There’s a lot of talk about the “green jobs” that will emerge through investment in cleaner technologies, but some of the greenest technology already exists. In fact, it predates the automobile: mass transit. Trains, trolleys and buses are a far more energy efficient way of moving people than cars. The greenest jobs of all may be laying track for suburban commuter rail or driving trains along those tracks.
Investing in mass transit would benefit not just the environment but also poor people, many of whom can’t afford cars, don’t drive and so have been shut out of the new economy, with its service sector employment increasingly available only in suburban office parks. A study by the University of Wisconsin found that 74 percent of African-Americans and 66 percent of Hispanics ages 18 to 24 in Milwaukee County did not have a valid driver’s license. As urban theorists like Joel Rogers have noted in their “Emerald Cities” proposal, building mass transit could also strengthen labor, providing a larger base of unionized construction and maintenance jobs.
The greenest way to lift the country out of a deepening recession would be to put people to work building mass-transit infrastructure, which could, in turn, ease the flow of goods and services, help generate economic growth and open economic opportunities to the disadvantaged. With a new president from Chicago and a House Speaker from San Francisco, the time seems ripe for Democrats to take advantage of the dual opportunities this year presents to alter America’s transportation infrastructure radically: the upcoming stimulus spending bill and the Surface Transportation Reauthorization, due for renewal by September.
Obama clearly appreciates the importance of combating climate change, and he has spoken of the need to reduce demand for fossil fuels. Unlike Hillary Clinton or John McCain, he refused to endorse the economically nonsensical gas tax holiday during the campaign. “Obama has certainly taken good positions in general,” says New York Representative Jerrold Nadler, perhaps the most vocal mass-transit fan in Congress. “He talked about energy, greening the country: all those things lead one to expect that he will be good on transportation.”
Obama sent more positive signs early in the transition process when he brought in a cadre of urban-policy veterans, from New York to Chicago to Washington. He also created the first-ever White House Office on Urban Policy. But Obama’s pick of Illinois Representative Ray LaHood as transportation secretary disappointed some transit advocates. The Obama transition team’s summary press release to reporters mentioned LaHood’s efforts to secure highway funds and expanded air service but made no mention of buses or trains. Anyone in Washington can tell you, off the record, that LaHood was simply the token Republican, chosen for his moderation, genial persona and relationship with Obama and Rahm Emanuel. While his voting record on transportation is good, for a Republican, he has never been outspoken or a leader on the issue.