CQ TODAY ONLINE NEWS
July 1, 2008 – 11:23 p.m.
Bicycle Campaign Gears Up for Campaign Cycle
By Colby Itkowitz, CQ Staff
Like many avid bicyclists, Tim Blumenthal takes care to use his energy sparingly. But that didn’t stop him from interrupting a recent vacation in Paris to fly back to the United States, then almost immediately turn around and rejoin his wife in the City of Light.
The reason for the diversion was simple: Barack Obama wanted to talk about federal bicycling programs. Although he was promised just 20 minutes with the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, Blumenthal was willing to spend nearly a day’s worth of time in airports and on airplanes to make it happen.
“It was an important coming-out moment for the bike industry in terms of political sophistication,” said Blumenthal, the executive director of the Bikes Belong Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Boulder, Colo. “Never in my memory has a biking event with a presidential candidate happened.”
He also reports that the upshot of the meeting in Chicago three weeks ago was encouraging: The Illinois senator told some 160 assembled cyclists — who included representatives of most of the nation’s prominent bike transportation groups, in addition to Blumenthal’s — that he doesn’t usually make promises, but they could count on his support.
Bicycling groups already had picked up a number of encouraging signals from the Obama campaign. At a rally in Portland the weekend before the Oregon primary in May, for example, some 8,000 bicyclists were in the throng of 75,000 people. And the candidate gave them a brief shout-out from the stump: “It’s time that the entire country learned from what’s happening right here in Portland with mass transit and bicycle lanes and funding alternative means of transportation,” he said. Portland leads the nation in bicycle commuters: 3.5 percent cycle to work every day.
Groups trying to promote bicycling as a viable alternative means of transportation hope to mint such feel-good sentiments into a firm commitment for expanded federal funding. Next year, Congress is slated to write a new highway bill, which is already being touted as embodying the greatest overhaul of federal transportation policy since President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act into law half a century ago. Bicycling advocates are hoping to build on a significant set of wins in the current highway law, written in 2005 — including new initiatives to fund “complete streets,” the term for new road projects outfitted with dedicated bike lanes — and arguing to step up federal funding to encourage bike commuting.
It’s a propitious time to be making the case, with the national average price of gasoline topping $4 a gallon and growing interest in reducing carbon emissions to mitigate the effects of climate change. Still, biking advocates are mindful that weaning American commuters from their reliance on the automobile is anything but an overnight proposition. Commuting by bike “is not the silver bullet,” said Walter Finch, who directs government relations for the 300,000-member League of American Bicyclists, based in Washington. “I think more and more people are at least starting to listen, so at least we’ll have more opportunities to make the case.”
Wind at Their Backs?
A big part of making that case will involve selling the benefits of increased bike usage to fiscal conservatives in Congress, who so far have leapt at opportunities to ridicule the idea. During a House debate last summer on energy policy legislation, Republican Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina lampooned the Democrats for “bringing 19th century solutions to 21st century problems. If you don’t like it, ride a bike. If you don’t like the prices at the pump, ride a bike. Stay tuned for the next big idea by the Democrats: improving fuel efficiency by riding a horse and buggy.”
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio has also dismissed the case for bike-friendly commuting, as has Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters , who eventually had to issue an apology for declaring last year that bike paths are not part of the nation’s transportation infrastructure. The presumed Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, hasn’t issued full-throated denunciations of bike programs — but, as a fiscal conservative and someone who voted against the 2005 highway law, he’s unlikely to champion them, either.
For all the ready-made derision bike plans may suffer at the Capitol, though, they made steady headway in Congress last month. The most prominent advocate of two-wheelers in the House, Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer — he cycles to work from his Capitol Hill apartment and often sports a bicycle pin on his lapel — has managed to get bike-friendly language into a quartet of measures that have moved through the House this year. The energy tax incentives package passed in February includes his provision to give bicycle commuters a $20 monthly transportation subsidy. A “green” schools bill passed this month includes language supporting construction projects that better accommodate bicyclists. The Amtrak reauthorization passed three weeks ago would set aside intercity passenger rail grant money to pay for bicycle racks on trains. And a resolution of his, adopted in May, affirmed support for federal cycling programs and for re-establishing a federal interagency Bicycle Task Force to promote coordination on bike issues.
“This is something,” Blumenauer said of the recent flurry of activity in Congress. “In the last 30 days, there’s been more progress than in the last 30 years.”
But bike advocates say this trickle of lawmaking is just prelude to the main event: next year’s highway bill. And that’s why they’re mounting a public relations campaign to set the stage. For the two major political party conventions this summer — the Democrats’ in Denver the last week in August and the Republicans’ in Minneapolis-St. Paul the first week of September — they plan to make 1,000 bicycles available for delegates who might otherwise be stuck in highway gridlock. Also this summer, members of the America Bikes coalition — a consortium of national advocacy groups — are meeting to fine-tune the pitch they want to make in next year’s negotiations on transportation legislation and to map out policy rejoinders to their budget-hawk critics.
Their wish list for the bill includes incentives for states and local governments to build more roads with dedicated bike lanes, more money for programs that support non-motorized transit and tighter coordination of the nation’s interstate bicycle routes. While there is no dollar figure on their request, they are hoping for significantly more than the $4.5 billion from last time — 1 percent of the total in the current, six-year law.
One group of lawmakers is sure to be an easy sell: The 170-plus member “bike partisan” caucus of cycling legislators. Blumenauer organized the group when he arrived in Congress in 1996 and co-chairs it with Tom Petri , a Republican from Wisconsin. There are some heavy hitters in its ranks, including James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who is in position to direct the writing of the House version of the new highway bill. The chairman of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, Oregon Democrat Peter A. DeFazio , is a former bike mechanic and also an enthusiastic cyclist. Across the Capitol, Daniel K. Inouye , the Hawaii Democrat who chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, belongs to the Senate Bike Caucus.
Oberstar often notes that cyclists helped spur the nation’s first major road projects through a 19th-century advocacy offensive known as the Good Roads Movement. Blumenauer argues the highway bill is a golden opportunity to steer bikes closer to the forefront of federal transportation policy again. “We’re going to go back to the future with the big picture,” Blumenauer said. “And it’s going to be a fascinating 30 months.”
As Washington advocates apply pressure to Congress, municipal planners have already taken a more active hand in designing more bike-friendly transportation systems. Chicago, Boston, Washington and New York are among the giant cities on the bike path. But the growth in two-wheel commuting has also come to smaller municipalities in regions generally deemed less hospitable to mass-transit experimentation. Louisville, Ky., for example, has the largest bike club in the country, and the group has lobbied the city to expand bike facilities to make travel safer and more accessible. In response, Mayor Jerry E. Abramson formed a task force in 2005 — ensuring, among other things, that all road projects in the city produce dedicated bike lanes and that all city schools host bike safety programs. All city buses are outfitted with bike racks, which were used by 120,000 riders last year.
Such local successes might shore up the case for a greater federal role in bike commuting, advocates say. They add that even incremental measures can produce appreciable fuel savings and environmental benefits; Bikes Belong’s Blumenthal said that 40 percent of all trips that Americans make are two miles or less and so are easily made on a bicycle. And if the number of bike commuters grows by just one-half of 1 percent, he said, that would save 460 million gallons of gasoline a year.
The key, bike promoters say, is to emphasize that the potential energy savings far outshine the relatively nominal costs involved in adding a bike lane to a road project. But advocates say they’re aware such arguments, by themselves, won’t sway Congress or the public.
“There’s a perception that biking did well in the last transportation bill,” Blumenthal said. “We’re going to really have to be well organized and politically astute. We have a lot of work to do.”