Weekly Brief: Time for Grown-Up US Transport Policies to Steer a New Course

A mob of right-wing activists, emboldened by President Trump’s “Save America” rally in Washington, D.C., stormed the US Capital last week, overwhelming police and ransacking the building once they were inside.

Offices were looted, walls and statues vandalized. Members of Congress, including speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and vice-president Mike Pence, were rushed from the building as insurrectionists hunted for hostages with zip ties, pipe bombs and semi-automatic rifles. Capital police officer Brian Sicknick was beaten to death. A second capital police officer, Howard Liebengood, committed suicide on Sunday. Four members of the mob died.

The attack was one of the most shocking events in US history, on par with Pearl Harbor and 9/11, and highlights the scale of anger, violence and delusion in American politics today. President Trump is likely to be impeached for a second time, a first in American history, and a number of Republican Senators have indicated that they will support the impeachment or are actively calling on Trump to resign.

A string of officials in Trump’s administration have resigned in the past few days. The first cabinet secretary to do so was Elaine Chao, the US secretary of transportation. Chao described the capital siege as “a tragic and entirely avoidable event”. “It has deeply troubled me in a way that I cannot set aside,” she wrote in a letter to her colleagues at the DOT. Chao’s resignation takes effect today, Monday the 11th, with just two weeks remaining before president-elect Joe Biden takes office. In the interim, she pledged to help smoothly transition to incoming US secretary of transportation, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Chao leaves behind little in terms of a legacy at the DOT beyond foot dragging. She was a proponent of self-driving cars but did not push to introduce rules or regulations that would have benefited them by providing helpful guideposts to lead the industry forward. She sat on billions of dollars in grant money that had been approved for transportation projects in cities around the country, including bus rapid transit in Indianapolis and a light rail extension in Seattle, and withheld vital funds to transit agencies like Caltrain in California. During the pandemic, her department refused to create mandatory mask rules in airplanes, trains, taxis and ride-hailing vehicles, despite widespread demand for them. Companies ended up having to adopt their own measures.

Buttigieg will inherit all of this mess and has little experience to draw on in the transportation sector. He does have some accomplishments from South Bend, Indiana, where he helped modernize the city’s infrastructure, made it more pedestrian friendly and harnessed light rail to expedite travel to nearby Chicago. He’s also demonstrated an understanding for the paradigm shift away from individually owned vehicles that needs to happen in the future and is already underway in the mobility revolution.

“Design in cities,” he said in an interview during his 2020 presidential campaign, “especially through the 20th century, really revolved around the car. I’m trying to make sure that design for the future revolves around the human being. Sometimes that means car transportation and sometimes that means walking, biking or public transit. We can’t expect people to move beyond personally owned vehicles if there’s not a good alternative.”

Does this adequately prepare him to have his finger on the button of the DOT’s $72.4Bn budget? Of course not! The fallout from the pandemic in the airline and rail industry is bound to be as far-reaching as it is vexing, carmakers are going electric and desperately need EV infrastructure and autonomous vehicle technology is coming fast. Plus, he’s got the political nightmare of Washington and four years of inertia within his own department to overcome, at a time when action and change is needed more than ever.

It’s unlikely he will be able to fix a lot or even that much but, at a time of national grief and disgrace, let’s hope that the DOT, like the rest of America, will soon find a better course.

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