Misplaced Priorities: Cars Trump Bikes in New Transportation Bill

Brian Lessels

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.

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