How Do We Make Clean Transportation Part of the National Discussion?

2807215417_06bdf834c6_o.jpgLike Joe Biden, Barack Obama also mentioned Amtrak in his acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention, but only in reference to his running mate’s preferred mode of transportation.

There were many, many things to be excited about yesterday, but any livable streets advocate anticipating a call to rebuild and expand our nation’s transit infrastructure, or for more investment in clean transportation and sustainable urban development, had to be a little disappointed. In fact, as the New York Observer notes, Obama barely mentioned infrastructure at all, and only then to promise "new roads." And as for energy policy:

As President, I will tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal
technology, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power. I’ll help
our auto companies re-tool, so that the fuel-efficient cars of the
future are built right here in America. I’ll make it easier for the
American people to afford these new cars.
And I’ll invest 150 billion
dollars over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy
— wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels; an
investment that will lead to new industries and five million new jobs
that pay well and can’t ever be outsourced.

Are biofuels, more roads, and easier paths to car ownership really the "change" this country, or the planet, needs? Not even Al Gore or the "We" campaign, with its ubiquitous ads, mentioned altering development or driving habits.

So as Americans celebrate a long weekend of cheaper gas, we leave you with this: How do we do it? How do we seize the "Obama moment," as this call to action by terms it, to make clean transportation, livable streets, smart growth and the kinds of issues that we care about a part of the national discussion on climate change and energy policy?

Until Tuesday … 

Photo: Barack Obama/Flickr

  • I think it is more than just clean transportation. The problem is that the Democrats are focusing on their traditional issue: providing more for the poor and the struggling middle class.

    They don’t realize that most Americans already consume more than they need. Per capita consumption is twice as great as in the 1960s, but Americans generally are not better off than in the 1960s (as Redefining Progress has shown).

    I would say our issue is less transportation rather than clean transportation. Per capita VMT today is twice what it was in the 1960s because of sprawl. We want walkable, transit-oriented neighbrohoods, where people don’t need to travel as much, and we believe those neighborhoods would be more livable than sprawl neighborhoods. (Clean transportation means electric cars, which is not our focus.)

    And I think we need to see that the issue of less transportation is just part of the larger issue of less consumption – as I say in my book “The Politics of Simple Living.” Just as consuming more transportation stopped making Americans’ lives better some time in the 1950s or 1960s, consuming more in general has stopped making Americans’ lives better – and when global warming becomes more severe, our consumerism will start making our lives much worse.

  • Obama will find it impossible to meet his goal of zero fossil fuel imports in 10 years unless he embraces walkable communities and transit. As a guy who travels by limo, he may not realize this yet. But, call me an optimist, I think he does know it. The middle of a campaign is just not the time to say it because you know McCain will jump in as the driver’s little buddy. Perhaps Obama will pull a Bloomberg and get down to livable-streets business in his second term.

  • GR in SF

    Great question. I’ll offer this. Before he spoke of cheap cars and biofuels, he started with a 10-year promise of cleaner energy. We need to prioritize this 10 year promise as the point, not the policy solutions that are currently in vogue. If that is the dynamic we go forward with, than we can find ways place our policy solutions later on (Assuming we’re not going to hear about rail and bikes before November). Right now, the conversation needs to be about freedom, not plug-in hybrids. And, like it or not, that really is the essence of his campaign, isn’t it?

    One more thing I would note that maybe gives us a sliver of a window – he talked about every American “doing our part to conserve.” Certainly, that doesn’t imply that “everyone should ride the bus to support the War effort”, but it does demonstrate a willingness – it least in a values sense – to support those of us who choose to address national challenges by living in a more sustainable way.

    And finally, I think that the values that democrats have been naturally (if awkwardly) leading with since FDR really do support our priorities: letting individuals support their communities and neighbors, and government playing a role in making us all safer and more prosperous. If an 0obama administration were to really commit to advancing policy solutions that we are all interested in, that is the values framework – the village (as opposed to the conservative rugged individualist frame) they would need to use. We’d be wise to paint our policy goals with those stripes.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Second term? Talk about optimistic. And I thought that the whole idea was to hit the ground running in the first hundred days with a strong congressional mandate and shift the debate. Maybe I mis heard.

    And as to GR’s recantation of Democratic Values since FDR it should be noted that the “Good Roads” movement was a populist midwestern, Democratic movement that killed a lot of profit making railroad operations and replaced them with socialism for trucks, “free”ways. They called themselves “progressives” too. A lot of what is being proposed, from “green jobs” to cap and trade, are really only ways to have your cake and eat it to.

    Obama’s one moment of clarity on the subject was his resistance to pandering on the gas tax during the primary. What has followed since has been more of the same. All of the good things he proposes will only drive us deeper in budget debt unless there are revenues raised to do those good works.

    In the “What is to be done” category, policy number one after the election has to be incrementally raising the fuel tax to levels approaching European rates. Spreading that money around to do good works in politically useful ways will be the test of Mr. Obama’s future. The debts and deficits both on the books and in the hidden infrastructure deterioration are so enormous that revenues must be raised. And, the oil industry is the only place industry making money (with the possible exception of the insurance industry) everyone else is broke.

