Secretary Pete Buttigieg on the future of transportation

Pete Buttigieg was not an obvious choice for secretary of transportation.

As mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he oversaw a public transportation system with an annual ridership of about 2.5 million. As a 2020 presidential candidate, he rose to fame as one of the youngest and the first openly gay candidate to run for the highest office. But he wasn’t the first pick for many of the most transportation-minded voters.

After President Joe Biden’s victory, Buttigieg’s name was mentioned for a number of cabinet positions, including Veterans Affairs, United Nations ambassador, or ambassador to China. But in the end, Biden picked him to run the Department of Transportation.

It would turn out to be a prescient choice. It sent the signal that Biden clearly wanted to leverage Buttigieg’s political celebrity to advocate for his $2 trillion plan to shore up the nation’s infrastructure and create millions of jobs. So far, Buttigieg has been an eager player, sitting for dozens of interviews, holding public events, beating the bully pulpit on the need for a massive overhaul of transportation infrastructure, and even participating in a few cringe-worthy attempts at going viral.

Sec. Buttigieg sat down with The Verge’s senior transportation reporter Andrew J. Hawkins to discuss the most important elements of the plan.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

I’ve spoken to a lot of experts over the years about infrastructure, and they always tell me that the goal should be to “future-proof” infrastructure against the possibility of disruptive change. And so I just wanted to start by asking you: in what sense do you feel that the president’s jobs plan future-proofs our infrastructure? What elements do you think are sort of the most forward-thinking?

Yeah, that’s a big part of it. I mean, that’s one of the reasons you see $50 billion committed to the idea of resilience. When we fix things, let’s fix them right, not just redo the status quo. And let’s be ready for a future where the right answer is going to look a little different than it did in the past, especially in a changing climate.

Of course, future-proofing also means accounting for the fact that a lot of our means of getting around are going to evolve and change over time. We’re trying to focus on things like transit-oriented development, active transportation, different kinds of mobility — things that are going to make sense even as we have a shifting future and shifting patterns of life, as the pandemic showed us in an accelerated fashion. Then, of course, you have the investments in electric vehicles, preparing for the electric vehicle future by deploying a charging network of half a million chargers around the country, creating the kind of rebates or tax incentives that are going to be needed to make sure that electric cars are not a luxury item.

And really recognizing that has to go hand-in-hand with improvements to our energy grid and our energy generation in general, so that we can capture the benefit of that. And those are just some of the things that are in this. I would also point to the R&D dimension. It’s not getting as much attention. But the idea of creating real research assets above and beyond what we’ve had in the past on everything from stuff people could imagine off the top of their heads like, you know, new transportation technologies, to some really unsexy, incredibly important stuff like pavement, where you have a lot of promising forms of concrete that could be carbon negative, permeable pavements that help with stormwater issues. There’s so much that we’re just beginning to discover in terms of things as basic and unnoticed as the surfaces that we walk and drive on.

The top-line figure is $2 trillion. I’ve heard some folks on the Republican side say, “That’s too much. It’s going to riddle the country with debt.” But I’ve heard a lot more credible folks say, “It’s not enough.” I’m wondering if you think that this is actually a number that could go higher as this bill winds its way through Congress?

Let’s remember that this represents the largest investment in American jobs since World War II. And this is not a minor proposal. This is designed to sit on top of what already happened in terms of surface transportation reauthorization. Not all of America’s spending on infrastructure for the future is going to be federal spending, right? This is part of a bigger picture where we continue to see work happening at the local and state level. And to the extent that we can support the mobilization of private capital to where we know it’s not going to happen without good federal leadership. This is a major, major investment in setting America on the right path for the years ahead.

So the administration came out with a very ambitious goal about halving the amount of carbon emissions by the year 2030. Transportation is a huge driver of carbon emissions. You’ve spoken about electrification, but what are some of the other elements of the plan that would help get the carbon out of transportation? It seems like it’s just going to be an enormous challenge.

