Earlier this month, both Harvard economist Edward Glaeser and Next American City’s very own Yonah Freemark 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 bit of debate. 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.” Since then, Wood has posted six more anti-bike posts on his blog.
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,” he said, “we’re not going to have half of it go to a bike lane and half of it go to cars?”
No, Congressman LaTourette, that sounds patently unlikely. The obvious reason would be that painting bike lanes simply isn’t as expensive as building roads for 18-wheelers.
The federal government will not cease to recognize the difference between bicycles and trucks, though it would be politically advantageous to suggest it. Republicans and trucking lobbyists would love to have you believe that Route 66 is going to be turned into a useless bike lane, because it’s politically advantageous to do so, even if it’s just posturing; not only is LaTourette’s distrust of anything remotely progressive reflective of the current atmosphere in Washington, it just so happens that LaTourette recieved his largest chunk of campaign donations from transportation unions. It seems clear to anyone without financial incentive to believe otherwise that LaHood means to improve street design standards within cities and their surrounding regions. Here are a few excerpts from the bullet points in the USDOT’s policy statement: “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”.
I had the chance to speak with Transportation For America Communications Director David Goldberg, and talk to him about Secretary LaHood’s announcement. David decodes the announcement to mean that “everybody who uses a road on equal footing, with the rights, and the safety, and their lives. The comfort of people in cars is not going to be held any higher — in the DOT’s policy recommendations — than the safety, comfort, lives of people on foot or on bicycle.” 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.
After a half century of the USDOT and the State DOTs acting as “highway departments”, Goldberg sees this a significant improvement in the DOTs attitude towards other modes of transportation. While transportation spending bills in the past like ISTEA (1991) and SAFETEA-LU (2005) have contained language that, according to Goldberg, might make you “think it was pretty good, but it left a lot of the same decision-making mechanisms in place…and they don’t hold anybody accountable” for following through with the multi-modal transportation plans. According to Goldberg, for LaHood’s words to “really have impact, [they need] to be part of the next bill.”
All too often, according to Goldberg, these small-scale plans for pedestrianizing a main street, or adding bike lanes lose out to a “DOT engineer’s dream of redesigning an interchange, that they don’t like how it functions…so, we really have to see the money and the policy lined up behind the words that LaHood and the current DOT are expressing.” So, yes, if Congress agrees with LaHood, some money might be redirected from the primary DOT goal of vehicle throughput, what Golberg calls “building sewers for cars,” and towards some more complete streets projects. If you were an intellectually dishonest lawmaker, the next obvious accusation would be to say that a pro-bicycle, pro-pedestrian policy would be detrimental to the economy. Not so, argues Goldberg, making it safer for other more affordable forms of transportation in the city will make the job market more efficient because people will be able to reliably travel around their regions, especially low wage workers. Furthermore — and probably more importantly — we are going to see the price of oil rise with the rising demand from China and India’s growing economies. Not only will less dependence on oil help our national economy on the macro scale, it will help individuals and families on the micro level, if they don’t have to pay so much for gasoline just to get around. “I don’t know if that argument is one that moves hearts and minds,” admits Goldberg, “but it’s true”.
If Republicans are allowed to get up in arms about the movement of freight, there’s no shame in getting excited about bike lanes, especially considering how the DOT has accidentally worked against cities for so many years. For once, it seems they’re actually making a nationwide policy to make our roads work better for everyone, and urban areas might win out.