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New Secretary of Transportation - Hopeful or There's More Work Ahead?

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

With a new administration, there is most certainly a "changing of the guard" at every cabinet position, so everyone was expecting a change for the Secretary of Transportation.

On December 15, 2020, US President-elect, Joe Biden, announced his nomination for Secretary of Transportation: former mayor of South Bend, Indiana and former Democratic presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg.

When did transportation get political?

Like any position at that level, politics are an important factor. Some appointments also require strong qualifications in the field, but not every position does. Those following closely the 2020 elections have expected that former Mayor Pete would get a cabinet position after dropping from the Presidential race and joining the Biden-Harris campaign. Just days before this announcement he was considered for the Ambassador to China position. However, not many expected mayor Pete to be appointed for Transportation.

Why do we care who gets nominated as Secretary of Transportation?

The US Department of Transportation's mission is "To ensure America has the safest, most efficient and modern transportation system in the world, which boosts our economic productivity and global competitiveness and enhances the quality of life in communities both rural and urban." It's the department that oversees national transportation policies, budget, strategic plans, etc. One may think that small, local battles are with the local planners and elected officials, but many policies that they must follow are created at the national level. Plus, bigger grants and improvement projects come from the federal budget. So any high level update can trickle down and affect changes at the local level.

Are we excited of the appointment?

The announcement (instagram-size curriculum vitae, above) listed the reasons why the choice was made. So how do advocates feel? Are we upset? Are we excited? Are we hopeful? A little bit of each and neither.

As Jeff Peck, one of notable planners and walkability advocates, said: it could have been anyone, as long as it "embraces transit, micromobility, and walking".

The fact that he used to be a mayor of a small/mid-size city and most likely heard daily hurdles from constituents about transit, safety while walking and biking means he's very likely to continue not just dealing with high-level problems (as his positions requires), but keeping city-level needs in mind. He has said he's assisted "improving city's transportation with public-private partnership."

I often find myself advising public partners to seek financing in the community if they really want projects completed - by getting a partnership with a trusted organization, no need to wait for federal grants or raising local taxes. It's a win-win!

He used the terms "smart streets" and "revitalizing" - that's what every city, town, and municipality wants to hear. Walkability advocates are behind these initiatives because we know foot traffic grows when making spaces accessible for those walking, biking, and taking transit.

So I can say I am both hopeful and that I see a lot of work ahead. If he is committed to genuine community engagement, including BIPOC, people with disabilities and building for the most disadvantaged (and not just the potholes), there will be work from the entire advocacy community to advise and to consult in how policies and budgets should change and assisting in applying them.

What's next?

Waiting for the nominee to get approval from the US Senate and see President-elect Biden's other appointees for important federal positions affecting funding and policies. One important position is Director for the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration. The current Director (and the Agency) received huge backlash in recent months in the aftermath of their pedestrian safety campaign that did not align with advocate's messaging.

Time will tell if Pete Buttigieg is the right person for this position and if his actions will exceed the expectations. I wish him all the best and hope he surrounds himself with as many walkability and mobility advocates as possible, because "building back better" the built-environment will not happen overnight.


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