Yeah, I mean, this is a huge issue for every country, certainly for ours. When I’m talking to counterparts about climate and transportation around the world, we see how these things go together. And in the US, the transportation sector is the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gases. I’m enthusiastic about the implications of that — meaning we are the potentially biggest source of solutions as well.

We talked about electrification, but a lot of it is also mode shifting the way people get around. If you’re going to be in a vehicle, we want that vehicle to be low and zero emissions. But we also need to create some alternatives so that you don’t have to drag two tons of metal with you everywhere you go. That’s why we’re making sure that we improve our support for transit. This plan doubles funding for transit at a federal level. It’s why things like that matter — things like rail, rail for passengers obviously, a great alternative, especially on short and medium routes, to more carbon-intensive ways of getting around.

But [it’s] also making sure we support the movement of freight on waterways and rails where that’s the most carbon-efficient solution for cargo. All of these things have to fit together. It’s an incredibly networked and layered set of solutions. Because the reality is we can’t just rely on a paradigm from 100 years ago about how we move around. And then you look further into the future, ways to decarbonize the maritime and aviation sectors, including sustainable aviation fuels. You know, there’s a lot of good technology out now that exists, but they’re nowhere near the scale that’s going to make it possible to drive the cost down and to get the most benefit.

Climate change is such an existential threat to our way of life. It’s hard to wrap our heads around the idea that, in the future, [we] won’t be driving or taking planes as much. Is that something you feel needs a psychological shift in the American public? How’s that going to look do you think?

I think it’s about balance. It’s about making sure that people can get to where they need to be, but maybe in different ways. I mean, even over time, thinking about commuting distances when we design cities and design housing in the first place. So yeah, it’s not just taking the manner and length of trips that we have today, assuming it’ll be the same way forever, and trying to make it more environmentally friendly. It’s also about imagining the kind of trips that we have to take now and making them more manageable, shorter, or sometimes making them obsolete. But look, people and goods will always need to move around the communities, the country, and the world. So we have a responsibility to make sure that every mode of getting around is cleaner than it used to be.

You mentioned transit. Transit was facing a lot of really stark challenges, even before the pandemic happened. I’m wondering what you think transit needs in order to not only expand and become as convenient and reliable as we’d like it to be, but also as safe in order to encourage those people who do use transit to come back and continue to use it? And with the pandemic having an effect on the way we work and where we work, how is that going to make things even more challenging?

We know that commuting patterns are going to change after the pandemic. And I think only time will tell exactly how we need to become a country in a society where transit is a means of choice for getting around. I heard somebody pose the question of what real development looks like. Is it where every low-income person has a car? Or is it wherever the high-income person would prefer to take the subway or the bus? We want to make sure that you can get around and choose to get around in ways that are more efficient, not just in terms of pollution, but also in terms of congestion. And transit, obviously, is a big part of that.

Transit is also changing, right? We’re getting smarter about it. You look at the variety of options that are emerging, in addition to what we’re used to, with subways and buses and light rail. We have [bus rapid transit] becoming more and more prevalent in some communities. Any time you can get the majority of the benefit for a fraction of the cost, we’ve got to look into those possibilities, too. And of course, you have micromobility, which we don’t necessarily think of as transit, but active transportation, that kind of overlaps between active transportation and whatever we decide to call things like scooters and e-bikes. All of these things, I think, hold a ton of potential for breaking us out of the old paradigm of how you get around.

Pete Buttigieg, United States secretary of transportation, photographed at The Department of Transportation headquarters in Washington, D.C.,

We’ll get to micromobility in a second, but really quick first, I wanted to ask you about Vision Zero. It’s something that has become very popular in some cities around the country. Would you support a national Vision Zero goal? No traffic or road deaths by, say, 2050?

