The following blog was written by America Walks’ Executive Director Mike McGinn.
A change in administrations can be a time of great possibility and hope – that the right people and policies can finally generate real change on the ground. But we all know it won’t be easy. I rode those hopes as a newly elected mayor of Seattle and faced the political reality of divided government.
So what do we need to look for as president-elect Biden prepares his Administration?
First, he is saying the right things. If you believe (like us) that equitable and inclusive walkable places connected by clean transit are really good things you’ll be glad to see Biden includes it in the climate change section of his transition plan:
“Provide every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options through flexible federal investments with strong labor protections that create good, union jobs and meet the needs of these cities — ranging from light rail networks to improving existing transit and bus lines to installing infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists.”
And it’s not just infrastructure – environmental justice is a priority there too:
“Ensure that environmental justice is a key consideration in where, how, and with whom we build — creating good, union, middle-class jobs in communities left behind, righting wrongs in communities that bear the brunt of pollution, and lifting up the best ideas from across our great nation — rural, urban, and tribal.”
Biden also prioritizes racial equity – which we know is inextricably linked to the ability to move freely throughout our communities. Indeed, we would love it if Biden would explicitly name mobility justice as a goal in this section of his transition plan.
And that takes us to the fact of transitions – elections are a point in time and the work must be ongoing. I ran for and won the job of mayor of Seattle with one of my goals to transform Seattle transportation. We got lots of wins, but we failed to get one big objective, replacing an aging waterfront highway with transit. The forces working to build a replacement highway in a tunnel were just too strong to overcome.
As we well know, in our system of government, power is diffused among multiple players and that will be the reality for the new Biden administration. And it’s not just Senators and Members of Congress that he must deal with. Governors, mayors, local other local elected officials as well as a myriad of agencies and departments of transportation will ultimately decide what our streets look like, not just the President or the new USDOT head, as important as they are.
The ultimate engine of change has to be people in local communities identifying the changes they want to see, contacting elected officials, educating their neighbors, and working to build coalitions to make our streets safe and inclusive. We’ve spent decades making them unsafe and hostile to people walking, biking and moving outside of automobiles. It’s going to take a long-term people-powered movement to change that.
That’s what we’re seeing now. Since America Walks was formed over twenty years ago, due to your efforts the movement for walkable, movable, inclusive communities has kept growing. We’ll keep doing our part to support you because we know the groundswell you are building locally ultimately translates into national power.
Your work is why we now see sidewalks and a whole lot of other good things explicitly called out in the Biden transition plan. Now we need to make those ideas into federal laws, policies and budgets that change our streets.
We’ve made clear that we want to see the US Department of Transportation prioritize safety not speed and focus on equity. We’re going to push the National Highway Safety Administration to protect people outside of cars, not just those in cars. We’ve joined with our national partners to advocate for active transportation in the next transportation reauthorization bill. And we want to make sure any new jobs or infrastructure bill invests in the cleanest and most equitable form of transportation – safe streets for those walking and moving in the communities that need them the most. We will be contacting you when it’s time to weigh in with the new Administration and Congress.
Want to further activate your advocacy work while holding politicians accountable? Check out these resources for tangible ideas and grassroots inspiration: