Looking out a café window at the stop-and-go procession of cars, trucks and buses on University Avenue, the city’s new assistant city manager for transportation sipped coffee and spoke about reducing personal automobile use.
“My greatest challenge is to bring about a paradigm shift amongst my colleges in the transportation field away from focusing on the personal automobile,” Peter Hillier said, his English accent softened by his years in Canada. “I want to change the emphasis more towards pedestrians, cyclists and public transportation.”
Hillier, as manager of the newly-created Office of Transportation, will be responsible for all transportation planning, traffic engineering and alternative transportation programs. Ultimately he will manage a staff of 12 planners and engineers. His office is expected to have an annual budget of $1.5 million.
Hillier, the former Manager of Operational Planning and Policy for the City of Toronto, began work last week. One of Hillier’s primary functions will be mapping out a long-term transportation plan and traffic engineering strategy for the city as it braces for increased traffic flow resulting from greater population density and a large spurt of growth a UC Berkeley.
“A big, big issue will be the absolute need to move some motorists into alternate forms of transportation,” he said. “It’s now a worldwide phenomenon to look at personal motor vehicle usage as becoming non-sustainable to the environment.”
Another, and more immediate, task for his office, will be to improve safety on Berkeley’s streets.
“The City of Berkeley has a high collision rate and that has to be addressed immediately,” he said.
The Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Task Force report, released in March, 2000, found that Berkeley has four times the state average for bicycle collisions and twice the state average for pedestrian collisions as cities of similar size.
Past planning problems
Hillier’s arrival is expected to consolidate what has been divided and troubled effort in Berkeley to improve traffic conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists and increase ridership on public transportation.
Some of the city’s traffic and transportation problems have been characterized by personal problems. In December, 2000, the city’s traffic engineer, Jeff Knolls, quit after being employed for only eight months. Then last May, the city’s first transportation planner, Joe Kott, quit three weeks after he was hired.
Both Knolls and Kott cited internal conflict between the Department of Planning and Development, Public Works and at least three transit-oriented commissions as partial reasons for their departures.
Since that time, City Manager Weldon Rucker has made transportation and traffic issues a priority. He created the Office of Transportation, which will operate out of the City Manager’s Office in the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center.
“For the most part the city has approached transit issues in a fragmented manner,” Rucker said. “The new office is an attempt to get us all on the same page around these critical issues.”
Many roads to Berkeley
Hillier, 49, was born in London but is a citizen of Canada where he has lived for the last 32 years. He received a degree from the University of Toronto and has worked in transportation planning and engineering for the last 27 years. For the first 17 years of his career he worked in Guelph, a university town about the size of Berkeley.
For the last 10 years, Hillier has worked in the City of Toronto, which has a population of 2.3 million. Hillier was head of Toronto’s Transportation Services Department, which maintained 3,100 miles of roads, 5,000 miles of sidewalks and 500 bridges.
Hillier said that the larger Toronto, has many of the same traffic and transportation issues as Berkeley.
“If you look at the freeway system in the Bay Area, there are a lot of the same congestion issues as in Toronto,” he said. “And the issues of pedestrian and bicycle safety and access for the disabled are common to Toronto and Berkeley.”
Hillier, his wife, Kim, and their 6 and 10-year-old daughters, are currently looking for a home in Berkeley. He said it is essential for him to live in the same city in which he works.
“I want to know the city intimately,” he said. “If I am going to be effective it’s important that I know firsthand the city’s transportation environment.”