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United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Recap: Innovation for a Sustainable, Equitable Transportation System

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Transportation Secretary Buttigieg Kicks Off U.S. DOT Volpe Center’s 2021 Thought Leadership Series

On June 2, the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (Volpe Center) welcomed Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to kick off its 2021 thought leadership speaker series, Innovation for a Sustainable, Equitable Transportation System. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology Dr. Robert Hampshire introduced Secretary Buttigieg and provided introductory remarks. Secretary Buttigieg recently appointed Hampshire as U.S. DOT’s Chief Science Officer, the first person to serve that role in more than 40 years. U.S. DOT Volpe Center Director Anne Aylward hosted the event. 

This post provides a recap of Secretary Buttigieg’s talk. You can watch the full event video here.

“Enormous Challenges, Enormous Opportunities”

Even before the economic, social, and personal impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic, the status quo was not working for many Americans. Moving beyond the pandemic offers an opportunity for everyone to act with a renewed sense of purpose. For U.S. DOT, this means leveraging innovation in service of public policy goals. According to Secretary Buttigieg, the enormous challenges of the past year offer enormous opportunities to identify the “era-defining climate and equity innovations of our time.”

Secretary Buttigieg pointed to the American Jobs Plan (AJP) as a vehicle for confronting a range of transportation issues. Making strategic public investments is key to expanding fairness and justice, reducing pollution, and mitigating the impacts of climate change. The AJP can bring climate action visions and equity programs to a scale that lifts up communities across the country. 

Transformative Innovations: Electric Vehicles and Automated Technologies 

Secretary Buttigieg remarked that in addition to creating millions of jobs, the AJP includes retrofitting buildings, installing electric vehicle charging stations, laying new transit lines, and expanding rail to new communities—closely linking infrastructure, climate, equity, and job creation.

“When we place public investments the right way, it unleashes a scale effect that makes it truly transformative.”

-Transportation Secretary Buttigieg

Electric vehicles (EVs) are one of the transformative innovations U.S. DOT supports, and Secretary Buttigieg stressed the importance of evaluating EVs through an equity lens. The AJP envisions a network of 500,000 EV chargers around the country, a public investment to ensure that some Americans are not left underserved by private charging stations. Critically, U.S. DOT’s work on EVs is happening in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to ensure that innovations are fully informed by—and responsive to—a variety of technical areas. 

In regard to the automated vehicle (AV) space, Secretary Buttigieg reminded attendees that while there is “exciting efficiency potential,” there remain research questions to explore. Likening the adoption of AVs to the difference between air travel and space travel, Secretary Buttigieg emphasized the opportunity for AVs to transform mobility options for those with disabilities, as well as the potential to spark massive shifts in land use patterns by reducing surface parking needs. There remain “tremendous concerns” around emissions, however, as researchers and policy-makers work to understand whether AVs could lead to a proliferation of vehicles—and work with industry to better understand “vehicles as a service.” U.S. DOT’s research and innovation agenda will consider important “second-order effects” like land use, family commuting patterns, and macroeconomic consequences of widespread adoption of AVs.

Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks via videoconference from his office.
Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks via live videoconference during the U.S. DOT Volpe Center's 2021 speaker series kick-off event.

Cultivating Equity in the Transportation Sector

Under Secretary Buttigieg’s leadership, U.S. DOT is overseeing investments in a sustainable and equitable transportation system that affects the lives of Americans across the country on a daily basis.

Secretary Buttigieg also discussed his plans for diversifying U.S.DOT’s workforce and supporting equity in the transportation industry. Secretary Buttigieg emphasized the importance of paying special attention to those who have not historically seen themselves reflected in transportation leadership, including women and people of color.

He noted, “We need a new call to service to make sure people know they can be a part of the transformational activities happening in the 2020s.”

Partnerships for Sustainability

In framing prospects for innovation for a sustainable and equitable transportation network, Secretary Buttigieg discussed the vital role of partnerships and collaboration. At local levels, much work is implemented by State DOTs and metropolitan planning organizations. At the federal level, interagency work with DOE and the Department of Housing and Urban Development on issues like alternative fuels and transit-oriented development can help U.S. DOT create a cleaner, more equitable transportation system.

View Secretary Buttigieg’s June 2, 2021, talk. To learn more about the U.S. DOT Volpe Center’s 2021 thought leadership program, please contact U.S. DOT Volpe Center Director of Strategic Initiatives for Research and Innovation Ellen E. Bell.

Video Highlights

Secretary Buttigieg on Sustainability and Equity

Secretary Buttigieg on the American Jobs Plan

Secretary Buttigieg on Challenges and Opportunities

Dr. Robert Hampshire on Building a More Resilient, Equitable Transportation Network

Celebrating more than 50 years of federal service to the nation, the U.S. DOT Volpe Center’s mission is to improve the nation's transportation system by anticipating emerging issues and advancing technical, operational, and institutional innovations for the public good.