City of Sacramento Gets a New Active Transportation Planner

Jennifer Donlon Wyant, Sacramento's new Active Transportation Program Specialist, in her signature polka-dot helmet. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog
Jennifer Donlon Wyant, Sacramento’s new Active Transportation Program Specialist, in her signature polka-dot helmet. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

After two national searches, Sacramento recently hired Jennifer Donlon Wyant, formerly of Alta Planning, as its Active Transportation Program Specialist within the Department of Public Works. She is one of only two transportation planners in the department.

The new hire comes just as Sacramento has elected a new mayor (Former Senate leader Darrell Steinberg), its long-time city manager prepares to leave, and Sacramento Regional Transit hired a new general manager.
This is all happening at the same time that at least four new major downtown development projects are about to get off the ground: the Kings Arena is nearing completion and plans for the old Amtrak railyards have just been released.

“Jennifer’s experience and knowledge will move the city forward a decade in one jump,” said Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates (SABA) executive director Jim Brown.

The potential for Sacramento to become a great walking and biking city is huge, says Brown. “There are no hills. We have a good climate. We have terrific raw material,” he says. And, he added, “there is also tremendous need.” Without anyone managing the bike plan update or other bike needs, there has been little momentum to connect the network or improve safety.

But things are changing. In the midtown area, there is a growing number of people who bike to work and shop. Downtown developers “want the ‘big city stuff’ that drives walking and biking,” says Brown. Pressure also comes from across the river, where the City of West Sacramento is “way ahead,” according to Brown. “That city has set a high bar.” At the recent Caltrans director’s bike ride for May Is Bike Month, West Sacramento showed off its already-installed future street car stop—the street car isn’t even running yet—that includes a bike lane behind the passenger loading platform.

The new Kings Arena, opening in downtown this fall, will have huge traffic impacts that haven’t been addressed yet, and of yet the arena has no provisions for bike parking nor plans for how bikes and pedestrians will arrive.

In addition, bike-share is set to launch in downtown next year, and the city’s bike plan is currently being redrafted after its first public outreach effort. That plan is due to be released some time this summer.

In the midst of all this, the city hired Donlon Wyant as its new Active Transportation Planner to oversee bike and pedestrian-specific projects and to make sure bicyclists and pedestrians are considered in development plans. She comes to the city with eight years of planning experience at Alta Planning, the firm that oversaw many of the first bike-share systems in the country, and has been involved in bike planning and other projects throughout the state.

Streetsblog caught up with her on a recent warm day to talk about what’s coming up for Sacramento and how she sees her role. She’d only been on the job for a few weeks, so, she says, “I’m still learning!”

Her first project, she says, will be overseeing the city’s Vision Zero plan, which was approved by her department and the city council. “We will be starting from scratch,” she says. “Walk Sacramento and SABA have been working with the city on this, and city council has been very supportive. We haven’t figured out how it’ll work yet, but the first thing I’m going to do is review how other places rolled it out, and figure out what makes sense for Sacramento.” She also plans to work closely with the police department, because, she says, “obviously enforcement is going to be component of it.”

“Another thing moving forward in Sacramento,” she said, “is bike-share. I’ll be heading that for Sacramento. We have funding, and the study was done a while ago, so now we’re just moving into the implementation stage.”

Bike-share will roll out regionally in Sacramento, West Sacramento, and Davis next year. The city has not yet chosen a vendor—the proposals are being reviewed—and, as a former employee of Alta, Donlon Wyant has recused herself from that process. But as soon as the decision is made, she will help lead the planning for the program within the city.

Besides these efforts, she says, her goals as the new Active Transportation Planner are: finding funding for bike and pedestrian projects, finding ways to take advantage of current projects to include good bike facilities, making sure new developments work well for bicyclists and walkers, keeping a focus on safety, and adding more bike parking.

“I love bike parking,” she said, “It’s a really important part of our network that we don’t appreciate enough.” She glanced across the street at a bike that was feebly attached to a bike rack. “And,” she added, “I can see we also need education, because that’s not how you use a U-rack.”

She says that for the most part bike parking in downtown is pretty good, evidenced by the ease with which we both found parking at a bike corral right in front of our meeting spot. But it’s more of a challenge in the suburban parts of the city, where shopping areas are surrounded by seas of car parking. “We’re not going to install parking on a private right of way,” she said. “There are liability issues, and then there’s a question of transferring money—it’s like gifting a developer money. Getting bike parking spaces is going to take more creativity, but that goes for any suburban type city, it’s not unique to Sacramento.”

There is a lot of opportunity to get things right, maybe especially in some of the outlying areas. The city is still building new subdivisions and Donlon Wyant sees those projects as opportunities. “The goal is to make sure new developments are accessible by everyone,” she said. “Sacramento has a complete streets policy and everyone is really behind it; I don’t think we’re going to see any more of the really poorly planned projects we’ve seen in the past.”

“We want people to live closer to other development than the far-flung places on the periphery,” she said. “And we still have plenty of unbuilt lands, even within the core.” She described a new subdivision that is going in where an old hospital is being torn down. When it’s finished, it will “basically be a new subdivision, with dense housing and great bicycle and pedestrian circulation.”

“The city has already been planning for bicycles and pedestrians, and my job is to not only help them continue doing it, but also to provide technical information to make sure that it works well.”

Donlon Wyant is also very aware of the need to address equity. She talked about the variety of bicyclist “types” and the importance of reaching out to them to find out what they need. “Sacramento has a very diverse community that bikes,” she said, including “a big, recreational, lycra-wearing community that has been vocal over the last twenty years. I think a lot of investment has been made for that group. That’s great, but I also want to make sure we take an equitable approach and hear from all the people who ride.”

“The north and the south parts of the city are a little bit more diverse,” she said, “and they’re not the folks who would typically come to workshops for a bike plan—but they are riding. And they’re riding on streets that were built later, where it’s not as bike-friendly as downtown or midtown, where you have six-lane arterials. That’s a lot harder.”

Donlon Wyant said that “appropriate and engaged outreach” to disadvantaged communities was a significant focus for the bike plan update, with a focus on equity. “I’m confident that when we [see the final plan], there will be an equitable distribution not only of projects but also in prioritizing when they get implemented.”

As a consultant, she frequently conducted outreach for cities that didn’t have the staff or the capacity to do so. “I found that what you need to do is go to them,” she said, “instead of expecting them to come to you. If you hold a workshop in downtown, you’re only going to get the same ten people that you would at any meeting. Instead, you have to figure out where there are community events to tag onto and show up in the communities you are trying to reach.”

Projects she’s looking forward to working on include the Broadway Complete Streets plan, which was recently finished. “The next step is finding funding for the road diet and pedestrian improvements,” she said. Also, the city received ATP funding for protected bike lanes on 12th Street north of downtown, a project that she says “is moving along.”

Donlon Wyant says she is “excited about the opportunity to work for my home city and actually get things done. I’m a getter-doner type of person—is that a word?” she said. “I don’t like lollygagging, I don’t like things sitting on the shelf.” She picked up her ice tea and rattled the ice in the glass. “I drink four cups of coffee a day, and I like ice tea. I like to get things done.”

“There’s so much opportunity here,” she added, “that we haven’t even taken advantage of yet.”

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