OakDOT Director Ryan Russo resigns, officials begin search for replacement
Oakland Department of Transportation Director Ryan Russo. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland Transportation Department Director Ryan Russo announced his resignation last week but will continue running OakDOT until the summer to give the city ample time to recruit a replacement. The 49-year-old native New Yorker will be returning to the East Coast for “family considerations,” according to City Administrator Ed Reiskin.

Before taking the OakDOT job, Russo worked for New York City as its deputy commissioner for transportation, planning, and management. Under the direction of Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, Russo helped build 70 miles of protected bike lanes on New York City streets, including some heavily used routes such as 9th Avenue. He also helped direct Vision Zero plans to improve traffic safety, and worked to reduce emissions from vehicles by boosting access to transit. 

“Under his leadership, Oakland created a national model for racial equity in road paving, ensuring our most neglected and underrepresented neighborhoods received the infrastructure improvements they deserved,” said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. “I’m thankful for his dedication and service to Oakland, and I look forward to his next chapter as he continues his work to make our cities and public commons safer and more accessible for everyone.”

City Administrator Reiskin notified Oakland officials of the news in an email last Wednesday that lauded Russo’s contributions as Oakland’s first full-time transportation director. 

“He has led and built [the department] through accountability, integrity, innovation, and a strong commitment to equity,” Reiskin wrote.

In an email to The Oaklandside, District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb commended Russo.

“I want to give my thanks and appreciation to Mr. Russo for all his innovation and good work for the people of Oakland,” said Kalb. “I appreciate his and his team’s efforts to put greater focus on pedestrian safety, alternate mobility options, and road repaving.” 

Russo led OakDOT since January 2017, when the city began a safety reassessment of its streets by analyzing police, public health, and transportation survey data. Out of that work came a new strategic focus on reducing collisions by building infrastructure to slow down cars and give people more walking and biking options. 

One of the main changes Russo brought to the city is the prioritization of infrastructure development through safety and equity factors. Under this system, the city prioritizes fixing problems in areas where more collisions occur, and where there are poor transit resources. In the last few years, this has led to the repaving of some of the worst streets in the East Oakland’s flatlands, including Bancroft Avenue, an area of the city populated by low-income residents.

The transportation department has also worked closely with city boards such the Bicyclist and Pedestrian Advisory Commission to expand Oakland’s network of bike-friendly streets, and was instrumental in obtaining new money from competitive state and county grants

But in a city as complicated as Oakland, and needing thousands of street repairs, some of OakDOT’s biggest projects have been the subject of controversy. 

One project, the Telegraph Avenue “road diet,” led to debates between business owners, pedestrians and cyclists, and people who drive cars, about the road’s redesign. While planning of the project originally began before Russo’s tenure, most of the street work began under him in 2017. Central to the project was a protected bike lane with temporary plastic bollards. It was derided by many locals as visual clutter and some believed it was an ineffective collision prevention design. Others, including bicyclists, welcomed the buffer it created between cars and bikes. OakDOT’s outreach to residents affected by the Telegraph redesign was also criticized as inadequate. 

When Russo ended up advocating for the removal of the protected lane in favor of a buffered one, the city council’s decision to keep it was ultimately seen as a win for OakDOT’s plan to expand bike access.

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.