US Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made it official this morning: He’s not staying. LaHood was adored by bike advocates and by the active transportation movement in general. Unlike his predecessor, not only did he respect the role of non-automobile travel, he went to bat for it.
LaHood, a Republican and former congressman from Illinois, was a fixture at the National Bike Summit. He attended and spoke at the event several times, leaving inspired and excited advocates in his wake. With his predecessors’ dismissive stance on cycling, mixed with an optimistic outlook how biking and walking fit into Obama’s larger livable community agenda, LaHood quickly attained rock-star status from bike advocates.
While LaHood spent the majority of his political capital trying to raise the awareness of distracted driving (an effort he succeeded at), he also made it clear that bicycling should be much more than simply a recreational pastime. At his first National Bike Summit in 2009, he told the crowd that he’d be a “full partner” at the DOT and then followed up the speech with a blog post that stated, “cyclists are important users of transportation systems.”
Later that year, he ushered in a major update to the FHWA’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) that gave things like sharrows, the “Bicycles Allowed Full Lane” sign, and other bike-specific engineering tools a national blessing.
A few months later he cemented his legend with a memorable, impromptu speech he gave from atop a table on the final night of the 2010 National Bike Summit. He followed up that gesture with a a memo to accompany an official FHWA policy recommendation that he said, “marks the end of favoring motorized transportation.”
While his public gestures (he biked to work in June 2011) and rhetoric gave bike advocates reason for hope, when it came to actual infrastructure investments and project support, he clearly favored rail. He made two trips to Portland during his time at USDOT and both of them were focused around streetcars in South Waterfront. At a July 2009 “streetcar pep rally,” he stated that, “Portland is the transportation and livable community capitol of America!” When he doled out billions in TIGER grants, his love of streetcars was again evident, leading us to write that the grants were “no nirvana for bikes.”
And despite his enthusiasm for cycling on his blog and in fiery speeches, the transportation bill that was re-authorized during his watch was abysmal for cycling. In December 2011, we wrote an opinion column pointing out that when it came to transportation and livability, LaHood’s strong support for the CRC highway expansion mega-project was an attempt to have it both ways.
Overall, while we might quibble with his record here and there, LaHood was a breath of fresh air from a corner of the Cabinet that had never before treated bicycling like a grown-up. His dedication to traffic safety and distracted driving prevention and his support for bicycling moved the needle of bicycle respect. LaHood’s endorsements of bicycling’s legitimacy helped spur a riding renaissance happening now in cities throughout America.
With the foundation built by LaHood, and with a strong election for President Obama in the rear-view mirror, we’re optimistic the next Transportation Secretary will continue his work. There are many names being floated around for his successor. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is on the top of many lists and even former Congressman (and champion of bicycling) Jim Oberstar has been mentioned. But among advocates and insiders we’ve heard from, the most sensible and exciting pick would be New York City DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. The success of cities will define America in the coming years, and Sadik-Khan has an excellent track record for improving transportation in our nation’s largest one. Her common sense, back-to-basics focus on moving people (not cars) and creating more humane and profitable streets has taken NYC from traffic nightmare to national role model. She has fought the entrenched forces that are resisting change and she has come out ahead. That’s the kind of leadership we need in D.C.
President Obama called out climate change in his inaugural address, yet he won’t be able to tackle it fully without a change in transportation priorities. If Obama truly wants a future where, “We the people” have equal access to healthy and affordable transportation options that enrich our communities instead of decimate them; he must pick an ally at the DOT who’s ready and able to pedal through the coming storms. LaHood got us to the front, now we just need a strong finisher.
What are your memories of LaHood? Who is your pick to replace him?