Earlier this month, both Harvard economist Edward Glaeser (http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2010/03/05/why_the_anti_urban_bias/?rss_id=Boston+Globe+—+Editorial/Op-ed+pages) and Next American City’s very own Yonah Freemark (http://americancity.org/columns/entry/2124/) wrote about the anti-urban bias embedded in the way that the federal government dispenses transportation money. Glaeser brings up one particularly horrifying statistic: that a federally-funded “highway passing through a central city reduces its population by about 18 percent”, and explains how federally-funded roads, subsidized homeownership, and the peculiarities of our school system have made urban America less attractive over the decades, and how the government could help right that wrong.
Yonah, on the other hand, points out how state DOTs have far too much power in allocating funds, and a tendency to do so in short-sighted ways. Also, he points out, our leaders in Washington kow-tow to the powerful AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) lobby when working on reauthorizing the transportation spending bill, and that has the obvious result of maintaining the status quo.
Since then, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced a “sea change” in the US DOT’s transportation spending. As he put it on his blog “This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized. We are integrating the needs of bicyclists in federally-funded road projects. We are discouraging transportation investments that negatively affect cyclists and pedestrians.”
What, exactly, this means has been the subject of a good amount of debate. (http://greeninc.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/26/transportation-department-embraces-bikes-and-business-groups-cry-foul/). Carter Wood of the National Association of Manufacturers got quite upset at the notion, citing the fact that a full eighty-eight percent of our freight – by value – travels by truck. “Now normally here we’d put in a statement about how bicycles are great, we need to fund more infrastructure for bikes, federal support, blah, blah, blah” writes Wood, doing his best to remind you of his insincerity, “And, sure, more power to them. But c’mon! A great nation and modern industrial economy cannot operate if executive branch agencies are incapable of making a distinction between bicycles and trucks.”
The New York Times reports that Representative Steven LaTourette (R-OH), echoed similar concerns at the House appropriations committee hearing. “If we’re going to spend $1 million on a road, we’re not going to have half of it go to a bike lane and half of it go to cars?”.
No, Congressman LaTourette, we’re not.
Nor will the federal government stop seeing a distinction between bicycles and trucks. Republicans and trucking lobbyists would love to have you believe that Route 66 is going to be turned into a useless bike lane, because that’s in their best interests to do so CLARIFY THE CONNECTION BETWEEN CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICANISM AND A PRO-ROAD STANCE, OR EXPLAIN WHY THESE PARTICULAR REPUBLICANS WANT ROADS. IS THE TRUCK LOBBY GIVING MONEY TO LATOURETTE?. It seems clear that LaHood means to improve urban design standards within cities and their surrounding regions. Here are a few excerpts from the bullet points in the USDOT’s press release: “walking and bicycling should not be an afterthought in roadway design”; “people who cannot or prefer not to drive should have safe and efficient transportation choices”; and “[agencies should improve] nonmotorized facilities during maintenance projects”.
LaHood, like many others, thinks it should be safer to ride your bike or walk around your neighborhood. This has nothing to do with freeways; this has nothing to do with the movement of freight. Your friendly UPS man will not soon be replaced by a tattooed, body-modded bike messenger who hates you; your garbageman will not soon be sporting spandex – unless he wants to – just because the federal government is expressing interest in bicycle safety a good century after the invention of the bicycle.
Republican knee-jerk fearmongering aside, this does signal a serious change in USDOT policy.