three weeks, the city had sold nearly 800 passes toward a six-month goal of 6,000. Instead, we spend the day touring the city and checking out the transportation innovations that Salt Lake has been racking up over the past several years. At one stop, Hutcheson asks the head of the local refugee resettlement agency pointed questions about how to better serve members of Salt Lake’s large refugee community, many of whom arrive not knowing how to drive or are unable to afford a car. At another, she discusses figures that show how women take more varied types of trips than men.

"As a woman, it's possible that one of the things I bring is that I make relationships easily," says Hutcheson, after we've left the office of yet another colleague she's been working with for years. "And I keep relationships. These are my people."

Salt Lake City might not seem at first glance like the most obvious candidate for the kind of transportation overhaul that Hutcheson and many others in the region have been attempting. It does have a regular grid design centering on the Temple of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, which was dedicated in 1893, but the streets are uncommonly wide — 132 feet, a measurement Brigham Young allegedly described as enough room to turn a wagon team without "resorting to profanity."

Today the streets provide a fast-moving conduit for lots of cars, but are daunting to cross on foot. City blocks are unusually long, making for a sometimes tedious pedestrian experience that isn't helped on Sundays, when many businesses in this heavily Mormon city shut down. Steep hills lead up out of the central business district into the residential and university neighborhoods in the foothills of the spectacular Wasatch Range, whose often snow-capped peaks define the city's eastern edge. Surface parking lots are common downtown.

This is a car culture, no mistaking it. One resident told me that seeing drivers run lights is an almost everyday occurrence in his neighborhood. During my brief trip, I saw many pedestrians who seemed reluctant to cross against the light downtown, even when there were no cars in sight and the walk signal seemed like it was stuck on red for an unbearably long time. But in the past 15 years, the state and city have made enormous investments in public transportation and streets that better accommodate people on bike and on foot, with strong support from business interests and also the locally powerful LDS church.

"The good thing about Salt Lake City is that there is a general movement to make these kind of changes," says Mayor Ralph Becker. "We view everything we do as a partnership." Salt Lake is also a politically progressive city in one of the most conservative states in the nation. (In the 2012 election, the Salt Lake Tribune raised eyebrows by endorsing Barack Obama over Mormon native son Mitt Romney.)

Becker is a rangy man who, like many in Salt Lake, takes full advantage of the magnificent landscape surrounding the city. When I met him, he said his knee was bothering him a bit after five hours of skiing the day before. People in Utah put a high value on their remarkable natural setting — which also fuels the powerful tourist sector of the economy — and that environmental mindset has been one of the driving forces behind the movement to reduce vehicle-miles traveled here.

For several years now, Salt Lake City's air quality has earned it the sad distinction of being one of the ten worst cities in the nation for short-term particulate pollution, and both residents and visitors have been dismayed at the visible smog that hangs over the city during bad cold-weather inversions. "As the air-quality issue has risen in the public eye, people are accepting that we need to do more than just say we're going to do better," says Becker. "It’s about people being able to move around in their city without having to use their car. How do we get from where we are today to having a city where people easily get around, can drive if they wish, but that isn't their only or necessarily their best option?"

Since a commuter rail line connecting Salt Lake to Provo opened in December 2012, public transit ridership in Utah has soared 103 percent. TRAX, the sleek light rail system that runs within the city, has been steadily expanding since 1999, when the first line opened, and has met or exceeded ridership projections throughout its short history. The current plan calls for two more lines to open by 2015, and so far it's ahead of schedule and under budget. TRAX ridership was up 6.8 percent last year.

Meanwhile, Hutcheson and her team have been working hard to make Salt Lake a more welcoming city for people on bicycles and on foot. Last December, a streetcar line with a walking and biking trail alongside it opened in the rapidly developing Sugarhouse neighborhood. Salt Lake has been granted a budget for bike and pedestrian capital improvements that will be about $3.5 million for 2014-2105, up from just under $500,000 in 2009. They've got a seasonal bike-share up and running, they've been striping new bike lanes all over town, and they've piloted some protected lane designs as well — a project that will be expanded this summer. Hutcheson knows that international research has shown protected lanes encourage more women to ride. She wants to see that happen, as currently only around 20 percent of the city's cyclists are women.

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As Hutcheson shows me around town, I see evidence of the investments in transit and pedestrian and bike infrastructure everywhere. Driving North Temple Street on the way to the offices of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, Hutcheson proudly points out the changes in what was once an eight-lane roadway dominated by speeding traffic. Now the TRAX Green Line runs down the middle of the street, headed out to the airport. Ample bike lanes are on both sides of the street, and the sidewalks are wide and well maintained. Cars are just part of the mix. It's the kind of transformation she expects will be coming to more streets in the near future.

Several women have led city DOTs in new directions; above, Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City transportation commissioner from 2007-2013. (NYCDOT)

At the WFRC offices we met several of the people who have been working for years on land use and transportation plans to guide more sensitive development of the area along the Wasatch Front, now home to well over a million residents and growing all the time. These are the folks whom Hutcheson called "my people" earlier — a cohort of relatively young, energetic, forward-thinking planners, developers, engineers, and advocates who have known each other and worked together on various projects for years. They are committed to seeing Salt Lake City become a national model for growth. A city that preserves the natural environment on its outskirts. A city where people can enjoy life with minimal dependence on a car.

Hutcheson is at the heart of many of the initiatives that are aiming toward that goal. "She's been such a breath of fresh air," says Jon Larsen, who works on transportation issues for the group. "The industry has been dominated by engineers who just look at numbers and don't step back to look at the bigger questions." Hutcheson, he says, is always eager to do just that.

Mayor Becker, too, says that Hutcheson has been central to the city's new approach to its transportation challenges. "Robin is our star," he says. "Salt Lake City is a progressive city, but it takes the right people from top to bottom and the right commitment and the right approach. And fortunately Robin embodies all those things."

She waves him off when he says it, insisting as she does several times over the course of the day that she herself is not interesting, and that the focus should remain squarely on the city. She also downplays the idea that there's anything particularly remarkable about being a woman in charge of a city division that is shaping the future of a regional hub. When she took the job, she says, she simply buckled down to the task at hand, and ignored anyone who might be looking at her funny.

"I try not to get a chip on my shoulder," she says. "I just acted as if it were a non-issue. I just went to work."

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.