Is Barack Obama the Livable Streets Candidate?

Barack Obama is a long-time cyclist (Photo: Chicago Tribune)

The current crop of Presidential candidates are busy debating the energy crisis, national security, climate change, health care, all of which potentially pose a serious threat to America’s future. We can begin to address all of these issues simultaneously by transforming our cities into more sustainable communities and adopting the principles of complete streets. A modal shift away from the automobile toward more bicycle and pedestrian orientated streets will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, slow the rise of C02 emissions and improve the overall health of Americans.

With the exception of John McCain, none of the Republican candidates seem to be interested in any of this. You may remember their colleague Patrick McHenry, Republican Congressman from North Carolina, who while debating a proposal for a $20/month tax break for bike commuters in the energy bill ridiculed bicycles as a "19th Century solution" to our current energy problems. The tax break was eliminated from a weakened version of the energy bill that was just passed by the Senate.

The Oregonian, however, has discovered that one candidate does understand the importance of this "old fashioned" form of transportation:

Portland’s fervent bicycling community has discovered that Democrat Barack Obama is the only one of the Democratic presidential candidates who explicitly encourages bicycle transportation in his platform (and I didn’t find much from the Republicans either, other than that Mike Huckabee rides his bike to the grocery store). Here’s the relevant quote from Obama’s energy platform:

As president, Barack Obama will re-evaluate the transportation funding process to ensure that smart growth considerations are taken into account. Obama will build upon his efforts in the Senate to ensure that more Metropolitan Planning Organizations create policies to incentivize greater bicycle and pedestrian usage of roads and sidewalks, and he will also re-commit federal resources to public mass transportation projects across the country. Building more livable and sustainable communities will not only reduce the amount of time individuals spent commuting, but will also have significant benefits to air quality, public health and reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

It’s also worth noting that Chris Dodd is the only candidate with the guts to push for a carbon tax.

  • Budrick

    The short answer is no–this is the man who came before a Brooklyn audience and said that something needed to be done about $3 a gallon gasoline.

    Obama is a crowd pleaser, a populist with too many near-sighted, empty ideas for my liking.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see him add overt gasoline subsidies to the implicit subsidies we already give to cars in this country. It would just be such a signature Obama feel-good solution.

  • bicyclebelle

    It’s also worth noting Obama’s co-introduction of the Coal-to-Liquid-Fuel Promotion Act of 2007. crowd pleaser and coal pleaser.

  • jmc

    Obama is about as pro-carbon as you can get in a candidate. He’ll tell you that bicycles are lovely, but he also loves “clean” coal.

    He’d never take the difficult steps necessary to avert climate change and rebuild our cities.

  • Mark

    I searched the major candidates’ sites for mention of “peak oil” several months ago — it’s the issue that will drive a lot of our concerns, no pun intended. Only found it on the Kucinich site, and only briefly. Someone correct me if you’ve seen something I’ve missed. Oh, and today marks a major milestone, with crude oil hitting $100 a barrel. I’m wondering when one of these presidential weasels will address that.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    It’s also worth noting that Chris Dodd is the only candidate with the guts to push for a carbon tax.

    So Jason, Congressman Kucinich isn’t pushing? Or he’s not a candidate?

  • Yes, Angus, Kucinich is NOT pushing for a carbon tax.

    In the Grist interview you linked to, he said:

    “We need to do whatever we can do to create disincentives for the use of carbon-based energy. But that’s not enough. Carbon-based taxes alone won’t cut it because some people may be willing to pay an extra tax to use something that’s bad for the environment. Inevitably we need a requirement to move away from all carbon-based technologies and to fund fully all alternative-energy research that is in harmony with the environment.”

    That’s lukewarm at best, particularly compared to Sen. Dodd, who is truly evangelizing for a carbon tax. And Kucinich’s “willing to pay an extra tax” jibe betrays a basic lack of understanding of pollution taxes. Hell, can’t you picture him trotting out the same line about congestio pricing?

  • jmc

    I think that’s a coal-powered tricycle he’s riding there.

  • I did some posts on the lame-ness of all the presidential candidates on transportation issues, even though all the Democrats are fighting to be the one with the most aggressive greenhouse gas plans.

