Urbanists were excited by President Obama’s election in 2008, as it heralded the first time in a century that a president would come from a major city. And Obama was not just a resident of Chicago, he had worked as a community organizer. On the campaign trail he promised groups such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors that – after years of neglect under Republicans – his tenure would feature federal cooperation with, and attention to, cities.
So they were dismayed when Obama picked Ray LaHood, a Republican congressman from Peoria, Illinois, for Secretary of Transportation. It appeared that Obama had subjugated urban interests to his desire to appear bipartisan.
That was especially worrisome because federal transportation policy was overdue for a change. Democrats, and a handful of Northern Republicans, are becoming concerned about the nation’s massive infrastructure deficit, and are calling for a transportation policy envisioning bolder solutions. As the price of gasoline rises, climate change wreaks more havoc, and the millennial generation returns to the cities that their parents forsook, there is an increasing demand for alternatives to new highways, such as bicycle lanes, sidewalks, trains and buses. Urban policy wonks feared that LaHood ‑ who announced his retirement earlier this month ‑ would not promote these views.
Yet upon news of his resignation, LaHood received widespread praise from environmental and alternative transportation advocates, from the Sierra Club to Bike Portland. It turned out that LaHood, despite having no known prior interest or expertise in the subject, became a strong advocate for a greener, more urban future. Ironically, he was especially well suited to that task precisely because he is a Republican from the Heartland, rather than a big-city Democrat.
LaHood changed federal transportation policy primarily through two efforts: his enthusiastic participation in furthering sustainability and his oversight of an incentive-rich transportation grants program.