Transportation guru Hank Dittmar answers questions
What environmental organization are you affiliated with? What does it do?
I work at Reconnecting America, a national organization focused on connecting transportation and communities to improve environmental and economic performance and create economic security for families and communities. We promote an interconnected national transport system, relying more on rail and bus for intercity travel; we’re trying to make it easier to develop lively, walkable, dense communities around the nation’s 2,000 transit bus stations, and we are working to help small cities and towns revitalize. I am also chair of the board of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a national group dedicated to remaking cities and regions.
What’s your job title?
President & CEO.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I write, research, fund-raise, talk to people all over the country, and try in many ways to educate decision-makers, the media, and the public that change is possible, that we don’t always have to drive, that the communities we live in can become more congenial, walkable places, and that this will save them money, stimulate local economies, and reduce the environmental and public-health impacts of our current transportation and development patterns.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job? What types of people? What other organizations or government agencies?
Elected officials and their staff, from Congress to mayors to city council people; transit agency staff; for-profit and nonprofit developers; news media; community groups; and lenders and investors.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
My friend and colleague Andres Duany, fellow CNU board member. Andres is unbelievably talented and has contributed so much to our understanding of the way that urban design shapes our economy and our environment. He also practices confrontation as a way of engaging and converting diverse audiences (and of learning from them), and has variously taken on the environmental community, libertarians, engineers, and his own allies. His style is painful and upsetting to people, but we are absolutely on the same team, and I have to grudgingly admit that it is part of the reason we are starting to turn the corner on wasteful sprawl.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
I’m always pleasantly surprised when I get the chance to sit down with a group of highway engineers in some collaborative setting to find that we share many values about the environment and society, and to find that when they take the time to listen rather than defend their position, we can find common ground.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Oklahoma City, Okla., but moved six weeks later with my parents. I was an Air Force brat and moved incessantly, attending three different high schools in three different states. Since adulthood, I’ve lived in California, Washington, D.C., and now northern New Mexico. In 1998, I moved to Las Vegas, N.M., a majority-Hispanic town of 15,000 people at the intersection of the Llaño Estacado and the Sangre de Christo mountains. It’s an historic town dating back to a Mexican land grant and containing some 900 structures on the state or national registers. It’s a spectacularly rich place in beauty, history, and culture, and quite poor in terms of money.
What was your environmental coming-of-age moment?
The first Earth Day in 1970. I was a little kid, but it was a big awakening.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
We might be approaching it now. I spent most of the 1990s working to reform federal transportation law and spending to allow non-highway alternatives such as transit, bikes, and walking to be funded, to make highway design less destructive to communities and the environment, to force engineers to consider land-use impacts of their projects, to link air quality and transportation spending, and so on. We made a lot of progress and successfully defended and moved forward under both Bush I and Clinton. All of that may be swept aside in the next few weeks, as Congress is considering a massive increase in highway pork along with a massive loosening of environmental, labor, and public involvement requirements on state highway agencies. The contemplated spending increase is huge — House Transportation Chair Don Young [R-Alaska] wants a $100 billion increase — and there is no debate about whether we are spending it on the right things. The environmental community is only marginally involved, having most of their energy invested in the election, and that’s too bad, because we may have to live with this debacle for the next six years.
What’s on your desk right now?
Our new book The New Transit Town: Best Practices in Transit-Oriented Development, out this month from Island Press. It documents the convergence of three trends: the boom in construction of new transit systems all over the country, changing demographics that spell a move back to more vital, denser communities, and a growing understanding on the part of employers that transit-rich cities are the place to be. The book provides the first practical manual for meeting this market demand by building transit-oriented communities in a way that limits the need to drive, can offer an alternative to sprawl, and makes life more affordable for working families. End of shameless plug!
What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?
The fact that blue Wal-Mart bags have become the state flag of New Mexico: They blow onto every other fence, tree, or post. It really brings together disregard for the natural environment and the way that the globalization of retail strip-mines local economies.
Who is your environmental hero?
