The Role of Local Government in Urban Transformations

An Interview with Eulois Cleckley

This Feature interview appears in Vol. 74, No. 1, "Global Urbanization: Nations, Cities, and Communities in Transformation" (Fall/Winter 2021).

Eulois Cleckley serves as the executive director of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) for the City and County of Denver. He also serves as the president of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). The Journal of International Affairs spoke with Mr. Cleckley about Denver’s public transportation reform drive and the state of urban planning in the wake of the pandemic.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): Can you discuss your professional involvement overseeing Denver DOTI, as well as your role within the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO)?

Eulois Cleckley (EC): Our organization was previously named Denver Department of Public Works. I have held the role of Executive Director for three years now and was brought in to revamp and reorganize the department to what it is known today as the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. A lot of work and effort has been put in to position our department to be visionary in how we tackle transportation and infrastructure of today and tomorrow.

I am also currently the President of NACTO and in that role represent 86 different Northern American cities in our efforts to identify best transportation practices and new methods to improve our cities, while ensuring we are moving people safely, efficiently, and sustainably. I am appreciative of having been placed in this position for the next couple of years.

JIA: Can you discuss Denver’s push to overhaul its transportation and infrastructure?

EC: In Denver, we have begun implementing an aggressive plan around mobility, with the goal of doubling transit ridership and doubling the number of people walking and biking to get to where they need to go. At the same time, we hope to reduce reliance on single occupancy vehicles by more than 20 percent over the next decade.

All of the infrastructure that we are building is necessary to continue to make this city sustainable, competitive, and resilient, and to ensure we have connected communities. We are implementing these projects with a philosophy around equity, by making sure that the people, the areas, and assets that need these updates the most receive the most attention.

As part of our efforts, we are aggressively building out our bike network. Last year, in 2020, we built the most miles of bike lanes that have ever been added to the city’s infrastructure, amounting to over 40 miles of lanes. This is part of the larger goal to install 125 miles of bike infrastructure in Denver by the end of 2023. We hope to provide greater connectivity to the city’s bike network and aim to have almost 75 percent of our neighborhoods within a quarter mile of a bike lane.

We are also putting in additional transit-only lanes as part of our transit build out. We accomplished two major corridors last year, as well as two major intermodal hubs for transit purposes. We anticipate having about two miles of dedicated transit lanes that will be built throughout the downtown area, ultimately to support transit ridership. Moreover, we are building out sidewalks as well, last year, DOTI oversaw installation of 9.4 miles of new sidewalk (three miles installed by private development) in the City and County of Denver. This is part of our efforts to chip away at over 300 miles of missing sidewalks in our street system.

We are excited about the new Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure and the new vision and the work done thus far. These plans will have a huge impact on advancing Denver to be the best it can be.

JIA: Why is the role of city or local government especially important to ensure the sustainable scale of services?

EC: Local government has an outsized impact on the people, especially as it relates to transportation in cities and other urban areas. Those that live in these areas are inevitably connected to their local government. DOTI touches every household and every business because folks use the street, the sidewalk, and the utilities underneath the street. People are also directly engaged with the infrastructure needed to guide vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians and alike. Local government is a necessary entity to build and move infrastructure, especially because of their deeper understanding of the nuances of what communities need. This places tremendous responsibility on the local department to ensure that they are planning and building infrastructure in the most efficient and effective way. The further up in government you go, the more detached the understanding becomes. Moreover, design requirements at the state level are a bit different from what you experience at the local level, and especially at the federal level. The role of local government is instrumental in incorporating community input and feedback so that building projects can provide the most benefits to the right people. Ensuring that community needs are being met is critical to these planning efforts.

JIA: Can you elaborate on the Denver Moves program and its elements including micro-mobility, Vision Zero, and the smart city?

EC: In January 2019, DOTI finalized transportation plans as part of a larger suite of updates in a planning process called Denveright. Through this effort, we created Denver Moves: Transit, which is the city’s first ever transit plan, and Denver Moves: Pedestrians and Trails, which consists of making improvements for people on foot and providing better walking connections around the city. The broader Denveright planning effort is really about ensuring we have equitable, affordable, and inclusive communities. It is about making sure that we are vibrant and economically diverse and that our infrastructure supports different economic industries that exist in the City and County of Denver. We must ensure that we are economically and environmentally resilient and our infrastructure makes connected and safe places for people to be able to navigate. Finally, the update supports healthy and active ways for people to enjoy the outdoors and stay healthy. What undergrows these elements will be equity and ensuring we are implementing in a manner that is fair and just for our communities.

These elements are really the foundation of our efforts as we update our strategic transportation infrastructure plan for the first time. The overhaul enables us to analyze vast amounts of current and historic data on the infrastructure of Denver to better understand the gaps that we have. The renewed approach moves us forward in a much more comprehensive and robust system that looks beyond vehicles.

JIA: How will you ensure infrastructure and transportation upgrades are actually equitable?

