Curbing Climate Change
Updated: Feb 22
Seattle Department of Transportation’s Mary Catherine Snyder weighs the requirements of the brave new curb as the City aims for carbon neutrality.
In mid-2019, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) came to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) with a problem. Street congestion associated with the late-night bar scene in the City’s Capitol Hill neighborhood was making it difficult for SPD officers to patrol or ensure access for emergency vehicles.
“There were lots of people getting out of bars that close at 2 a.m. looking for their Uber and Lyft rides,” recalls Mary Catherine Snyder, a parking strategist for SDOT. "The police needed our help getting those vehicles off the main streets and onto side streets.”
Over the next few weeks, Snyder and her SDOT team met with representatives from the SPD, the Seattle Office of Film + Music, and transportation network companies (TNCs) Uber and Lyft to come up with a smarter, safer way to handle this situation. Their solution? Four designated pick-up zones on the perimeter of the bar district where patrons could connect with their TNC rides. The new rules went into effect in November of 2019.
“The new approach seemed to improve traffic circulation and created a real win/win for the City of Seattle and the TNCs,” claims Snyder. “It helped our police perform their traffic management function effectively, ensured the safety of our citizens, and saved TNC drivers a lot of time finding and picking up their rides.”
Keeping Up with the Curb
Today, as the Policy Group lead within SDOT’s Curbside Management Team, Snyder works at the nexus of transportation, climate change, and equity.
Guided by the Seattle Climate Action Plan, she’s helping the City navigate and resolve infrastructure challenges on its curbs, a battle-ground born from the evolution of TNC services, a pandemic-induced uptick in delivery services, climate-change-inspired expansions of shared transportation programs (bike share, micro-transit, scooters, etc.), and a moral desire to ensure curb equity for all of Seattle’s citizens. It is not an easy job.
“Most people use the curb at some point, whether they’re parking, interacting with mass transit, or making a delivery,” Snyder observes. “There is more demand these days for curb activity than there is curb space, so prioritizing access and managing demand is an ongoing conversation among our team members.”
Shaped by Motor City
Snyder grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, Mich., a quintessential company town where nearly all of her friends and family were affiliated with the U.S. auto industry. Her dad was a middle management executive for the Ford Motor Company, her mom a registered dietician. “We ate a lot of salads and drove a lot of Ford cars,” Snyder recalls.
She also spent a lot of time riding her bicycle around the neighborhood with friends and developing an abiding loyalty to Detroit’s professional sport franchises.
“I’ve always been a real sports fan,” she offers. “I can’t give up on Detroit’s baseball or football teams, even though they’re not always very good. I will always be a Tigers fan, maybe even a Lions fan.”
Moving with the Times
Like the cars her dad marketed, Snyder’s family moved a lot. By middle school, they were living in Knoxville, Tenn., just in time to attend the City’s 1982 World’s Fair and its landmark Sunsphere. By high school, they had moved to Minneapolis, Minn. And throughout it all, politics was a regular topic of conversation around the house.
“My mom was a regular election volunteer,” Snyder says, “so I just grew up with that.
To this day, I really enjoy election volunteering, helping to get out the vote through phone calling and neighborhood canvasing.”
Finding the Right Path
As an undergrad at Cornell University, Snyder continued her study of politics and international relations, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in government in 1992. But when she took a job after college with a small environmental nonprofit in Washington, D.C., her career began to veer decidedly toward the transportation sector.
“I was part of a team that put out a monthly newsletter about transportation advocates,” she explains. “Following passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 a lot of people were advising cities on how to build bike lanes and other new types of transit systems.”
Snyder’s work on the newsletter also exposed her to several people involved in parking management––and she was smitten.
“I just found it fascinating,” she recalls. “It also helped me realize that a degree in international political theory was not going to get me a job in curb management. So, I decided to come out to Seattle to attend graduate school at the University of Washington.”
