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35 minutes to NYC?: Rina Cutler on bike lanes, SEPTA’s former war with Philly and the future of rail travel (Q&A)

The Philadelphian who likely knows more about transportation than anyone else takes SEPTA to work. Rina Cutler’s train gets off at 30th Street Station, where last month she started a new job as Amtrak’s senior director for major station planning and development. She had been working for the city as Deputy Mayor for the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities and before then held leadership positions with the Philadelphia Parking Authority and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

When Cutler came to Philadelphia in 1994, biking wasn’t really a thing, SEPTA wasn’t considered cool and walking wasn’t as safe as it could be. These modes of transportation have all improved since then, in no small part because of Cutler’s efforts. In a recent conversation with Billy Penn, she reflects back on these changes for Philadelphia and what she hopes will be the biggest change in the future — high-speed rail. If America and the Northeast Corridor embrace fast trains, she says Philadelphia will benefit as much as any city.

The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Twenty years ago, what do you remember transit being like here?

I had come out of both Boston and San Francisco where transit was just way more embraced as a positive thing. So I was a little surprised when I first got here about how negative people were, mostly riders of the system were about SEPTA. I think there were a couple of reasons for it. They were much more under-funded than transit systems at the time in San Francisco and Boston. They were sort of in a hunker-down mode and didn’t really communicate well with their customers. They couldn’t provide any increase in service. They couldn’t provide better buses. They just didn’t have any money. They were just really hunkered down in a way that made their customers even angrier. Customer service did not appear to be a focus back then. I said I just don’t understand how you can have this magnificent set of bones — as my grandmother would call it — and have this unhealthy relationship with your riders. I think over the last 20 years they’ve done an extraordinary job at turning that around. Even before there was an increase in dollars through the legislature, they really did under (general manager) Joe Casey start to focus on customer service. They really brought themselves to a place where they were engaging with their customers.

Biking must’ve been a pretty foreign concept then, too?

There wasn’t any that I could tell. I never noticed it. I would say it was such a tiny number. And even when I came back from PennDOT with the Nutter administration — so that was 2008 — there were some bikers around, but it was a very small group even then. That was a constituency that really made a very conscious decision that it was going to work with the city and administration to start building out the infrastructure.

By constituency, you mean the biking community?

The biking community and the larger sort of folks who were focused on sustainability or focused on multi modalism, who wanted to make connections between transit and bikes. They made a conscious choice they were going to start to educate people and really just start to focus on an agenda, and they’ve done an extraordinary job.

How did the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, created under Nutter to coordinate streets, planning, property departments and more, help with all this for cyclists?

I think the notion of having a mayor’s office of transportation allowed the group to be the place people could come to rather than get lost in the Streets Department or try to manage how PennDOT might react to a trail. One of the first meetings I had as deputy mayor was with Russ Meddin, who was pushing very hard for a bike share program. There had already been a couple successful ones, but they were still pretty new. We made a conscious choice that we could not create a bike share without creating the infrastructure that allowed people to ride. So we spent a lot of time in the first few years creating bike lanes and just trying to figure out how to connect. We looked at where bicyclists were and what their commuting patterns were so we wouldn’t just put in a bike lane but have it connect to a larger system.

One of the things I would think is most important is bringing together all of the state and transit and city transportation folks to sort of start to meet and be able to row in the same direction. Those relationships before I got back to the city were very bad. The city and SEPTA had a horrifyingly bad relationship. It seemed like they thought their job was just to poke each other in the eye. If you read some of the newspaper clippings from pre-2008, they were just at war constantly.

Why do you think they were like that?

I think it was because SEPTA had for whatever reason really been viewed as having such a suburban-based core, that it didn’t care about the city, that its focus was the suburbs. The city only had two seats on the board and almost all the ridership. There were these ridiculous sort of fights that went on for no real good reason. And so I think the improvement of the city’s relationship with SEPTA was huge, and I think from a culture change they have changed so much during the last decade that it’s actually extraordinary for me to have watched and been part of it. I think the city and PennDOT also had a contentious relationship for a variety of reasons. Having come out of PennDOT I could sort of manage those relationships and personalities.

What did it take for city and state politicians to care about non-car transportation?

I think it was a foreign concept to everyone, so I don’t know if I want to call out just politicians. I think it was a foreign concept to most of the press. I think it was a foreign concept to most of the public. There was no sort of active conversations going on about why mobility and safety were so important. How you frame the discussion matters so much. If you frame it as back then this handful of people in spandex riding bicycles you’re going to get a tremendous amount of blowback. If you frame it as an agenda that talks about getting folks home safely at the end of the day, people hear it in a different way. So I think we were very cautious about how we framed the message.

There’s this group in both categories that will never change their opinion. They yearn for the good old days that probably weren’t good old days. The road network was essentially built to move people out of the city. There wasn’t a notion that people would want to stay in the city or live in the city. Both the press and politicians are going to pay attention when you’ve reached some version of critical mass. And I think we’ve reached that critical mass.

If money wasn’t an issue and you could emphasize any mode of transportation, from bikes to the airport to cars to public transit, what’s the most pressing need to make Philadelphia better?

For me at the moment it really is high speed rail, which is why we’re sitting in my new home. (It’s) a complete game changer for major cities in the entire corridor. If I could snap my fingers for one transportation wish it would be that Congress and the public embraced the notion that the benefits of high speed rail in the Northeast Corridor could be extraordinary.

What would Philadelphia need to do and what would it get out of high speed rail?

Philadelphia in some ways is the best placed city in the Northeast corridor in terms of what it will get out of it because it will make the commute to both New York and Washington simple and quick. People would choose to live and work and play in Philly. New York is already completely overpriced in the housing market. You’re already start to see people who commute on Amtrak to New York on a regular basis, which is pretty interesting. DC, also very expensive in the housing market. Not being one of those two major pieces, government and Wall Street, Philly is still affordable and a great big city that is not Washington and New York. I believe it has the most to gain from high speed rail in the corridor.

How fast would you be able to get to Washington and New York, because the fastest now is an hour or so for New York?

I think it just takes about an hour and 45 minutes to DC and just over an hour, an hour and 15 minutes to New York (NOTE: The times can vary slightly, via Amtrak’s Acela trains). This would make the New York trip, the high speed rail — I believe it would bring it down to 35 minutes to New York and an hour and 10 to DC. That makes our commutes like what we do now.

It would be like Bryn Mawr to Center City or something.

You would then have the ability to pretty much live anywhere you want. And so I do think both from the jobs perspective, from the mobility perspective, from the increased numbers of people working here for the city tax benefits – I think Philly is in ground zero for most benefits for high speed rail.

Something like this would take how long to develop?

Decades. There is a study currently underway by the Northeast Corridor Commission. It’s not simple. It’s very expensive. It will require right of way that currently has other uses on them, whether they are commercial or residential. It requires trying to figure out how to manage the freight railroads. I don’t know that they could operate on the same corridor and get to real high speed rail. I’ve had the amazing experience of going to Japan and riding high speed rail, and it opens your eyes to what the possibilities are in a way that nothing else did for me.

Are the media, politicians, public in the stage for high speed rail where they were for biking 10 years ago?

I do think there is an education and awareness to be had. The downside is partisan politics in Congress is so much worse than it was 10, 20 years ago. These days you couldn’t build an interstate system across the country. When I was coming up in the business, transportation was the most non-partisan of issues. This notion that people want to have the kind of mobility that Americans want to have but don’t have to pay for it somehow i don’t know how we got to that place in America.

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