« The Weeds

How Secretary Buttigieg wants to make America’s roads safer

2023-04-26

On this week’s episode of The Weeds, we sit down with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to talk about transportation policy in America. From subways and buses to cars and safer roads, listen for more about the future of public transportation and the policies that can curb traffic deaths. Plus, more from Vox’s Marin Cogan and her reporting on the deadliest road in America. 

Related Reading:

How a stretch of US-19 in Florida became the deadliest road for pedestrians - Vox

Cars transformed America. They also made people more vulnerable to the police.

A driver killed her daughter. She won't let the world forget. 

 

Credits:

Jonquilyn Hill, host

Sofi LaLonde, producer

Cristian Ayala, engineer

A.M. Hall, editorial director of talk podcasts

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
- Support for this podcast comes from Planned Parenthood. It's hard to imagine a world where we leave future generations with fewer rights and freedoms. Since the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, politicians in nearly every state have introduced bills aimed at blocking people from getting the essential sexual and reproductive care they need, including abortion. Planned Parenthood believes everyone deserves access to care and with supporters like you, they can reclaim our rights and protect and expand access to abortion care. Visit plannedparenthood.org/future to learn more and support their cause. It's Ryan Reynolds and I'm here with Keith, co-star of my upcoming film, If, only in theaters May 17th. If you wanna tell people the big news,
Now and you'll get unlimited for $15 a month in six months of Paramount+ Essential Plan on us. Mintmobile.com/switch. Upfront payment of $45 equivalent to $15 per month. Unlimited over 40 gigabytes per month. Face lower speeds. Videos at 480p. Active Mint customers by $531.24. Get six months of Paramount+ Essential Plan. Auto renews after six months. Offer ends May 31st, 2024. Separate Paramount+ registration required. Terms and conditions apply if rated PG. It's the weeds. I'm John Glenn Hill. Have you ever just had one of those days? Cue the Monica. I woke up ready to go to work. Researching and writing for this episode actually, and it felt like everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. I was out of coffee, and by the time I settled onto my computer to check my email, I realized...
My internet was down. Like, can your girl catch a break? I had a lot to do, and I knew I had to come up with a solution fast. So I walked across the street to the bus stop, waited about five minutes, and took the bus to my working coffee shop of choice. Crisis averted, productivity up. It was an easy fix, and it was all done from start to finish. In about 25 minutes. But a fix like that isn't that easy for most Americans. Institute, only about 8% of Americans live near accessible public transportation. And, in places where good public transit does exist, it can be expensive to live near. Only issue. In 2016, 20% of Americans were in the same place. That's why we're here.
Of those living in poverty had no access to a car. 2015 study, the length of their parents' commutes can be one of the biggest factors in predicting upward mobility for children. From a two-parent home more than their test scores. Transportation is a big deal. And since transportation is a big deal, we decided to talk to someone who's a big deal in transportation policy. On top of all of that data, we also know the pandemic has dramatically changed where we live and where we work in ways that are less equitable. I asked Secretary Buttigieg what lessons the federal government's taken from all of this. We know that social mobility depends on literal mobility, the ability to get to social mobility.
Cool to get to good jobs, to be able to affordably move around your community and beyond. And that's something that is part of what's been at stake in the push to pass and now to implement the bipartisan infrastructure law. Part of why this is so important is, this isn't just the physical attributes of our sometimes crumbling infrastructure. It's the fact that if we make the right choices, we're empowering more people to thrive. And if we don't, then we're locking people into patterns of falling and staying behind. What does that mean in practice? It's part of why it's important to have good transit. It's part of why it's important to invest equitably in good roads and streets that serve people in different communities. It's part of why this clean energy and clean transportation revolution that we have right now needs to be intentional about reaching everyone.
You look at electric vehicles tend to have a higher sticker price. And yet if people can afford them, they stand to save money because it's cheaper to fill up a car with electrons than it is with gas. So how do we make sure in terms of the affordability and in terms of the access to charging stations that that reaches everybody? These are the kinds of things that we are in this infrastructure decade of the 2020s focused on because we know that the result of that is going to mean more people free to live lives that they're choosing or at least better able to do that with transportation helping not hurting. When we think of transportation, we tend to think of Large cities, but car access can make or break people who are living in rural areas. What's the plan to address those specific needs?
