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An exit interview with Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

If you run into Representative Earl Blumenauer here in Washington, D.C., he might give you a pen like the one he often wears on the lapel of his jacket adjacent to his bow tie. It's in the shape of a bicycle. And if you run into Congressman Blumenauer, he might actually just be on his bike. High among the causes he's championed over the course of 25-odd years in Congress is urban transportation - including public transit, street safety and, yes, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. The Democrat from Oregon has announced he'll be retiring from Congress after this current term, and so we wanted to talk to him about how this set of issues has evolved throughout his time in national office. Congressman Blumenauer joins us now in studio. Welcome.

EARL BLUMENAUER: Thank you.

SUMMERS: So I want to start by just asking you a question. Since you first arrived in D.C. in 1996, have you ever owned a car here?

BLUMENAUER: No.

SUMMERS: So follow-up - has it gotten easier or harder for you to get around town since then?

BLUMENAUER: It's been an area of great satisfaction for me. When I first came, maybe there would be a random bike messenger, but now, coming to your studios, there are bike lanes. One of the things I'm most proud of is the bike lanes down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. We have bike share. People understand the value of burning calories instead of fossil fuel.

SUMMERS: What do you attribute that change to? Why do you think people - some people, at least - are so much more embracive of other ways of getting around?

BLUMENAUER: Well, I think we've found, in Congress, that everybody's got a bike story. And the work that has been done on bike trails, bike safety, safe routes to school strikes a chord. And it's accessible to people. It's affordable, and it's fun. When you bike to work, you don't have to worry about road rage. People that stop at a stop line next to you smile. And it is the most efficient form of urban transportation ever designed.

SUMMERS: I also know that there are a lot of people out there who are angry about it, who don't think that bikers belong on the roads. These are fights that many of us see spilling over in our community Listservs or at our neighborhood association meetings. How do you convince motorists who don't really have an inclination - some of them - to care about or even care for cyclists, or even pedestrians, for that matter, that bicycle infrastructure - improving it, expanding it - is something that's worth caring about and investing in?

BLUMENAUER: Well, there's important public education to take place. I'm fond of pointing out that every bicycle beside you is not a car in front of you. For years, we've been in the thrall of the single-occupant vehicle. We now know that that is not good for cities. It's part of the housing problem. Two billion parking spaces in this country is land that's not available for housing redevelopment. Most important - there's a public process that's necessary to be able to make sure that you engage people in the neighborhoods or people who are cranky. We have answers. Many people have concerns and questions. We can work that through.

SUMMERS: You are leaving Congress at a moment when urban transportation has really been reshaped by the pandemic. It's something I know well because I often take that MARC train just down the street from Union Station to my home in Baltimore when I come to work, and I noticed how many fewer riders there are on the train with me...

BLUMENAUER: Yeah.

SUMMERS: ...And that's been the case everywhere. Public transit is way down - thanks, in part, to more people who have flexibility to be able to work from home. And public transit agencies, broadly speaking - many are bleeding money. What do you think needs to be done to keep the country's trains and buses and streetcars going strong, given those challenges?

BLUMENAUER: Well, part of it is what we've done with the Inflation Reduction Act and the infrastructure bill. We have unprecedented sums of money that are available. We're also targeting safety, which is important whether it's transit or bike and pedestrian - giving people that sense that it's OK. We also have to contend with the needs for more downtown housing. And we've got office towers that are hollowing out. There are opportunities to convert many of these buildings to residential uses and build that density back up. We'll get there. But I think it's important that we stay the course, build the infrastructure and provide the housing opportunities in the core of the city.

SUMMERS: One thing I hear from friends who choose not to utilize public transit, whether it's here in Washington or elsewhere, is that they feel like it's not reliable. They feel like it's quicker to hop in their car to have control of their commutes. As someone who famously has opted out of having a car here in Washington, what do you say to those people?

BLUMENAUER: Well, we've had some real problems with reliability, particularly here in Washington, D.C. Part of what's going on now is in these increased investments - helps stabilize. We've got workforce issues. It's not unique to transit, but it is something that does deserve attention. Part of what we need to do is level the playing field between people who use transit and people who drive cars. I was able to secure parity for people who commute to work via car and transit. We're working now to make it more flexible in terms of being able for people to take the cash equivalent instead of the free parking. There are things we can do to make it more attractive and more fair.

SUMMERS: I want to shift gears a little bit here and ask you about the record pedestrian deaths in the U.S. They were at a 40-year high last year. That's according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. And just to be specific - almost 20 pedestrians killed each day by moving vehicles. What do you think can be done to reduce that number?

BLUMENAUER: Well, it needs to have a higher priority from your federal government, and it needs basically an all hands on deck. We're seeing people running red lights, speeding. We've had horrific examples here in metropolitan Washington. There's an overall challenge these days. And part of it, I think, is the aftermath of the pandemic and people being cranky, stresses on law enforcement, where there's been less interest in enforcing the traffic safety because of concerns about unequal application. But we've seen carnage on the roadways, and they primarily are children, older people, people of color, in poor neighborhoods. It's grotesquely inequitable, and it is, in fact, an epidemic.

SUMMERS: When you look at the American landscape and cities and towns across this country, what gives you hope when you think about the future of transportation?

BLUMENAUER: What gives me hope is watching what's happened in city after city. Early in my career, I did work in auto-dominated communities like Houston and Phoenix, and I've watched transit and cycling be part of the landscape. I've watched the advocacy take place. It's been a long-term education process, a long-term process to invest in the infrastructure and having government get the signal straight. But I think we've made remarkable progress, and I think time is on our side.

SUMMERS: Congressman, you have been a persistent voice on these issues for as long as many of us can remember. When you leave Congress next year, what comes next for you?

BLUMENAUER: I'm not going to be on airplanes 14 hours a week.

(LAUGHTER)

BLUMENAUER: And I'll be able to spend more time in my community and in other communities working on things that I care about 'cause I think there's a lot of work to be done. I enjoy working with communities and interest groups. I'm in no hurry to paik a specific path, but I'm not going to walk away from this stuff. It's too much fun, and it's too important.

SUMMERS: Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon. He's been in the House of Representatives since 1996 and has announced that he will retire next year. Thank you, Congressman.

BLUMENAUER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAN ANGUS WATSON'S "WALTZ IN SWEATERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kathryn Fox
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.