WASHINGTON (BRAIN) — Pete Buttigieg was born in "car country," so the Indiana native would seem to have the perfect background to be U.S. Transportation secretary. But as he made abundantly clear Wednesday addressing the annual League of American Bicyclists National Bike Summit, he's been born again as a bike enthusiast.
"I come from an auto-making part of the country, and we're proud of it," said Buttigieg, who made a short opening statement during the virtual event before taking questions from League Director Bill Nesper. "But we can definitely be more of a bicycling country."
The four-day virtual event that began Sunday and ended Wednesday brought together advocates around a shared goal of building a bike-friendly country. Buttigieg knows a little about that, even though he didn't propose any specific intiatives Wednesday.
In 2018, when he was mayor of his hometown South Bend, Indiana, the League awarded his city with the Silver Level Bike Friendly Community designation. It was also recognized for the efforts to make the city more environmentally friendly. Buttigieg noted then that South Bend had nearly 2% of its community members commuting by bicycle daily when its population was a little more than 100,000 people.
"If you just get to a certain tipping point, and it's not much — about 2% in terms of the rate of people who commute to work by bike — you tend to see step changes in terms of safety probably because motorists are more conscious and aware of people on bicycles as a matter of routine," Buttigieg said Wednesday. "So it's just building up that culture of cycling."
Assuming office on Feb. 3, Buttigieg said beyond anything he or his office can do, it starts with local policymakers.
"I can help, but the more bottom-up it is the better," he said. "What I can say is that whether it's hard resources or whether it's moral support, you're going to see a lot of energy coming from my office and my team to help move things along. We're going to be a better safer, cleaner, and greener country the more people have safe options to get around on two wheels."
South Bend's transformation
Making South Bend more bicycle-friendly was part of Buttigieg's plan as mayor to transform the downtown during his two-term mayoral stint. His "Smart Streets" initiative turned one-way streets into two-way, with reduced speed limits, and narrowed driving lanes. the city planted trees and laid decorative brick pavers. Supporters said the pedestrian-friendly changes were responsible for more than $100 million in private investment with new hotels, apartments and restaurants. Buttigieg said a big part of the city's economic turnaround occurred in underinvested corridors and in the urban core.
With bicycling amid a boom that began a year ago, Buttigieg said the groundwork laid by advocacy groups like the League to help get more protected bike lanes, bike parking, and bike share played a huge role.
He said a turning point for him was a 2014 trip to three cities best known for biking: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Oslo. He was accompanied by then-DOT Secretary Anthony Fox and two other mayors.
"We came back from that really inspired," Buttigieg said. "How great infrastructure and bike culture and conscious and intentional choices in countries that used to be as car-dependent as we are in many ways can keep people moving through winters that were at least as cold as we had in South Bend. ... We knew we could do more back at home. We were very proud a couple years later when the League named us as one of the most bike-friendly communities in our area."
Good bike policy makes good sense
Making a small Midwest town with a conservative tilt bike friendly took some doing, Buttigieg said, but it came down to common sense and common good for all.
"Part of what we set out to do is demonstrate that smaller communities, Midwestern communities, communities in more politically conservative areas, had just as much to benefit from good bike policy as anywhere else. So we really presented it as a quality-of-life issue. That better access to biking and walking was fundamental to quality of life in South Bend. As we pursued that, we knew there was a lot of convincing to do. But it was part of how we were opening up a process that everyone could participate in: create a city that brought everybody to the table and explain why it's good for residents; it's good for businesses."
And that also meant attracting and retaining younger residents "who have an expectation of getting around without having to jump into a car and drag 2 tons of metal with them anytime they're going anywhere. The community outreach was very important. Talking to local government leaders, talking to interest groups, talking to residents, and of course the role advocates played was really important."
One of the first things Buttigieg did after taking office was to extend the public comment period through May 14 on the 11th edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways. It's due for a comprehensive update after more than a decade and sets national standards on traffic signs, signals, markings on all U.S. roads open to public travel, playing a role in safety.
And safe commuting remains a concern, with Nesper telling Buttigieg that cycling and pedestrian deaths have continued to rise in the past decade, with people of color especially affected. Buttigieg acknowledged there's much work that needs to be done.
"It's distressing to see backsliding on this," said Buttigieg, who identified highway design to reduce speeds and developing a bike culture as two areas needing immediate attention.
"It's true that faster is not always better, especially the roads that go through the hearts of our communities. How do we make it easier to make the right choice?"