I think that's exactly right. You know, when you hear about things like access to transit, for example, people can easily picture transit in urban areas. But actually rural transit is sometimes the decider for whether some Americans are able to-- Or not and we've been funding a lot of efforts on that. Some things are also possible now that weren't before. And I'll give you the example of what a bus network can look like. So when I was mayor in South Bend, Indiana, that's a city of 100,000. That means it's big enough to have a bus system, but not dense enough to have a bus system that's Frequent. Maybe once an hour the bus would come and it had reliability issues too. And it was on a hub-and-spoke network which which meant even to get around a not that big. It might take you an hour, an hour and a half for somebody who is a worker who lives on the north side to get to a factory on the northwest side because they'd have to come all the way downtown.
And then go back all the way out on buses that only run every half hour or every hour. Well, in an era where we have technologies like the technology that makes Uber and Lyft possible where you can see where the car is, you can see where the rider is, some of that could be applied to transit so they don't all have to depend on the old model of 40-foot is running downtown and back. And we have seen some transit agencies-- I saw this in Kansas City recently, for example-- using this technology to provide more rides on-- And for people who need them at a lower cost to the system. So that's just one example of how, you know, in addition to making sure that people who do have access to a car have safe roads to drive on and good charging networks if they choose to go electric, we also gotta make sure that there are alternatives or don't want to have a ton of metal going along with them everywhere they go.
Instead of having really good options for transit or even for active transportation, depending on your community, sometimes making sure it's easier and safer to walk or bike can be a big difference maker for people economically as well as in terms of convenience. And some quality of life. - I wanna dig more on rural areas, and I wanna briefly talk about your response to the-- Folk southern derailment in East Palestine. It was criticized. Is there anything that you would do differently, looking back on it? - Look, we had folks on the ground within the first hours of the incident in East Palestine. And what happened to that community, I think was a wake-up call to a country that was not aware that derailments happened
often as they do, most of them, of course, not as severe or serious as what happened in East Palestine, but there have been many, including ones with fatalities, that actually got less attention that now I think people are paying more regard to. Ordinarily transportation secretaries don't go to active sites of crash investigations because that's for the NTSB. Be to do. But I did go to East Palestine because the residents there were getting so much misinformation and I think we're really questioning whether the administration was there for them. So even though it was a break from the norm, I'm glad that I did go. I went there the day that the NTSB had their fact finding. Early phase complete. And what I came away with was one, admiration for the people of that community and how they've been going through this period of uncertainty that they've faced for no fault of their own. But secondly, the need for this country to
To get tougher on freight railroads. We've been doing it already from day one as an administration with the authorities we have. But if Congress follows through on what's being proposed right now, then we would be in a position to do much more. And that's what I've been urging Congress to do and pushing the railroad companies to do. Because frankly, they have been able to ignore communities that have been asking them to be more responsive, asking them to take steps that could be done. Could affect safety. And I think the dynamic has changed. We're gonna keep pushing that as far as it can go. - I do understand how those who are living in rural areas do feel over. Looked. I mean these trains pass through their communities and I'm curious how How do you ensure that these people are not forgotten in the wake of East Palestine, not
In that community, but in these rural communities all across the country? Well, first of all, we got to bring resources, right? So we have been funding railroad safety improvements. These railroads are privately owned, but there are times when you need a public investment in order to make a difference. Also, through our- our rural funding programs and others, we've been able to do things like eliminating some of the crossings that can be an issue. That's why we have a railroad. Elimination program has never existed before. Hundreds of millions of dollars going specifically to some of the places where those crossings need to be eliminated entirely. So that's the infrastructure side of this. Then there's the enforcement side of this. What I want rural communities or any community that has a lot of train traffic through it, including the community where I grew up in South Bend, Indiana, which sits right along major train lines from Chicago to the East Coast, is that we have your back. And we're using our authorities to hold these freight railroads accountable. But we could be doing more if Congress would authorize us. I'll give you an example.
Right now, under the law, even if we catch a railroad company violating a hazardous material rule so egregiously that it leads to a fatality, the most we can find that company is in the neighborhood of about 250,000. And if you're talking about a multi-billion dollar freight railroad like Norfolk Southern, that's just not enough, in my view, to change their practices or get their attention. So there's bipartisan legislation in the Senate right now that would change that. That would actually set the fine to be up to a percentage of that railroad's net income. That would make a huge difference in our ability to get there. And to follow through with teeth on these enforcement powers. So we'll keep pushing what we can with the rule making that we can do and the enforcement that we can do. But with help from Congress, we could take it a lot further. - Up next, we'll dive into the future of public transportation with Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
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And make it more reliable and frequent rather than getting rid of those fears altogether. Where do you stand when it comes to this conversation? - I think the honest answer to your question. Knows the jury is still out a little bit. What I mean by that is we need to see more of the data that comes back through some of these efforts for fare-free transit. There's an active debate with a lot of really important points being made on both sides. Those who view a transit fare as something that is a real barrier, if you multiply it by every day, somebody's gotta go to work. And others who think the best thing you can do, For low income or vulnerable transit users, is to make sure that the service is more reliable and more frequent. And there are cases where you really do have a choice to make as a transit agency with a given dollar. Are you going to invest it in free fares, or are you going to invest in some kind of service improvement? Now, that's not always as straightforward as it sounds.