EC: Many cities are trying to tackle this challenge. City leaders have realized that we are having to fix bad planning and design decisions from decades ago. There are two things that have really divided communities: land use practices and infrastructure. We are trying not to repeat these mistakes again. We are first analyzing these historical contexts to put us in a position to translate the data that we have into actionable information that leads to better planning and design decisions.

Our department has sought to approach equity by putting particular emphasis on ensuring we are putting attention and resources to the Denver areas where the people need it the most. We have taken a data-centric approach that allows us take a deeper look at where high-equity index areas are. These are areas where people are the most vulnerable. Now, we understand exactly where high-equity index areas are located in the city, the condition of their assets, their accessibility from a transportation and mobility standpoint, and what services are being provided to them. With this information, we are able to target funding and resources toward specific projects that will improve those assets in a much more effective way. Our transition to a more just and fairer city leans on data analysis and asset management exercises which hopefully produce effective and real outcomes for our communities.

JIA: You have worked in infrastructure and transportation for a number of cities and across different levels of government. Do you see a roadmap that allows cities to effectively deploy sustainable and equitable solutions?

EC: I do not know if there is a precise step-by-step roadmap. Every city has its own culture and dynamics. However, I do think there are smaller initiatives that may be replicated and have been successful in other cities or jurisdictions. At the end of the day, you want to provide the best projects and services for your communities. In many cases success is based on how you actually go about it and balance the cultural, unique city dynamics.

Cities are facing similar issues, which date back to land use and infrastructure impacts that have to adjust based on the new dynamics of our modern era. Houston, for example, is not very dense and its region is very spread out, fostering a reliance on vehicles. There is infrastructure in place that supports this lower density land use and development. Over the past few decades, Houston has sought to add more transportation and mobility options to reduce this need for vehicles. We also see cities like Washington DC which are denser but have barriers that separate communities, whether it be rivers on the east and west sides of the city, where infrastructure must be built to ensure the communities are not only connected, but also safe and walkable.

Denver faces similar challenges and is not only divided by interstates both east and west and north and south, but also by rail systems. We have a history of land use practices that pack certain neighborhoods or demographics into one area of the city. This prevents citywide movement and hinders our economic potential. We are trying to solve these problems now and retrofit infrastructure so that people can get around and reconnect, and so that inequities do not persist.

Many cities face these challenges and it is a historical and nationwide issue. Cities recognize that prior designs may not have been right and they are now trying to move forward new infrastructure plans to meet these deeply rooted challenges. This renewed shift can create more sustainable cities, more equitable cities, and more fair cities—resulting in healthier lives for those that inhabit our urban areas.

JIA: The financial and economic health of many cities have been impacted by the pandemic. How can we ensure that sustainable and equitable infrastructure plans are also financially sustainable?

EC: They have to be financially sustainable. The industry is grappling with the best way to pay for infrastructure enhancements. It is heartening to see this focus on infrastructure at the federal level, from the new administration. The renewed focus is critical to the future of our country and the future of cities. It has been heartening to hear about plans for heavy infrastructure investment whether it be through the new infrastructure package that is being considered at the federal level or through the surface transportation bill as well.

What is the fairest and most efficient way to generate revenue necessary to build the infrastructure that we need? We have seen changes in the electric vehicle marketplace and alike that will impact the taxes and revenues generated from gas powered vehicles. We are starting to face a declining trend in the Highway Trust Fund and related federal taxes, in parallel with rapid innovation in environmentally friendly vehicles. This produces funding challenges to ensure we can build the infrastructure that we need. Many local jurisdictions are looking at different revenue generating practices in order to be able to fix or develop roads and bridges and advance multimodal routes.

Colorado, for example, has particularly focused on generating new revenue and new use cases for that revenue, by not just focusing on infrastructure that supports vehicles use, but by examining multimodal networks that can move people around effectively. Though it is a challenge, we now have the right focus and the right people in place at all levels of government to try to find innovative ways to raise revenue to build out the infrastructure that we need to make sure our cities are sustainable.

This is an exciting time and unfortunately, there will be hard decisions that will have to be made. Many in the public are aware that these changes are necessary to keep the country and our cities competitive.

JIA: Are there any innovative planning solutions that you are skeptical about, including new urban solutions that have been hyped during the pandemic?

EC: I am not skeptical about anything just yet. The pandemic has made us examine the historical approach to city planning. This focus has put particular attention on innovative ways to deliver infrastructure projects. We have been fortunate enough to repurpose some of our streets during the pandemic to accommodate greater walking, biking, and rolling—and increase their connectivity.

A street is really a piece of infrastructure that connects communities and provide ways for people to get around. We have accelerated this program because we are in the right posture to redesign and rethink the purpose of our streets. The program was accelerated because there is increasing demand during the pandemic for people to be able to walk around near their home.

We are working to embed safety into all of the elements of our planning, from vehicular to biking and pedestrian planning. Protecting and preserving our environment is crucially important as well, and we must continue to ask how questions and scrutinize how our infrastructure will fight climate change. From my perspective, everything is really on the table and I believe it is important to rigorously evaluate new innovations and approaches brought about by the pandemic.