  • Transit Guy

    Obama said we would not be dependent on “Middle Eastern” oil in 10 years. That means we would have to reduce our oil consumption by about 7-8%. This is not the same as swearing off FOREIGN oil, which would be 70% of our consumption.

    Oil price is set by the world market, so this is all a bit soft to begin with, but it’s a goal, which is a start. But we are far away from a more rational transportation program. The re-authorization of SAFETEA-LU in 2009 will provide this chance. Especially with SecTrans Earl Blumenauer.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “As I say in my book “The Politics of Simple Living.” Just as consuming more transportation stopped making Americans’ lives better some time in the 1950s or 1960s, consuming more in general has stopped making Americans’ lives better – and when global warming becomes more severe, our consumerism will start making our lives much worse.”

    Sounds like a good book I will have to read. I go further — consumption is a one way ratchet. Any additional good or service one starts consuming becomes old hat in short order, and doesn’t make one any happier. But losing it makes one less happy, and if you lifestyle is funded by debt, losses are sure to come. So all that extra consumption is actually a personal threat to greater extent that a social burden.

    Our values have been defined by the advertising industry. I have a Room Eight post almost written on the subject, and will have it up soon.

  • I don’t want a return to cheap gas, but I do support the notion of personal mobility and that means cars are in the mix–not so much in NYC, maybe, but elsewhere. (Do me a favor and don’t denounce me here, I already know many contributors to this site consider this statement blasphemy.)

    If gas prices remain up there, gradually Americans will move to more fuel-thrifty cars and will look for alternatives to using the car for every kind of transportation.

    What about pitching to the American people the notion that the USA’s transportation system has always changed with the times, and that now it’s time to consider the next phase. We had canals, then railroads, then airports and jet travel and the Interstate system. Each was important in its time. But now there’s 300 million people and that’s on the increase. The air travel system is bursting from demand and the Interstate system has reached its limit, too. Then there’s the environmental issue, greenhouse gases.

    It seems to me this would be the right time to present to Americans an idea for the next-generation US transportation network, and it would be fast passenger rail. Something on the order of effort and commitment as the Interstate system–maybe a 20 year plan. Nationwide, not just a few high-traffic corridors. There’s still the Senate, and small states would have to agree to a national effort like this. That means showing that there is something in this for Montana, Alabama, Nevada, etc.

  • I agree with GR is SF.

    Transportation isn’t the main objective of his presidential campaign nor should it be.

    also, you catch more flies with honey, you can’t make an alcoholic like you if you give them poland spring water. we as a nation are addicted to cars, and this man is running for president. We should support him rather than nit pick.

    if LOCAL transit solutions are needed, then we should push for them amongst our LOCAL leaders!!

  • Charles Siegel wrote:

    “I would say our issue is less transportation rather than clean transportation. Per capita VMT today is twice what it was in the 1960s because of sprawl. We want walkable, transit-oriented neighbrohoods, where people don’t need to travel as much, and we believe those neighborhoods would be more livable than sprawl neighborhoods. (Clean transportation means electric cars, which is not our focus.)”

    “We” here on this forum may want that, but “we” meaning American society as a whole? Not a chance that most people feel that way. I’m not saying I disagree, but that’s what we’re up against.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m for getting the guy elected at all costs. I don’t give a shit what he says now, I know he has to carry the industrial midwest. Pushing ethanol powered SUV hybrids parked in everybody’s three-car garage may help do than and I’m not nit picking, no one reads this shit anyway. I was just toying with policy reality briefly. I’ll get back to selling change in a now. Sorry about the digression.

  • Anon

    Nic, that’s a relief. You seemed to be losing your grip on political reality for a moment.

    You other communists need to be careful too. In America, more is more. Less is less. Remember that. (Communists? H’mm some of you green types are even more Anti American. At least communists believe in more stuff. Anti-materialism…that’s got to be the worst.)

  • I do support the notion of personal mobility and that means cars are in the mix

    Please do us all a favor and drop the term “personal mobility.” Everyone has personal mobility, except the bedridden. Bicycles, buses and trains are personal mobility, and so are feet. If you want to say private automobiles, then say that.

  • Obama’s main transportation position is to strengthen existing infrastructure. His fact sheet on transportation buries alternate transportation positions quite deep and puts them briefly thus:

    “Strengthen Metropolitan Planning to Cut Down Traffic Congestion: Our communities will better serve all of their residents if we are able to leave our cars, to walk, bicycle and have access other transportation alternatives. 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. As president, Obama will work to provide states and local governments with the
    resources they need to address sprawl and create more livable communities.”

    He also pledges to limit employers’ tax advantages for auto commuting vs. transit options.

    It’s safe to say that his campaign is wisely side-stepping focusing on the such transportation solutions now, but DON’T WORRY his advisors and folks shaping his transportation policy and sitting in his urban policy committee do get it. Most importantly, many of them deal day to day with development and transportation arenas. In fact, one of his “inner circle” folks is Chicago’s transit czar Valerie Jarrett, whom Time describes as “the other side of Obama’s brain”. Jarrett not only runs the CTA but is the executive vice president of The Habitat Co., which is appointed to redevelop and manage public housing sites.

