Meet Pittsburgh’s first mobility and infrastructure director

Karina Ricks is the former associate director of D.C.’s Department of Transportation.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

Today is Karina Ricks’ first day on a job that hasn’t existed before in Pittsburgh.

Ricks is the city’s first director of the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, which is tasked with providing a “safe, sustainable and efficient system of transportation and accessibility.”

She’s the former associate director of D.C.’s Department of Transportation and had been a principal at transportation consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard’s District office since 2012.

“Pittsburgh is a whole new adventure,” she told The Incline on Thursday.

“It’s a different era of transportation. It’s really exciting again to be at the forefront of, how do you employ these great new technologies for good? How do these things really serve the larger objectives and values of the city?” Ricks said. “It can’t be a better place to be, in my opinion.”

And then there’s the topography.

“Your topography is not to be taken lightly,” she said. “It’s a city that can only be understood in three dimensions.”

‘A really dynamic time in D.C.’

Ricks worked for D.C.’s Office of Planning between 2000 and 2005, where she focused on land use and economic revitalization in “neighborhoods that hadn’t gotten a whole lot of attention [or] investment.” Transit development was a key part of that.

In the mid-2000s, she said many departments of transportation were looking at their roles through a maintenance and safety lens “but not really seeing that potential larger community vision.”

“Transportation is one of the most powerful economic development and social justice tools that we have at our disposal,” Ricks said.

She approached DDOT’s then director Dan Tangherlini, who later became administrator of the General Services Administration under Obama, with her philosophy and joined the agency in 2005.

“It was a really dynamic time in D.C.,” she said.

In the six years that she worked there, DDOT launched its Capital Bikeshare system (still one of the country’s most successful) and the Circulator, a network of city-run buses that travel commercial corridors and charge $1 per trip. The department also developed a Complete Streets policy and continued planning for a streetcar system that finally opened its first segment in February 2016.

But her time at DDOT also showed her the need to get a “foundation in place” before bringing economic growth to these areas in order to protect “people who were in these neighborhoods who were soon to be the beneficiaries.”

The H Street NE corridor, where D.C.’s first streetcar line in 50 years opened in 2016, is a perfect example. In the past decade, the commercial strip, which was devastated by riots in 1968, went from a handful of longtime businesses plus a few newer restaurants to having a Whole Foods and a Starbucks. The surrounding neighborhood’s housing stock now includes million-dollar homes and $2,000-a-month studio apartments. Development came to the area years before the streetcar even started running.

“Understanding the power of transportation is an important step,” Ricks said, but so is making investments to stabilize communities.

Collaborating in Pittsburgh

One of her tasks as director of the Mobility and Infrastructure department will be to coordinate Pittsburgh’s transportation planning with partners in the city (agencies like the Department of Public Works), county (Port Authority), and state (PennDOT).

D.C.’s transportation department operates as both a city and state agency. Collaboration was seamless, Ricks joked.

But in the five years that she’s worked as a consultant, Ricks said she’s found “really great partners in the state DOTs.” Pittsburgh, she noted, already has a good relationship with PennDOT.

Ricks said regional planning can be more difficult in some ways.

“We all rise and sink together in a way,” she said. “We need to respect one another. We need to respect the communities through which we travel.”

The good happening in Pittsburgh on the transportation front is “too numerous to list,” Ricks said.

She highlighted Mayor Bill Peduto’s leadership and “great assets to build on” like Port Authority (“a cornerstone of mobility in Pittsburgh”), autonomous vehicles and the city’s busways, which are “not touted as much” as they could be when maximizing transit-oriented development.

… and what about self-driving cars?

That Pittsburgh’s future is closely tied to the development of autonomous vehicles is both one of the city’s greatest strengths but also a concern to public transit advocates.

Pittsburghers for Public Transit has criticized Uber’s close relationship with Peduto’s administration and has called for a “publicly operated on-demand transportation service that is equitable, accessible and accountable to the communities it serves.”

Integrating the city’s public transit with the private is “going to be one of the big challenges to figure out,” Ricks said.

The city needs to meet people’s mobility needs, she said, a balancing act between factors like reliability, travel time and price. The goal is to get people from point A to point B in the way that makes the most sense for them.

“It’s not to say that we shouldn’t have autonomous vehicles or that autonomous vehicles are only for a certain group,” she said. “There may need to be some programs in place that can leverage the great benefit that autonomous vehicles bring to make sure that benefit is also available to communities who may not be able to afford the price.”

But Ricks added that transit operators shouldn’t feel “threatened” by autonomous vehicles. The more Pittsburgh can get people to “disconnect themselves from a single mode of travel” like driving the better, she said.

Sometimes that will be transit. Sometimes that will be biking or walking. Sometimes that will be a private autonomous vehicle “or who knows what’s next.”

“If you’re operating on our public streets and rights of way, there should be a general availability and access to the public,” she said. “What do we do to make sure that happens, we need to figure out.”

With the right public policy and a well-managed system, “you can have the best off both worlds.”