I certainly believe in national support for that concept of zero fatalities. I think the most promising way to get there is to build up from the community level. It sounds to some people like pie in the sky, except you see communities that are actually doing this or making incredible progress. Recently, Oslo, [Norway], I think, had a year with zero vehicle deaths and almost zero pedestrian deaths. I’ve got to double-check the numbers there. But if communities can do it at the community level, that gives us tools to build into a national picture. As a former mayor, it won’t surprise you that one of my favorite tools to deploy is federal support for local action because I don’t believe we’re going to cook up all of the solutions here in Washington. But we’ve got to support the people at the local level and then cross-pollinate them when somebody hits on something good.

I want to ask you kind of a weird question, and I don’t know how you’re going to respond to this. But we saw last year during the election how cars, and especially large trucks and SUVs, would showcase in our larger political and cultural conflicts that we were having in this country, with certain people using vehicular intimidation against their political opponents.

EVs are often dismissed out of hand by people who prefer large emissions-belching vehicles. And there’s an academic who calls this phenomenon “petro-masculinity.” I was wondering if you have any thoughts on whether we can reverse this trend of vehicular intimidation and petro-masculinity and what the federal government can do about that?

That’s actually a new word for me. Look, for Americans, cars have always been more than a means to an end. And that’s okay. I mean, they have cultural significance. They have emotional significance. And we don’t have to do away with that. But it does have to evolve. And I think we can get to a place where we take a lot of pride in the evolution of our cars, especially when you look at where EVs are now. I think some people picture EVs, and they think of small cars for getting around urban neighborhoods. And that’s one kind of EV.

But so much of the stuff coming out of Detroit, as well as newer companies, in terms of the kinds of trucks and SUVs that they’re developing on an electric basis, are also really remarkable. And I think they still speak to that itch that I don’t think of as uniquely masculine, but perhaps is particularly American, of wanting to get out there in a muscular way on the open road and have these vehicles perform. But you know, again, I don’t think it has to be locked into the old way. I mean, I think there was probably a time when a man’s relationship with his horse had more cultural signature and social significance than it does today. But it doesn’t mean that we’ve abandoned the special understanding about the way people and horses relate. We just don’t depend on them as a way to get around the way we used to, which is probably better for the horses as well as people.

The jobs plan wants to incentivize manufacturers to make it easier to transition to electrification. Some countries around the world have actually gone so far as to say we want to phase out gas-powered cars at a certain date, and some states have said that as well, California most notably. Do you see a need at the national level to say we need to phase out the production and selling of gas-powered cars by a certain date?

That’s not our approach federally, but I will say it’s remarkable seeing how industry is already headed that way. A lot of them are talking about all-EV fleet goals by very specific dates. But the other thing I want to point out is, no matter how good we are at EV adoption, no matter how quickly we get there, there are going to be a lot of internal combustion engines on the road for a long time. It’s one of the reasons why we can’t back off on having rigorous and ambitious tailpipe emission standards. In addition to driving EV adoption, it’s really got to be both.

Your department has decided to withdraw the rule that would have prevented California from being able to set its own tailpipe emissions. Do you see a need to also address what the prior administration did with regard to the rollback of the Obama-era CAFE standards on emissions?

We’re actively looking at that, bearing in mind the legal language around “maximum feasible.” CAFE standards have a remarkable track record of inducing industry to do more than they might themselves [have] thought possible and gaining a business perspective as well as a climate perspective. So [President Biden’s] executive order was clear in challenging us to quickly act, not only on the so-called Safe-1 rule, which is where we saw the notice go out, having to do with preemption, but also Safe-2, which takes a look at the Trump administration’s actions to try to dismantle that level of ambition. And that’s something that we’ll be continuing to evaluate going into the summer.

There is a bill that’s been introduced in the House that would offer a rebate for people who purchase electric bikes. You mentioned micromobility as a component of the solution of getting more people out of their cars. Your administration supports rebates and tax incentives for electric vehicles. Would you also support rebates and incentives for other types of electric vehicles, smaller ones that are less onerous on the environment?