Because sometimes you do the free fare, you get more ridership, that actually leads to more revenue through different patterns. Another way that some communities seek to split the atom is means testing, so that lowest income riders can get free fares, but that can be complicated to implement. But this is the exact reason why we're not trying to dictate any of that from here at the USDOT. We are closely watching these pilot programs, though, around fare-free transit, to see what the results are, and to see how that compares to the other strategies transit agencies are attempting. Transit agencies are under huge pressure right now. Post-COVID commuting still has not reached a stable, permanent new normal, in my view. We've seen a lot of recovery, but not back to what it was like in 2019. And yet we know that transit is more important than ever, especially for those who count on it every day. And whether you ride transit or not, you benefit from transit. in every respect.
From the essential workers who you count on, who get to their jobs, through transit, to the fact that if you're driving a car on the road, every person who's on transit means a car that's not on the road, it means less congestion for drivers. So it really is a win-win. To say nothing of the safety benefits, because transit ultimately has better safety outcomes than single occupancy vehicles, for sure. And the environmental benefits, which are huge. Matter of fact, one of the things in all of this legislation that's gonna make the biggest difference for climate is just support for good, better transit. - Even in cities, people don't always have access to transit. Only about 8% of the US population lives near high quality public transportation. And what do you make of expansions in cities? in cities. Should that be one of the priorities these municipalities are making? I think the right answer is going to look different from city to city. In some places, it's got more to do with making the service you've already got can be more frequent and
more reliable. But yeah, there are other places where expansion could make a huge difference. I'll give you just one example. In Chicago, there's a neighborhood in South Chicago called Roseland. And that neighborhood within the city limits of Chicago has folks who can take an hour, almost an hour and a half to get to downtown Chicago to work. And the reason that stuck in my mind so strongly when I was there visiting with community leaders a town called Roseland, Indiana, close to South Bend where I grew up, which is 90 miles east of Chicago. It takes about the same amount of time to get from Roseland, Indiana to downtown Chicago if you do have a car, as it does to get from the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago to downtown if you don't. There's a clear and profound inequity here and an opportunity to change things. In our capital investment grant program, we are supporting a red-line extension of the investment program.
In Chicago that's going to better connect the South Side. And we know that that's going to mean more opportunity for people who live there. We're also seeing a lot being done with bus rapid transit. This is where you have a bus that's sort of halfway in terms of the look and feel and experience to... To being more like a street car or light rail, but at a small fraction of the cost. Even in DC, in our neighborhood in DC, we're starting to see some of the infrastructure and the platforms be put in, as well as dedicated bus lanes, so that when it runs, it runs more efficiently. That can be a solution in a place where maybe it doesn't make sense to dig a whole new subway or put up a whole new rail line, but it makes all the sense in the world to make sure that the buses are more convenient and more reliable, so that people, whether they have a car or not, choose and rely on them in a way that's going to help them. To where they need to be. policy is local, but transportation feels especially hyper local. And I'm sure since in your former
Life as a mayor, you're very aware of that. What trends do you want to see happen across the country and how does the Department of Transportation plan to support those? Both as a mayor and just as a former mayor and as a member of this administration, I have tons of respect for the local role. I think that's where most of the key decisions that affect people's lives are made. I felt that way as a mayor, I feel that way even more strongly. That I'm in Washington. So we want to empower local leaders and local communities to get things done. By the way, one thing that I wish more local residents, people around the country understood, is that most of the decisions about most of the money coming out of this infrastructure-- Are going to be made closer to home, which means you might be more empowered than you think to do something about it.
Of showing up at a city council or getting involved in state decision making, as well as the work that we're doing at USDOT. There are lots of things I would like to see happen on an accelerated basis in communities around the country. I'd like to see more attention to safety, to those road designs, including what's called complete streets, which is a strategy for making sure that across the streetscape, pedestrians, bicycles, wheelchairs, cars, trucks, and buses, and for that matter, small businesses can all coexist peacefully because you're managing those spaces in a smarter, safer way. I'd like to see more of a change in the way that we're doing. Of a acceleration in getting people access to the benefits of having electric vehicles. They've been viewed historically as a very urban and very, I think, elite early adopter kind of thing. But actually, you know, two thirds of Americans have charging infrastructure already where
realize it or not. And what I mean by that is 2/3 of Americans have a garage or a carport, and you can charge an electric vehicle-- maybe not as fast, but you can do it-- with a plug in the wall. And most of those Americans, or at least a higher rate of those Americans, live in rural areas. So they actually are well positioned to benefit. But then that means in urban areas, where you've got multifamily buildings, where there's not enough wealth for it to make sense yet and be profitable for a private company to put in a charger. We've got to help speed up that process. So these are all things that need to happen locally. But that we are working to support federally. And it goes back to what I often say, that the answers aren't going to come from Washington, D.C., but more the funding. And as we're encouraging communities to take these steps, we're also funding communities to take these steps so that they can match their local vision with some of these national projects that we're all sharing in together. You mentioned how mass transportation can help when it comes to road safety.
