GLASGOW, Scotland — Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg told Yahoo News that systemic racism in the design and location of highways in American cities and suburbs continues to adversely affect low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Responding to criticism from conservatives, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, regarding comments he made on Monday, Buttigieg said in a Tuesday interview that racism and segregation in road building are not ancient history or a figment of liberals’ imagination, as some on the right contend.
“There are many well-documented examples of this happening, from the ’20s and ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and sometimes we have to be on the lookout for issues that are happening in our time,” he said. “But for me, the issue is not: In what year did somebody create this problem? The issue is: Is that problem affecting people today in 2021?”
The back-and-forth with conservatives started Monday afternoon when Buttigieg said during a White House press briefing, “If a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a white and a Black neighborhood, or if an underpass was constructed such that a bus carrying mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach — or it would have been — in New York, was designed too low for it to pass by, that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices.”
The tendency to build highways in neighborhoods with lower incomes or higher proportions of people of color, sometimes acting as de facto racial boundaries, is well established and it is one reason that pollution and illnesses such as asthma are more prevalent in those areas.
The specific example Buttigieg referred to, about underpasses that were too low for buses, comes from the parkways in the Long Island suburbs of New York City. The low underpass design was ordered by government official Robert Moses with the specific intent of keeping out buses bringing low-income city residents to Jones Beach, according to “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s legendary biography of Moses.
Some conservative pundits and politicians, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, reacted with incredulity to Buttigieg’s comments.
“Is this guy serious? This is what happens when ignorance of facts joins with phony enthusiasm,” Huckabee tweeted.
“The roads are racist. We must get rid of roads,” Cruz jabbed at Buttigieg in his own tweet.
At first glance, it appeared that Buttigieg’s critics were either ignorant of the relevant history or pretending to be. However, when it was pointed out to them online that Buttigieg wasn't imagining a bizarre hypothetical but telling a true story, some responded that it was irrelevant because the underpasses were built in 92 years ago, in 1929.
After arriving in Glasgow on Tuesday for the U.N. Climate Change Conference, Buttigieg was interviewed by Yahoo News and asked about that critique.
“If people in 2021 are suffering from a discriminatory policy funded by the federal government, then we have a responsibility to fix it,” he said. “And I remain kind of surprised that this is controversial. I don’t know who it hurts to acknowledge that harm was done and to propose doing something to fix it.”
Buttigieg was also recently attacked by conservatives including Fox News’ Tucker Carlson for taking four weeks of parental leave to care for the twins he and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, just adopted. His son, Gus, was hospitalized last week, but he told Yahoo News that he is now doing well.
“We have twins at home, they turned our lives upside down, had a real rough patch in the hospital, especially with our son, but I’m pleased to say he’s much, much better,” Buttigieg said. “He’s at home, bounced back pretty much fully. So we’re relieved and just experiencing that mix of joy and terror that I’m told is parenting all the way through.”
Taking several months of paid parental leave is covered by many governments in the developed world. President Biden has proposed to mandate paid parental leave availability for U.S. employers, but it, like most of Biden’s agenda, is at risk of being removed from the budget bill, known as Build Back Better, due to unified Republican opposition and the objections of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
“I remain hopeful we’ll catch up to the rest of the world on this,” Buttigieg told Yahoo News.
Buttigieg said the Transportation Department will announce new policies on Wednesday to reduce the carbon footprint of shipping and aviation.
“Everybody gets how an electric car works; it’s not as clear how you get carbon out of the aviation sector,” he said. “That’s why we need to make sure we’re driving research not just in alternative forms of propulsion, whether it’s electric, hydrogen, that can move us out of the fossil fuel era in the long run, but also in the nearer term, what’s called ‘sustainable aviation fuels.’ These are jet fuels that you can put in an airplane today, that’s used to taking normal jet fuel, but has been produced in a different way and has dramatically lower life-cycle emissions. So we’re going to be recommitting to the development and growth of what are called SAF, sustainable aviation fuels, and it’s an example of something that is going to be much more effective if we do it with international partners.”
Sustainable aviation fuels are made from sources such as cooking oil and food waste. On the electric airplane front, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee boasted during an event in Glasgow on Tuesday that fully electric planes are now being built in his home state.
Buttigieg’s arrival in Glasgow comes on the heels of his being handed significant funding for rail, mass transit and roads in the infrastructure bill just passed by Congress.
Some environmentalists worry that spending more money on building new roads will undermine the Biden administration’s climate change mitigation goals. But Buttigieg said the road funding will be used to help pedestrians and cyclists, not just drivers.
“Part of what we need to do is give people better options, so that you don’t have to bring two tons of metal along with you anytime you cross town,” Buttigieg said.
“That means having excellent public transit, which we know is behind in our country,” he continued. “It means making sure that there are safe and good options for active transportation, making it easier to walk and bike to get around too. So much of that depends on design. One thing I noticed living in different communities in the U.S. is, the exact same distance where in one city it would never occur to you to drive, in another city it would never occur to you to walk. And a lot of that has to do with safety, which is why the safety investments in this bill, ... I believe, are safety and climate investments.”
But, he added, Americans will always have cars too, and that’s why the infrastructure bill included funds for electric vehicle charging stations, while the Build Back Better bill would deliver significant subsidies for buying electric cars.
If Buttigieg succeeds at expanding electric vehicle deployment and making roads safer for different kinds of users, he will definitely cut into U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, of which transportation currently accounts for 29 percent, the largest share of any sector of the economy. “Every transportation decision is a climate decision,” Buttigieg said.
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