Roadways for People: The Necessity of Collaboration

Breaking down planning silos to ensure transportation options in a car-oriented world.

8 minute read

December 8, 2022, 8:00 AM PST

By Lynn Peterson and Elizabeth Doerr



Dee Browning / Shutterstock

The following excerpt is from Roadways for People: Rethinking Planning and Engineering, written by Lynn Peterson with Elizabeth Doerr and published on December 6 by Island Press. Peterson is president of the Metro Council, the Portland-area regional planning agency distinguished as the nation’s only elected regional government.

The book, which includes a foreword by Janette Sadik-Khan, explains the need for a paradigm shift in transportation planning and provides solutions for planning practice to help accomplish the shift. In the following excerpt, taken from the beginning of chapter four, “Getting Out of Our Silos,” Roadways for People examines the example of Eagle County, Colorado, which used a collaborative approach to ensure equitable mobility outcomes during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

Getting Out of Our Silos

Eagle County, Colorado, is perhaps what many people who haven’t been to Colorado think is Colorado: towering Rocky Mountain peaks topped with snow—the backdrop of an ultimate outdoor adventure at ski resorts such as Vail, Beaver Creek, and Avon.

The dozen or so towns and unincorporated communities in Eagle County are spread across the approximately 1,700-square-mile region that sits almost 150 miles east of Denver.

“The area here is kind of a hamlet structure that’s rather large with a lot of open space and [scattered] towns,” says Morgan Beryl, who at the time of her interview was the director of community development for Eagle County. “It’s pretty auto-dependent if you want to get between towns, and there’s some culture issues related to using public transportation.”

Home prices close to the resorts are out of reach for most people who work at them, making commutes through the mountain roads to less expensive areas of the county necessary.

Of the approximately fifty-five thousand residents of the county, 29 percent identify as Latino. The county is quite wealthy, with a median annual income of over $79,000. However, the number of Latino people in Eagle County living in poverty is double that of White residents who live in poverty in the region.

The bus is the main public transit option in the region. Vehicle ride-sharing is another option, and local bike-share programs help in getting to and from bus stops or ride-sharing locations. Most of the bus riders are lower income, with 52 percent of winter riders and 60 percent of summer riders earning below $30,000 per year, as Eagle County learned when it conducted a survey in 2018. Because the region is home to many popular ski resorts, the number of part- time residents (who are generally more high income) is higher in the winter—27 percent, versus 11 percent in the summer, which accounts for the difference in income percentages of riders between the two seasons.

In a place such as Eagle County, where the travel mode of choice for the higher-income, White majority is the car, there is a risk that the needs of public transit users will be overlooked in favor of solutions that are more driver friendly. But Eagle County government, through the leadership of chief culture officer Angelo Fernandez, navigated these challenges through collaboration. Fernandez fostered a strong team environment between the county government’s nearly twenty-four departments, including transportation, housing, planning, public health, emergency management, and children, family, and adult services, which helped to develop and support creative solutions related to public transportation. The collaborative team approach helped to build trust internally and led to much more effective community engagement to understand the concerns of county residents and what needed to be done to address them.

“The strings that pull through all of this is equity,” says Fernandez. “That leads us to ask, ‘Does everyone have the same access to opportunity?’” With that as its overarching value, the county prioritized looking into public transportation challenges faced by the Latino community, since they make up the majority of bus riders. The county found that much of its messaging around bus routes wasn’t getting to the people who needed it the most. The three major towns in Eagle County—Vail, Avon, and Beaver Creek—have their own bus systems, on top of the regional system run by Eagle County (ECO Transit). Each system used different schedule technology that didn’t connect to the others. Many commuters needed to switch from one bus system to another, but even to find out the different schedules, they had to look at a different system map for each jurisdiction. At one time, the only way riders could get transit schedule information was in the form of a foldable PDF document that would be downloaded and printed. “I don’t know if you’ve ever read a PDF with snow blowing sideways,” says Brandon Williams, Eagle County’s innovation and strategy manager. “We just wanted to make it easier for riders.”

