As the 2020 United States presidential election played out with a backdrop of a pandemic and protest, it was easy to feel as though nothing less than the fate of the world hung in the balance. Now as president-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office, we can all stop hyperventilating and start assessing the implications of this result in a more pragmatic fashion.
And with Biden’s announcement that he will nominate Pete Buttigieg, a former presidential opponent and erstwhile mayor of South Bend, Indiana, as his Secretary of Transportation, one question we cyclists can allow ourselves to ask is: What does this mean for people who ride bikes?
“I am nominating him for Secretary of Transportation because this position stands at the nexus of so many of the interlocking challenges and opportunities ahead of us,” Biden said in his announcement. Indeed Buttigieg would be at the helm of a department whose 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.”
As we continue to experience a bike boom across the United States, it’s only natural to wonder if Buttigieg himself truly appreciates the degree to which bikes can help us address some of those those “interlocking challenges and opportunities,” or if he even rides himself.
However, the League of American Bicyclists did award Silver Level status to South Bend in 2018. Two years before that, Buttigieg traveled with then-U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and several other mayors to Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Oslo to explore multi-modal transport; in receiving the Silver Level certification, Buttigieg cited Copenhagen (which has some of the highest rates of cycling in the world, despite the cold weather) as an inspiration for his push to make South Bend more bike-friendly. Riding in those cities can be a revelation for Americans accustomed to “sharing” the streets with multi-ton vehicles, so the fact that Buttigieg has not only experienced bicycle utopia firsthand but also apparently taken it to heart should please many bike advocates.
Of course, Buttigieg outlined an infrastructure plan (now archived) during his own presidential campaign, so we can look to that for more evidence of where his bike sensibilities lie. It starts out decidedly car-centric, stating that “excellent infrastructure enables our communities to thrive” when “parents can make their kid’s soccer game or get home in time for dinner rather than sitting in traffic for hours.” (Okay, but imagine how much less traffic there would be if more parents rode bikes to their kids’ soccer games instead.)
As for bike-specific policy, the plan does call for “doubling funding for the Transportation Alternatives Program to install more accessible sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike lanes.” More audaciously, it would have also established “a national Vision Zero goal” that would “require states to actively improve their safety records or road design processes, or else lose federal funding for other roadway projects.”
Such a policy would be in line with the “complete streets” policy advocacy groups across America are advancing, by which roadways should be designed in such a way that everyone can use them safely, including bicyclists. Buttigieg’s Smarter Streets initiative for South Bend is evidence that he embraces the idea that complete streets help communities thrive. (South Bend did see increased investment following the implementation of Smarter Streets, though the death of an 11-year-old child called some of the changes into question.)
But Buttigieg didn’t win the 2020 presidential election; Biden did. So what about the president-elect’s own transportation policy? “The Biden Plan To Invest In Middle Class Competitiveness” notes “the rapid adoption of electric scooters and bike-share programs,” but goes on to say that “the biggest disruption lies ahead: self-driving cars.” Advocates tend to cringe at any mention of a self-driving future (they prefer to imagine a no-driving future), though Biden does go on to say that autonomous vehicles will require “reshaping streets to protect cyclists and scooters.” This will no doubt irritate the not-insignificant number of cyclists who resent being lumped in with scooters—but you can’t win ’em all.
“The Biden Plan To Build A Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure And An Equitable Clean Energy Future” (whew!) also mentions bikes, pledging to provide “every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options,” including “infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists.” As for those who also like to ride just for the hell of it, Biden says he’ll “build hiking and biking trails and access to other recreational amenities”—which is pretty vague even by campaign promise standards, but yay for biking to amenities.
Something else that can be telling in itself is the people who Biden didn’t nominate as Secretary of Transportation. If Biden had chosen, say, Janette Sadik-Khan—the former New York City Department of Transportation commissioner, who engineered the city’s seismic shift towards bike- and pedestrian-centric infrastructure—then that would have been a clear message that he was all in on the Bicycle Lobby and that profound change was afoot. As it is, Sadik-Khan’s successor, Polly Trottenberg, has joined Biden’s transition team, and while Trottenberg certainly continued to move New York City forward from a bicycling perspective, it’s not yet clear what role (if any) she will play in the Biden administration going forward.
Speaking of bicycles and perspective, it’s important to remember that this is still America: 3.7 million square miles, 300 million people, $20 trillion GDP, and a shitload of cars and trucks and things that go. The U.S. Department of Transportation operates eleven agencies including the FAA, the FRA, and the NHTSA. We may take the life-changing potential of the bicycle for granted, but we should also consider how much attention the person responsible for making sure trains don’t derail and airplanes don’t fall out of the sky will actually devote to a mode of transport used by only 0.6% of all American workers, his inclusive rhetoric notwithstanding.
Nevertheless, Buttigieg does have something going for him that some have called a liability: he’s a small-town mayor who professes to understand the needs of local communities. “Under my administration,” Buttigieg said in his own infrastructure plan, “local governments will finally have a partner in Washington.” He also said in his plan that he’d “double the BUILD program,” which benefits local bicycling projects across the country.
While he can’t wave a magic want to make any of this happen, a Secretary of Transportation who thinks locally is still good news for bikes, because bikes affect positive change at a local level; nearly 60% of vehicle trips in America are under six miles, and replacing some of those trips with bicycles would go a long way towards making our communities safer, healthier, and cleaner. In order to unleash the transformative power of the bicycle you don’t need to build massive interstates, you just need to create safe routes to school, and to make it possible for people to use bicycles safely and comfortably in their own cities and towns.
A journey of a thousand miles takes a single step, and a few more bike lanes here and there can go a long way.
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