A U. S. Senator recently said monies set aside from the Highway Trust Fund for cyclists and pedestrians are funding “hitchhikers,” those unwanted fellow travelers sucking up resources that could best be applied to, well, highways. Those “hitchhikers,” or provisions for cyclists, walkers and other poor souls who opt to employ their feet to get to work, shopping, and recreation are, in this Senator’s mind, siphoning off critical funds that could be building more highways, more lanes, more interchanges and so on. In this Senator’s mind, only traveling by automobile (or truck) qualifies as true “transportation” in this country.
Sidewalks and bike paths are also infrastructure. Most conservatives recognize that infrastructure is in the federal interest. This is not a conservative versus liberal issue (or shouldn’t be); it is a vital national issue that national leaders have always embraced to insure the continued economic growth and prosperity in this country. Since Congressional action funding lighthouses and authorizing construction of the National (“Cumberland”) Road in 1806 (and federal infrastructure spending confirmed as constitutional by a Supreme Court decision in 1824), the federal government has been in the business of supporting transportation infrastructure. Need I point out the massive federal investments in interstate highways, airports (and air traffic control systems) across the country or investments in transit systems, ports and railroads over the years?
As we burrow further into the 21st century, it is becoming obvious to most observers that mobility in this country means developing a wide range of alternatives to accommodate all the trips we make each day. This means we cannot afford to treat bicycle riders or pedestrians as unwanted “hitchhikers.” Cities such as Denver and Boulder, CO; Portland and Eugene, OR; Washington, DC; and now New York City, to name just a few, have growing systems of bike only lanes and facilities to accommodate (and, yes, encourage) travel by bicycle. Greater attention is being paid to the pedestrian (and pedestrian safety) in many cities. There is a growing realization that wide, multi-lane arterials make crossing those streets a hazardous, sometimes life-threatening act. While current legislation describes provisions for cyclists, pedestrians and the like as “enhancements,” we need to adopt a name that signifies a broader focus that includes non-motorized travel as an important component of our transportation network. Action by the US DOT in March of last year to put these “enhancements” on equal footing with highways is a good first start (with predictable pushback from state DOT’s). Walking and biking can reduce our dependence on foreign oil and improve our health to boot!
The current national debate on reducing the federal deficit and returning our country to fiscal good health requires shared sacrifice. On that I think most of us can agree. Sparking a food fight by pitting various transportation groups against each other will be counterproductive. The funds available for transportation improvements in this country are going to shrink. In fact, that is already happening. It is therefore imperative that we arrive at a formula that shares the pain but preserves each transportation alternative a place at the table. Some deserving projects are not going to be built. However, attempting to exclude certain options to insure a greater share for one particular participant will only magnify the inequities that still permeate too many of our transportation policies. The future health of our transportation infrastructure is too critical to allow parochial interests to overwhelm a balanced approach to infrastructure renewal in a time of austerity.
Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation