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Highway-Auto-Petroleum Complex Will Fight Secretary Pete’s People-First Transport Plans, Say Academics

“Restrictions on private vehicles” are on the way, said the U.S. Transportation Secretary. “The cause of clean air permits no compromise,” he stressed. Motoring was “one of the greatest contributors to dirty air,” he continued. Consequently, cities would have to start “restricting the number of cars operating on city streets.”

Instead, people should bike, he said. The Transportation Secretary encouraged all “to use our legs [and] show what can be done with bicycles.”

This was bicycling-to-work Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaking last week? No, John A. Volpe speaking in the early 1970s.

Volpe—who routinely rode a bicycle that “can be folded up and carried to his tenth-floor office”—was President Nixon’s Transportation Secretary and rode this bike to Capitol Hill almost daily.

Bicycling would be a “valuable addition to urban transportation systems” suggested Volpe, and he warned that cities had to make “radical changes in their commuting patterns.”

Volpe was Transportation Secretary between 1969 and 1973—the years of the environmentally propelled bike boom—but he made no lasting impact on active travel. Bicyclists did not inherit the roads of America, and, despite Volpe’s desire for “radical action,” none came.

America’s supposed love affair with the automobile continued unabated, fuelled by special interests helped by the built environment which the interests lobbied to create.

In 1970, the Wall Street Journal called these interests the “highway-auto-petroleum complex.”

Buttigieg has said he wants to change all that.

MORE FROM FORBESDesign For Human Beings Not Cars, New U.S. Transport Secretary Says

“In the 50s, the mentality around roads was that they existed for one purpose, and that was to move as many cars as you could as fast as you could,” the new U.S. Transportation Secretary told a conference.

“We’re better off if our decisions revolve not around the car but around the human being,” he said in a keynote to the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference held in Austin, Texas, last month.

But, say four academics interviewed for this piece, he will meet stiff opposition and, if he’s to do more for the planet than his 1970s predecessor, he must reverse more than 100 years of pro-car policies.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

The American Jobs Plan released last week contained much to please active travel advocates—including a promise to make America’s roads safer for non-car users—but spending $174 billion on infrastructure for electric cars won’t reduce traffic congestion, say critics, it will likely increase it and deepen America’s reliance on motor vehicles, albeit ones that won’t be spewing pollutants directly from tailpipes.

The critics stress that even if all cars become electric overnight, there would continue to be planetary damage from the carbon emissions from the construction and maintenance of these electric cars, plus the additional emissions from building more roads to accommodate them until they too filled up. Rinse. Repeat.

“U.S. transportation policy has been committed to driving as the only necessary mode of passenger transportation,” remarked transport historian Peter Norton adding that motoring was the “only mode that has to be accommodated everywhere, and the only mode that has to be accommodated at any cost.”

“After this dogmatic, wasteful and destructive absurdity, the most radical thing Secretary Pete could do is to stand for common sense,” said Norton, who is the associate professor of history in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia.

Buttigieg is the “most radical transportation secretary yet,” agrees Norton, “though, apart from Volpe, there’s no real competition for that title.”

But he is still automobile-fixated.

“Buttigieg almost constantly offers his credentials as the former mayor of South Bend, a city that an automaker put on the map,” points out Norton.

“It’s his preferred way of reassuring people that driving still comes first.”

Car go cult

Automobile dependency comes from the very top: President Biden is very much a “car guy.”

“I shouldn’t say this on television,” said the then-vice president in a 2016 episode of Jay Leno’s Garage before doing a “burnout” in his ’67 Corvette Stingray, “but I like speed.”

Earlier, an Onion spoof picked up on the fact that Biden likes “muscle” cars.

“They don’t make kick-ass T-tops like this anymore, sweetheart,” Biden was supposed to have said in the 2009 satirical article headlined “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am In White House Driveway.”

Biden’s father was a successful used-car salesman.

As vice president, Biden helped usher in the U.S.’s stricter emissions standards for automobiles, but, as Delaware’s senator, he spent several years fighting against higher fuel efficiency standards. He voted at least five times against raising standards for tailpipe emissions. The League of Conservation Voters scored his legislative career as 83% “green”— a fifth of his anti-environment votes involved transportation.

