Published Jan 26, 2024TYLER NEVILLE
It’s tough to get Pete Buttigieg to talk about triathlon. Although his enthusiasm breaks through occasionally – including an almost sheepish admission he used Triathlete’s Super Simple 70.3 Training Plan to prepare for his successful half-Ironman last summer – his work as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation is always top of mind.
“I had a terrific time with [70.3 Michigan] over the summer,” Buttigieg tells Triathlete over the phone from his Washington, D.C. office. “I’m not sure I’ll get to do something like that again, at least while I have this job.”
Secretary Buttigieg has plenty of reasons to stay focused on his work at the DOT. Earlier this week, the DOT and the White House announced another $4.9 billion in funding for major transportation projects, a continuation of the most significant period of infrastructure investment in the Department of Transportation’s history.
Despite the historic funding and relative avalanche of infrastructure projects already underway – including the five-year, $5 billion Safe Streets and Roads for All Grant Program to fund “regional, local, and Tribal initiatives through grants to prevent roadway deaths and serious injuries” – Secretary Buttigieg is adamant that the work has only just begun.
“Culturally, the biggest thing we need to do is make clear that this [work] is not ornamental, it’s essential,” Buttigieg says.
In a conversation with Triathlete, Secretary Buttigieg shared his plan for not just the literal terra-firma rebuilding of the United States’ infrastructure, but an expansive vision for a complete overhaul of the nation’s system, a vision influenced heavily by Buttigieg’s personal experience as a triathlete and father. And yes, that means creating safer roads for riding.
Triathletes at the table in national infrastructure planning
Triathlete Triny Willerton (R) will serve on Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s (L) Transforming Transportation Advisory Committee as an advocate and advisor for cyclist safety. (Photo: Courtesy of Triny Willerton)
The first step is expanding the voices at the table. The newly created Transforming Transportation Advisory Committee (TTAC) boasts a unique cross-section of perspectives from the fields of academia, labor unions, industry, and beyond – including cycling safety advocate and triathlete Triny Willerton.
Willerton founded It Could Be Me after surviving a near-fatal crash with a driver while riding her bike. She stresses how “growing the choir” of voices in decision-makers’ ears is critical to achieving further progress in road safety for all.
“Our voices as survivors are essential,” Willerton says, going on to explain that the most effective method to combat this mentality is with personal stories of the effects of unsafe roadways. It was through that exact strategy that she crossed paths with Secretary Buttigieg. During a call in January 2023, Buttigieg and his entire DOT team were invited to listen to stories directly from the families of fatal crash victims in a video call organized by Families for Safe Streets.
“I was literally the only crash survivor [in that call], and it was heartbreaking beyond anything I can think of,” Willerton says. The remaining stories were those of people who had lost loved ones, even children, by simply crossing the streets. It left every person on the call, including Secretary Buttigieg, in tears.
“I think [those stories] fuel [Secretary Buttigieg’s] desire as it does mine, to make sure this stops happening and we do everything in our power to make sure we don’t have to hear these stories and people don’t have to suffer like that anymore,” Willerton says.
Triathlete Triny Willerton (far left) was involved in a near-fatal bike crash and is now a part of Buttigieg’s TTAC.
Later that year, Buttigieg invited Willerton to serve on the TTAC, a committee designed to give unique perspectives on infrastructure a direct line to Secretary Buttigieg and his Transportation Department. She accepted without hesitation. She said knowing that Buttigieg has real-world experiences as a triathlete and father, coupled with his empathy as a leader, is a beacon of hope for advocates like Willerton.
“It’s the first time hearing someone that speaks like we do as advocates at the very top level,” Willerton explains. “It’s not only the effort and the words, but the funding is crucial.”
Pete Buttigieg’s big plans (and even bigger infrastructure funding) for safer roads
Secretary Buttigieg’s DOT and President Joe Biden’s administration have overseen an investment in public infrastructure unmatched since the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 — an act that predates the establishment of the Department of Transportation by nine years.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act had a final price tag of $129 billion that was split between individual states and the federal government, and is roughly equivalent to just under $1.5 trillion in 2024 value. That has been almost equaled by the initial investment of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed into law by President Biden in November of 2021, a total amount of $1.2 trillion.