Working with local transportation entities and the local non- profit health-care system, Vail Health, Eagle County government developed the Transit Hub app, which pulls together schedule data from the county and local jurisdictions. The development was a true partnership between the local transportation service providers (including private transportation providers at the resorts, local government transportation providers, and Vail Health) and Eagle County government, specifically the public health, sustainability, and human services departments, since safe and easy access to work is critical for individual financial stability and health. Colleagues in the public health and human services departments were instrumental in providing feedback on what elements needed to be included in order to make it usable for more residents, noting the need for ease of use. “They wanted to make something that was largely visual based that could easily be translated across different languages,” Williams says. Ease of use also meant al- lowing users to quickly switch to their language of choice.

The app is open-source, drawn from bus transportation data avail- able to all, so it can be used on any platform (such as Google Maps) for easier access. The data can also be used off-line, which is particularly important in a place where Wi-Fi service can be spotty and many residents don’t have regular internet access at home.

The rollout of Transit Hub was in 2020 (a soft launch in September and the first announcements in November), and despite the midpandemic launch, riders have responded very positively to the app. According to Williams, as of early 2022, Transit Hub had 9,000 active users, of whom 21 percent had created login accounts and were, as he describes them, “frequent flyers,” or people who save their trips in the app for future use. Considering that the population of working-age adults (between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five) is just over 35,000 people, the Transit Hub adoption rate is notable. “When you factor in [that] we are a tourist economy with a huge population of driving- related work, such as deliveries and construction and small communities where walking distance to work is common,” Williams says, “we are really stoked about 9,000 of the target service economy commuters in that population.”

The success of the app can be attributed, at least in part, to Angelo Fernandez and the team environment he built during his ten years working for the county, between 2011 and 2021. Williams says of the experience, “I don’t know that I’ve ever worked with a team as creative and willing to say ‘I don’t know; let’s figure it out.’”

Because Williams comes from the technology and innovation side of things (which I see as similar to product engineering, in which mar- ket feedback is a big part of the process), he’s likely more naturally inclined toward collaboration and getting consistent feedback from people in other fields than what I’ve experienced in the transportation engineering world. But I think the fact that collaboration within Eagle County extends beyond Williams’s work shows there’s great value in creating partnerships internally. And the effect internal partnerships create is a pathway to better and deeper community outreach and engagement, which is where the really important feedback comes in. We can learn important lessons from the collaborative nature of Eagle County and how its internal partnerships lead to better overall community partnerships.

Connected Services, Trust, and Professional Ethics

What I see in Fernandez’s approach are three overarching elements that make up the foundations of strong collaborations: connected services, trust, and strong roots in professional ethics.

Fernandez sees a collaborative approach as empowering to the employees and essential to delivering solutions that will help a community thrive. A lot of this comes from building trust.

“Trust is innovation,” he says. “You can say you have innovation as a value, but if every time everyone makes a mistake they get punitive repercussions, you’re punishing innovation. People won’t take risks anymore when they hear the word ‘collaboration.’”

He has worked to establish teams that are rooted in these values and really work for the community.

“What I think is unique and different about Eagle,” says Williams, “is that we’ve intentionally made decisions regarding leadership that are about leadership curation and mentorship.” And through that mentorship, teams have been able to become communities of collaborators who are willing to ask questions, identify solutions where they might not already be looking, and take risks by doing something in a way that might not be perceived as standard practice.

“In all my experience working on innovation at the state and at Eagle County, the benefit of taking that research and development approach, to go small, continue to iterate and change . . . to design toward collaboration and engagement. . . . I’ve yet to run into a situation where that didn’t make a better outcome,” says Williams.

And that willingness to test and iterate is the most successful, he believes, when done in partnership with colleagues in a team approach, as in the professional community cultivated by Angelo Fernandez’s leadership, which is now a part of how the agency functions.

Through the connections he built within the agency, Williams knew he could reach out to other departments to find out how transportation affected community members as it related to their work. So much of that willingness to step outside our professional silos is about understanding how all government services are connected.

Lynn Peterson is currently the Oregon Metro Council president, leading the nation’s only elected regional government, which oversees regional affordable housing, parks, tourism and cultural venues, garbage and recycling, and, of course, transportation and land use planning.

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