At the Transportation Research Board (TRB)’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg outlined a vision for designing a more equitable and sustainable transportation system. Leveraging the historic levels of funding available through the recently passed Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act, Secretary Buttigieg said funds must be distributed in order to simultaneously create jobs, address the climate crisis and racial inequities, and reduce road traffic deaths.
The Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act provides an enormous opportunity to improve both large cities and small communities. “The law contains some of the most significant investments in our transportation infrastructure in generations. These investments are going to have a very real impact on daily lives. [These investments] are going to put people to work, reconnect communities, and save lives.” But the “promise” of the infrastructure bill also “depends on whether we succeed in making the most of these investments.”
For example, transportation policy needs to be intentionally framed to increase jobs and economic development. “Income inequality had been rising long before the pandemic. Good transportation policy directly and indirectly creates jobs that help families build generational wealth for the future. The key is creating opportunities that reach people in places where they are most needed. Last year, I visited the tunnels underneath Atlanta’s international airport, which helped create a thriving Black middle class during its construction, simply by ensuring communities of color had a seat at the table when it came time to award the contracts to build that airfield in the first place.”
A focus on ensuring equitable access to both transportation and the economic opportunities that come with the new federal investment was woven throughout his speech. “Every transportation decision is inherently a decision about equity. That’s why we’re building equity into our grant criteria.”
He added that “transportation and racial equality are two stories that go together. We want to proactively work with communities seeking to do the right thing, over and above the legal minimum.” Another part of this approach is increasing partnerships with diverse small and medium-sized businesses, so there are “partners ready to run with opportunities.”
New transportation policy must also address past climate and environmental injustices: “We have a commitment, as an administration, to ensure 40 percent of the benefits of climate and clean energy investments go to underserved and overburdened communities.”
And he gave his support for advancing universal design and making transportation more accessible through the All Stations Accessibility Program (ASAP) Act of 2021, championed by Senator Tammy Duckworth, which would fund more transit facilities becoming ADA-compliant.
Shifting to climate, TRB noted that transportation now accounts for nearly 30 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Secretary Buttigieg said given transportation is the single largest sector contributing to the climate crisis, “we have an obligation to strive to be the biggest part of the solution.”
When asked what are the best ways to decarbonize transportation, his first response was to highlight the kinds of planning and design solutions landscape architects provide: “We really need to think about every dimension of a trip, and what can be done to make it greener. Can we use design to reduce the necessity of some of the trips people take? When people take trips, can we create alternatives so they can take those trips in other modes?”
And he focused on other strategies landscape architects plan and design to advance climate goals. “Housing and transportation policy has to fit together. Transit-oriented development is a climate opportunity as well as a planning concern. All of these things have be considered together in an integrated way. That’s something you already see in the most forward thinking communities.”
As part of the combined strategy to advance goals on jobs, equity, and climate, safety also remains the “fundamental mission of this department,” Buttigieg said. “We lose 3,000 people every month to traffic crashes. We must confront the fact that these tragic deaths are not inevitable, but preventable. We need to take new steps, like a safe systems approach nationwide.” Soon the department will be releasing its first national roadway safety strategy.
“If we do this right, we’ll look back on the 2020s as a period when transportation equity reached new levels. That makes not only historically excluded groups better off, but the whole country better off, because we’ll have a stronger, more stable, richer, fairer economy for all.”