“It’s historic; it’s the biggest investment in our roads and infrastructure in the life of the Department,” Buttigieg says. “All of which is leading to safer, better, cleaner, and smarter roads and streets.”
It’s historic; it’s the biggest investment in our roads and infrastructure in the life of the Department. All of which is leading to safer, better, cleaner, and smarter roads and streets.
The challenge for Secretary Buttigieg is more than unlocking historic levels of federal funding, however. It extends to how we think of roads, how we build them, and the different ways people use those roads.
“We’re doing it in a way that I don’t think was understood in the 1950s and 60s,” Buttigieg says. “There are a lot of users of roads. Yes, it’s cars and trucks – but it’s also pedestrians and cyclists, and it’s also the small business and homes that are along those roads.”
The goal: Zero roadway fatalities
The TTAC and its members represent just one piece of the larger mosaic of Secretary Buttigieg’s expressed vision, one that includes the incredibly ambitious goal of zero roadway fatalities across the country.
To get there, Secretary Buttigieg admits there’s a cultural divide to bridge, a divide most clearly illustrated in a study that found 55% of the subjects who hadn’t biked in the previous year viewed cyclists as being not completely human.
“I think the lesson from the countries and the U.S. cities that do this best is that seeing is believing,” Buttigieg says. “When you make it a little bit easier for there to be a little more active transportation, more people take advantage of it, and you get a virtuous cycle where drivers become more conscious and intentional.”
If Secretary Buttigieg achieves his ambitious visions, his department will not only revitalize the United States’ roads and bridges, railways and ports – it will also revolutionize how we view public transportation and those who use it.
As Secretary Buttigieg explains, the benefits extend far beyond safer and more accessible roads and transportation.
“Active transportation [human-powered mobility, such as cycling, running, or walking] is a very important part of how people can get around,” Buttigieg says. “When it’s going well, you get major benefits in terms of congestion and public health, and an investment in good, active transportation is an investment in the bread and butter of what roads are all about, which is helping people get safely to where they need to be.”
Taking inspiration from the “gold standard” for bike infrastructure
In our conversation, Secretary Buttigieg makes it clear that better, safer, and more effective public infrastructure is a choice that the country will need to make over and over again for the foreseeable future.
One experience, in particular, stands out for Secretary Buttigieg – a trip in the spring of 2016 with a delegation of fellow mayors (Buttigieg served as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana from 2012 to 2020) led by the then-Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. The goal was to visit several locations in Northern Europe, including Copenhagen and Amsterdam, to learn from what Buttigieg categorizes as the “global gold standard” for bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
The trip is described by Buttigieg as a “formative experience” in the development of his approach to public infrastructure.
“[Those cities] were not always this way, they decided to invest in this in recent decades,” Buttigieg says. “If you look at those cities in the 1970s, they were really not that much better than any U.S. city in terms of their readiness for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.”
“They made those choices, and those choices served them well,” Buttigieg continues. “That’s an example of what we can do here in the U.S.”
What’s next for Triathlete Pete
As a triathlete, Secretary Pete Buttigieg knows firsthand the importance of cyclist safety. (Photo: FinisherPix/Triathlete)
In regards to his future plans in triathlon, Buttigieg admits he has more goals in the swim-bike-run sphere – once time allows.
“[The half-Ironman last summer] asked a lot of my husband in terms of childcare on the weekends while I was out on those long runs and bike rides and swims,” Buttigieg says.
“I’m looking for a shorter tri, and maybe I can concentrate on speed in the spring and summer,” Buttigieg adds with a self-effacing chuckle.
Tyler Neville is a writer, photographer, and graphic designer who serves as Triathlete’s day-to-day social media manager. A former college athlete, he spends his days running and climbing around Colorado and procrastinating his inevitable first triathlon.