Reuters

The head of the DOT announced today that he's stepping down. He leaves behind an agency in dramatic transition.

Ray LaHood is probably best known to the broader public as the bureaucrat who has spent the last four years railing against distracted driving. Under his tenure as U.S. Secretary of Transportation, his department launched a public service onslaught warning of the modern perils of texting while driving (our favorite detail: the federal government now runs a slick website called distraction.gov).

LaHood himself told Politico last year that he thought his biggest legacy would be his record on safety. But, in fact, to policy wonks, this unlikely crusader – formerly a Republican congressman from Central Illinois – will soon leave the job as the man who in many ways fundamentally shifted how Washington thinks about transportation and the federal government’s role in it. After much speculation, LaHood finally announced this morning that he will step down for Obama’s second term.

Whoever takes over the Department of Transportation next (and we’ve got some thoughts on that front) will inherit an agency in the midst of a number of seismic transitions. LaHood may well be remembered as the agency head who got many of these movements underway. And we suspect – and hope – that there will be no turning back from any of them.

1) Transportation is about more than just highways. The federal DOT grew up alongside the Interstate Highway System, and for decades roads have been its focus. Now that emphasis is shifting at the federal level, to include a broader menu of mobility options, from high-speed rail to local transit to biking and even walking.

2) And that changes the goals of transportation policy. When we move away from a laser-like focus on highways, suddenly the ultimate outcomes of transportation policy become less about moving cars faster through congestion, and more about connecting people to opportunity and improving quality of life. Under LaHood, the DOT finally began talking about smart transportation as an essential ingredient in creating more "livable" and sustainable communities.

3) Transportation is inseparable from housing, education, the environment and the economy. This seems like an obvious revelation to anyone who has ever decided where to live by looking at a mass transit map. But it’s a novel idea for the federal government. For the first time, the DOT, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are all now thoughtfully coordinating policy, in recognition of the fact that decisions made in one silo have a direct impact in all of the others. LaHood frequently spoke in the same sentence about transportation and jobs, and the impact of our infrastructure on whole regional economies.

4) Meaningful transportation planning requires bottom-up problem solving. As Brookings transportation scholar Robert Puentes puts it for us: "We’re moving from transportation's late 20th century federalism model where the federal government provides resources that rain down unencumbered to the state and metropolitan level. Most of that took the form of the interstate highway program." In the 21st century model shepherded by LaHood, state and metropolitan leaders have to come up with their own innovative (and cost-effective) approaches to transportation problems, coordinating with the federal government. That means, Puentes adds, "closer connections between transportation and things states and metros care most about (e.g., economic development, livable communities, safety, etc.)."

5) Technology is changing how we get around. LaHood doesn’t want you to text while you drive. But, argues Transportation for America’s David Goldberg, he and his team recognize that smart phones "are also enabling a massive shift toward on-demand mobility. You can now book a shared car or find a bikeshare station, see when the next bus is coming or report problems with congestion or a train line. It's not automatic anymore that you jump in your car and join the traffic jam every time you leave your house." The DOT now recognizes, Goldberg says, that the world is rapidly changing, and that the conventional responses – "let’s pour more concrete" – will be insufficient to address it.

Top image: Rebecca Cook/Reuters

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