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Show 130: The Federal Connection

After attending the national Bike/Walk Summit in Washington D.C., Chuck has some "radical" thoughts about the role of the federal government in funding transportation.

Show 130: The Federal Connection

Reader Comments (2)

I very much identify with what you say in this podcast. We certainly disagree on some closely related topic, particularly the importance and effectiveness of various federal programs, but in this case I think I share your criticisms and your vision.

There seems to be a widespread mental block against looking at a problem as anything but a deficiency of SOMETHING and the solution as anything but acquiring more of that SOMETHING. There might be some debate about what that SOMETHING is, but it is always assumed without question that, whatever IT is, the problem stems entirely from not having enough of IT and the solution is to get more of it, without regard to any other factors. In this case, IT is money for so-called "bike/walk infrastructure".

I use quotes because I think that the notion of "bike/walk infrastructure" is kind of ridiculous. Walking is a basic activity of life for humans and all other legged creatures. It does not require any infrastructure. The infrastructure required for biking is pretty minimal: a smooth strip of land. People were walking since there were people and people were biking more than 100 years ago, well before there was any notion of "bike/walk infrastructure".

This is closely related to the problem with the idea of "complete streets". The assumption is the problem with the streets is that they are incomplete in the first place. But maybe the problem is that they have too much of something. Or maybe the problem is structural so that it cannot be expressed in amounts.

What does require substantial infrastructure is driving motor vehicles. And as a society, we have built so much infrastructure to accommodate driving motor vehicles, and to make driving motor vehicles as easy as possible, that we have destroyed our older, simpler habitat in which it was easy to things to do a simple thing like walk (WALK!). The problem is one of excess, not deficiency.

As I teach (http://cyclingsavvy.org), it is still safe and easy to bike on almost all of our current roads. The problem for biking is not an excess or deficiency in the configuration of streets. The biggest contributor to the problem for biking is a harmful social norm, one that (as Peter Norton describes in his book, Fighting Traffic) was created in the '20s through automobile industry campaign. The next biggest contributor is a deficiency of education, which was once more common. This does not mean changes to streets cannot improve conditions for biking. I believe that there is an important role for such changes. But by disregarding the need for a rigorous understanding of the problem, we come up with proposed solutions that are ineffective and often counterproductive. There is a wealth of information on counterproductive bike infrastructure.

Even if we assume that the money designated for "bike/walk infrastructure" is well spent, it is still just a tiny band-aid on the problem caused all of the other transportation money. It is ridiculous to ask for more money to fix a problem out of the same fund that is sustaining the problem in the first place. If someone takes your money and says they're going to use it to buy a knife to stab you with, you don't ask them to pick up some band-aids for you while they're out. The problem is not a deficiency of band-aids. The problem is an excess of knives.

I have some experience with The League of American Bicyclists, the organization that puts on the National Bike Summit in Washington, DC. I am a lifetime member and a certified instructor. I also ran for the board of directors in 2009/2010. I have found the organization to be both corrupt in its governance and totally misguided in its pursuits. In particular, it seems to be putting almost all of its resources into attracting corporate donation and lobbying for government spending IN THE NAME of biking (regardless of how ineffecitvely the money is used) than in actually doing productive work and solving real problems. That is why its membership has declined and many of its instructors (education being its traditional core program) have abandoned it.

One final comment on Safe Routes To School: I do think that it is a valuable program, but again, it is a band-aid. You ask, Why build schools in unsafe places and then try to fix them and make them safer? I ask, Why build unsafe places at all? It's not like they're just naturally unsafe. They're unsafe because we built them that way, and at great cost. It's not like we couldn't afford to make them safe at the time. They were safe to begin with until we spent a lot of money to do stuff that made them unsafe. Again, we don't have a deficiency of band-aids, but an excess of knives.

March 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEli Damon

Funny that you led off with a clip from Sacramento news, as that is where I live. As always, challenging positions that call into question conventional wisdom, and my ideas as well.

If we devolved transportation taxation and planning from the federal government to the states, I think that in most locations we who believe in transportation choice would be worse off. Wisconsin? Texas? Ohio? California? In most states, the state DOT is the most regressive of agencies, stuck in the 50s or the 70s. In Sacramento, innovation is happening primarily at the regional level under the leadership of the MPO, Sacramento Area County of Governments (SACOG). It is definitely not happening at the state level nor the county level, and only a little at the city level.

As states start to deal with transportation funding on their own, and Congress seems unable to deal with the issue in any intelligent way, it may be that responsibility will devolve in any case, but I'd rather the process happen with thought and creativity. Ironically, the MPOs are a creation of the federal government, and slightly funded by it, to fill a gap in planning, that neither the states nor the cities were dealing with regional issues. And that is still the case. I think that the role of the federal government is to step in where issues of national interest are not being addressed by states, which was perhaps true in transportation and has certainly been true on many other issues including racial discrimination and pollution control. But of course as you point out, the question that should be asked is whether this intervention is still needed or effective. If the federal approach looked like the TIGER program, I think the answer would be yes, but the old way of doing things, which MAP-21 returned us to by killing off TIGER and creating regressive policy, the answer would be no.

So, if we move away from federal taxation, funding, and control, let's do so carefully.

March 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDan Allison
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