British transportation minister Sadiq Khan was in Portland today, meeting with Metro Regional Council President David Bragdon to talk about Portland's active transportation management strategies:
Khan is a Labour Member of Parliament for Tooting—a district of South London just four miles from my own native Croydon. At 38, the former civil rights attorney is a rising star. He is also the first Islamic member of Parliament there, and flew on to Washington this afternoon to discuss airline security issues with the Obama administration following the conviction of three would-be British terrorists earlier this week. During our 15 minutes together at Metro headquarters, Khan introduced me to his private secretary and someone from the British embassy. As I said to him, "they would never let me near you in the UK." So it was quite an honor to meet the UK's equivalent to Ray LaHood here in Oregon.
As the son of a bus driver one would expect Khan to have a firm grasp of the realities of British transportation, as well as a top-down policy perspective. But why was he here in Portland?
"I'm humble enough to try to nick some of Portland's best ideas," said Khan, using the British slang for 'steal'. "I'm impressed by the city's ability to make green transportation part of its ethos—it's part of the lifestyle here to cycle and use the trams."
"The other thing is how Portland has persuaded people to walk, because America is famous for driving everywhere," he said. "And Portland has this marvelous integrated transport system. In Britain too, many of us become lazy, using the car to go everywhere, but what Portland has here is all the major modes being used together."
"America gets a bad press for its transportation policies in terms of carbon and greenhouse gases," he said. "But Portland is a good example of an American city doing good stuff. The big claim to fame is its sustainable transport policies."
Khan has met with folks from Metro, Trimet, and has toured the region's light rail and transit system, he said. "Have you seen that sky tram?" he asked. "It's amazing."
Khan was also impressed with Portland's ability to plan to include transportation in its future developments, citing the Pearl District as an example of this. He also liked our Drive Less, Save More campaign for its honesty: "In Britain, we've been using more stick, not carrot, telling people they need to change their habits because the planet needs saving," he said. "But according to the polling, the biggest incentives for people to change their habits are money and time."
If there's one policy Khan will take back to the UK, he says it's Portland's ambition with its cycle lanes—particularly, he likes the fact that "for a very small sum of money, compared to the overall budgets for transportation, it's possible to change people's habits by increasing the number of cycle lanes and bikes. The percentage of dollars spent is a fraction of the total."
I told him groups like the Bicycle Transportation Alliance have been pushing for even more money for sustainable transportation, and he seemed impressed. It's not just advocacy groups that are responsible for bringing about change, though, it seems. There's also the creative tension between local and federal government. Khan was impressed with meeting Bragdon and Metro Councilors Robert Liberty and Carlotta Collette, he said, because "it's agencies like this who are in touch with communities, and passionate enough about this stuff to the point of being obsessive, that they really are the pain in the backside of the federal government. I don't mind that tension between federal and local government."
Khan is meeting with Obama's people tonight and tomorrow to see if there's a chance the US might sign up to a successor to the Kyoto protocol in Copenhagen this December. "Under this new American administration the president is committed to the challenges we face on a global basis," said Khan. "To put that in context, there were people in the previous administration who weren't prepared to face up to those challenges."
Khan has a Twitter feed that he hasn't updated since September 7th—the time difference is playing havoc, it seems. I wished him good luck with his jet lag on the way back to England, since that's the direction it always gets me the worst. An honor to meet you, sir. And good luck in the upcoming General Election!