Interview with Mn/DOT's Tim MitchellInterview with Mn/DOT's Tim Mitchell

On May 18, we sat down with MnDOT's Tim Mitchell and asked him a few questions. For an hour we discussed topics ranging from Mitchell's ideal-world bicycle and pedestrian project priorities, the obstacles and encouraging signs in Minnesota's cultural landscape for bicycling and walking issues, and his strategic priorities. Tim Mitchell is the Bicycle and Pedestrian Section Director in the Office of Transit at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.


What's the MnDOT statutory authority over bicycle and pedestrian transportation and what does the law say about the work that you do?

The basic crux of it is that we have an obligation to consider bicycle and pedestrian accommodations on our projects unless there are conditions or issues that would dictate that those accommodations not be made. If adding those elements is outside the scope of the project as far as a physical location that makes it difficult, if there's a significant-and this is a tough term to define-but a significant cost increase that's realized to a project to add those elements, that would be a reason for not doing it.

We want to ask you to dream big. You have $100,000,000 in bike/ped funding you've just been given, no strings attached, and you're in charge. How would you like to spend that money?

I would love for us to have bicycle and pedestrian accommodations on all of our major bridges, specifically the ones that span significant barriers, such as rivers. I'd love for us to be able to take advantage of that funding to really improve the pedestrian and bicycle environments in our heavily urban areas. I also would really like to utilize that funding to develop the Minnesota scenic byway system that's been bantered about for a number of years out in the rural areas to give us a world-class touring opportunity for cyclists. Those would probably be the three main priorities.


In terms of that vision, or perhaps smaller scale visions that you might have to deal with, what are the greatest assets in Minnesota right now that would enhance that vision and what are the greatest obstacles?

I'll start with the obstacles. We still work in an environment where we focus on our largest customer base, which is the motor vehicle operator. And it's often easy for us to forget about small little improvements we can do that really can have huge benefits to the other modes. I think that's the significant barrier. There are no funding barriers, there are no policy barriers per se, and there really are no institutional barriers left in place. I think we really have gotten past a lot of what was blocking progress historically.

The things that we really have here that I think are leading us to success are just people's lifestyle evolutions or changes that they've made with the spike in gas prices last summer and the climate change issue and people's growing awareness to land use have really caused a lot of people to change how they live their lives and seek out different kinds of communities. That's led to, as we've all seen and Bike Walk Twin Cities has been able to document, significant increase in walking and biking and transit use.

One thing we've struggled with as bicycle and pedestrian professionals over the years is we don't have good data. We don't have a good understanding of the numbers of users do we have out there, what happens as far as mode shift when improvements are made. Obviously the funding situation has been getting better and better, especially from the federal level.

We have one of the national leaders in a municipality in Minneapolis, which I think has been that shining light within the state that everybody is starting to look at. We've had a lot of progress in municipalities and counties in adopting complete streets policies and a lot of them looking at them. I think that's a really strong indication that we're going in a good direction. We have what appears to be the potential to be a really great advocacy situation in the state now with the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota coming up. The trail system that we have here statewide is second to none, and that obviously provides a great backbone to a system, especially when we're talking about people who want to be active as far as walking or inline skating and bicyclists who maybe aren't as comfortable on the roadways as others, so giving different options is a really valuable asset.


Just going back to the obstacles for a moment, you said you didn't really see institutional barriers or funding barriers particularly but it sounded like you were just seeing this historic focus on the motor vehicle user.

Yeah, there's still a culture at MnDOT where we tend to focus on our largest customer segment--motor vehicles. And that's fair. There's a lot more discussions that begin and end with how we can make our environments better for bicycling and walking than maybe there were in the past. Our commissioner has made a commitment to becoming a multimodal agency that delivers on that idea and I honestly believe that the people who work in this agency and in general the community across the state area also coming around as well.

In developing policy and implementing projects, the dynamics are very complex: there MnDOT, there's FHWA, there's the MPOs, there's cities, there's counties, there's ASHTO stuff, there's the legislature. For people reading the e-newsletter thinking "is there an easy way to get a handle on the flow and the responsibilities," is there a way you could boil that down to a few quick sentences for us?

Wow, how can I approach this in an easy way? This commissioner is trying to instill in all of us that the top of our organizational chart is the traveling public, or the people of Minnesota. In many regards the planning for projects really starts at the local level and begins to ascend up. So we start with the needs of the public in specific locations and for us working with our different partners--whether it be a city or county level or other organizations-- and plan and develop projects that are respectful of those needs. And then we work with metropolitan planning organizations and Federal Highway Administration as things progress. So it's really, as you said, a dynamic process--lots of people involved and lots of competing interests and different viewpoints.


How might the interaction with MnDOT, particularly on bike/ped issues, feel or look differently to local communities than it has in the past?

That's a good question. This commissioner-and I completely support this-has really tried to instill an environment here where we strengthen our partnerships and we have a more collaborative dialogue with the local units of government. He's a huge proponent of context-sensitive solutions and flexibility in design and he wants us to, as we're planning our future projects and developing those projects, really focus on the context in which we're operating.

We're also trying to figure out different ways that we can understand our success instead of just looking at benchmarks or performances measures that we've had in the past--vehicle throughput or level of service or congestion hours. We want to look at how many people are we moving through a corridor during an hour or through the course of a day and how are we impacting people's quality of life; getting at some more of those human factors as well as the traditional engineering factors.


Anything else we should have asked you?

One of the things that I didn't mention is that as a department we are really spending more of our effort and time on pedestrian-related issues than we have in the past. One of the driving forces behind that is safety. Besides having too many bicycle-related fatalities over the past year we've had too many pedestrian-related fatalities and we want to be more aggressive in trying to understand how our infrastructure may put people at risk.

Working with the disabled community and making our environments function better for people with disabilities has become one of our strategic initiatives. We're putting more resources towards building a wider body of knowledge about our responsibilities and the kinds of improvements we can make that allow our infrastructure to function better.

And that would only be on state roads, correct? So your reach is fairly limited.

Correct. It is fairly limited, but we hope that we also can, to some extent, provide some kind of a leadership role for the rest of the transportation community out there in regards to this issue. And we want to help where we can with fostering those dialogues between the municipalities themselves and then also with the disabled community where appropriate. 

Cited Source: 
Bike Walk Twin Cities eNewsletter