Pete Buttigieg would not need to be transportation secretary, however he might be nice at it.

Pete Buttigieg stands on the stage on a podium marked as the President-Elect's Office

Please write your name on some of the rails.
Kevin Lamarque / Pool / Getty Images

Pete Buttigieg, a former college town mayor and former Slate blogger, was named head of the Department of Transportation by President-elect Joe Biden, and that seems fine.

Buttigieg will face two major challenges. First, traffic is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, and any plan to reduce the country’s carbon footprint runs directly through the DOT. Second, Secretary Pete needs to tackle the aftermath of the pandemic, which is going to be very, very chaotic for both airlines and transit agencies. In addition, he will spend tens of billions of dollars each year; Monitoring the country’s airports, waterways, highways and railways; and manage the arrival of autonomous vehicle technology.

Is Pete Buttigieg the most deserving person for the job? Definitely not. Does he know most about transit? I’m not even sure if among former Slate bloggers he knows best about the transit. It’s a fitting twist for a man who represents for his enemies how America’s failing institutions reward brilliant credentials and unprincipled pursuit of experience or proven success.

And yet a certain optimism is in order. There are several categories that Buttigieg was a slippery presidential candidate who seemed to be going where the wind was blowing, but I don’t think transportation is one of them.

Buttigieg was basically a replacement candidate for climate change and transport – which is good because the democratic primary field was very progressive. (We just picked one of the least advanced candidates for nomination.) He appears to have a basic understanding of how America draws driving at the expense of the human and natural environment, a theory he has outlined a few times, among other things in a CityLab interview in November 2019:

Design in cities, especially in the 20th century, was really about the car. I try to make sure that the design for the future revolves around people. Sometimes this means car transportation and sometimes it means walking, cycling, or public transportation. We can’t expect people to go beyond privately owned vehicles if there isn’t a good alternative. So we need to make sure we have a number of options between ridesharing, public transportation, and just plain old-fashioned walking and biking. The United States heavily subsidizes driving. We tend to support transit or things like trains. When I am President, I envision that this will create a more balanced relationship and support cities that are trying to do this too, because if we do it right it will also be more sustainable, healthier and more economical.

During his time as Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg was a prominent exponent of urban planning. He legalized additional housing units (which not only increase the availability of housing, but also have the potential to reduce commuting), reduced and eliminated parking requirements, focused on reducing impervious surfaces (which are a major factor in urban flooding) and tried to make the streets safer for pedestrians. He pushed for a faster, more reliable rail link to Chicago. In 2016, his work in South Bend won a handful of awards from the U.S. Department of Transportation, including then Secretary Anthony Foxx’s Overall Achievement Award, recognizing South Bend’s efforts to build safer roads.

Not that the mayor of a city of 100,000 should run something like a cabinet department with a budget of $ 72 billion. But that makes the Indiana prodigy only moderately less qualified than President Barack Obama’s first transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, a Republican congressman from Illinois, or his second, Anthony Foxx, the four-year mayor of the much larger city of Charlotte in the north was Carolina.

Now there is likely a crusade reformer in the Department of Transportation who would have made the ideal choice in the Biden administration. But that wasn’t on the menu because the less important cabinet jobs are political positions designed to reward allies, and no ally needs a Washington job like Pete Buttigieg, who faced a political impasse at home.

The things people don’t like about Buttigieg have made him make an impact in an area that is overall Catastrophe.

In this context, I consider Buttigieg to be an above-average choice. The things that people don’t like about him – the perfect résumé and the unguarded ambition that has helped him leap way beyond that – have made him really make an impact in an area that is utter disaster.

Here progressives refer to his time at McKinsey and say, “Keep dreaming – this guy is a neoliberal shill.” He set bread prices and will now replace subway service with Uber rides. I don’t think so, because I think Pete has higher ambitions than Anthony Foxx, who retired from the Obama administration to a comfortable lobbying job at Lyft. When he leaves Washington in a few years, Buttigieg will want to write home about something other than overseeing the collapse of the nation’s transit systems.

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He can choose the litter. Anyone who defends the sanctity of the American transport bureaucracy against this young, global Glad-Hander must open his eyes. This move is not tied to fame. It’s off the rails, in the ditch, and on fire. We spend way too much money building new roads, we drive too much and our gasoline is too cheap. We have more square meters to park cars than to accommodate people. Air travel is dominated by four companies, treats customers like cattle and is on the verge of collapse. Amtrak’s transit operations to local buses are decades ago based on global best practices. (Drivers have responded accordingly by abandoning mass transit, especially in big cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, where Buttigieg’s rumors of rivals Eric Garcetti and Rahm Emanuel have proved their worth.) The Obama Administration Project That The Future Was high in California -speed rail is a national embarrassment, and smaller mass transit capital projects are just as bad. In addition, drivers are killing pedestrians at the highest rate in decades.

Not everything is the direct job of the DOT – but in all of these places a good DOT secretary could make a difference. In short, there is a lot of low hanging fruit for someone who believes America has built too much around cars, likes to learn about foreign lands, and wishes some excellence. Not much remains to be broken, but much to repair.

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