Four Facts on Kamala Harris’s Transportation Record

California Senator and Vice Presidential Nominee Kamala Harris. Source: Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons.
California Senator and Vice Presidential Nominee Kamala Harris. Source: Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons.

Sustainable transportation advocates offered a mix of appreciation and plenty of skepticism on Wednesday after presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden chose California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, thanks to her solid pro-transit record and her too-gradual evolution on police brutality.

Here are four fast facts about the Golden State native’s transportation track record, and what it might mean for a potential Biden-Harris presidency.

1. She was the only democratic hopeful who recognized the importance of reducing car miles travelled to end climate change

Harris won a big thumbs up from Streetsblog at a few points during her now-suspended presidential campaign, but none more so than when she included this gem in her climate plan:

We must also incentivize people to reduce car usage and use public transit. This starts by funding robust public transportation networks to bring communities together and focusing our transportation infrastructure investments toward projects that reduce vehicle miles traveled and address gaps in first mile, last mile service.

Harris’s plan was low on commitments besides robust transit funding, and didn’t address the large-scale zoning changes that would be necessary in many communities to make a car-free life feasible for more Americans. Still, it’s not common for a national politician not named Inslee to explicitly demonize excessive driving in a country built on it.

More impressively, Harris has been naming that threat since at least 2012. When the California native was still the state’s attorney general, she supported a lawsuit against the allegedly progressive long-term transportation plan passed by the San Diego Association of Governments, which deferred key transit investments until the later years of the plan and put so-called “green” highway projects first.

Harris slammed the plan for not prioritizing actually green modes; the plan included just 1.1 percent to walking and biking, and publicly questioned whether the car-focused climate plan could meet its long-term goals.

That’s a strong stance for a leader from a state that some critics say has over-focused on electric cars at the expense of even greener (and safer) transportation — and its especially strong when compared with her running mate, whose own energy plan is strong on transit funding but equally strong on electric vehicles.

Here’s hoping that Harris can teach the car-loving Biden that “Let them drive Teslas,” to quote a handy phrase by City Observatory’s Joe Cortright, is not really a climate plan — and it’s definitely not a safety or equity plan.

2. She has a track record of viewing public transportation through a human rights lens 

Harris caught some heat from with constituents on social media in 2017 for this tweet:

Fortunately, Harris doesn’t seem to have let the blowback blow her off course because transportation policy is intertwined with virtually every civil, political, economic, and cultural right you can think of — and Harris has backed a fair amount of legislation that treats infrastructure specifically through that lens.

Harris’s Senate record includes introducing the Clean School Bus Act, a move she tied not just to climate change, but to improving health and educational outcomes for underserved people living in polluted communities. She also co-sponsored a bill to give transit authorities access to zero-interest loans to purchase electric buses, a piece of legislation she tied to sustainable jobs access for poor workers.

The Oakland native also seems to grasp the importance of equitable transportation access to increasing economic mobility for underserved groups more broadly. In a 2016 interview with McClatchy DC, Harris followed up a joke about traffic on the notoriously congested 405 with a keen observation that “the reality is that in a lot of places in our country, people cannot afford to live where they work” — shifting the focus from the problem of highway congestion, which most federal politicians answer with endless (and senseless) highway building,  to the far thornier intersection between housing and transportation.

What the senator hasn’t acknowledged is the massive human rights concerns inherent to our traffic violence crisis — though, to be fair, virtually no politicians do. But her willingness to examine transportation through a wider lens than economics and the environment alone means she could be teachable — that is, if she gets out of her terrifyingly huge campaign car to talk to activists first.

3. She’s taken action on environmental racism 

Most of Harris’s signature infrastructure legislation has had to do more with subterranean investments in clean water and strong broadband than surface transportation investments like roads and train tracks. But the way she’s consistently treated those issues is telling of how she might treat infrastructure reforms more broadly if she assumes the Veep post: as investments in dismantling decades of environmental racism, which, of course, includes decades of racist policies related to driving.

In her days at the San Francisco district attorney’s office back in 2005, the future senator created what Grist calls “a mini version of the [federal] Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability” that’s a cornerstone of Biden’s energy plan.

More recently, Harris co-sponsored the Climate Equity Act with New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which “would require that environmental and climate-related legislation receive an equity score that will transparently estimate the impact on frontline communities.” Depending how its enforced, that act could help bring green projects like transit expansions to disenfranchised communities, rather than running them exclusively to moneyed suburbs, which too many American cities have long been wont to do.

It would be nice to see Harris more explicitly connect her environmental antiracism specifically to antiracist transportation policy — and push all her could-be colleagues in the White House to do the same.

4. Her history on street policing is controversial 

Lots and lots and lots of other journalists have written about Harris’s long and much-scrutinized history as a prosecutor and participant in the rise of mass incarceration and the expansion of racist law enforcement policy in America, so we won’t spend too much time on it here. But since racist and brutal street policing are undoubtedly among the most crucial street safety concerns of our time, the VP-hopeful’s history on the issue deserves a mention.

Pretty much since Harris began her career in public office as the district attorney in San Francisco in 2003, she’s faced criticism for declining to prosecute police officers charged with killing civilians and other violent police misconduct. Such violence, of course, disproportionately impacts people of color, and it also occurs overwhelmingly in the context of traffic stops, posing a significant barrier to safe and free transportation for non-white travelers.

Advocates believe she’s evolved on the issue, citing her support of the George Floyd Act and her comments to the New York Times that the idea that putting more police on the streets create more safety is “just wrong.” Critics say she’s been far too slow to come to the revelation — and that after months of renewed Black Lives Matter protests, America desperately needs a strong federal champion to lead the re-imagining of our approach street safety.

Of course, Harris certainly isn’t worse than her running mate, who is widely regarded as responsible for many of the worst “tough-on-crime” policies that created our ongoing epidemic of racist police brutality and mass incarceration.

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Hillary Clinton ad now airing in Southern California  This is part two of a two-part series on where candidates for president stand on transportation issues, authored by Streetsblog Los Angeles correspondent Damien Newton. Damien currently runs the blog Street Heat, which is soon to become Streetsblog L.A., our first foray into foreign territory. Damien was […]