Misplaced Priorities: Cars Trump Bikes in New Transportation Bill

Jul 16, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Rush Hour in Copenhagen, photo courtesy of Mikael Colville-Andersen @ flickr

On the afternoon of July 6th, I rode my bike home from work through the streets of Portland, Maine, sharing the lane with car traffic. Parts of my commute could benefit from a bike lane or increased signage, but the prospects for those projects do not look good in the near term. Earlier that day, President Obama had signed a new transportation bill that slashed federal funding for biking and pedestrian infrastructure.

The bill reduces funding for bicycling and pedestrian improvements by about thirty percent. Additionally, it allows those reduced funds allocated for bike and pedestrian projects to be used instead for other transportation work at the discretion of the state. This despite the fact that a 2010 census study showed that the number of people who used a bicycle as their primary mode of transportation increased by 43% in the preceding decade. Even greater gains were seen in cities, where commutes tend to be shorter.

My own bike obsession (my third-floor walk-up houses eight bikes, four of which are mine) began when I spent a semester abroad in Denmark. Its capital city, Copenhagen, is full of wide bike lanes bustling with two-wheeled traffic. The bike lanes are bordered by a curb to separate them from the road and are built so that bikers can safely pass one another within the lane. According to the City of Copenhagen, half of its residents bike to work or school every day. To compare, in Portland, Oregon, the large U.S. city with the most bikers, 6% of residents primarily use their bike to get to work.

Bicycling is contagious. Living in Copenhagen I found that having so many bikes on the roads and such good infrastructure makes it more fun, safer, and easier to ride. Drivers expect cyclists and operate accordingly. Bike racks sit on seemingly every corner. People carry heavy loads of groceries in bike baskets, transport their children around the city in specially-made cargo bikes, and use fenders or even an umbrella to get around in the rain. My memory could be deceiving me, but I still swear that I once saw a man in a business suit eating a sandwich and talking on a cell phone while navigating rush hour bike traffic.

I returned to Portland for law school largely because it is such a wonderful place to live. The city is big enough to have great restaurants and good music, but relatively quiet and geographically small. I own a car, but never drive within the city because biking is cheaper, more fun, and often faster. Traffic is light, speeds are slow, and drivers are generally courteous.

The city has made strides in recent years, adding bike lanes, pursuing federal grant money for further improvements, and even hiring a bike-pedestrian coordinator.  However, more remains to be done. Dangerous intersections, narrow streets, and perilous railroad crossings remain unsafe even for experienced cyclists, and intimidate those who might otherwise choose to commute or recreate on a bike. Greater federal funding would enable Portland to more quickly and completely make its streets safer for all users.

Our country’s transportation system needs help, that much is clear. Many roads and bridges need costly repairs to remain safe. But it is short-sighted to spend huge sums on automotive infrastructure in lieu of making cities more livable for bicyclists and pedestrians. Walking and biking keeps people healthier and happier, all while saving gas and reducing emissions. American cities could be cleaner, more bikeable, more walkable, and less car-dominated if we choose to invest wisely in our biking and walking infrastructure.

Message from Universe: While Biking, Obey Traffic Rules

May 3, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

I received that message this week. It came in two parts. The first part was delivered by a polite and efficient Somerville, MA police officer, in the form of the below ticket. I had blown right through a red light.

The second part was the irony that hit me as his blue lights were flashing: Just last week I posted this blog post, about how far we’ve come in Boston toward a safe and respectful bike commuting environment, in part because cyclists tend to follow the rules far more regularly than they did in the past.

I am guilty. No question about it. It doesn’t matter that the move I made was safe – to me and others – and likely promoted efficiency because I got out of the way of traffic before the waiting cars started moving through the intersection. I violated the rules that we have developed to govern our competing demands on a shared resource: our roadways.

I am blowing the whistle on myself for a few reasons, but principally to make a simple argument: the rule of law is not only necessary, but immensely helpful. We should respect it. Now, to those reasons.

First, the experience gave me the opportunity to reflect on how subjective we all get when using the roads. I bike, and I drive. When biking, I am often amazed at how quickly I fall into the mindset that all drivers are the problem, and when driving how quick I am to note the bad moves of the cyclists on the road.  You may know what I mean.

Test yourself: are you, or is any one, really capable of innately respecting the rights of all users of a shared resource when we are users ourselves?

Which leads to the second point: this is why we have laws. They govern situations that humans are not entirely capable of governing in the absence of law. The rule of law is, in my view, one of the greatest human inventions yet. It is the fundamental underpinning of so much of a civil society, including the rational sharing of scarce, common resources subject to multiple demands, for the greater good of all.