And I briefly want to touch on road safety. Car crashes are a leading cause of death here in America. And last year, they were up over. 9,500 people died in traffic crashes in the first quarter of the year alone. What are some policy solutions? How do we fix this other than Hey, everybody, drive better. We should all be up in arms about roadway deaths in this country. As you said, about 10,000 people a quarter. That means about 40,000 people a year, which, by the way, is roughly-- Equivalent to the number of lives we lose to gun violence in this country. And I think precisely because it happens so often, there is an attitude that it's inevitable. It's not. There are other, not just other countries, but certain places within the US that have Dramatically lower rates of roadway deaths. Matter of fact, at the US Conference of Mayors this year, I was able to recognize three communities.
Evanston, Illinois, Edina, Minnesota, Jersey, Jersey City, actually there's four, Hoboken also, that have all experienced.
One or more years of zero traffic deaths, even though we're talking about communities of tens of thousands of people. And communities with very different layouts, by the way, from each other. So we know it can be done. Our strategy has five elements. Safer roads, safer vehicles, safer drivers, safer speeds, and a better standard of post-crash care. So when you do have a crash, the emergency response is in a position to make it less likely to wind up as a fatality. And we have to do all five of those things. And we have to do it partnering with every kind of player, from a city council thinking about a street project to cell phone companies that can help make sure that there's less distracted driving. Some of it is behavioral, for sure, the choices that the drivers make, but a lot of it's design. And good design recognizes that humans make mistakes, but prevents them from being fatal. And a good example of that is
to show you what's possible here is our aviation system. We're always making improvements to our aviation system. But think about the fact that we often have a year, in fact, more years than not, where the number of people killed in an airliner crash is zero. This is in a form of transportation that involves 16 million flights a year that involves people flying through the air at nearly the speed of sound. And almost every single time you have a perfectly safe arrival and return, and in a way that is just completely different from what we have on our roadways. So we know that if we have the right attention, the right systems in place, and the right safety checks, we could be saving so many lives. The recent rise appears to be plateauing.
Data that just came out. Stopping the rise is step one, but our goal, of course, is to reverse the rise and to move towards zero. Yeah. What's caused that rise? What do you think? Well, there are several factors that we think are at play. There was an unusual rise during the year of COVID, which is a bit counterintuitive because you'd think there was less driving going on, but with less driving, there were actually more opportunities for speeding. On open roadways. We're not pro-congestion. It is notable, though, that when you have no traffic whatsoever, what you often saw was people who were treating those-- freeways is raceways. And so we need to have a future outlook where we have neither congestion nor danger on our roads. And that's what we're trying to design for. There are questions about the design of vehicles, vehicles that have tech--
Technology on board that's meant to benefit safety, but if you lean on it too much, it can have the opposite result. So think about the lane assist technology, for example, and the kind of cruise control that actually knows how far away you are from the car in front of you. In theory, that's a safety boon, but not if you get so comfortable with it that you take your eye off the road and check your email. There is no vehicle you can get commercially today where it's okay to not be paying attention to the road. I think this is especially important as you hear some of the marketing going on out there. Just be really clear. Some of these technologies are exciting, but none of them, at least nothing available today to a driver just buying a car, none of them permits you to... Stop having your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. Transportation issues like these aren't often political fodder and don't get attention like these do. And I think it would be naive not to acknowledge that you and your history as a presidential candidate might be one of the...
Any reasons we're seeing these stories stay in the news cycle. How do you plan to leverage that attention, both when it comes to transportation policy, but also when it comes to the future of your career? - Well, what I try to make sure of every day is that if my profile is a little different than most transportation secretaries, that that's something that at the end of the day, we shape for the benefit of the agency's ability to meet its mission. If we can attract more attention to the issue of roadway deaths, if we can really get some facts out there about electric vehicles, if we can have an honest conversation about disparities in our transportation system and what to do about them, then...
