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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Planes, Trains, Automobiles; But Bicycles?

Air Date: Week of

Bike lanes have been historically funded by the federal transportation bill. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, nicomachus)

The House transportation bill currently on the table cuts bicycling and walking infrastructure. Democrat Congressman Earl Blumenauer is an avid cyclist. He tells host Bruce Gellerman why he believes the bill is an assault on twenty years of progress.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, MA, it’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: The “Hi Mom, hi Dad, hi Beaver,” era wasn’t all that long ago…


GELLERMAN: We recall it as a simpler time when kids on Schwinns rode their bikes to school and suburban sidewalks were actually used for walking. Federal statistics indicate as recently as 30 years ago two thirds of our kids biked or walked to school. Well, that has certainly changed.


GELLERMAN: Today, less than 13 percent of our kids use the old foot-mobile, or ride their two wheelers to class. Making children more mobile was what the Federal Safe Routes to School program was all about. It started in 2005 but could soon come to a screeching halt. It’s one of the programs on the chopping block as Congress considers a new federal transportation bill. Earl Blumenauer is a Democrat from Oregon, and a dedicated cyclist, Congressman, welcome to the show.

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, Dan Brubaker Horst)

BLUMENAUER: Thank you very much.

GELLERMAN: Did you ride your bike to the office today?

BLUMENAUER: You know, I did, continuing a 15 year tradition here on Capitol Hill of bringing a bike instead of a car to Washington DC. It’s one of the best parts of my day.

GELLERMAN: What’s at stake in the proposed Republican-sponsored Transportation Bill in terms of biking and walking?

BLUMENAUER: Well, it is arguably the worst piece of transportation legislation I’ve seen that has been proposed. Not just in the 15 years I’ve been in Congress, but for many years before that. It would take away the transportation enhancement program option, which is the most popular program in the entire federal transportation arena where we had requirements to be spent on bike and ped - that’s stripped away.

It eliminates a requirement that states provide bike and pedestrian accommodation when there’s major bridge replacement. It repeals the Safe Routes to School program which has been so instrumental in trying to make sure that kids can get to school safely on their own - to make sure that there are bike lanes, that there are curb cuts, that there are sidewalks for heaven’s sakes - common sense steps that make our kids safer, and frankly give our families more choices so that people aren’t having to shuttle kids to school and have another traffic jam in the neighborhood every morning.

Most states have projects under the Safe Routes to School program. (Photo: NY State DOT)

GELLERMAN: Yeah, I guess that 20 percent of the traffic in the morning, during rush hour, is from parents dropping off their kids!

BLUMENAUER: It’s astounding. In so many communities now, you have kind of a double blip for the morning commute because there are people who are rushing around in the morning and before they go to work, they are congregating around schoolyards. The more we can do to make children safe getting places on their own, the better off everybody is going to be.

GELELRMAN: I was reading some statistics from the Federal Highway Administration. They said if all our kids walked to school or rode their bikes to school, we’d add 12 billion hours of exercise time, save 160 million gallons of gas.

BLUMENAUER: Yeah, it’s astounding when you think of the cumulative affect that would occur if children could travel safely, or just generally. A quarter of the trips in the United States, one quarter of the trips, are a mile or less. On trips like that, I beat my friends in a car. And again, I’m burning calories, instead of fossil fuel.

GELLERMAN: But you know, back when it first started in 1992, I guess it was, when the federal government first funded money through the transportation bill for biking and walking, it started off modestly enough at 23 million dollars, they had 50 projects back then. Now, it’s 1.2 billion dollars and three thousand projects.

BLUMENAUER: Absolutely, it’s just exploded. Now, those first projects twenty years ago were very important because they set the tone. Now over the course of the last six years, there were major projects in the Economic Recovery Act that the President had for big bike and trail projects. This has been something that has been building and it would be a shame to lose that federal underpinning that leverages so much more.

GELLERMAN: Supporters who want to continue federal funding for bicyclists and walkers, they say things like 12 percent of our trips are made by biking and walking, and yet 1.6 percent of federal money that is spent on transportation goes to cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

BLUMENAUER: That’s a critical point, and even more of a disparity is the fact that 16 percent of the accidents are bike and pedestrians. So, it’s a significant portion of the mode split everyday, but it is more dangerous on average, and it gets a tenth of the resources that would be dictated if you were just trying to make people safer. It’s ironic when we’re looking at the health of the economy - these bike and pedestrian projects actually create more jobs per million dollars than just dropping asphalt for roads.

When we’re concerned about the health of the population, taking away resources that make it easier for family members to get out and be active - move - to be able to improve their individual health. And we’re concerned about the health of our communities, to take away essential investments that allow our transportation systems to work better for everybody, it is more than a step backwards, I mean it is really an assault on 20 years of progress.

GELLERMAN: What are the chances of this bill passing, of these programs getting gutted?

BLUMENAUER: Well, I think the bill is so outrageous, and there are other serious problems with it, for example - unrealistic funding, suspension of environmental protections and community involvement, that it is likely to make the bill dead on arrival. But I am concerned that we have these very destructive provisions that start working their way into the process.

The Safe Routes to School program encourages children to walk or bike. (Photo: California State DOT)

So I think it’s important for people to react quickly, firmly, indicate that it’s not acceptable. If everybody who cares about cycling makes their views heard, this assault will go away and we’ll get back to strengthening the partnership rather than trying to weaken it.

GELLERMAN: Well, Congressman Blumenauer thank you so very much. Have a safe ride from the House to your home!

BLUMENAUER: Thank you Bruce, I will.

GELLERMAN: Democrat Earl Blumenauer of Oregon is founder of the Congressional Bicycle Caucus.



Congressman Earl Blumenauer

National Center for Safe Routes to School


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