    Obama is a pragmatist, not an idealogue. He will listen to good people and ideas. It is clear that he will put all our infrastructure needs front and center and bring creative solutions to bear.

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  • “Clean transportation”? Eh? As the old joke goes, you have to be careful what you ask for.

    We have to be very careful in our choice of words for leading this important charge. This phrase “clean transportation” has been used in many places over the last decade and more, and what it leads to 98% of the time is support of new fuels, new propulsion systems, and not yet on-the-shelf technologies more generally. Hey we are talking decades here. Under the present circumstances this constitutes a major aiming error.

    We can get it right by making one simple critical adjustment. Shorten the time frame for significant change and improvement to something on the order of a single mayoral term (or presidential for that matter). The idea is to create a situation in which the elected leaders can from the first days be judged in terms of the specific of not just their proposals but their actions. We want them to think about this every morning when they wake up and make their choices for the day.

    Imagine a NYC or Lagos for that matter with millions of clean cars roaring up and down the streets or sluggishly parked in front of your house. Would that really be solving the bottom line problems of transport in cities and quality of life on this sweltering planet?

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  • gecko

    #15 Eric Burton, Good stuff!

  • christine

    Obama’s comments on helping the big three build clean cars is shocking (I am a supporter) . Why would we allow any corporation to pay rich dividends to its shareholders and then turn to the governemnt for R& D? The owners are supposed to make these tough decisions .. that is corporate wellfare…

    The last energy bill includes $ 25 billion of low cost loans to the big three, which essentially makes the car part of the transporation infrastructure that the government funds..

    There are many better ways to spend our tax dollars – invest in mass transporation, the rails, the tunnels, the cars…. pay for the auto workers to acquire new skills in new energy – new transportation …give rebates to buyers who forgo cars, buy bikes or buy low emission low miilage (it works well in France) and penalties to those who do not. But Please, please do not give any money to the car manufacturers who profitted from the problem they created in the first place.

    We are lucky that both Senator Schummer and Congresssman Nadler are influencial members of the transportation agenda in Washington. They need to hear from us .

  • I think it’s not an easy thing to just say we’re going to find renewable resources. It takes a lot of R&D and it didn’t help that for the past 8 years our president has been in the back pocket of the oil industry. I think between the candidates Obama has a better chance of actually sticking to it and getting the US off foreign oil. In line with what another commenter said, I think we in the US are also wasteful and use more that we actually need to be productive. If we all be came more aware of our own impact on the planet that would help the world greatly.

  • Larry Littlefield

    In a way this question misses a key point. Alternative ways of living and getting around are ALREADY part of the national conversation.

    The increase in media stories on bike commuting far exceeds the number of bike commuters. There has been a development boom in more central locations in many metros. “Simple living” is also being discussed in article after article in newspapers, websties, TV. State and local governments are investing in alternatives.

    All it took was an increase in the price of gasoline and a decrease in the availability of debt people can’t afford to pay back.

    The question is, how can the federal government be prevented from screwing things up. Market bad, government good? Not for the environment, historically. What I had hoped to hear, and what several (non-political) columnasts have said, is what we really need to do is keep the price of gasoline/imported oil high, and let people figure things out themselves.

  • GR in SF

    The “support auto-workers” via bankrolling GM and Ford is a pretty horrible idea. And Nic, your historic perspective on where roads came from is important to recall as well, for sure. However, my comment was purely about the politics of it all, and that we need to define what is progressive reality this time around, something we’ve failed to do since about 1946. We”ll get to that sometime in early to mid ’09. In the mean time, as you implied… change we can believe in…

  • Cheers to Anon: it’s not often that materialism is so directly equated with Americanism. I’m not, however, willing to go that far in my cynicism or so deeply insult those who have worked and fought for a different idea of America. I think there is something to this place other than consumption that can only continue at current rates for another couple of generations. Claiming that American culture, or any culture, will not change is the surest way to be wrong about anything. Driving large, oafish vehicles is presently going out of fashion at a rather hilarious rate (except for those invested in such intentionally primitive technology)—nothing says 1995-2005 like a music video featuring oversize SUVs.

    Anyway, it’s not a question of ending everyone’s obsession with the physical; Western Europeans are certainly materialistic, and yet they manage to lead far more efficient lives on average than Americans. It is a question of setting the national priorities that we need to set, basing them on a kind of ecological realism and adhering to them through pragmatic economic policy. The world is pushing us in this direction already through higher gasoline prices, but if we want the US to lead again in anything we’ve got to start pushing ourselves.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Clearly materialism, historical or otherwise, is a driving force in economics. However, only in the US is taxation, zoning and city planning equated with Communism. I’m an unashamed Socialist (not a “Progressive”). I opposed Communism, Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Withering Away of the State, not necessarily in that order. Strike three.


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