There's a chance to do a lot of good. But you're right, it would be naive to ignore the political noise around all of this. What I'm working to do is to cut through all of that. Something like saving Americans money and the consequences of pollution and creating good paying jobs with electric vehicles. Nothing Republican or Democrat about that. I would argue the same about our efforts to reconnect communities that have been divided by-- decisions around where a railway or roadway went in the past. I think when you do that reconnecting, it makes nobody worse off, and it makes a whole lot of people better off, and it makes for a more fair and equitable transportation.
So these could and should be unifying. I know that's not always how it works when you have the media noise machine out there, but we're gonna keep pushing because these are also just good policies that deserve to be seen through. - And what about that second part of the question, the part about that attention in the future of your career? - At every stage in my path, I've found that the best thing that I can do for the present and for the future is to keep my head down and try to do a good job. And that's my focus here, transportation. in my view, is simultaneously experiencing its toughest. Period since 9/11 and its best period since I was born. And what I mean by that is, the reason it's the toughest period is that you've seen all of these things mostly related to COVID.
And related to the decades of underinvestment that have caught up to us. The mean from container shipping to airline passenger delays. We've seen the most varied and intense set of disruptions to the transport systems of America since 9/11. Especially when we got here, when the big question around our airlines was, were they going to go under, which is the big question of 2021. Or the big question on our supply chains was, you know, is Christmas going to be canceled because nobody could get their presents? We got through the darkest days of 2021, but we got a lot more work to do. On the other hand, it's also the best time ever, I think, to be working in transportation because under the president's leadership and A lot of good bipartisan work, we've got resources that my predecessors could only have dreamed of to do something about these problems. So whether we're talking about railroad safety or.
Roadway safety or electric vehicle chargers, we've got dollars that we can put to work to solve these problems. We can't solve them all overnight, but we can do more than has been possible in decades. And that responsibility and that opportunity. Opportunity commands more than 100% of my attention at work. All right, Secretary Pete Buttigieg, thank you. - Thanks so much for joining us on The Weeds. - Thank you, good to be with you. - That was the 10,000 foot view of the policy angle. But there's one part of this conversation that-- Really stuck with me. Those tens of thousands of traffic deaths. Why are our roads so deadly? I'm gonna do a weird experiment. I drive. It's the most dangerous road in America for pedestrians. A Closer Look at Road Safety, up next.
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Safe up to $400. Hydro.com code WEEDS. Hear that? Believe it or not, summer is just around the corner. Luckily, Armor All, America's most trusted auto appearance brand, has what your car needs to get that perfect summer shine. Plus, now for May 31st, we'll give you $5 for every 20 you spend on Armor All products. That means carwash pods for... Protect entire shine, you name it. Find out how to get your $5 rebate at ArmorAll.com. Armor All, less work, more clean. Terms apply. - And we're back. Last year, nearly 43,000 people died in traffic accidents. The United States. I wanted to dig deeper into the reasons why and why it seems
like such an intractable problem. - My name is Maren Cogan, and I'm a senior correspondent at Fox. - Maren has done some excellent reporting on this subject. Last year, she traveled to what's... Considered the deadliest road in America. Turn right onto US-19 South, then make a U-turn in Hammock Road. He painted a picture of just how deadly this road is. One stretch of road in Pasco County, Florida, of the 60 deadliest hotspots in America, this one stretch of road. And this one county had seven of the deadliest hotspots on it. So it was this crazy concentration of lethality, basically. So something like 137 people had died in those hotspots between 2001 and 2017. And then when I looked at this with a colleague on our data team, we found that between 2017 and last year, four--
So I really wanted to go down there and just take a look at this road. When I got there, it was a really big road. Interesting because the road at once looked so normal to me. I mean, it was a road that you would see in any sort of like suburban sprawl. Situation anywhere in the US. Like we have all been on these roads. There are big, wide, straight, open roads, multiple lanes on each side. Multiple turning lanes at every intersection so at some places you're up to six, seven, eight lanes and there's just a lot commercial development on either side. So you have a lot of people who also are walking this road, even though there are very few places for pedestrians to cross. So I decided to both
Drive the road and also walk the road to see what that was like. So if I wanted to get a really good speed, I could and there's really not very much traffic at all. I guess I don't understand why I need this many lanes. So. And a woman on bikes. Walking on the side of the road. Another person over here with a bike. Another person walking their dog. The sidewalks pretty far back. So this is I mean, this road is driving the road was very comfortable because it was so straight and flat and open. I could notice myself almost going. A little faster than the speed limit, even though I'm someone who thinks about this a lot and tries to drive the speed limit. It was like the design of the... Was lulling me into driving faster, and it was very comfortable. And I knew it was dangerous intrinsically because I knew the data, but I didn't feel super concerned about it. Then I walked the
road to dinner one night and walking the road to dinner was horrible. I waited at a crosswalk for so long and the light never changed that I had to give up. Last day I was in town, I was driving the road, and there were all these small placards that they put up when someone has been killed if the family requires them. That says, Drive safely in memory of... And they're sort of unassuming, so you don't notice them at first, but the more I drove the road, the more I started to see them on the sides of the road, and it starts to look almost like a killing. Field in that context. There are just so many memorials to so many people who have been killed along this road. Driving the road one night. I was right outside Newport, Richey, and I came across a bunch of kids gathered around one of the signs right outside of a gas station.