    If you look through the energy/Greenhouse Gas plans of the major Dems, you don’t see much about transportation…

    Clinton talks about finding another $1.5 billion to encourage urban rail.

    Edwards has a lot of flowery language about reducing VMT.

    In addition to the language in the post, Obama also has one specific. He talks about increasing the tax credit for transit commuting so that its equal to the credit an employer gets for handing out free parking.

    If you want to read more of my thoughts, you can find them here:
    and here:

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Whoever gives McCain a free ride on transportation is drinking cool-aid too. He is the most anti-rail of anyone in the Senate, driving the AMTRAK privatization agenda for over a decade. Son of an Admiral and a Navy vet, he moved to the desert. A gas powered desert at that. He has done everything he can to starve AMTRAK of assets and resources and has been no friend of urban mass transit either.

  • jmc

    Hey, if Bloomberg runs and wins, he’ll probably appoint Sadik-Khan as director of the DOT!

    (wishful thinking)

  • simon

    obama’s also in the pocket of the ethanol lobby too. and that shit ain’t helpful.

  • Nic,

    That probably could have been clearer. McCain seems to be interested in dealing with climate change. Transportation, not so much.

  • Charlie D.

    Planetizen did a “Smart Growth” survey of the candidates positions in early December. There’s reason to believe that Clinton, Edwards, and Richardson also believe that transit, walking, bicycling, land use, etc are important.

  • Eric

    Two words: Al Gore.

    Unfortnately, urban issues haven’t been much in the spotlight so far. From the campaign rhetoric, one would think that Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina were the nation’s most populous states, and that the average American drove a tractor or worked in a textile mill.

    Time for a single national primary day.

  • Mac

    Yes, Time for a single national primary. The neglect of urban and suburban issues, including sprawl, is a direct result of this ridiculous focus on Iowa and New Hampshire. Surely we can do better than this!

    (And unlike most of the commentators, I actually think Obama is serious about livable cities and much else. But the coal-to-liquid stuff is terrible of course. I’m hoping that is just the crowd-pleasing he needs to do to get elected)

  • The sad thing is that there is no livable streets candidate, and there never has been, at least in my memory. As the bicycling, walking, carfree, livability, sustainability, etc movements grow, though, we might have a chance to at least start making candidates aware of them. Informative, well-reasoned letters from voters do make an impact on the issues politicians think are important — and we should all be writing those.

  • JB

    Bill Richardson’s Platform

    Strategy 1(D): Smart Growth, Energy Efficient Cities, and Public Transportation

    Smart growth and the development of energy efficient cities are essential to improving energy security, improving the environment and enhancing our quality of life.

    A study by the Center for Neighborhood Technologies highlighted the correlation between energy consumption and metro area growth. Sprawl lengthens commutes and contributes to congestion on city and suburban roads and highways, and in some areas causes commuters to spend more on transportation than they spend on housing (an appreciating asset, in most cases). Creating walkable, livable alternatives is important over the medium- to long-term.

    While considering long-range issues such as metro area design, we must dramatically increase our transportation options and provide convenient and efficient public transit, both within metro areas and intercity. We should also support urban planning that promotes walking and biking, reduces urban sprawl by more carefully matching housing development to job location, and enhances the “livability” indicators in our communities.

    Safe and livable cities will save energy — and they will save commuters time and money, while allowing our children to walk to school, safely, once again.

  • As Matt Yglesias summarizes nicely, urban interests are not politically relevant in presidential politics. Early primary states like Iowa (okay, a caucus state), New Hampshire, and South Carolina have no large metropolitan areas. And the electoral college renders the states with big cities irrelevant.

    Bill Richardson has carbon tax wrong. But, he consistently raises mass transit and land use as critical components of our nation’s energy policy. Search the transcript of last night’s debate for “land use,” “transit,” and “rail.”

  • JDC

    To add to JB’s comment – Richardson is the only candidate to have implemented a commuter rail system. He’s also mentioned light rail in debates and on the stump.

    And although Bloomberg is chauffered from his home to a subway station in an SUV, he’s said that in an ideal world, [paraphrasing] public transportation would be free and it would cost a hell of a lot more to own a car.


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