Robert Garcia, a newly elected Democratic member of the House of Representatives from California, tweeted this question back in late December, just before he was sworn in to the 118th Congress:
“Hey bike/train/transportation Twitter, any good progressive ideas for new federal laws? I’m very interested in intersection of climate and urbanism and plan to make this a big part of my work in Congress.”
Garcia is the former mayor of Long Beach. He’s spent his whole life in that city, from what I can tell, and was originally a Republican, having changed parties in 2007. That was before he first ran for any office, but later he was active in others’ elections. His educational background is in communications and public policy.
When I copied out the best replies late that day in December, he had received 313. I’ll summarize the ones that make some kind of sense. A number of these are quoted, while others are paraphrased. Not all of them are things the federal government can do something about directly, or sometimes at all, but I’m including them anyway, as inspiration to state and local governments..
- E-bike tax credits, subsidies, or rebates. This was the most frequent comment, I think.
- Tie some portion of federal highway funds to state DOTs providing safe routes for cycling. Safe bike infrastructure (protected bike lanes) was another of the most common comments in various versions.
- Ensure that “any new bridge that crosses a major body of water is required to have a barrier-separated sidepath to accommodate bikes and pedestrians.”
Change How Things Are Done
- Generally change how federal transportation spending is defined to state Departments of Transportation. Currently, definitional restrictions are used by DoTs to prohibit spending on transit (capital or operations) and active transportation (sidewalks, bike facilities). This is also called having “greater modal flexibility in highway funds.”
- Prioritize helping cities take back state-owned roads. “Help remove the red tape that prevents lane reductions on streets (especially on bridges).”
- Update the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) “with equity/environment in mind.” Follow National Association of City Transportation Officials ideas in a revised MUTCD. “Emphasize bike/pedestrian safety over driver convenience.” (MUTCD currently includes the 85th percentile rule for setting speed limits.)
- “Create federal zoning like in Japan. States can’t be trusted to do land use well.” “Prohibit single-family zoning.”
- “Find a way to direct federal transportation funds directly to cities and towns.”
- “Require states to meet reductions in vehicle miles traveled and transportation greenhouse gases in order to receive funding.” “Replace the current level of service (LOS) standard with reduced vehicle miles traveled as the standard.”
- “Stop subsidizing fossil fuels.”
- “Change or remove the requirement for community input and environmental review. These destroy the ability to make changes. The environment-killing status quo doesn’t need a review but fixing it does. Congestion pricing and a lot else is delayed for years because of this.”
- Enact “strict liability for drivers who hit cyclists or pedestrians.”
- Set up “automated speed enforcement on interstates, U.S. highways, and any other federal roads.”
- Require people to “retest every five years to maintain their driver’s licenses.”
- Simplify the grade-level writing of driver instruction materials and written tests (improving outcomes for ESL future drivers).
- Enact a “flat tax on multiple car ownership.”
- Replace the gas tax with a mileage-based federal road user charge.
- “Ban SUVs on urban roads.”
- Require special driving licenses for larger/heavier vehicles than under the current rules for commercial driving licenses (CDL).
- Lift the prohibition on converting existing highway lanes to managed lanes via congestion charge.
- Prohibit spending federal money to expand/widen urban highways.
- “In highway review, require NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] to include ‘remove’ and ‘rebuild as is’ options — not just ‘no build’ and ‘preferred.'”
- “Set conditions on federal transit funding that make the default approach to highways maintain only, not expand.”
- Allow narrower lanes than current federal standards.
- Make streets better with parklets and pedestrianized streets, and by never adding 6-lane “streets.”
- End parking minimums.
- Require moving all traffic signals to the near side of intersections.
- Ban right on red, or make it easier for localities to ban right on red.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
- Enact vehicle safety standards for pedestrians and others outside vehicles: maximum hood height, vehicle weight particularly (many mentions).
- Enact better regulation of pollution from vehicles.
- Require smart speed limiters on vehicles.
- “Our streets are wide and sidewalks are narrow. Suburbia has green spaces, cities have concrete. Flip this perspective.”
- “A bill of rights for people on foot/in wheelchairs for equal treatment under the law.”
- “Mandatory continuous accessible sidewalks for every new development.”
- “Fund sidewalks! Specifically sidewalks!”
- “Require that Vision Zero plans [pedestrian safety: no deaths] be actionable with timelines and dedicated funding sources.”
- Build high-speed rail (many mentions).
- “Nationalize the rails. Not the companies necessarily, just the rails and signals and dispatching and right-of-way. That opens up so many options for new passenger rail, and freight rail, service. Not to mention makes electrification easier.”
- “Allow automatic eminent domain for intercity and interstate passenger rail, as well as streamlined/expedited permitting.”
- “Give jurisdictions more (any) leverage when negotiating with rail companies.”
- Fund operations (many mentions)!
- “Put money into improvements, especially into more service. There are a lot of funds for new infrastructure, but service frequency is actually more important.”
- “More functional elevators in stations, better wayfinding and signage/announcements in multiple languages, cheaper [or free] fares, fewer cops/more ambassadors, and routine overhaul of routes to account for shifting populations and needs.”
- “Well-paid bus operator recruitment and training programs. CDLs can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to obtain. We need more bus drivers and it’s worth investing in their success.”
- “Prioritize transit at intersections.”
- “Enact a federal excise tax on flights to fund urban transit and high-speed rail.”
- Build housing/mixed use buildings/public housing near transit.
- “Tie federal DOT funding to local governments relaxing zoning policy to allow for transit-oriented development.”
- “Take over zoning near federally funded mass transit projects.”
- “Accessible buses/trains on every highway.”
- “Parking maximums near transit centers” (with housing nearby).
- “Make mass transit commuting tax-deductible.”
All of these recommendations made me think of Yonah Freemark’s advice to Joe Biden from late 2020 on what it would cost to provide high-quality transit service in every urban area with more than 100,000 residents. That’s worth a revisit.
Welcome to the House of Representatives, Rep. Garcia. I know things may not be so great for urbanist visions with the new leadership this term, but let’s get some things done as soon as you can!
One to add: in order to receive federal funding for a project, the jurisdiction must have a Vision Zero or SS4A type plan and show they are following that plan both for the project and for other projects within their jurisdiction.
That’s a good one, which the federal government could definitely do something about.
We nearly have self-driving cars, which means we already have the technology for every new vehicle built to always stop at stop signs and red lights. The federal government could require this as a built-in feature for all new vehicles. Benefits include a pecipitous pedestrian/biker risk reduction – as well as for other motor vehicles, and a predictably safe end for police pursuits. Drawback: Less ‘freedom’ to scoff at the law.
Wow, that is one comprehensive list. For the “Replace the gas tax with a mileage-based federal road user charge” I would mention that the mileage level can be transmitted from each vehicle electronically to whatever destination to be documented.
Thank you for writing this.