Well, I haven’t seen the specifics of this legislation. But we definitely want to do everything we can to encourage the adoption of bike commuting by more Americans. And that has to do a lot of things. Part of it may be the economics of it. A lot of it is just the ease of getting around and making sure we’re encouraging cities to take on complete streets approaches and safe bike lanes. The other thing we’ve noticed is that there’s data suggesting that you really hit a tipping point, a good tipping point, once you get to a certain level of bike commuting, in terms of safety, because cars learn to expect bikes in a way that, frankly, they still don’t in most US cities. And so all of these things are taken together. Yes, the economics but also the convenience and certainly the safety are what we have to do in order to design for a world where we get not just the climate benefits but the congestion benefits and, frankly, the public health benefits of more people getting around on two wheels.

How’s it been biking around Washington lately?

You know, it’s pretty good. I’m trying to mystery shop the bike infrastructure around here. And I’ll say it’s impressive what the city has done. But you can tell it’s grafted onto a street system that wasn’t originally designed with this in mind, which is fine. I mean, you know, some of the older streets around here probably weren’t designed with cars in mind. It takes work and, you know, whether you’re talking about protected bike lanes or environments where you can safely share the road, when I’m commuting into the DOT here — which I don’t claim to do every day, but I do some days — on a bike, it’s good. But it needs more support from the federal level. And I think that’s true of cities large and small.

Speaking to the way that our cities are designed, in the first half of the 20th century, the highway system created physical barriers between mostly Black and minority communities. It was destructive, and it showed how transportation can be a civil rights and social justice issue. How do you adopt policies that help address some of those issues?

So to me, this is one of the most important things in the jobs plan. And we’re already writing it into things like our approach on discretionary grants here in the department. We made sure that the INFRA grants that went out earlier this year and the RAISE grants, formerly known as TIGER, reflect this as well. Precisely because we know it’s often been with federal dollars in federal policies that a lot of communities were destroyed or divided with the transportation infrastructure like highways, but we have a chance to put this right, and when we do, we think everybody benefits.

Sometimes that might mean removing a structure that caused harm. Sometimes it might mean bridging over and under it. The important thing is to connect where there has been division and to invest where there has been neglect. And that’s important, not just in terms of the kinds of neighborhoods and communities that get the infrastructure delivered to them, but also who gets to do the work. And that’s a real pressing issue that doesn’t get enough attention: getting more diverse participation in skilled trades and union labor and getting more diverse ownership of the businesses that get a shot at the billions and billions of dollars of infrastructure spending that is procured through government dollars in this country. That’s a big lift, but we’ve got to take it seriously so that our choices can actually enhance equity and not [contribute] to the problem, as has happened so often in the past.

We also just need to talk about it, and we need to face up to this, not in the spirit of guilt but in the spirit of problem-solving. I made some comments about this a few weeks ago, and certain pockets of the internet erupted. I was surprised they were surprised, but it revealed that there’s actually a lot of work we’ve got to do just to educate ourselves about this.

Yeah, be careful about those pockets of the internet. One last question, and I’ll let you go. Thank you so much for your time. The previous two administrations took a very hands-off approach to the development and regulation of autonomous vehicles. Do you expect this administration to follow suit?

I think that we need to have policy catch up to the technology. You know, it feels like a bit of a moving target. I have noticed that the widespread adoption of driverless cars has been exactly seven years away for roughly 10 years. But we are now at a level in terms of the technologies that are out there that we’ve got to be managing the safety implications of it. Not only because it’s so important, obviously, that these be safe. But also, frankly, because the industry is going to need some certainty in order to be able to continue development.

And look, automated vehicles hold out a lot of promise for seniors and Americans with disabilities. And you know, there are implications all the way down to the land use possibilities in a country that doesn’t need as much surface parking. But we’re still a ways away from that. And we want to make sure we get there responsibly, equitably, and safely. And that does, I think, mean that we need to lean in further, using our existing authorities, but also updating them — which, of course, is going to mean working with Congress.

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