LaHood and Leadership

Yesterday’s announcement from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, that he would not serve a second term, did not come as a huge shock; I’d heard rumors last summer that he had only planned on serving one term. I think, however, that we were still all disappointed when it became official – LaHood has been a huge proponent of all types of transportation, not just highways. 479px-Ray_LaHood_official_DOT_portrait

When I first started my current job, LaHood’s Fast Lane blog was one of the recommended industry sources, and The Mechanic and I had the opportunity to hear him speak; he struck me as genuine, which seems rare, and was very refreshing. I haven’t followed him through his entire term, so I can’t talk about his legacy with any sort of insight. Instead, I will offer up the Atlantic Cities article, “5 Ways the Next U.S. Secretary of Transportation Will Be Forced to Follow Ray LaHood’s Lead.”

LaHood’s legacy will be that he has initiated what the article calls “seismic transitions”: basically, that transportation is more than highways, that “smart” transportation makes places “livable,” that it takes a village of housing, education, environment, and more to create the aforementioned “livable” areas, and local leaders often know best. Oh, and technology is dramatically changing how we get around (but no distracted driving people!).

This new way of thinking is my way of thinking, so I am sad to see LaHood go. But I am about to embark on a new adventure that could see me becoming more active in promoting multi-modal, livable, healthier communities. This weekend, my job is generously sending me to the Association of Commuter Transportation‘s Leadership Academy. ACT is an international association for transportation demand management (TDM) professionals. Some people like to call it mobility management, like my friends at Mobility Lab. (Check out their video explaining what it is.) ACT logo

Part of what we will be doing at the Leadership Academy will be learning about transportation policy, and the ins and outs of government and lobbying. We will also be assigned group projects, which will hopefully have some legs to stand on once we graduate. I want to find a way to promote the need for communities to be inclusive, so that everyone can get around safely and comfortably. I think it is most important to start thinking about how the elderly, the disabled, and mothers with small children get around. What is safest for them? On a bus the other day, I watched two different mothers struggle on and off with baby strollers, and it just made me angry. These populations are our ignored, less vocal, less affluent neighbors, and they deserve better. Not everyone has the luxury of driving everywhere – so we punish them by giving 25 second crosswalk times across major intersections, call buttons nowhere near sidewalks, if there are sidewalks, and blame them if they get hurt trying to go about their business?! I just don’t think that is right.Ships 030

I hope to find a way to get national and local associations that advocate for the elderly and the disabled and the poor to work with transportation agencies, to come up with plans for the future that prioritize safe walking, bike lanes, convenient buses, bus routes, and stops, and subways and streetcars. And although I am a huge proponent for biking-as-transportation (not just sport), I firmly believe that it is only one piece of the puzzle – there can be no single focus, to the neglect of the other pieces. It must be holistic.

It seems like a daunting task, but I know that for three days, I will be with like-minded individuals, and I look forward to the ideas and plans we come up with.

Kinda excited!

Kinda excited!

On the Go with LaHood

Last week The Mechanic and I attended a town hall talk at George Washington University with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

"On the Go" with Ray LaHood

I have been following his blog, Fast Lane, since I started my new job in transportation demand management (TDM), when my boss recommended it among others. When I told her I was going to hear Secretary LaHood, she said that he really gets the whole thing, smart streets and TDM, and she enjoys hearing him talk. After an hour with him, I understood why.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood

I guess I don’t expect politicians to all be personable, honest, and frank with their audiences. Perhaps it was because it was a university setting, college students in the audience, and Secretary LaHood had started off as a civics teacher, but he was surprisingly open about himself, his career path, and current politics. He told us how he ended up, as a Republican, appointed to the Obama administration (working well and being friends with Rahm Emanuel, and working well with then-Senator Obama), emphasizing, not for the first time, how important it is to work well with others. “To solve problems, help other people,” he said, stating that in politics it is about building relationships to get stuff done. (That being said, he admitted that there are many in office right now who don’t want to do anything because it will be seen as helping or working with the president.)

I was a bit worried that the talk would never get around to it’s topic – “On the Go: Ensuring a Quality Transportation System,” but eventually it did. Proving my boss correct, LaHood said “The people want mass transit – we don’t sit around at DOT making this stuff up.” He wants to provide what people want – buses, light rail, streetcars, subway systems – not to replace cars, but to give people different ways to get around. 

Although the conversations were wide ranging (I’d like to add that all but maybe two of the people asking questions were male – I really wanted to get up and ask something but couldn’t think of anything intelligent enough), Secretary LaHood answered everything honestly and openly. Well, he did refuse to talk about the tax-per-mile issue, which apparently got him into trouble a few years ago. I had to look it up and find out what the drama was – but was still impressed that he answered every other question.

There were three big take-aways from the evening for me. One was that cities and states that have good multi-use roads and smart cities is because the mayors and governors come to DOT wanting it, which means they are officials elected by people who want these things. The other is that there will always be some sort of federal subsidy for transportation in this country, of some sort, be it Amtrak, highways, or streetcars. And to go back to Secretary LaHood’s big point about working together and the importance of compromise to get things done.

Oh, and distracted driving – don’t talk or text while you are driving!