Graduate Student Summer Experience: The City of Minneapolis and Vision Zero

Over the past six years, both as an undergraduate and graduate student at Florida State University, summer experiences have become a pivotal component of my academics. Leaving the classroom and immersing myself in a variety of projects showcase the importance of hands-on learning, and I could not stress how important it is to leave one’s comfort zone and travel to new places. As I approach the end of Master’s of Science in Planning (MSP) with the Department of Urban and Regional Planning (DURP), I  look back to this summer with great excitement, being my first experience formally working with a local government agency.

This summer,  I came across the Urban Scholars Program, an interdisciplinary program within the City of Minneapolis’ Department of Civil Rights that connects students of diverse backgrounds with opportunities to succeed in the professional world. The program is structured to provide each cohort with skills to succeed in the workplace and get an early start; the program is partnered with multiple citywide, state, and regional agencies that allow students to take strong initiative and lead unique projects, with lasting benefits to communities across the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area.

Alberto de los Rios

After receiving my acceptance letter, I had the opportunity to choose my placement with the City’s Public Works Department, under the Transportation Planning & Programming (TPP) subdivision. TPP is in charge of overseeing citywide networks of roads, sidewalks, transportation routes, and implement a variety of projects that enhance the public’s experience whilst on the road, no matter what mode of transportation the individual chooses. TPP’s work capacity has dramatically increased in the past 5 years based on overall city growth, and they are currently drafting the Transportation Action Plan (TAP): a comprehensive set of actions and policies that will guide transportation demands for the city and influence the region’s commuting patterns—some of the main areas of focus include Accessibility, Sustainability, Equity, and Innovation. These action items echo the City’s soon-to-be adopted comprehensive plan, Minneapolis 2040, which centers future growth through robust changes in zoning, land use, and deliberately investing on communities across the city based on social, economic, and cultural needs.

The scope of my work was partially supportive of TAP, but it was primarily focused on Vision Zero Minneapolis, an extension of TAP and also a standalone plan. Originating from Sweden, Vision Zero aims to reduce all traffic-related fatalities to zero by a set date—Minneapolis’ goal year to achieve this will be 2027. Several major metropolitan cities across the United States have adopted Vision Zero strategies involving changes in transportation infrastructure, developing campaigns for better driving, enabling policies, which over time can shape safety outcomes for street users.

In the case of Minneapolis, distracted driving and reckless driving are two of the principal causes of traffic accidents; pedestrians are the most vulnerable population, representing 29 percent of fatalities, even though only 18 percent of trips are done by foot. Reactively, TPP has carefully examined the pathways to address said issues, and move forward with community-wide improvements that enhance quality of life and mobility for all modes of transportation, be it public transit, biking, walking, driving, scooters, or else. This approach is coined through safe streets, people, vehicles, and safety data.

My role was centered primarily in community engagement, both by conducting research and becoming immersed in current engagement efforts. Undoubtedly, my favorite part of work involved being out in community spaces such as schools, neighborhood centers, and streets of high pedestrian activity. Having conversations with stakeholders allowed me to hear valuable insights about traffic safety across the city, and what are people’s opinions on how to tackle the aforementioned issues. Moreover, a big component of my internship involved in researching best practices; even though Minneapolis has adopted innovative strategies that have successfully empowered stakeholders, holding conversations with other Vision Zero professionals opened a new horizon of possibilities to become more sensitive and proactive in engaging communities.

What would transform transportation in Minneapolis is having a route that’s safe to all people regardless of color or disability to ride the bus, car, or bicycle. To be safe regardless of who you are or where you live

—Minneapolis Resident

After a few conversations with faculty at DURP, I developed a proposal for a Directed Individual Research (DIR) project, which was approved and I am currently working toward its defense this December. The Document I seek to create at the end of the fall term compiles conversations, research, and testimonies from Vision Zero professionals and community engagement experts across the United States to develop a toolkit that any agency, community organization, or individual can employ and adapt to maximize equitable outcomes in community engagement processes related to Vision Zero. The goal is to also detail multiple strategies at different levels, whether it is during research, drafting the document, or engaging beyond the plan’s adoption, these strategies will not be exhaustive, rather, they can be adapted based on community needs.

It is important to mention as well, how Urban Scholars connected me with incredible opportunities during my summer experience. As part of the graduate student curriculum, we were exposed to multiple workshops on cultural competency, networking skills, and close access to government operations, with the opportunity to meet the city mayor, council members, and a plethora of professionals across multiple departments. Thanks to these connections, I have been able to further my goals as a planner and obtain valuable information regarding Vision Zero.

Moreover, I recently attended the Vision Zero Cities conference in New York City, where I connected with professionals and local leaders from across the nation that focus on transportation, equity, community engagement, and safety. Having the opportunity to hold thoughtful conversations with passionate individuals has become a vital component of my DIR project, and moving forward, I hope to continue these relationships to promote street safety for all.

Alberto De Los Rios is an Urban Planning Graduate Student. His experience and interests include sustainability, transportation, neighborhood planning, equity-oriented practices, and interdisciplinary work. Should you be interested in knowing more about Vision Zero, the City of Minneapolis, the Urban Scholars Program, Social Science Scholars, or have any other inquiries, feel free to reach out to Alberto at adelosriosloreto@fsu.edu.

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