I pulled over and I just walked up to them. They were all sort of like, I mean, they were drinking, you know, and sort of sitting around this sign and I approached some of them and I said, like, what's going on? And they were like, what's the one year anniversary of when our friend was killed by a drunk driver here? And I think just the The fact that I was there for a few days and I was walking around and I came across people just standing on the side of the road mourning and while I was talking to some of these girls. A bunch of ambulances went driving by with their sirens screaming and the girls were like, Look. There's another one now. That's one road in particular. Can you spell out for us how big of a problem this is across the country? It's a huge problem. Huge problem, Jonklin, and it's often overlooked. So about the same number of people die in This country each year from cars as they do from guns. I think the difference is that most of us
We don't need cars to get around. Most of us use cars. They have many purposes and a lot of those purposes are good. So I think most of us don't even really think about cars as one of those. Main causes and a leading driver of death in the United States, but they are. They're a leading cause of death in the US for people ages 1 to 54, and you are disproportionately more likely to die in a car crash in the US than you are in other comparable countries. You are three times more likely to die in a car crash. Today in the US than someone living in France. And I should say it wasn't always this way. 50 years ago, you were just as likely to die in a car crash in France as you were in the US. And it's not just because France is full of this old sort of pre-car infrastructure and the US is not. It's infrastructure. It's the kinds of cars we have on the road and a bunch of policy decisions made in the decades between the '70s and now that have made our fatality.
Rates go way up while other comparable countries are going way down. And one more thing I want to add to that is like we weren't doing good to begin with, but when the pandemic happened, the problem got way worse. So in 2020, nearly 40,000 people died on US roads. That was the most since 2007. And that's despite traffic being way down because of the pandemic, right? Yeah. In 2021, it got worse. So nearly 42,000 people died. 7,500 pedestrians were killed. At any time in 40 years. And last year, the overall road deaths were about the same. So we are basically at crisis levels, but no one is really talking about it. Overall, how does the U.S. compare to other countries when it comes to traffic fatalities? - Really, really poorly. So it's, I gave you the-- Of France, how you're three times more likely to die in a crash here today than you are in France, even though our fatality rates were the same in the 70s. But it's not just France. Let's think of some other large countries.
Like Australia or even Canada. The writer David Zipper did a really good piece in Bloomberg about why Canada is not seeing the same fatality rates on their roads that we are. Their roads are getting safer, while ours are getting more dangerous. Canada is another big country, right? Canada is a good point of comparison. On there that is not happening here. Why are the roads getting safer? Well, ours are getting more dangerous. What do they have that we don't? They have smaller cars, for one. They have much better mass transit and more people who use that mass transit. They have better automated enforcement systems for catching people who speed. They have stiffer penalties for people who drink and drive. So they are doing things differently than we are. Despite having sort of a big, wide open country, and their roads are getting safer, ours are getting deadlier.
And, you know, occasionally you'll hear about policy trying to fix this, like I think of Vision Zero, for instance. But we don't talk about it the same way we talk about guns. We don't. And I think it's because for most... Of us driving and cars and the sort of centrality of car culture is so central to our way of that we don't think of there being any other way. And because we don't think of there being any other way, we tend to overlook the number of lives that are lost each year in this country because of this dependency on cars. It does not have to be this way, but in order for us to make changes, we have to first realize that it's a problem. And I think, you know, at this point, we all drive so much that we don't even necessarily.
