Biden, Blumenauer, and bikes

President-elect Joe Biden.
(Photo: Biden Harris Transition)

Even without official acknowledgement by the Trump Administration, President-elect Joe Biden is already moving towards the White House. Fresh off declarations of his win finally coming on Friday, he and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have begun their transition process in earnest.

In our little corner of the internet, the buzz is about who Biden will pick to lead the U.S. Department of Transportation and what transportation policy might look like in the next four years.

The buzz is especially intense in Portland because one of the names being floated as possible DOT pick is Congressman Earl Blumenauer, the former Portland city commissioner who’s represented the best cycling city in America for the past 24 years. On Saturday, Politico included Blumenauer as the most likely pick after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who most people see as the frontrunner.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer at Velo Cult Bike Shop in 2013.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Blumenauer would be a very safe pick politically as there’s zero chance his House district would flip to a Republican. Blumenauer also has less negatives and baggage than some of the other names at the top of the list (like former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel) — not to mention he’s only person in the running with a bridge named after them. Working against Blumenauer is the fact that Biden needs a cabinet that isn’t full of white men.

This isn’t the first time Blumenauer’s name has come up in this context. It was also floated in 2008 as former President Barack Obama assembled his team. When that idea first surfaced I wrote that, “Blumenauer in the nation’s top transportation job would signal far more than shifting political winds — it would be more like a tornado that leaves America’s ill-fated car culture in its wake.”

A big unanswered question for Biden and the party he now leads is how much of a tornado do they want to unleash. There’s a big debate in Democrat circles about just how far to the left they should go. Blumenauer — famous for having a bike pin on his lapel and who recently did a campaign event with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — might be seen as too progressive.



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Screengrab from Biden-Harris Transition website.

Car culture and the dominance of driving is so strong in American politics that centrist Democrats cannot be counted on to push the necessary reforms needed to get us past it. As the excellent War on Cars podcast highlighted last year, “even the most liberal people in the most progressive cities are so often unable to see the problems wrought by automobiles, much less support alternative forms of transportation.”

Team Biden is already an example of this. While some transportation reformers gleefully shared a section from their transition website that promises, “High-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options… ranging from light rail networks to improving existing transit and bus lines to installing infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists,” they didn’t share the section above it which called for the creation of 1 million new jobs in the auto industry. And let us not forget that former VP Biden was in the room when Obama worked with Bush to bail out the auto industry during the 2008 economic crisis. Now 12 years later the auto industry hasn’t made substantial reforms and continues to profit off death and destruction by making and selling large trucks and SUVs.

This isn’t to say a Biden administration won’t have a positive impact on transportation policy. His love of commuter trains is a very good sign he’ll put money into rail (and another place he and light-rail-and-streetcar-loving Blumenauer share a common thread). Obama used transportation funding grant programs like TIGER to help America recover from the economic crash and it’s a sure bet Biden will do something similar.

It’s also worth noting that Biden rides a bike.

Speaking of bikes, the League of American Bicyclists will host a webinar on Zoom this Thursday (11/12) at 12 noon that will answer questions about what the election means for the League’s policy goals and the next transportation bill.

As for Blumenauer, I think it’s only polite to ask him if he’s interested in the job before we get too excited about the prospect. I hope to chat with him sometime this week. Stay tuned.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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