Mayor Pete Buttigieg could be America's next transportation secretary. Here's how he might rethink American infrastructure.

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Mayor Pete campaign bus.JPG
Pete Buttigieg on his presidential campaign bus, September 23, 2019. Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

When President-elect Joseph R. Biden nominated Pete Buttigieg to lead the Department of Transportation this week, the news was met with some lighthearted chuckling. "Mayor Pete" had overseen a city-South Bend, Indiana-whose total population is a fraction of what a mass transit system like New York's can handle in an hour. A Biden campaign ad from February that contrasted the former Vice President's accomplishments with those of the small town mayor recirculated on social media. Was Mayor Pete really the right guy to commandeer America's freight, air, rail and road?

  • President-elect Biden has nominated his former rival Pete Buttigieg to lead the Department of Transportation.

  • If confirmed, "Mayor Pete" - who previously served as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city with a population of just over 100,000 people - would take over a sprawling federal agency with about 58,000 employees.

  • Infrastructure improvements, addressing the impacts of climate change, and increasing equity are likely to be dominant issues for the DOT in a Biden administration. 

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

 

But those who have studied cities for years say the country is facing one of the greatest opportunities in recent memory to rethink American transportation. Finding broad support for infrastructure investment that would completely revamp American energy grids, roads, and transport networks for the 21st century has been a cornerstone of Biden's platform. If he has his way in Washington, the USDOT job will double as 'infrastructure czar.' And Buttigieg-a household name, unlike Biden's other appointees-would be its fresh new face; a 'mayor's mayor' amongst urbanists and bureaucrats now in charge of an increasingly pivotal part of national policy. 

"We selected Pete for transportation because the department is at the intersection of some of our most ambitious plans to build back better," the president-elect said at the press conference for the announcement.

Safe to say most Americans are likely unfamiliar with the USDOT, or past agency heads. That's because the agency largely remains behind the scenes, interfacing with a vast portfolio of America's built network but often along technical terms, like safety guidelines and highway design. It's been a "backwater agency" both in Republican and Democratic administrations, says Bruce Katz, the author of "The New Localism" who advises leaders on urban policy. 

But Biden wants to change all of that, Katz argued. He now uses the term "climate crisis," which places transportation front and center, given that it is a major contributor of carbon. He regularly cites issues of equity, as adverse effects-air pollution; mass transit disinvestment-have disproportionately impacted Black and Brown communities (and long been overlooked in transportation). And as cities undergo rapid change, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDOT is one of the few federal agencies to directly interact with them.

"It's not your parent's transportation agency," argues Katz. "It's playing on climate. It's playing on racial and ethnic inclusion. It's helping to shape markets, since, in many respects, these metropolitan areas are units of the global economy." Katz, who worked with Buttigieg on several projects in South Bend, says Biden's former rival is uniquely suited for the direction the agency needs to head in. "Pete knows all of this." 

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Pete Buttigieg amid placards explaining how to pronounce his last name. Eric Thayer/Reuters

Most tapped secretaries climb the federal ladder; Elaine Chao held a number of agency roles before her current job as President Trump's USDOT head, while Ray LaHood, President Obama's first USDOT head, was a Republican Congressman. But mayors think "horizontally, not vertically," Katz explained, as they have to work with various entities, both public and private. "Only someone coming from the bottom-up, from a city, irrespective of size, understands that interplay between transportation, land use, housing, and development," he said. "They connect the dots."

But Buttigieg stands out. At 37, he was the youngest person to ever run for the White House, and it's likely he will again. That outsized ambition could make USDOT into a legacy vehicle, as he looks to notch achievements that will give his résumé a presidential glow. His record and campaign platform speak for themselves.

As mayor, Buttigieg made a name for himself (literally "Mayor Pete") investing early in 'smart cities,' or utilizing tech to run metropolitan areas more effectively and efficiently. 

