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CHANGE AGENT: Rina Cutler, Leading the Charge for Change in Transportation

Rina_Cutler

by Victor Greto

There weren’t very many career choices for Rina Cutler when she came of age in Boston more than four decades ago. “It was an interesting place in time to grow up,” says Cutler, 59, who for four years has been Deputy Mayor, Transportation and Utilities, in Philadelphia. It’s only the latest in a nearly 30-year string of high-powered jobs as an executive in transportation and a member of WTS that stretches from Boston to Philadelphia to San Francisco.

Recently she’s received several industry-wide accolades, including American City and County Magazine’s 2011 Public Works Leader of the Year. She also became one of this year’s Conference of Minority Transportation’s “Women Who Move the Nation.”

“Back then, there were only a handful of recognizable career paths, such as teacher, nursing, social work,” Cutler says. “I was not a woman ahead of my time and didn’t have a family history with a mother with a career.”

But her career path shows how Cutler exemplifies not only how times have changed for women in general, but in the crucial roles women may play in transportation. In a sense, she was born into the transportation field. The second of four children, Cutler’s father owned a trucking company. Although her mother stayed at home, that never seemed an option for the self-proclaimed extrovert.

Cutler earned a B.A. in social work at Boston College in 1974. What she learned there helped set her path. “It was the notion that I could make a difference, and in many respects it has trained me very well for the business I’m in,” she says. “There are a lot of different parts in the transportation business, but it’s ultimately about people. It has an impact on everyone on a daily basis.”

She learned over the six years after college that her skills lay most strongly in managing. She finished her social work career as head of the Boston community schools program where she set up the city’s child care programs. “I think it was the best job I ever had,” she says, because it was a combination of managing programs on a shoestring budget and perfecting community outreach.

But it was nothing compared to the challenge of taking over Boston’s transportation department, which then-Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn asked her to do in the mid-1980s. In fact, she thought about turning the job down. “’I love what I do and I want to stay and I don’t know anything about transportation,’” she says she told Flynn. “’But that’s why I want you to go over there,’” Cutler says the mayor replied. “’You’re one of the best managers I have and you know that government affects everyone’s life every day.’”

It became a happy marriage of Cutler’s managerial and people skills. But that didn’t prevent the cold-bath culture shock she felt when first taking the job as Boston’s transportation commissioner. In the mid-1980s, women in transportation primarily meant “meter maids,” Cutler says. “The men there were more shocked than me in some ways when they saw a woman in a position of authority,” she says. “But there were no other women anywhere to be found in my business.”

The field is different now, but not enough so. “The vast majority of people in the field are engineers and in construction, and they drive tow trucks, fix traffic signals, collect parking meters, do traffic signs, and snow removal,” Cutler says. “They do jobs that even now are primarily male.”

The good news, she says, was that she brought a different perspective to the table. Cutler views herself as an agent of change.  “I like the notion of creating change and getting people to follow you, and how your version of leadership creates a culture,” she says.

Cutler blazed a trail as the first director of parking and traffic for San Francisco—a job that she pioneered over three years—and as executive director of the Philadelphia Parking Authority before she took on her current role.

“Women bring a different set of skills to a job, and I think part of it is nature and part of it is nurture,” she says. “Women listen better; we care less about getting the credit than figuring out how to solve the problem; we tend to be more inclusive in terms of trying to get a variety of opinions and let a variety of people have input into the decision-making process.”

That includes the people who have worked for her. She’s always had to listen to those who weren’t happy with either their jobs or the direction of the department, and lead all of them in a constructive direction. “If you’re leading and no one is following you,” she says, repeating one of her favorite maxims, “you’re merely taking a walk.”

She points to that inclusive, bottom-up decision-making process as integral to one of the achievements she’s most proud of.  Philadelphia’s South Street bridge project had been in limbo for nearly two decades before Cutler helped shepherd changes in the design of the bridge. She brought the project in under budget, carefully balancing various stakeholders’ interests—not least of which included the diverse communities joined by the construction of the bridge. “Within eight months we redesigned the bridge within the budget we had, went out to bid, and completed the project ahead of time, actually” she says. “It marked a new direction in the industry: talking to the community and integrating community values and desires.”

Cutler says that one of the first things she does when she moves to a new city is to find the local WTS chapter. The organization helps explain the local politics and state of the local industry. “WTS is coming home.”

One goal that Cutler and WTS share is to encourage young women and girls to think about a field that has been—and in large part remains—traditionally male. “Both the industry itself and government need to figure out how to get people excited about what we do, and reach down to the middle school network and talk about why this is a great career choice for folks,” she says. This includes the WTS Transportation YOU program, which helps foster young women’s involvement in transportation.

“We need to do a lot more outreach and a better job of pushing it, and Transportation YOU exists for that very reason,” Cutler says. “I am pleased that it helps fulfill the mission and goals of WTS. I firmly support it.”

 

 

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