See it as a problem, but it is. Yeah, I want to kind of get into the dynamics of the road. So you and I both live in DC and I am very much a pedestrian. I walk or take public transportation most places, mostly because Parking in DC is a nightmare, and I'm kind of like, What's the point? And you know, you'll grab a rental car. Like every now and then where it's like, Oh, I need to go to Costco. Oh, I wanna drop some stuff off at Goodwill. I kind of think of all of the players on the road as different entities with like different goals. Different needs. So there are drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians, and everyone. And overall kind of lives in harmony, but there are also things that get really contentious These different groups. I mean, I can go to my neighborhood listserv right now and see a battle over bicycle lanes. It will get very nasty and very
And it seems like everyone's kind of laying the blame on each other. Like drivers are blaming bicyclists and pedestrians. Pedestrians are saying, Hey, bicyclists, get off the sidewalk. Bicyclists are saying, I need a bike lane. Do we know which group of people is the cause of these accidents? Or fatalities? Is this how we should even be thinking about it? Like, is my brain broken? No, our center country. This is this is such a great question. So yeah. I think the vision that we all have, the utopian vision certainly, and the vision that we should be working towards, Is one where we share the roads, right? And I should say, like, I come from this, from a very similar perspective to you. See. And I should say I'm a car owner, so I'm a driver. I'm a cyclist. I'm a pedestrian. I do it all. I take the bus, I take the metro. I'm a woman about town. But I think, you know, the reality is drivers are off.
A couple of tons of steel on the road. Pedestrians and cyclists are not. And when you're in a car, you are sort of separating. From the environment in ways that pedestrians and cyclists aren't. You're sort of cut off in your own little bubble. Add to that the fact that we have designed the infrastructure in our country with the supremacy... Of those car drivers and those cars in mind, right? The roads are built for them. All of this contributes, I think, to a sense, and I say this. To someone who drives, right? I'm not just saying this as like an angry cyclist. This contributes to a sense that the cars are the ones that are supposed to be on the road, they're sort of the kings of the road, and the pedestrians and cyclists and everyone else are sort of in the way and need to get out of the way. And this is because the environment is built this way and because our cars are built this way, it sort of encourages us to behave in this way. So, and that's true even though most of us, right,
sometimes and pedestrians other times. So even those of us who think about this stuff and care about it can understand how the car breeds this sort of almost antisocial perspective. See things like drivers zipping through intersections without even bothering to look and stop for the pedestrians who are waiting to cross or treating cyclists like they're nuisances who have a right to share the road, and we need to do a lot to change the perspective. In the design of these roadways so that drivers understand that they are there to share the road with other vehicles and other people. Yeah, I asked the secretary about this and you're getting at it with the design, but what do you see as the solution to this problem? What do streets with fewer fatalities look like? Come down to design. We could do so much more with design. We could design our roads so that drivers have to slow down when they're on the road.
There will be lots of pedestrians around. We can create better mass transit and bike infrastructure, so pedestrians and cyclists-- Aren't constantly getting the shorter end of the stick, we can build our roads with the sense that to err is human. And we can create an environment so those errors don't cost people's lives quite so often. We can also mandate the-- Necessary to get a hold of this like incredible problem that we have with vehicle size and weight in this country, which is totally out of control and which I think the government could be doing a better job at regulating. The theme that keeps coming up over and over in our conversation is that so much of this comes down to design. And highways really do feel like places for cars and not for pedestrians or bicyclists. And these roads are just such a huge part of a lot of the work that we do. American infrastructure. Like, you know, they're what you get on for a road trip. They're how you get from point A to point B, especially...
If you live in what I like to call the big square states, I say as a person who's a native of the big square states, Do need a car, is it realistic to think? the design will change. I mean, making these changes, like having all these automated things like they do in Canada, that's going to cost money. Okay, so it is, I would say much more doable than we think. And what we're not talking about Necessarily remaking a highway into a pedestrian utopia, right? It's about understand--
what we want our streets and roads to be and having locals decide what the streets or roads need to be and not traffic engineers necessarily. So if something is going to be a street and it's going to be a place with lots of pedestrians and lots of businesses, you can do small things to redesign the streets and slow cars down so that they have to sort of interact and pay attention and be aware of pedestrians, so that it's safe. For pedestrians and cyclists and other street users to use the street. Now, if something is going to be a road, it's primarily about getting people from point A to point B like a highway, then what we. To do is make it easy for cars to move quickly in one direction without a lot of impediments, right? So there are certain of these places where maybe it's not appropriate to have a ton of Commercial development on either side if it's supposed to be a highway, right? And then there are other places where it's like, oh wow, there are a lot of people here, a lot of people accessing this street who are not in cars, how can we make this safer
And you could actually do a lot with small design changes. I mean, the other big thing we can do in terms of long distance travel, if we're not talking about big cities. Is design better high-speed rail and better mass transit so that people have other options. And those other options are at least. Just as appealing as getting in their car. Because right now what we have is a system where in a lot of places, in most places in the U.S., it makes way more... To just get in a car and drive. And we need more options for people, so that's not always the case. - Yeah, can you talk about what those small design changes look like? Like, what does a street that's, you know, made safer for everybody look like? So there are a number of like small design things that you can do. You can add protected bike lanes so that cyclists are able to ride safely without risk of being hit. You can add raised crosswalks so that pedestrians are more visible.
