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Reflections on #NACTO2023: The Opportunity to Dream Big and Do Big Together

Jun 09, 2023

Images by Eboni Coleman.

An engaged, vibrant community has always been at the core of NACTO’s work. And nowhere is the unique importance and power of that community clearer than at our annual Designing Cities Conference.

This year, for #NACTO2023, we gathered 1,200 transportation planners, engineers, policymakers and other practitioners in Denver. Practitioners from over 200 cities across North America met at the Hyatt Regency Hotel to hear from over 130 speakers in breakout sessions and workshops, and walk, bike, scooter and ride transit in 86 WalkShops across the region.

NACTO’s 96 member cities represent an extraordinary breadth of geographic and cultural diversity. They are each home to a diverse set of communities; they face unique challenges; and they have unique lessons to offer. But in all of these cities, there are transportation professionals working tirelessly and creatively to make streets safer, more accessible and more equitable.

As we gathered to learn, debate, and swap ideas about the present and future of urban transportation, a few key themes emerged.

Solving global issues requires bold local action

We know that addressing the intertwined crises of street safety, climate change, and economic and racial inequity requires coordinated action at the national and global level. But #NACTO2023 made clear that cities can—and are—taking bold, thoughtful steps to create a safer, more sustainable, and more equitable future. 

We saw countless examples of such work at the conference’s “Meet the Cities” showcase, where over 50 cities highlighted innovative projects designed to tackle their toughest transportation challenges. Take Boston, which partnered with the MBTA to install the first center-running bus lane in New England along Columbus Avenue, or Columbus, which worked with stakeholders across the metro area to develop a comprehensive plan to invest in the region’s transportation system.

The power of local action was also on display during the conference WalkShops, which brought attendees to neighborhoods throughout Denver. We learned how an award-winning protected bikeway project in Lincoln Park, for example, made use of innovative loading zone, intersection, and ADA parking designs to offer a safe, affordable travel connection to Downtown. We heard directly from local residents how the Denver Connector—a free, on-demand, public microtransit service designed to connect to regional transportation and key services like grocery stores—serves to address historic inequities facing the Globeville Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.

We also ventured beyond Denver to nearby NACTO member cities. In Boulder, we learned how different city agencies work together to leverage limited resources and get projects done, and in Fort Collins—after a personal welcome from Mayor Jeni Arndt—we learned about the power of pedestrian-friendly spaces downtown, and how the city built a robust cycling network on low-speed, low-traffic streets. This works serves to illustrate that cities of all sizes and geographies have a role to play in shaping our shared vision for the future.

Images by Eboni Coleman and Cary Bearn.

We work better when we work together

Of course, while the work of individual cities is powerful and inspiring, we know our impact grows exponentially when we partner across silos, geographies and levels of government.

In recent years, we’ve seen a sea change from the federal government, with historic investment in infrastructure and a declaration from USDOT that the lives lost to traffic crashes are a national crisis. That’s why it was so important—and inspiring—to have some of the most influential transportation leaders in the federal government speak at the Designing Cities Conference including Shailen Bhatt, Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, and Jennifer Homendy, Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, who called on attendees to “act global, act local” to spur a nationwide mode shift away from private vehicles to safer, more sustainable forms of transportation.

“I’m here to recruit you to a new front in the war on traffic deaths: a safety revolution,” Chair Homedy said in her remarks. “One where you help the NTSB push for change and hold our federal and state leaders and others, including me and the NTSB, accountable for action and inaction.”

The importance of collaboration also shone through in several breakout sessions. In the aptly-named “Let’s Get Collaborative: How State and City DOTs Can Work Together for Safer Streets,” we learned how city leaders in Chicago, Detroit and Portland, OR have worked with their state counterparts to improve street safety on urban arterials. In “It Takes Two: Building Better Partnerships Between Cities & Transit Agencies,” municipal and transit leaders from Philadelphia, Austin and San Francisco shared best practices for forming supportive cross-agency relationships, improving internal communications, strategic planning, and project delivery.

Who’s in the room matters

One of the great joys—and responsibilities—of the Designing Cities Conference is the opportunity we have to bring together a diverse set of perspectives, and to uplift new, inspiring voices in our field. #NACTO2023 was a mix of seasoned conference attendees (many of whom served as “NACTO Ambassadors”) and first-timers, including some that were new to their roles.