Snyder completed her Master of Urban Planning degree in 1997. Two years later, she finished a Master of Science in Civil Engineering degree with a concentration in transportation planning.
Taming the Curb
After joining the City of Seattle in 1997, Snyder moved over to SDOT, a city department, in 2001. Since then, she reveals, she’s “had a lot of different jobs, but often the same desk.”
Today, Snyder and her team address a variety of curbside management issues, but focus primarily on:
simplifying urban goods movement and delivery, with a goal of reaching zero-emission local delivery;
ensuring curb access for transit systems; and
managing residential and paid parking.
Much of her job, she explains, centers on managing the tension that exists naturally between moving people and accessing the curb.
"Seattle has a roadway system that was not built for the population that we have these days,” Snyder observes, “so it’s quite challenging trying to fit buses, cars, and freight in a very limited space.
We also have to create space at the curb for freight pick-up and delivery, for pedestrians and for people trying to get on and off of transit systems.”
Asking the Right Questions
Among her colleagues, Snyder is known as the person who always asks “why are we doing this?”
“I think a lot about the climate emergency and transportation equity, and how our work in curb space management ties back to those concepts,” she explains. “As a result, I usually ask two questions: ‘What is this program doing to reduce carbon emissions?’ and ‘Is the expected outcome of the program what we really need, or do we actually need to do something different?’”
But the topic that really gets Snyder’s juices flowing, she admits, is trash and solid waste pickup.
“Trash pick-up is a basic service in any successful city, but it’s often forgotten,” she says.
“We’re frequently reminding our fellow urban planners about the need to create space for solid waste pickup. If small businesses don’t get their solid waste picked up and can’t get their deliveries, they can’t sell their products and they’ll go out of business. Here in Seattle, those businesses are our lifeblood.”
One of the more challenging aspects of Snyder’s job, she reveals, is getting Seattleites to “play nice on the curb.”
“Curbside management really comes down to three things,” she observes, “design, education, and enforcement. We can design a system of self-compliance that allows people to fit in where they need to be, and we can educate them on the reasons for that design, but ultimately, we need a healthy enforcement system because people don’t always play by the rules.”
Working the Neighborhood
Workdays begin early in the well-kept Craftsman that Snyder shares in the eclectic Fremont neighborhood of Seattle with a cat named Ernie, a tribute to Ernie Harwell, a longtime radio broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers.
Like most professionals in the U.S., she’s been “Zooming” to work since the spring of 2020, but expects to resume her 35-to-40-minute commute by bus to downtown later this spring, perhaps two days per week.
In the meantime, Snyder’s been able to conduct curb management “research” from home.
“During COVID, my friends and I would pick out a café or restaurant within a couple of miles of home and just walk there to have dinner or a cocktail,” she shares. “I really liked just checking them out to see how they are fitting into the fabric of the curb.”
The social outings – Mary Catherine is part of the team that permits Seattle street cafes – allowed her to observe how well local establishments were following local “street-use” rules. Those rules have had to evolve rapidly with the explosion in demand during COVID for outdoor, curb-adjacent eating facilities.
“I think it’s very important to see how these places work in real life,” says Snyder. “Seated at a table right next to parallel-parked cars made me realize, ‘wow,’ maybe we need a larger buffer between restaurant patrons and our street traffic.”
Pushing for Perfection
When Snyder thinks about the future, she contemplates the diverse number of activities that will continue to demand space and accommodation on Seattle’s streets, and how best to reconcile those demands with the growing climate emergency.
“I’d like for us to get to a point where we understand the demands on the curb at all times of the day and can mobilize the cleanest technologies, the best price structures and the fairest regulations to support and manage that demand,” she muses. “That would be my perfect future for Seattle.”
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If you enjoyed reading this profile, I’d like to recommend that you check out my profile on Severin Martinez, who’s helping Los Angeles rethink its approach to bike lanes and mobility. If you have ideas for other topics or people you’d like to see profiled here, please contact me at email@example.com. Many thanks.