Working with companies, his office deployed sensors to detect potholes before they happened, and used data to predict failures in water systems ahead of time. His "Smarter Streets" revamp of the downtown, which is largely credited with its revival, was a pioneer of 'traffic calming' design measures that are now common on city streets nationwide. South Bend was even one of the first cities in America to adopt LimeBike, an early public e-bike company that could be dockless, or placed anywhere. (The company has since shifted mostly to e-scooters.) 

At a time when tech and transportation are intertwined more than ever-think micro-mobility (e-scooters, e-bikes); the rise of EVs and AVs-there's no shortage of evidence to show that Buttigieg doesn't see emerging trends as novelties, but rather, huge advances here to stay. 

As a presidential candidate, Buttigieg talked about Washington as an outdated establishment that needed a youthful makeover. He supported a Green New Deal worth $2 trillion (Biden's plan is now the same price tag), which aimed to create 3 million jobs, get us to net-zero by 2050, and phase out all gas-polluting cars by 2035. And it was heavily focused around trickling-down money to localities, which is right in USDOT's wheelhouse. "I want the White House to be an ally for those kinds of communities," he said in an interview with Bloomberg.

David Zipper, a writer, new mobility expert and Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, said Buttigieg was "out ahead" of his fellow presidential candidates on the campaign trail for proposing a vehicle-miles travelled (VMT) tax in lieu of a gas tax, which will decrease in value as electric vehicles become more widespread. He also voiced support for a national Vision Zero strategy, which would incorporate pedestrian and cyclist safety into federal regulation and guidelines-something that really hasn't happened before. 

"It's good to have a secretary who cares a lot about policy, who recognizes the need to provide ways to get around that are convenient, affordable and reliable that don't involve driving," Zipper said. "For those who have followed his transportation work in South Bend, there's a lot to be impressed with."

The challenges are gargantuan. Ask someone who's left the country in the last few years and they will tell you: American infrastructure has fallen immensely behind. The country's highways, bridges and airports are falling apart. Our railway system, which barely connects the country, is nowhere near high-speed rail. And not only are there too many cars, but also, only a small fraction are electric, and charging systems are few and far between.

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Pete Buttigieg, February 29, 2020. Eric Thayer/Reuters

But 2021 could be the coup de grace. Public transit ridership has been decimated by the pandemic, posing a near-existential crisis for U.S. transit agencies. New York's transit system faces a $8 billion deficit. Boston, $600 million. And San Francisco, $168 million. Subways and buses nationwide are in need of huge injections of federal funds, or else service could be cut indefinitely. And massive government spending will take a forceful public case, especially if the incoming administration is stonewalled in Congress.

At the press conference for Buttigieg's nomination, Biden once again praised his ability to make one. He has previously said the young Hoosier reminds him of his now-deceased son, Beau, emphasizing his ability to articulate complex policy with empathy and passion (and, also, in numerous languages). Outside of that, he is one of the few Democrats who regularly appears on Fox News, which has resulted in its fair share of viral clips. And those qualities will really matter next year, says Zipper.

"We're entering a period when what I consider to be an absolutely essential arm of our transportation network-public transit-is fighting for its life. I don't think that's an overstatement," Zipper warned. "If a Secretary Buttigieg is able to carry that mantle publicly, if he's able to get more airtime on national news, more popular attention, then I think that's absolutely fantastic. I'd rather have [him] than someone who's less flashy and won't be able to elevate the topic on their own."

In a statement praising Buttigieg's nomination, Corinne Kisner, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, said federal transportation policy "has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s." She isn't alone: most transportation advocates and experts have been sharing this sentiment for years. In response to that, cities have largely filled that gap in innovation at the local level, taking it upon themselves to install cycling infrastructure, update transit systems, and redesign roads.

So having someone not only plucked from that world, but also, one of its leading voices, to finally take command of federal transportation policy is a game-changer. 

"I think it's good to have someone with a truly fresh set of ideas who's not so whetted to how things historically have been done at USDOT," said Zipper. "If he blows things up, that might be okay."

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