An Interview with DPW Director Ed Reiskin

ed_jfk_ride4.3.10_sm_e1278693186819.jpgPhoto: SFBC

This interview originally appeared on the SFBC's blog.

San Francisco is experimenting with a number of innovative ideas to help create more public space to hang out and enjoy the city. New parklets and street plazas are sprouting on streets around the city, welcomed by local businesses and neighbors. The process of thinking about streets differently and making public space benefit everyone is only in its infancy in San Francisco, but like a healthy baby it’s growing fast right before our eyes.

At first guess, the Department of Public Works might not seem like the place to look for innovation, but San Francisco has a different approach. DPW’s website spells out a particularly environmental and community-minded mission: “The Department of Public Works is committed to making 
San Francisco a beautiful, livable and sustainable city. We design, build, operate, maintain, green, and improve the city’s infrastructure, public rights-of-way, and facilities with skill, pride, and responsiveness, in partnership with the San Francisco community.”

I had the opportunity to sit down with Ed Reiskin, the Director of the Department of Public Works recently, to talk with him a bit about the way he sees our city. The Department of Public Works has special relevance for people who regularly walk and bike as the keeper of our streets.

What is your experience bicycling in the city?

“As the guy who’s responsible for the city’s streets, there is no better way to get a flavor of the condition of the streets than to be on a bicycle. I think every Public Works Director should have to ride around their city on a bike. It’s a great way to know your roads.”

“I enjoy biking because it’s the best way to get around. Last week on my day to do kid drop-off I took my five-year-old on the back of my bike. And she was really excited: ‘can we do this every morning?’  But as we rode in, my wife and her sister (who works at the school) were also driving in. We all left at the same time—and the bike got there first on top of how pleasant it was.”

“I’ve also started to use bikes for meetings during the day—there’s a bike for use by employees at City Hall. After this I’m going down to our maintenance yard at Cesar Chavez and I’m going to bike.”

What do you see as the key to getting more people on bikes?

“My main job is to make the streets smooth so they’re safe. We work to get bike routes re-paved as soon as possible. I want to encourage anyone who’s seen something to call 311 or send a direct message to twitter: sf311. If you want to report a pothole, anything—we can’t fix it if we don’t know.”

“The implementation of the bike plan is really important and we support other departments on this. Separated lanes or demarcated lanes help, like the one on Market Street.”

“Perhaps, bike sharing, like in Paris—I wish I could run down the steps at City Hall and hop on a bike—not deal with stairs and locks and everything. And I wish I could bike to work more often but do it just one-way. When I’m doing multiple kid drop-offs on the bus in the morning, I could use a bike to get home at night, just one leg of the journey. So, more flexibility.”

“And we need more public realm improvements to make the city generally more welcoming for people so it’s less that the city’s built for cars and everyone else is an afterthought. We want to flip that around. The more this happens the more welcoming it will be for bikes. It will all slow traffic and improve safety for everyone—it’s indirect but that’s the long-term change.”

How can you continue to make public space a priority?

“When I sit and talk with Nat Ford (Head of Muni) and John Rahaim (Head of City Planning), we’re all coordinating well and we’re all interested in this stuff. The Board and the Mayor too. There’s critical mass (no pun intended). And the Castro plaza pilot and the parklet in front of Mojo Café: these are all attempts to create innovation on the fly and on the cheap leveraging the community’s expertise. And now by all accounts it works so now it’s a great candidate for other funding.

“My goal is to get the process right so it’s easier and simpler to do a lot more. I see these projects as part of a spectrum from block party permits to parklets to Sunday Streets to Pavement to Parks to public space to the Streetpark program—putting these all in a coherent framework and having the city processes to support them. Right now a lot of these are kind of one person or a small group busting their butts to make it happen. So to regularize that and to even re-think permitting it so people can easily request it, it’s not a hassle. That is the next step. Institutionalizing it.”

Are there other cities you look to for inspiration?

“New York is the inspiration for lots of this—Janette Sadik-Kahn is incredible. She gave a talk not too long ago and all the San Francisco department heads just said “there’s no reason we can’t do this.”  Sometimes we all think new things are difficult to get done in San Francisco. The best ammunition I have is, well—you think we can’t shut down fifty feet of 17th street and Mayor Bloomberg has shut off Broadway in Midtown Manhattan?  I would love to be able to do more projects along these lines.”

“I was just in DC and that city has a ton more bike lanes than when I was last there. They’re also doing this incredible streetscape project where they’re putting in light rail along a pretty run down street in a low-income community — it’s going to be serving folks who generally don’t benefit from these improvements.”

How about repaving Market Street—what will happen there?

“Well it seems like everyone was kind of scared to touch Market because it’s such a challenge—a big job and disruptive to work on it. It needs to be repaired but it would be crazy not to improve it while we have it torn up too. I don’t know what the answer is but it has to be done right. Pulling together all the folks, Muni, fire stuff, sewer work—infrastructure but really we have to figure out how to serve everyone who uses it to commute, to move around the city. Nobody seems to think it works now: we’ve got to put it back together much improved.”

What are your markers of success in this job?

“A lot more people enjoying the public realm, that the infrastructure is solid and that the city’s neglect of the infrastructure over the past many years is turned around. Better coordination of all of the work and projects: departments, commissions. But it all comes back to the public realm.”