Resources like clean water. Like marine fisheries. Like clean air for all who breathe. Like a healthy economy for the welfare of all. Like justice. And like safe streets and other public investments in transportation.

If we don’t like the rules we should not flaunt them, we should work to change them. Some innovations worth watching are now in the works.  France, for example, appears to be experimenting with new rules that would allow cyclists to go through red lights in some situations, where clearing the intersection of cyclists before cars start up might actually make for safer conditions.

I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. But I do know it was wrong for me to adopt that rule for myself. Civil society, operating under the rule of law, can’t work that way. Open respectful debate, and thoughtful engagement in our democracy and participation in the governing process – that’s how we develop the rules we use to promote the general good of the body politic.

We at CLF are engaged in that sort of work in every one of our states, to promote what we and our members (and many more) believe is the general good of society, and we’re proud to do it. Especially in the election season that is now upon us, we invite all to join in the process on whatever issue excites you. It’s good for all of us, and necessary if we’re going to address the challenges we face effectively, and together. And that’s how it has to be done.

Why Driving Less and Biking More Celebrates Earth Day Every Day

Apr 20, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

CLF President John Kassel in front of the MA State House on his commute from work.

Every year, environmentalists and the public alike celebrate Earth Day in late April. It is a day with a long, proud history – a day when, for a brief moment, we share our environmental concern with a broader public. But let’s be clear: one day is not enough.

This year marks more than 40 years since the first Earth Day, 50 years since Silent Spring, and 20 years since the Rio Earth Summit. The mounting environmental threats we face as a region, and as a nation, cannot be dealt with in a day. They require sustained effort towards a sustainable future. They require every one of us to do our part, every day.

That may sound daunting, but here’s one solution that’s as easy as walking or riding a bike: one of the best things you can do for the environment is to bike more, to walk more, or to take public transportation. This Earth Day, give your car a rest.

There’s no question that driving is a strain on our environment, our economy and our health. Transportation is the largest US consumer of petroleum, accounting for twenty percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. High prices aren’t slowing us down, either: last year Americans spent $481 billion on gas, a record high. That’s in part because the number of “extreme commuters”— those who travel ninety minutes or more each way—have been the fastest-growing category.

For all the money (and time) spent, it’s not making us happy. Drawing on a body of research, David Brooks wrote in the NY Times that “The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting.” Nor is it making us healthy. Commuting by car raises people’s risk of obesity, increases their exposure to pollution, reduces air quality through hazardous air pollution, and reduces sleep and exercise. Across the US, vehicle exhaust accounts for 55% of nitrogen oxides, and 60% of carbon monoxide emissions. For those driving, and the 25 million Americans living with asthma, this is a bad thing. These reasons and many more, CLF is proud to be affiliated with the Environmental Insurance Agency (EIA) that offers discounted insurance rates for those who drive less.

The portrait is clear: driving is one of the most polluting things we do nearly every day – and we don’t even think about it. If you want to celebrate Earth Day, drive less.

I’ve been a bike commuter my entire adult life. I rode to work in Boston in the mid-1980’s, and now, 25 years later, I’m doing it again. I can tell you that the over those years, the biking culture here in Boston has changed dramatically. When I first began riding, it was very common for me to stop at an intersection and be the only bike commuter. Now, I’m almost always part of a large pack.

A MassBike fact sheet claims that “in 2000, 0.52% of Massachusetts workers 16 and older (15,980 people total) used a bicycle to get to work.” Meanwhile, the League of American Cyclists claims that between 2000 and 2009 bike ridership in Boston increased by 118%. This rise makes sense, given the efforts by Boston’s bike-supporting Mayor Menino and his bike Czar Nicole Freedman, under whose tenure the city of Boston has installed more than 50 miles of bike lanes. Boston’s great bike sharing program, Hubway, also undoubtedly helps. After having been named one of the country’s worst biking cities by Bicycling magazine, last year they named us one of the country’s 26 best.

There’s no doubt we’ve come a long way. Back when I began riding to work in Boston, there was a fend-for-yourself, cowboy sort of attitude. That’s all changed, and for the better. Cyclists follow the rules far more frequently now. This makes for safer travel for all, and gains respect among drivers and the general public for this alternative form of transportation. Biking shares the road, and also reduces the need for public expenditures on roads. By encouraging biking, we make the most of our shared investment in transportation.

