Shifting Gears

Over the past 60 years, transportation has changed less than might have been expected. Still no jetpacks, for example. And while this could change after the presidential election, we’re not yet commuting to jobs on the moon.

Transportation has changed, however, especially over the last two decades. Because of environmental or health concerns, because they’re fed up with traffic, or because they don’t have other options, people are taking more and more trips on foot or by bicycle. The federal government has supported this change, primarily through provisions in the Transportation Authorization bill. While these programs are just a drop in the massive bucket of federal transportation funding, they have helped states and communities take strides in bicycle and pedestrian safety and ensured that kids can get to school safely under their own power.

This shift towards people-powered movement helps with many of the major problems facing the country — obesity, rising gas prices, and dependence on foreign oil, to name a few.

Why then does the House leadership want to turn the clock on transportation funding back to the 1950s?

(waltarrrrr / Flickr)

(waltarrrrr / Flickr)

Both chambers of Congress are working on new transportation bills. Both call for more than $42 billion in yearly spending. The Senate’s version would pose significant challenges for funding cycling and pedestrian projects. The House bill, however, eliminates literally every program that has supported the growth of biking and walking. Gone is the Safe Routes to School program. Gone are the state-level Department of Transportation positions specializing in bike and pedestrian safety. And the Transportation Enhancements program, which has helped fund sidewalks, crosswalks, and bikeways? Also gone.

Cost-cutting is a congressional priority. Every program is going to face scrutiny from lawmakers and the public. Congressional opponents of bicycle and pedestrian programs don’t seem confident in their ability to sway public opinion, so we’re seeing consistent misrepresentations of the programs’ costs and intents. Recently, we’ve heard Rep. John Boehner claim that 25 percent of highway dollars are “siphoned off for non-economic projects — such as beautification and bikepaths.” Another opponent characterized the Transportation Enhancements program as funding “squirrel sanctuaries.” So what are the facts?

Only 1.5 percent of federal transportation funds support bicycling and walking projects. Meanwhile, these two modes of transportation account for 12 percent of trips nationwide.

Bikepaths make up a small percentage of investments made in safer bicycling and walking infrastructure. Most of the funds support popular and cost-effective projects like sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, trails, bike parking, Safe Routes to Schools programs, and a host of other safety projects that benefit all road users.

The Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to Schools programs are among the only programs that give local governments the opportunity to compete fairly for transportation dollars that are fiercely controlled by state highway agencies. Applications for these funds far exceed the available dollars. Beyond fairness and safety, there are rock-solid economic reasons for funding these programs. The Transportation Research Board recently looked at the results of stimulus funding that went to transportation infrastructure. Transportation Enhancement projects — bikepaths and so on — were the most efficient at creating jobs.

Bicycling and walking aren’t partisan issues. In both the House and Senate, there are bipartisan amendments to restore bike and pedestrian funding. The sponsors of these amendments realize that while getting more people around on two unmotorized wheels and their own feet won’t answer all of our nation’s transportation problems, they are low-cost, big-impact projects that create jobs and help with health, energy, and environmental problems.

Bicycles will never help with a commute to the moon. But they do help hundreds of thousands of Americans get to work, school, stores, and restaurants every day. They are important parts of today’s transportation mix and deserve more funding, not less.

Scott Williams is the director of membership at the League of American Bicyclists, and a long-time bike commuter. www.bikeleague.org
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