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Setting the Record Straight on US DOT’s New Nonmotorized Policy Statement

This weekend, the Drudge Report linked to the recent New York Times article about Secretary LaHood’s policy statement with the alarmist headline: “War on Cars? Obama Transportation Sec.: ‘This is the end of favoring motorized transportation’…“. Not surprisingly, that got a lot of people stirred up. It also illustrates the way the secretary’s policy statement on bicycling and walking and the whole debate over accommodating bicycling and walking has gotten distorted.


Here are a few hostile arguments we’re heard so far:




  • Iowa Representative Tom Latham complained other transportation needs would be “swept aside”. (See our response)


All because we are now NOT going to ignore the needs of bicyclists and pedestrians in transportation projects! Imagine if the Secretary had said the opposite? What if he had said we should ignore the needs of all of us who walk and bike? It would have been unacceptable. And yet that has been the reality in far too many places for too long.


Far from what the naysayers claim, investing in bicycling infrastructure has been shown over and over again to benefit local economies and the nation.


The secretary rightly wants to encourage biking and walking. Addressing obesity, congestion, and high carbon emissions are national priorities and they require national leadership. This will be done by providing a safe and convenient way to replace short cars trips with clean and healthy bicycle trips for those who choose it.  Forty percent of all trips in the U.S. are two miles or less – an easy biking distance. And it’s not just in cities. In rural areas, thirty percent of trips are two miles or less.


But listening to the critics you would think he wanted to replace all trucks with cargo bikes. Let’s look at what the policy actually says.


“Transportation agencies are encouraged to go beyond minimum standards to provide safe and convenient facilities for” bicycling and walking.  – “Go Beyond minimum requirements.”  Not exactly a rallying cry for a war on cars. That state Departments of Transportation need this kind of nudge tells you something about their historical single-mode focus.


Considering walking and bicycling as equals with other transportation modes…Walking and bicycling should not be an afterthought in roadway design. – Equal consideration does not mean equal cost. Bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure costs a fraction of highways (and contributes an even smaller fraction of the wear and tear on the roads). Much of the time they can be incorporated in roadway plans at minimal expense – often it just requires some thinking. And the statement makes it clear that short trips are the target, not interstate freight trips.


“Ensuring that there are transportation choices for people of all ages and abilities, especially children” – Children should have a safe way to get to school and our parents and grandparents should have an alternative to driving. This is stuff we can all get behind.


Integrating bicycle and pedestrian accommodation on new, rehabilitated, and limited-access bridges” – Bike access to bridges is critical to connecting a bicycling network. This is the key to getting the most out of them. As they say in Seattle: if you can’t get across the bridges, nothing else matters.


The USDOT statement then goes on to encourage collecting data on walking and biking trips, setting targets for walking and bicycling and tracking them over time, and maintaining existing infrastructure. The policy recommendations are common sense, equitable, and give people the chance to make their own transportation choices – without imperiling our nation’s highways.

We welcome the Secretary LaHood’s policy memo and hearty support. But he’s not drafting brand new policy here. Since ISTEA in 1991 – spanning four different presidential administrations, from both parties – many of these policy elements have been in place with little attention, fanfare or funding. Many states and municipalities have used these policies to make communities better places to live and work. Our hope is that by prioritizing these existing policies, the rest of the country can share in the improved livability of those who are already benefitting from them.

Help us keep working for better bicycling.

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