By Charles Pekow — Will our new U.S. Secretary of Transportation use his position to improve and expand bicycling? Time will tell and evidence is mixed but hopeful.
Pete Buttigieg does have some understanding and experience with riding bikes and promoting cycling. He recently told the Silicon Valley Leadership Group “the more people commute by bike, actually the safer it gets because vehicles start to take that into account, and everybody gets used to it. But we've got to build for it. We've got to plan for it and that's something that can work in big cities and small (ones).” He said he just acquired “a great used bike.”
At the spring virtual Bike Summit of the League of American Bicyclists (LAB), Buttigieg also said he toured European cities known for cycling and was inspired to replicate that culture in the United States. Buttigieg also indicated a need to work more closely with states. “State highway departments may not be as on the ball as locals,” he told LAB. “We can definitely be more of a bicycling country.”
However, in prepared remarks to Congress on the administration's transportation plans, Buttigieg didn't mention bicycling.
He was seen riding his bike to a cabinet meeting but that appeared to be a publicity stunt as a video caught the bike being lifted out of an SUV, which tailed him as he biked. Local media also showed him riding a bikeshare to work in February but ridiculed him for not adjusting the seat properly.
“I think we still need to see … but there's a real opportunity for action as we are waiting for something like an infrastructure package to move,” says Noa Banayan, Federal Affairs Manager for People for Bikes. Any major increases in funding for bike programs will have to be included in reauthorization of the FAST Act, which is technically due Sept. 30, she says.
But Banayan says “we'll be making sure those comments [Buttigieg made about cycling] are not just comments; that they are actually action.” She added that “we've had some really good meetings with staff as they're getting on board [at the U.S. Department of Transportation] …. Some people have been brought into the Department who are really committed to this work … they even identify as bike riders.”
She said not to worry if Buttigieg didn't mention the topic at one hearing.
How did Buttigieg do as mayor?
South Bend did get some recognition for bicycle improvements under Buttigieg, but it could make a lot more progress. In 2018, LAB awarded the city silver status as a Bicycle Friendly Community, noting it was implementing a bike plan. But LAB's report said South Bend needed to make a lot of improvements to meet the gold standard, such as dedicating a fulltime bicycle coordinator and adopting a bike parking ordinance. Buttigieg only devoted one percent of the city's transportation budget on bicycling, whereas the average gold awardee dedicated 14 percent. The city's bicycle advisory committee met quarterly, whereas LAB suggests at least monthly.
LAB noted in a blog post that in 2013, shortly after Buttigieg became mayor, the city started a Smart Streets initiative, which included its first cycle tracks and bike signals downtown. The post also noted an active bikeshare system.
People for Bikes' City Scorecard treated South Bend more harshly last year, giving it 1.5 stars out of a possible five. (No city scored better than 3.5). The scorecard cave South Bend a terrible .6 rating for “commitment to growing bicycling quickly” but noted it didn't have data to judge “growth in bike facilities and events.”
And Buttigieg did some cycling himself as mayor. “He bought a used cycle from us,” recalls John Hall, owner of Avenue Bicycle Station in South Bend. “It was a Saturday; he came in with his husband. They were looking for a used bike. I happened to have a couple that fit their need. He was a happy customer as he left” with his three-speed. But Hall adds that he never came back for a tune-up or spare parts.