Philadelphia's Director of Complete Streets Kelley Yemen

Kelley Yemen hasn’t even moved out of Minnesota yet, but she’s already heard all about Roosevelt Boulevard. From multiple people.

The city’s new and first director of Complete Streets was recently appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney to serve as the interdepartmental head of programs and initiatives that impact transportation safety. She’s leaving her current position as Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator for Hennepin County, Minnesota, the county home to Minneapolis — a city that’s often been called one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country.

We chatted with Yemen about her success in Minnesota, her priorities in Philly and what drew her to the city in the first place. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for brevity and clarity:

You’re coming from Minnesota via New York. Can you tell us a bit more about your background in urban planning?

I’m originally from Minnesota and the current bike and pedestrian coordinator for Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis and actually 44 other cities. It’s a pretty big county. So I’ve been here two and a half years, and before that I worked for NYC DOT as a planner and worked in the pedestrian group doing pedestrian-oriented quick changes to the roads to improve safety, provide seating plazas, those kinds of programs. And I also worked for a small consulting firm just outside Princeton, New Jersey after I graduated from Rutgers.

How did you balance that large of a county, including Minneapolis?

Hennepin County is from city to suburbs to literally farm fields. And we have a Complete Streets policy. How do you do Complete Streets in a suburban setting and a rural setting and an urban setting? We were really working with each individual community and then bringing those communities together so they can learn from each other. There are things our suburbs are doing that challenge what Minneapolis can do… you’re creating that kind of collaboration between the cities. And that’s definitely part of my role: to look at the wider view of how are we all creating a network together.

I’ve heard good things about Minneapolis and cycling. The city routinely makes lists for being one of the most bike-able in the world. What makes it so special?

Some of it is they’ve been working on it for decades. Some of it is old railroads they’ve been able to grab… and it provides a background and the backbone of the bike network. Minneapolis received a large federal grant to invest in an on-street network. It’s something that builds on each other as you build up a network and really start connecting things. Nice Ride was also the first bike share in the country.

What does ‘Complete Streets’ mean to you?

It’s a way you approach the road and any given project. When you’re looking at the networks, it’s like “how are you balancing all the competing uses?” Between walking and biking and driving, freight, transit and looking at the needs of all those users. Sometimes it’s going to be for people walking or more oriented toward cars but that doesn’t mean the rest of them fall away. How do you potentially give priority to everyone to have a safe journey? By refocusing on: If everybody is safe, then we’re doing our job well.

So it’s about more than bike lanes?

A speeding vehicle doesn’t just hurt a bicyclist. These are behaviors that affect everyone. And most of the car crashes are harming, seriously injuring or killing other drivers or car passengers. And it’s really about safety of all road users and then targeting whether it’s designs, behaviors, or enforcement needs. We’re really getting down into what do we need to focus on, what are our target areas and going after those.

What was it that drew you to Philly?

I lived in Philadelphia when I was in consulting after grad school, and I just fell in love with it. My husband went to grad school in Philadelphia, and we just both are in love with the city. And the chance to work on such interesting and complex urban infrastructure, I was like “I want to be a part of that.”

What are some of the challenges associated with that complex — and sometimes pretty old — infrastructure?

Aging infrastructure is a challenge everywhere. Then there’s the narrowness and the right-of-ways. We’re going to have to bring a new level of creativity and flexibility for everyone in the city. What do we want our streets to be, and how do we serve a growing population for a city that I think is about to take off or is taking off? If we’re going to face the influx of growth, how do we handle that on the streets that we have? Change is hard, but I think we’re not going to be able to look at other American cities that have 100-foot right of ways everywhere. We’re going to have to look at Europe and cities that have similar narrow right of ways. How do they solve these problems?

I was traveling in the Netherlands, and we were like “what is it about Amsterdam that we like so much?” My husband said: “It feels just like Philly.” We need to be looking at truly analogous cities rather than comparing to New York or other cities.

New infrastructure could be great, but what about street-level upkeep of what we already have? New bike lanes could be great for cyclists, but they don’t do much if they’re not used because of potholes.

It’s a real balance, because you want to keep growing the network. You’re not going to see additional growth. At the same time, if you’re not keeping it up, nobody is going to ride on it. If you can’t navigate the sidewalks, nobody is going to walk on them.

These are the kinds of things that it’s going to be a continual balancing act. Budgets are never big enough, anywhere. I think it’s going to be working with the maintenance department and L&I and anybody else who’s touching the roads. Really evaluating and working collaboratively between those departments and where we can find new ways… to take advantage. As far as targeting new areas, do we need to reinvent how the systems are set up to do maintenance?

I’m not sure if you’ve had much time to research what you might want to accomplish in Philly. But any expected focal points?

Well, I keep hearing about Roosevelt Boulevard. Other than that, I think I will wait until I get started and may be able to take a closer look at what’s going on.

Sounds like this position will require you to juggle lots of departments. Do you have much experience in that?

The department I’m in in Hennepin County was  created to do a very similar thing. To communicate across departments… I think the key thing is finding your key contacts within every department that you can bring together.

Anything else you want to make sure people here in Philly know?

I’m really excited to have this opportunity to come and work in Philadelphia, and I know — I think — everybody in Philadelphia knows the problems. But it’s important to remember the assets the city has. It’s a really great city. We’ll definitely be talking about problems and crash histories. But there are assets that I think a lot of other cities are jealous of.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.