Those folks in Arlington, Texas, who believe that bicycle lanes are part of a United Nations conspiracy to force people to give up their cars and ride bikes would probably mutter “I told you so” if they had read a recent story in The New York Times. (See June 29 post, “A parallel universe in a city next-door.”)
I was alerted to the story by my oldest son, Ben, who lives in Taipei, Taiwan. He read it on the website of The China Daily, the major English-language newspaper of the People’s Republic of China. That surely would fuel the paranoia of the folks in Arlington.
The story, published on Sunday, June 26, told of efforts in European cities to create “environments openly hostile to cars.”
“The methods vary, but the mission is clear — to make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation,” Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote from Zurich.
“Cities including Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded by popular bike-sharing programs. Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of ‘environmental zones’ where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter.”
Such policies would surely provoke howls of protest in the United States, which for decades has had a transportation policy focusing almost exclusively on cars.
On March 17, 2010, for example, during a hearing by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Republicans heaped ridicule on Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood after he suggested that bicycling and walking are just as good ways to get around as cars. Some even joked that LaHood must be on drugs.
Just today, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, announced that his proposed long-term federal transportation bill will eliminate dedicated funding for biking and walking, including Transportation Enhancements, Safe Routes to School and the Recreational Trails Program. He referred to these programs as “not in the national interest.”
In the Senate, lead negotiator James Inhofe, R-Okla., declared that one of his top three priorities for the transportation bill is to eliminate “frivolous spending for bike trails.”
Frivolous? Biking and walking account for 12 percent of all trips in the United States, although funding for biking and walking projects accounts for 1.5 percent of the federal transportation budget, says the Adventure Cycling Association, a bicycle advocacy group based in Missoula, Mont. “That’s more than 4 billion bicycle trips and 40 billion walking trips a year — including trips to work, school, shopping and for recreation and tourism.”
Many Americans, including Republican leaders in Congress, stick adamantly to the notion that the best way to ease congestion is to build more roads and widen those that already exist. That brings more cars, more pollution and, inevitably, the need to build yet more roads and add more traffic lanes. It’s a self-defeating cycle.
The 2010 Urban Mobility Report, published by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University, said that the cost of traffic congestion in 439 U.S. urban areas, measured in 2009 dollars, rose from $24 billion in 1982 to $115 billion in 2009.
“The total amount of wasted fuel in 2009 topped 3.9 billion gallons — equal to 130 days of flow in the Alaska Pipeline,” the report said. “Cost to the average commuter: $808 in 2009, compared to an inflation-adjusted $351 in 1982. Yearly peak delay for the average commuter was 34 hours in 2009, up from 14 hours in 1982.”
In too many American cities, thoroughfares are designed exclusively for cars and trucks. Walking and bicycling are viewed as alien means of locomotion and are roundly discouraged. In fact, they can be downright dangerous.
One example that sticks in my mind is from a sojourn in Mobile, Ala., during a transcontinental bicycle journey in the fall of 2009. Our group of cyclists was stuck in Mobile as we waited for Tropical Storm Ida to slosh through Mobile Bay.
I and a fellow rider were on the cooking rotation during our forced rest day, and we had to shop for the ingredients to make sandwiches for lunch on the road for the next day’s ride.
Our motel was on the west side of Interstate 65. The closest place to buy groceries was a Walmart on the east side of the interstate — not far away as the pelican flies.
But in pedestrian-unfriendly America, the shopping trip meant hiking about a half-mile along the interstate service road in a blustery rain, crossing the interstate on a very busy overpass with a sign that said “Pedestrians and bicycles prohibited” and then walking to the Walmart through acres of puddled parking lots that catered to the same big-box stores you see all over America.
A shopping trip that would have taken a half-hour if we had a car took more than two hours on foot.
This may be an extreme example because of the looming presence of an interstate, which discourages walking and biking like no other thoroughfare. But many streets in major U.S. cities suffer the same affliction: no concessions to anyone who wants to move about by means other than a car.
Maybe the Europeans are onto something. Maybe it’s time to correct the bias toward cars in America and pay more attention to alternative means of transportation — high-speed rail, commuter rail, streetcars, buses and, yes, bicycles.
It’s all fodder for a spirited debate. But please judge ideas on their merits and don’t dismiss any policy practiced in Europe as “frivolous,” socialist or part of a United Nations conspiracy.