Obama’s Era and His Plans for the US Transportation System

People the world over erupted with joy on January 20, when US president Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of office. At the San Francisco, California Civic Center, thousands gathered to watch his swearing in on a turbo screen and cheered “O-ba-MA! O-ba-MA!” Nearby at a makeshift carnival booth, they threw old shoes at a likeness of George W. Bush. Nonetheless, most people are mindful that Obama is stepping into a thicket of difficulties – including planet-wide environmental degradation created in part by American driving habits.

“If the new administration doesn’t consider transportation for its climate and its energy impacts, then…ultimately we’ll have dire economic consequences,” said Randy Neufeld of the Chicago-based Active Transportation Alliance and president of the lobbying group America Bikes. The key, he said, is moving more federal funding into metropolitan areas for bicycle, pedestrian and transit improvements. Right now, no one knows whether the Obama administration and the new Congress will do this, but environmentalists are studying the signs.


Within a week of his inauguration, Obama reversed a Bush administration executive order forbidding states – especially the state of California, which had passed a law to get it into compliance with the Kyoto Protocol – from regulating auto emissions. He is also permitting federal agencies to raise fuel efficiency standards.

But Obama’s big test will come with the US$825 billion stimulus package that should be ready for him to sign by mid-February. This package, the largest in American history, is intended to lift the national economy out of its malaise.

Sustainable transportation organisers have their own ideas for that bill – and for a transportation bill that may be voted on in the fall – but right now, they are struggling to get Congress to restore funding for local and regional mass transit agencies, funding that had been cut by late January to make way for tax cuts.

San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency alone, which records about 700,000 daily trips, is projected to be short US$90 million out of an annual budget of US$787 million this year. Transportation for America, a mass-transit lobbying group, is organising now to get money restored for transit agencies.

Signs of Hope

Nonetheless, many environmentalists are optimistic. During the campaign, said Jeffrey Miller, president of the Washington, DC- based Thunderhead Alliance for Biking and Walking, Obama talked about Safe Routes to School, the federal programme geared at increasing the number of children walking or bicycling to school. “He gets it and supports it,” said Miller.

Obama also pledged to have Americans getting 10% of their energy from renewable sources by the end of his first term, and to achieve a 15% reduction in electricity demand by the end of the next decade. In addition, he took Amtrak from Philadelphia to Washington, DC for his inauguration.

Balancing Change with Business as Usual

However, just as Obama was declaring victory in November, American auto company executives were lining up at the congressional trough, begging for handouts to keep their struggling industries in operation. Congress gave them nothing, but they did get a US$13.4 billion bailout from Bush, with another US$4 billion to come in February if needed. This lifeline has given Obama time to create a plan around the auto industry. But what kind of plan will he create?

Obama, a Democrat, has chosen former Republican Illinois Congressman Ray LaHood to be transportation secretary. He has also chosen Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, to be agriculture secretary, and Steven Chu, the former head of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, to be his energy secretary. Through these appointments, Obama may be indicating his support for ethanol, a plant-based alternative to petroleum: Iowa and Illinois are two big growers of corn for ethanol, and Chu has voiced support for cellulosic ethanol.

But, for many sustainable living advocates, ethanol can enrich agribusinesses, yet it is unlikely to give Americans the “energy return on energy invested” that they are used to from oil, natural gas and coal, especially without seriously impacting soil health and world food supplies. Ethanol “doesn’t really address the core energy issue in terms of using less,” said Neufeld. “I think conservation is where it’s at.”

Wish Lists

In the interests of conservation, sustainable transportation activists have wish lists. “I would like an incremental downsizing of the highway system, and an upsizing of the rail system,” said San Francisco State geography professor and bicycle activist Jason Henderson.

Henderson would like Obama to give “fireside chats” like those given by president Franklin De- lano Roosevelt. “Americans could save energy,” said Henderson, “if Obama told Americans, ‘We gotta slow down. ’Otherwise we’re going to go medieval. Al Gore told us we had 10 years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

As to the transportation bill that should now be in the works in Congress, said Caron Whitaker, campaign director for America Bikes, “We need…to build a green infrastructure and active public transportation systems.” Such a system would ensure networks for bicycle and walking in every community, and safe routes to transit stops, schools, and shopping centres for everyone from school-age children to seniors.

By Susan Vaughan

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