Metropolis

Planes, Trains, and Relentless Ambition

Pete Buttigieg may not deserve to be transportation secretary, but the qualities that progressives hate could make him a great one.

Pete Buttigieg stands onstage at a podium marked Office of the President Elect
Please, put your name on some rail tracks. Kevin Lamarque/Pool/Getty Images

Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of a college town and a onetime blogger for Slate, has been nominated by President-elect Joe Biden to head the Department of Transportation, and that seems just fine.

Buttigieg will have two huge challenges to cut his teeth on. First, transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, and any plan to reduce the country’s carbon footprint runs right through the DOT. Second, Secretary Pete will have to clean up the fallout from the pandemic, which will be very, very messy for both airlines and transit agencies. On top of that, he’ll dole out tens of billions of dollars every year; supervise the nation’s airports, waterways, highways, and railroads; and manage the arrival of autonomous vehicle technology.

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Is Pete Buttigieg the most deserving person for this job? Emphatically not. Does he know the most about transit? I’m not even sure he knows the most about transit among former Slate bloggers. It’s a fitting turn for a man who, to his enemies, represents how America’s failing institutions reward shiny credentials and unprincipled striving above experience or demonstrated success.

And yet some optimism is warranted. There are several categories in which Buttigieg was a slippery presidential candidate who seemed to go where the wind blew, but I don’t think transportation is one of them.

Buttigieg was basically a replacement-level candidate on climate change and transportation—which is good, because the Democratic primary field was very progressive. (We just picked one of the least progressive candidates to nominate.) He seems to have a fundamental grasp of the ways America underwrites driving at the expense of both the human and natural environment, a theory he has outlined a few times, including in a CityLab interview in November 2019:

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Design in cities, 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. So we’ve got to make sure that between ride-sharing, public transportation, and just good old fashioned walking and biking, we’ve got an array of options right now. The United States subsidizes driving a tremendous amount. We’re more reluctant to support transit or things like trains. When I’m president, I envision making that a greater balance and supporting cities that are trying to do that, too, because if we get it right, it’s also more sustainable, more healthy, and more economically friendly.

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In his time as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg was a standout on urban-design issues. He legalized accessory dwelling units (which, besides increasing housing availability, has the potential to reduce commutes), 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 and more reliable rail connection 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 award for overall success, recognizing South Bend’s efforts to build safer streets.

Not that being mayor of a city of 100,000 is anything like running a Cabinet department with a $72 billion budget. But that only makes the Indiana wunderkind moderately less qualified than President Barack Obama’s first transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, a Republican congressman from downstate Illinois, or his second, Anthony Foxx, who served four years as mayor of the substantially larger city of Charlotte, North Carolina.

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Now, there probably is some crusading reformer inside the Department of Transportation who would have made the ideal choice in the Biden administration. But that’s not what was on the menu, because the less important Cabinet jobs are political positions to reward allies, and no ally needs a job in Washington quite like Pete Buttigieg, who faced a political dead end back home.

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Within that framework, I think Buttigieg is an above-average choice. The things that people don’t like about him—the perfect résumé, and the unguarded ambition that’s helped him leap way beyond it—set him up to really make an impact in a field that is a total disaster.

This is where progressives point to his time at McKinsey and say, “Dream on—this guy is a neoliberal shill.” He fixed bread prices and now he’s going to replace subway service with Uber rides. I don’t think so, because I think Pete has higher ambitions than Anthony Foxx, who slouched out of the Obama administration into a cushy lobbying job with 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 have his pick of the litter. Anyone defending the sanctity of the American transportation bureaucracy from this young, globe-trotting glad-hander needs to open their eyes. This train is not bound for glory. 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 gas is too cheap. We have more square footage devoted to parking cars than to housing people. Air travel is dominated by four companies, treats customers like cattle, and is teetering on the edge of collapse. Transit operations, from Amtrak to local buses, are decades behind on global best practices. (Riders have responded accordingly by abandoning mass transit, especially in big cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, where Buttigieg’s rumored transportation secretary rivals Eric Garcetti and Rahm Emanuel proved their mettle.) The Obama administration project that was supposed to represent the future, California high-speed rail, is a national embarrassment, and smaller mass transit capital projects are just as bad. On top of it all, drivers are killing pedestrians at the highest rate in decades.

Not all of this is the direct purview of the DOT—but in all of these places a good DOT secretary could make a difference. In short, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit out there for someone who thinks America has built too much around cars, likes learning about foreign countries, and wants a few signature accomplishments. Not much left to break, but a lot to fix.

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