I write these words on Sunday 8th November, (Australian time) moments after Joe Biden claimed victory in the 2020 USA presidential election. Once the initial euphoria of his supporters dies down and the real world landscape comes back into view, what effect will this new presidency have upon cycling and micromobility, not just in the USA but even rippling across the pond to Australia?
Under the US system, the true power a president wields is in large part dependent upon the numbers in their Congress and Senate. At the time of writing it was still far from certain how the final USA Senate numbers would be decided, with two run-off elections in Georgia, scheduled for January to determine which party will control the Senate.
The Micromobility Report is not and will never be a partisan political media source. We will never endorse any candidate or any party in any election anywhere in Australia or globally.
But political results have real world outcomes and we will always be ready to examine what those outcomes might be and review ‘on the ground’ changes and achievements as they are made.
Given our shrinking globe and the ever increasing inter-connectedness of our societies, the election of ‘the most powerful person in the world’ as it is sometimes coined, has global influence across all aspects of life, including micromobility.
So what might a Biden presidency’s impact be upon micromobility?
Let’s start by quoting two paragraphs from his official policy platform.
“Transit: Provide every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options through flexible federal investments with strong labor protections that create good, union jobs and meet the needs of these cities – ranging from light rail networks to improving existing transit and bus lines to installing infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists.”
“He’ll also help them invest in infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, and riders of e-scooters and other micro-mobility vehicles and integrate technologies like machine-learning optimized traffic lights. And, Biden will work to make sure that new, fast-growing areas are designed and built with clean and resilient public transit in mind. Specifically, he will create a new program that gives rapidly expanding communities the resources to build in public transit options from the start.”
These paragraphs are not sequential within what is a long and detailed policy document, and only comprise a small percentage of the overall document.
Firstly, it’s significant that words such as ‘cyclists’, ‘bicyclists’ ‘e-scooters’ and ‘micromobility’ appeared in a presidential platform at all.
Secondly, these paragraphs appear within a section where the ‘bottom line’ financial commitment towards a wide range of sustainable energy, electrification of transportation and other policies is a US$2 trillion (A$2.8 trillion) ‘investment’.
Ultimately, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Over the years we’ve seen countless city, state and national transport policy documents that make noble motherhood statements about active transportation, set admirable goals but at the end of their goal deadline, precious little has been achieved.
On the ground changes will be the acid test of the Biden presidency.
However there are some reasons for hope, both pragmatic and somewhat more warm and fuzzy.
On the pragmatic end of the scale, just look at the 2020 presidential electoral result maps for every USA state. You’ll see dots of blue floating in seas of red.
The blue dots, representing counties won by the Democrats, are almost without exception the major cities and urban areas, while the sea of red is the rural areas in between which are almost always won by the Republicans.
If President-elect Biden wants future success in the mid-term elections in two years’ time, or perhaps for re-election at age 82 in 2024, then he’ll need to keep his core constituency happy.
Cities are already the drivers for change in terms of micromobility, environmental sustainability, liveability and a range of other complementary policies.
The inexorable tide of demographic change is also seeing more people living in cities, and fewer in rural areas. In order to remain electorally relevant, Joe Biden and his party will need to make progress on behalf of city residents and workers.
The second, more fuzzy reason for hope is that Joe Biden’s life has not been one of fortune and privilege, but of personal hardship. After the tragic death of his wife and young daughter, Joe wanted to be home for his two sons every evening. He commuted via train from the Senate in Washington DC to his home in Delaware, a 90 minute each way ride that he continued for 36 years.
This experience has made him a strong and consistent advocate for public transport including rail.
He’s also a long-time cyclist and was seen during the campaign gliding smoothly along for a recreational ride in casual clothes, not one of those, ‘politician in a suit trying not to wobble too much’ photo opportunities that we sometimes see.
Just because an elected official enjoys cycling does not equate to improved infrastructure. Prime Minister Tony Abbott in Australia and President George W Bush in the USA are both examples of keen cyclists who did next to nothing for cycling, micromobility, sustainable cities or other related issues.
Notwithstanding these examples, generally first-hand experiences equate to a better understanding of issues and more proactive policies.
Focusing back upon Australia, the impact of a Biden presidency could be quite significant. New USA policy on climate will, alongside Europe, the UK, and Japan, ramp up pressure on Australia to finally set a date by which we plan to have zero emissions. This will not be just diplomatic pressure, it will be trade pressure. Whether it’s via this pressure or of its own initiative, when Australia finally becomes more serious about achieving zero emissions, policies that favour micromobility will hopefully become increasingly favoured at the highest levels.
Ultimately, only time will tell how great an impact a Biden presidency will have upon micromobility, but compared to the alternative of a further four years of Trump presidency, most advocates would agree that it’s more likely to be a positive change than a negative.
Upon re-checking the Biden climate plan document several days later, a lot more detail appears to have been added, with the key paragraph of relevance now reading:
“Empowering local communities to develop transportation solutions. Communities across the country are experiencing a growing need for alternative and cleaner transportation options, including transit, dedicated bicycle and pedestrian thoroughfares, and first- and last-mile connections. The Biden Administration will transform the way we fund local transportation, giving state and local governments, with input from community stakeholders, more flexibility to use any new transportation funds to build safer, cleaner, and more accessible transportation ecosystem.”
It also now says,
“Mitigating the climate impact of urban sprawl. Housing policy can be used as a tool to battle climate change and expand the middle class. Many lower- and middle-income Americans are forced to live far away from job centers due to high housing costs, leading not only to workers being overburdened by long commutes, but also to higher emissions associated with increased traffic and extra-long commuting times. Altering local regulations to eliminate sprawl and allow for denser, more affordable housing near public transit would cut commute times for many of the country’s workers while decreasing their carbon footprint.”