The combatting climate change elements of Biden’s American Jobs Plan might have elicited a tweeted “lol” from campaigner Greta Thunberg, but the plan is ambitious for many others.

Then again, a “department secretary’s ambitions are limited by the president, and Congress limits the president’s ambitions,” points out Norton, author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.

“President Clinton thought he’d get healthcare reform through Congress in his first year, but the effort backfired—Buttigieg’s ambitions are similarly constrained. Even Democrats in Congress are under constant pressure to protect driving’s priority.”

The highway-auto-petroleum complex will “welcome Buttigieg as a way to dampen some of the controversies that sometimes become minor nuisances for them, and to turn sustainable transportation into part of their brand,” predicts Norton.

“They will use their political power to ensure that no matter how much new support public transportation, walking, and cycling get, roads will continue to get the vast majority of surface transportation funding. The roads lobby generally doesn’t mind if billions go to commonsense mobility modes, provided they keep getting what they want. And as long as public policy ensures that driving will be relatively easy, other modes may remain marginal.”

For John Pucher, Professor Emeritus in the Urban Planning and Policy Development Program at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, money talks.

“The exact funding amounts in the Biden infrastructure bill will determine what can be done to promote cycling in the U.S.,” he told me.

“There’s no specific listing of a specific amount for cycling and walking, so active travel does not seem to be a priority of Biden himself, or of the Democratic House members who put together this new funding bill.”

He added: “Buttegieg can be as pro-bike as possible, but his hands will be tied by the specific amounts dedicated to each of the specific purposes listed in the bill.”

Ralph Buehler agrees. The Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech’s Research Center in Arlington, Virginia, said the “structure within which [Buttigieg] works will only allow him to do so much.”

For Buehler, a challenge for Buttigieg will be to contain the excitement around driverless cars.

“I have never seen so many adult engineers giddy like children as when they talk about autonomous vehicles,” said Buehler.

“The same engineer who doubts the economic value or safety of a comparatively cheap bike measure will go all out in promoting infrastructure and huge investments for AV technology that’s in its infancy.”

And if AVs are yet to prove themselves, electric vehicles—as championed by Buttigieg—also have their problems, adds Norton.

“If car dependency is the affliction, then electrifying the cars doesn’t treat the affliction. Electric cars will choke highways, crowd city streets, and keep the pressure up for more road projects and more parking garages. There’s no future in which car dependency is sustainable, efficient, fair, inclusive, or healthful.”

Follow the money

The biggest line item in the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan is the pledge to rebuild the nation’s transportation infrastructure at the cost of $621 billion. Optimistically—and perhaps misleadingly—the plan calls for renovating transportation infrastructure with “sustainable and innovative” materials, including “cleaner” steel and cement.

Meredith Glaser, a former student at University California Davis and now a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam, said she was “confident” that Buttigieg could be a transformative transportation secretary and that upgrading the safety of major highways was necessary “but,” she asked, “where do cities come in?”

“What about when highways interface with the city and with city streets,” she continued.

“How will the details unfold?”

Like other academics, she’s doubtful that Buttigieg will be allowed to be truly radical.

“I have a hard time imagining how any short-term plan can uproot the labyrinthine administrative, regulatory, political, social, cultural systems that have been favoring the car for the past century. [Pro-motoring] codes and legislation operate on the national, state, regional and local levels, and to unravel them is a really big task.”

Kevin J. Krizek is looking on the bright side. The Professor of Environmental Design at the University of Colorado Boulder believes that it’s a “huge deal” that Buttigieg said humans come before cars.

The new transportation secretary is also “saying things like build-back-better and fix-it-first,” said Krizek.

“All of these are laudable aims, and as [Buttigieg] continues to exert his influence over cities and local municipalities, I think we’re going to see a lot more of these types of initiatives.”

Krizek welcomes that Buttigieg has “mentioned [road pricing], and has said the way that we’ve been doing things over the past decades has led to serious problems.”

But, warns Krizek, Buttigieg’s people-first plans will meet fierce “resistance from the old way of doing things.”

The highway-auto-petroleum complex will fight long and hard, agree all four academics.




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