Susana Almanza, of People Organized in the Defense of Earth and Her Resources, in Austin, Texas.
Who is your No. 1 environmental villain?
Rep. Tom DeLay [R-Texas].
What’s your environmental vice?
I fly way too much as a part of my business. The carbon dioxide I generate from air travel swamps the tiny savings I make from activities like biking to work, recycling, or composting my trash. Check out this personal greenhouse gas calculator.
How do you get around?
I live 1.5 miles from my office, so I try to bike as often as possible. I have 6-year-old twins, so we also do some driving.
What are you reading these days?
Walter Isaacson’s biography Benjamin Franklin. I wanted to learn how Franklin was able to accomplish so many diverse things. I find that my job, my voluntary activities, and my family use all my time, and I want to find time to write fiction and poetry. I found out that Franklin retired at 42 with a guaranteed income from his printing business. Oh well.
What’s your favorite meal?
New Mexico red chili cheese enchiladas.
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
Moving to New Mexico has helped limit my news junkie tendencies. I read the Sunday New York Times and The Economist, listen to public radio, read The Santa Fe New Mexican and our local paper The Optic, have a news search program for stuff relating to my job, and get lots of email news — including Daily Grist, of course!
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
We don’t eat a lot of meat at my house.
What’s your favorite place?
The Montezuma hot springs, a mile from my house. It’s been a Santa Fe railroad resort, has a recently restored historic hotel nearby designed by Daniel Burnham, and is maintained by community volunteers and available for soaks free of charge. There’s not much better in life than watching it snow in the mountains while soaking in a hot spring.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
My colleague Scott Bernstein and I are trying to redesign our national network for intercity travel to connect air, intercity rail, and intercity bus with one another. We’d turn airports into travel ports, and we’d turn the Amtrak system into an interconnected system of medium-distance routes hooking up with air travel and major hub airports. If I could, by fiat, divert about $7 billion from the federal highway program, we could put together a program that provided a more environmentally responsible system of travel that was also more convenient than driving or flying medium distances.
When was the last time you wore tie-dye? How about fleece?
Never. I belong to the blank generation.
Do you compost?
Yes, and we harvest rainwater, because there ain’t much rain in northern New Mexico.
Which presidential candidate are you backing in 2004?
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
Yes, but not just an environmentalist. As I explain below, my environment has people in it.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly?
Relating environmental issues to people who are just struggling to survive.
What’s one issue about which you disagree with other environmentalists?
Cities and human settlements are a part of the environment and have been for a long time now. Wilderness is a cultural artifact of the environmental movement — an artifact worth defending — but the idea that our landscape has not been used by humans is old thinking. If we want to succeed, we need to frame our struggle in terms of a continuum from the most dense urban place to the least dense — what Ian McHarg called designing with nature, and what Andres Duany calls a transect — and acknowledge that all of it is becoming an environment designed by humans. We must accept that heavy burden, and seek to find ways to accommodate humans and other species across that continuum. The falcon soaring past the office tower in downtown L.A. has every right to be there, and it may be giving us a sign about learning to live together. Similarly, the wildlife refuge outside of Las Vegas is a great place to see cranes, but they stop there because they are fed from fields irrigated from a canal that takes water from a river. The canal deprives small farmers on acequias on land grants of water, and it also drains the river of water. A complicated mess, this stewardship, and priorities are not as clear as some environmentalists seem to think.
What could the environmental movement be doing better or differently to attract new people?
We need to start talking about environmental issues in human and family terms. Economic security is what pushes people’s buttons these days, and we have to begin to translate issues like air pollution, climate change, and loss of biodiversity into terms of household budgets, public health, and economic vitality.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
T. Rex and the Velvet Underground; now it’s Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Calexico, and Los Mocosos.
What’s your favorite TV show?
The Rockford Files.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Calculate the total cost of transportation in your household, in terms of car payments, gas and oil, insurance, wear and tear, and the amount of time you spend on the road. Then think about what it might cost to live in a place where you could get by with one less car, or even share a car, and invest your transportation savings on living in that neighborhood.