During the stimulus debate, a controversy developed over a provision to allocate 3%, or 825 million, of the 27.5 billion dollars worth of highway funding to “Transportation Enhancements,” of which approximately 500 million would go directly to bicycle and pedestrian projects. Here are just a few examples of the backlash which continues to occur:
“To give you just an example [of wasteful stimulus spending], $3 million went to the District of Columbia. You know what they did with that money? They’re going to go build bike paths, and they’re going to increase the number of bike racks in neighborhoods like Georgetown. I don’t think that that’s a stimulative move.”-House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R, Virginia), March 26th, 2009
“I cycle. I like bike paths. I love to see them out there…This is not the time to build these kinds of things. If we are going to invest in infrastructure, invest in infrastructure that actually makes the economy more efficient, such as roads that are needed.”-Senator John Ensign (R-Nevada), February 7th, 2009
“When people see bike trails and hiking trails and golf courses, they know this is not designed to stimulate the economy and create jobs,” Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina), February 2nd, 2009
“I think there’s a place for infrastructure. But what kind of infrastructure? Infrastructure to widen highways to ease congestion for American families?…But if we’re talking about beautification projects or we’re talking about bike paths, Americans are not going to look very kindly on this.”-House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), January 11th, 2009
When I read these comments, I was stunned by the ignorance and arrogance with which our congressmen approached the 3% funding provision, and how they backed their claims up with no substantial evidence and simply assumed (minor) investments in bicycling to automatically be a complete waste of money. 34 pages later, I completed my research paper entitled Practical or Pork Barrel: The Potential Impacts of Bicycle Infrastructure in America (which was recently nominated for the Boothe Prize for outstanding first-year research at Stanford).
To sum up my findings:
Investments in bicycle infrastructure are among the most cost-effective and beneficial investments that the government can make. We pour over 175 billion dollars into roads and highways every year, yet our automobile infrastructure is still insufficient to meet demand, causing traffic throughout America. Factoring in costs from depreciation, fuel, insurance, parking, fees, maintenance, congestion, and pollution, we spend as much as 4 trillion every year, or 1/4 or our GDP, on driving. In addition, 40% of our oil use and 20% of our emissions come from private automobiles, and increases in driving has been directly linked to America’s growing obesity epidemic. Most importantly, to believe the solution to these problems can come by increasing efficiency and investing in alternative fuels alone is just plain nonsense. America has 250 million registered vehicles, of which less than one million are hybrids. So, to make any sizable reductions in emissions and oil use would take decades and trillions of dollars from consumers, and even then, vehicle miles traveled is predicted to increase 48% by 2030, which would likely wipe out any reductions and even increase our energy use.
If Obama wants to stay on course for an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 and a 17% reduction in oil use by 2020, American’s must drive less.
Bicycling has a huge potential for success in America. Nearly half of trips in America are less than 3 miles; yet, 90% of these trips are taken by car. If just 1/4 of these trips were taken by walking or bicycling, we would reduce emissions and gas use by about 8% apiece, equivalent to 50 million new hybrids on the road (if you haven’t read it yet, Active Transportation for America is a great study). This is merely a starting point, and with volatile gas prices leading many Americans to seek alternatives to driving, this could be done within 5-7 years with targeted investments in bicycling. If mode share for under three miles could be bumped up to 40%, we’re looking at a 18-19% reduction, along with a healthier, less congested America.
The best part: cities such as Portland, Davis, and Boulder have already shown the potential of bicycling with just a modest investment–Boulder has achieved a 21% mode share with just 15-20% of their transportation going toward bicycling. Portland’s bicycle coordinator, Roger Geller, estimates that for his city to raise its bicycling mode share from 8% to 25% would cost just 100 million dollars (50 for the city and 50 for the region), making the total investment for the city alone just 105 million dollars, equivalent to less than one freeway interchange.
So what would it cost the nation to reach a 20-25% total mode share? I have arrived at a figure of 9 billion dollars per year, or 5% of our national highway budget. Of this, 5 billion would likely need to come from the federal government. With targeted investments, America could dramatically reduce our energy use and emissions while becoming a healthier and less congested nation within 10 years. Given rising gas prices, cash-strapped governments, and ailing automobile infrastructure which requires immense investments to meet future demand, we need to start thinking about simple, cost-effective alternatives which will yield positive short and long term impacts. Integrating bicycle use into our daily lives, just as residents of Amsterdam and Copenhagen have, will have more of an impact than tens of millions of new hybrids.
Is Obama “progressive” enough to follow through with his goals and make this investment? I’m not sure.
To read my research paper, click here.