We need the same increase in respect for other forms of transit, like buses, subways and trains, which also help us get the most out of our transportation dollars. Instead of continuing to build infrastructure that funnels everyone onto roads across New England, in their cars, we need to share our transportation resources, for our benefit, and the planet’s.

We also need to optimize our transit system for walking, for biking, for trains and for buses. And we need to treat all forms of transportation equally. As CLF’s former President Doug Foy once said at UVA’s Miller Center, “It’s always amazed me that we refer to driving, roads and bridges and then everything else an alternative form of transportation.” Indeed. Isn’t walking the primary form, for all of us? The one we first learned to use? All of these “alternatives” should be equal forms of transportation, with equal access for all.

The growth of urban biking is due in large part, in recent years, to the power of numbers. And the improvement in bikers’ attitudes also continues to help: if you give respect, you get respect. But there’s also something else going on here: You can’t keep a good idea down. Let’s consider a few stats:

  • A short, four-mile round trip by bicycle keeps about 15 pounds of pollutants out of the air we breathe. Source: MassBike.
  • A 15-minute bike ride to and from work five times a week burns off the equivalent of 11 pounds of fat in a year. Source: MassBike.
  • Individuals who switch from driving to taking public transit can save, on average $10,120 this year, and up to $844 a month. Source: American Public Transportation Association APTA

Who wouldn’t want to save money, improve their health, and save the earth? A newspaper put it well when they ran a headline that said, “Commuting to work is ‘bad for your health’ (unless you cycle or go by foot…).”

This Earth Day, ditch the car and pick up your bike. Or go for a walk. And then, when it comes time to go back to work, keep on riding. I’ll see you on the road.

Bike Sharing Came To Boston, And We Are The Better For It

Dec 1, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

South Station Hubway location. Image courtesy of dravium1 @ Flickr.

Yesterday, November 30, 2011, was the last day of operation for the Hubway until March of 2012, as recently reported by Eric Moskowitz at The Boston Globe. That sad occasion spurs me to reflect on what a great thing it is that bike sharing, bike lanes and a general shift in our transportation culture has come to Boston.

For well over a decade, I rode the rails of the MBTA – Boston’s erratic but generally effective public transit system – with the occasional long walk and requisite car commute sprinkled in. There is a long tradition of staff bicycling to work here at the Conservation Law Foundation‘s office in Boston. Not shocking, I know: through their work, my colleagues are acutely aware of the need to reduce fossil fuel use.. I must confess, however, that until this summer I was never one of our bicyclists. Well over 90% of the time my commutes have been on the MBTA.

And then came Hubway. Since July 31, 2011 I have used that system 54 times, mostly to make a commute in during the morning. During a business trip, I also bought and used a one-day guest pass on the slightly older sister program in Washington DC, the Capital Bikeway. In the last four months, I have ridden my bike to work more than I have in my decade of work at CLF. I know I’m not alone, either: Boston magazine’s Bill Janovitz wrote about his bike commuting habits today, while the new Boston edition of the real estate blog Curbed wrote about the effect of Hubway on property values.

That’s not to say Hubway is not without problems. Anyone who follows me on twitter knows that I have on occasion griped about aspects of the program, but the occasional full rack or difficult to return bicycle does not undermine my appreciation of the. Those complaints aside, the Hubway marks a fundamentally important step towards a city that celebrates diverse and non-motorized ways of getting from one place to another.

The deep and growing challenge of global warming, a problem inextricably linked to our fossil fuel dependence (and all the pollution and harm that comes with it), means that we need to deploy a very wide range of tools and efforts to change the way in which we use energy. Our frenzied use of energy to move ourselves around in our cars is a major part of the challenge we face.

Urban bicycling is a really pleasant way to begin that shift in a way that provides a little exercise and a chance to really experience and enjoy the city while reducing fossil fuel use and pollution. It can also be very convenient – for some trips across downtown Boston I am absolutely certain that a bike is the fastest way to get from point A to B as even the safest of riders who obeys all the lights can pass many cars stuck in traffic.

Change can be slow in coming. For example, my own town of Brookline may or may not be ready with its own Hubway stations when the system reopens in March. But the runaway success of the Hubway system, and the successful efforts by the City of Boston and so many others to launch the system shows that rapid change for the better is very possible.

Creating a better city, state, region, nation and world where our electricity comes from clean renewable sources and is used efficiently and we travel in a cleaner and saner way relying on our muscles as much as possible using trains, buses, cars and planes only when truly needed is very possible. It starts with giving people options – and having affordable (and subsidized for low-income residents) and high quality bicycles available for use across cities like Boston is definitely a step (and a pedal) in that direction.