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In South Bend, Pete Buttigieg challenged a decades-old assumption that streets are for cars above all else

Main Street in South Bend after it was reconfigured. (City of South Bend)

For years, South Bend drivers held in their heads a magic number: Get the car to hit that speed, and you could whip through downtown without seeing a red light.

When Pete Buttigieg took office as mayor of the Indiana city in 2012, he changed that. He pitched a $25 million plan to convert downtown’s wide, one-way roads into two-way streets with bike lanes and sidewalks. He hoped making it safer to get out on foot would encourage more people to spend time and money in the area.

Buttigieg branded the idea “smart streets.” Opponents lampooned it as “dumb streets.”

To Greg Matz — who pegged that magic number precisely at 32½ mph — it looked like a waste of money.

“It seemed like an inconvenience,” said Matz, 46. “That was exactly the point, to slow down traffic, which in my initial view was a bad thing.”

Buttigieg pressed ahead. He secured the support of the city council to borrow money for the project. He held off primary and general election challengers who campaigned against it during his 2015 reelection bid. Soon after, South Bend’s roads were torn up for construction and Buttigieg cut the ribbon in 2017.

Three years later, Matz is a convert.

“Downtown was a ghost town. You wouldn’t go there after dark,” said Matz, who went on to volunteer for Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. “The results speak for themselves. It’s more than just the number of businesses, it’s the feeling of it not being dead anymore.”

In the coming days, the Senate is expected to confirm Buttigieg as secretary of transportation. He will bring experience taking on the car-centric street designs that have dominated the American landscape, but which many urban leaders are striving to undo in the face of rising pedestrian fatalities and a reckoning with transportation policies that bored highways through neighborhoods home to Black residents.

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Buttigieg said his experience building support for the program will shape how he approaches his new job in Washington.

“It feeds my perspective on the value of local work around mobility,” he said in an interview. “I think a successful department is one that really empowers local leaders to make and drive decisions that work in their communities.”

The 15-year-old movement for “complete streets” seeks to balance the needs of pedestrians and cyclists with those of drivers. But wherever political leaders try to make changes, they face entrenched opposition from some drivers who see the projects as needlessly making traffic worse.

Experts say the pushback shouldn’t be surprising when generations of drivers expect to have their needs catered to and cities have evolved to become difficult to navigate without a car.

“We have approached local transportation the same way we approach highway transportation, with the goal of moving as many cars as quickly as possible,” said Corinne Kisner, director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Complete streets “represents a shift in thinking and thinking about design as more contextual and less cookie-cutter.”

Urban transportation leaders say they are excited to see someone with Buttigieg’s résumé at the helm of the Transportation Department, which under the Trump administration had an avowed focus on rural areas.

In Buttigieg, they hope to get a leader willing to work more closely with cities. They want the department to make policy changes and funding decisions that help make urban streets safer and more enjoyable for people outside cars.

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As he labored to garner support in South Bend, Buttigieg said he made appeals to history by pointing out that making roads primarily about cars was a brief experiment in the thousands of years humans have lived in cities. He highlighted American cities that implemented similar projects. Nonetheless, opposition was fierce.

“There were people saying it was going to be the end of our city,” Buttigieg said. He said he doesn’t recall his own magic number in downtown South Bend, but remembered his father having the drive nailed down “just so.”

The project involved reconfiguring South Bend’s Main and Michigan streets, creating a pair of two-way roads and reducing the number of driving lanes from four to three. The city added bike lanes, extended sidewalks at intersections to make streets easier to cross and installed roundabouts. The $25 million cost was covered using a tax increment financing bond, which involves local governments pledging increases in revenue from infrastructure investments to pay off investors.

Buttigieg said the program was one of his most successful policies as mayor.

“People changed their relationship to their downtown,” he said. “That’s exactly what we were hoping for.”

Buttigieg was succeeded as mayor by James Mueller, a schoolmate and his former chief of staff. Mueller — magic number 33 mph — said he has tried to build on the smart streets program. The city council earlier this month approved a citywide elimination of rules requiring developers to include a minimum number of off-street parking spaces in their projects.

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Measuring the success of the program has been tricky. Mueller’s office shared a list of economic development projects downtown valued at more than $275 million, but it’s hard to know how many of them might have happened without the street redesign. When it comes to traffic, the mayor’s office could only say that, anecdotally, the average drive through the area is three minutes longer than before.

Henry Davis Jr., a Democratic member of the city council and the lone “no” on a key vote to advance the smart streets project, remains steadfast in opposition, saying that, if anything, it has held back the city’s economy and snarled traffic. Installing bike lanes in a city with South Bend’s harsh winter climate makes little sense, he said.

“Taxpayers are paying a heavy price financially to underwrite the costs for this idea,” said Davis, who unsuccessfully challenged Buttigieg in the 2015 mayoral primary. “We will be paying that cost for several years now because a bond was floated.”

But downtown business leaders say the benefits have been dramatic.

Restaurateur Mark McDonnell said he had long identified the way drivers would speed through downtown as something holding the area back.

“My livelihood is up or down as downtown is,” said McDonnell, who catered Buttigieg’s wedding rehearsal dinner. “If downtown is thriving, then I’m thriving.”

Despite being a conservative Republican, he said he helped campaign for Buttigieg’s smart streets project, organizing other restaurant owners to make the case to the city council. He called securing the go-ahead for the work “a modern miracle in democracy.”

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In December, the first new downtown office building in decades opened, following renovations and conversions of distressed properties into apartments.

Real estate broker Ed Bradley — magic number 29 mph — said the street redesign arrived as people across the country were taking a renewed interest in downtown areas. He credits the project with helping to revitalize the area.

“Would they have happened without the smart streets? Maybe, some of them,” said Bradley, who was involved in renovating an aging office building. “Were the developers in the private sector feeling much better about their investment because of smart streets? Yes.”

The major caveat to the progress is the coronavirus pandemic. South Bend, like other cities, has seen people stay away from restaurants while downtown office workers are staying home as the virus spreads.

McDonnell said his business is just holding on, although Bradley said there’s no indication there will be a long-lasting retreat from downtown offices.

As the pandemic hit, cities across the country looked to their streets as a resource to tap, turning over parking spots to dining tables and closing roads to vehicle traffic so people could play without crowding parks. Supporters of complete streets were encouraged by leaders’ new willingness to experiment.

“Coming out of this, people are really going to crave connection and really crave everything that makes cities great, the ability to be near people and connect with people,” Kisner said.

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But there were missteps, with Black and Latino communities saying their needs had not been adequately considered. Residents of neighborhoods who had been told for years there was no money for new projects saw government ready to take quick action elsewhere.

When the smart streets program was under debate in South Bend, Davis — whose council district includes parts of downtown and predominantly Black neighborhoods to its west — questioned why the money was best spent in the center of the city when other areas suffered from crumbling sidewalks and potholes.

Buttigieg, whose struggle to win Black support hobbled his presidential run, said he also invested in neighborhoods. He said pursuing projects equitably will be one of the foundations of his approach at the Transportation Department.

“We should be open to whatever can make sure these resources are equitably creating economic opportunity in the communities where they are actually going to be plowed into the ground,” he told a group of Black county leaders in a virtual roundtable shortly after being named to the job.

Tamika Butler, a consultant who seeks to help organizations battle inequity, said planners have to ask people in all kinds of communities what they want. For some, a complete street might be one with a new bike lane, but for others, it could be one with a way to safely cross to a corner store.

“Too often, folks like to ride in as a white knight,” Butler said. “Too often, there’s not a process of actually listening to people.”

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