In our session “Taking the Wheel: Stories of New Leadership at Transportation Agencies,” we heard from newly-appointed directors of Departments of Transportation in Seattle, Los Angeles and Baltimore, who shared their unique approaches to stepping into the role, and the ways in which their life experiences have informed their work.

“As a first-generation child of immigrants, you sometimes take on a role of having to parent your parents, because there are so many barriers for them to engage in government,” Connie Llanos, Interim General Manager at LADOT, told session attendees. “I’ve taken that experience into my work. How can I ensure there’s access for those who have lacked it, and create those points of connection and opportunity? Transportation is so uniquely set up for us to do that.”

We’re learning new ways to facilitate those connections at the conference, too. In Denver, we were excited to host NACTO’s first BIPOC Breakfast Meet & Greet, where over 100 transportation professionals of color gathered to connect, learn and enjoy snacks from local BIPOC-owned bakeries. The event was organized by three of this year’s NACTO/BBSP Transportation Justice Fellows: Julia Jannon-Shields, Alvan-Bidal Sanchez and Elese Daniel. (In addition to being a transportation professional, Elese did double duty as conference poet laureate, authoring personalized poems for dozens of attendees via typewriter.)

We work hard to represent a diversity of perspectives at the conference, but we know there are still crucial voices missing. Inclusive, belonging spaces don’t come into existence automatically; it takes work. If you’d like to help us in that work, you can do so by nominating people you admire as speakers.

Images by Eboni Coleman, Billy Richling and Alex Engel.

The challenges we face are great, but the opportunities to improve lives are even greater

The challenges facing our cities and our world can feel daunting in their scale and complexity. Durable solutions to issues ranging from systemic inequality and climate change to homelessness and mental illness can sometimes feel beyond our grasp as transportation practitioners, even as they shape the work that we do.

“Public transit is interwoven into the fabric of our communities,” Debra Johnson, General Manager and CEO of RTD, told former RTD board member Shontel Lewis during our closing plenary. “So when we talk about the ills of our society, that’s going to be felt on our public transit system.”

But the inspiring speakers, sessions and discussions at #NACTO2023 illustrate that transportation practitioners are capable of making a profound impact on the cities in which we live. We have the power to change our built environment, through intentional policies, programs, and new approaches. We make real, concrete–and paint and post–changes on the ground that can reshape our cities.

This work is not easy. It requires imagination. It requires us to look beyond the status quo and bring fresh thinking to the built environment in which we live. And it requires us to ask fundamental questions about what the world around us should look like.

The NACTO community of practitioners is doing that work at the leading edge of people-centered street design and transportation policy. They’re experimenting with new ways of designing, collaborating, and implementing. They’re working to center justice, and to collaborate with communities on projects and programs in their neighborhood. And they’re striving for impact, using each new sidewalk, bike lane, and bus route as a way to connect people to jobs, school, family, and friends.

NACTO extends a special thank you to our hosts in Denver and elsewhere, including Geneva Hooten, Rolf Eisinger, David Pulsipher, My La, Phoebe Fooks, Kayla Gilbert, Nancy Kuhn, Vanessa Lacayo, Devin Mason, and the very supportive leadership including Adam Phipps, Cindy Patton, David Nemovitz, and Jenn Hillhouse. We would also like to thank our partners RTD, CDOT, Lime, Lyft, Spin, BCycle, City of Fort Collins, City of Boulder, and Toole Design for making our walkshops possible. We also thank our Local Advisory Committee: Deya Zavala, Mayra Gonzalez, Shontel Lewis, and Tanniqua-Kay Buchanan. We’re also thankful for our own staff–especially our Events and Engagement team–for the enormous effort it took to pull this event together.

We’re especially grateful to everyone who traveled to Denver to attend the conference, to ask big, difficult questions and challenge ourselves. To everyone who took the opportunity to dream big, to connect to a shared vision, and—perhaps most importantly—to dive into the details of how to make that vision happen. If there’s one thing the conference teaches us, it’s that together, we have the ability not just to dream big, but to make those big dreams a reality.

Check out more photos, presentations and reflections from #NACTO2023. >