On Transportation, Can We Please Just Get Real?

The National Journal’s Experts: Transportation blog has continued posting brief commentaries about Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s recent pronouncement of “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.” If one is take the Secretary at his word — and one should, shouldn’t one? — then federal spending and policy decisions about transportation sectors should be made without consideration of their relative importance to the U.S. economy.

Most of the posts come from representatives of groups that support more federal funding for their causes, and they build on Secretary LaHood’s comments to make a pitch for their priorities. Nothing unusual in that, but the commentaries roam far from what the Secretary actually said.

Keith Laughlin, president of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, finds in the Secretary’s expressions support for remaking America into a more urban nation: “We know that gasoline is only going to get more and more expensive in the future. When that happens, we can actually avert economic catastrophe for America’s families if we take steps now to create more walkable/bikeable/transit-rich neighborhoods that help families keep transportation costs manageable. So not only will increased investment in active transportation not cause economic catastrophe, it will actually prevent it!”

Whether it’s a rural hamlet or the smartest “smart growth” community, people still depend on trucks to move freight. Rickshaws and bicycles-built-for-two are not up to the job.

Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president of the AARP, asserts, “America is a diverse country.  We should invest in a transportation network that reflects that diversity.  The transportation portfolio should continue to be varied to ensure that travel choices are there for people as their needs and abilities change.” OK. Agreed. But please reconcile that statement with what follows: “AARP supports the very clear meaning of Secretary LaHood’s blog posting.”

Andy Clark, president of the League of American Bicyclists, argues: “The Dutch invest in bicycle travel because their economy depends on truck and train traffic to and from the North Sea ports. They can’t afford to have their highways bunged up with single-occupant vehicle trips – they don’t have the space and nor does their environment have the carrying capacity to manage it. For the cost of just a few hundred feet of the proposed rebuild of the I-5 Columbia River bridge from Portland to Vancouver, the Portland region could achieve a 20%-25% mode share for bikes – doing more for regional congestion, the trucking industry, air quality, and obesity levels than the entire bridge ‘improvement’ project.”

Holland’s population density is 1,035 people per square mile. The United States’ is 85. Comparing the U.S. economy and transportation needs to the Netherlands is a distraction.

Let’s return to what Secretary LaHood actually wrote: “Today, I want to announce a sea change. People across America who value bicycling should have a voice when it comes to transportation planning. This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.” Let’s say we have an interchange proposed to ease congestion in a large urban area that crosses the border of two states. If we are to take the Secretary seriously, we’d see planners devote as much time on planning and designing for bikes paths as for trucks. And that would be dumb and irresponsible.

Bikes are fine. We like bikes. More people should ride them. But their advocacy, especially coming from a Cabinet secretary, should bear some connection to the real world and the United States as a modern industrial nation.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • D. Brooks says:

    I think you’re the one who needs to “get real”. I drive a car, and I’ve ridden a bike over 80,000 miles in the last 20 years. I’d ride more if there was infrastructure to accommodate it, and I’m not afraid to ride anywhere. I pay plenty of gas tax, why shouldn’t it go to bike improvements? If more people ride, there is less congestion and more room for your precious car. Your viewpoint is myopic and out of date.

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