You can add things like curb bump outs so that drivers can't fly around corners and run into people. And you've seen this in DC, I'm sure they have these little flexible bollards that have been put up at certain corners. And then artists have painted those corners. So that it's more visible. And again, you can't just whip really tightly around the corner, which is much more dangerous for people waiting on the corner or trying to cross. It forces the drivers to slow down and pay attention. Can add sort of little curves to the road, right? So that it's not just a straight shot that a driver can turn their brain off to do so there are all sorts of little things and I will say you And great example of this, Jonklin, is like, if you think about what happened during the pandemic, we had this this sort of. Incredible moment where think about something like 18th Street or 11th Street. Straight in Columbia Heights where they put up all these these streeteries right they took over little spaces of curbs and people are able to
To dine outside and you have this sort of beautiful moment, I think, of seeing what can happen when we take this incredible valuable real estate, these curbside parking spots, essentially, and very in places where people really want to be. And you take away that space for one car. And then you've got four or five tables where people can sit and have coffee or have Friends. It's possible to make these changes and you can do really cool things. If we're just willing to experiment little bit and not constantly be thinking about what's best for cars. I'm wondering because, um, and Buddha judge brought this up during our Everyone in the Biden administration, you know, is really pointing at the bipartisan infrastructure bill as this huge success. Like, look at the money, we did it, all of this, but is there money for these kinds of changes? Does that exist?
Yeah, I think there is money. I think it's good that it's being prioritized. The issue always comes down to execution, right? The federal government's ability to to control what local, you know, municipalities and states decide to do with those particular spaces is Is limited. So it really all comes down to what local governments decide to do. And I think that is both like the challenge of this issue is like you can do a lot if you just allow yourself to be a little bit more experimental and if communities allow themselves to be a little bit more. Experimental with the way that we design our streets and not sort of have this very cookie cutter approach that puts cars first.
And has been the way that we've done it for way too long and I think is a big driver of this pedestrian fatality crisis that we have. - The major focus of my conversation with Buttigieg was inequities when it comes to transportation. And those inequities exist when it comes to traffic fatalities too. For example, black people, Cyclists die in accidents four and a half times more than white cyclists. Tell us more about these inequities. - Buttigieg did get some, you know, some heat for this. Like you would hear people referring dismissively to him caring about things like racist highways, as though that very term is completely absurd. But these things are real. It's not just the fact that, you know, the federal highway act of 1956 literally plowed highways through predominantly black neighborhoods and displaced a million Americans and cut off
remained in those neighborhoods from the rest of their cities and impoverished those neighborhoods and the people in it in the process. It's the fact that that disinvestment, that continued disinvestment because of those highways, because of that disconnect from the rest of. Community. The roads in those communities now are actually way less safe for both drivers and pedestrians. And you see this in who dies. It's not just cyclists. Black people are twice as likely to be killed while walking than white people. Native people are more than three times more likely to be killed while walking than white people. And it's because they're living in places with unsafe infrastructure, right? So that's the fatality picture, but let's-- Zoom out a little bit because we talked about this before. In most of the US, you need a car to get around, right? - Right. - Cars are a necessity, but if you are working class or poor.
If you grew up in a low income community, those cars are super expensive. And so they become this double-edged sword where you need them to survive, you need them to get to work, but they're super expensive to maintain. And if something goes wrong, the cost can be super disruptive to your life. And then let's talk about the fact that cars are the most. This frequent vehicle by which you are likely to encounter the police. And we know that cops pull over black and brown drivers at rates that are disproportionately higher than white drivers. And then. They're pulled over, there's this whole range of possible negative consequences. And you know, we know about the incidents of police violence that are way too common in the-- country. We know about the killing of Tyree Nichols and Philando Castile, Walter Scott, all these people, but that is sort of like the most extreme tip of the iceberg.
There's a whole range of negative possible outcomes that happens beneath that every day in this country. People can be issued fines and fees they can't afford to pay if they're low income, which can cascade and escalate and sometimes result in massive debt or even jail time. So there are so many different ways where it's just more Dangerous for black and brown drivers and pedestrians to access our roadways and be on our roadways than it is for white drivers and pedestrians. So once you start to look at this stuff, you kind of can't unsee it. It is very real. Sitting in the weeds with us on this. - Thank you for having me. Thanks to Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Váxis Miren-Kogan for joining me.
Producer Sophie Lalonde, Christian Ayala engineered this episode, Kim Eggleston fact-checked it, our editorial director is A.M. Hall, and I'm your host, John Glenn Hill. Fox Media Podcasts Network.
Transcript generated on 2024-05-22.