In the United States, improving the dismal state of our bicycle infrastructure is hardly a hot button political issue that receives sustained attention from the national press. You’ll get a story here and there from publications such as the New York Times or Washington Post, but, as I learned when I was a reporter at U.S. News & World Report, the odds of successfully pitching editors on what’s seen as a fringe—even laughable issue by the bulk of journalists—are rather slim unless you bring in a service journalism angle as I did in this piece about commuter bikes.
In fact, if it were not for politicians—typically conservative Republican politicians—making boneheaded remarks about bicycling infrastructure, the issue would rarely make prime time. August of 2007, for example, brought this unfortunate display of ignorance on the floor of the House of Representatives courtesy of North Carolina Congressperson Patrick McHenry.
More recently, it was House Minority Leader John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, who made a fool of himself with boneheaded remarks about biking on Face the Nation. In a conversation about the massive stimulus package currently under debate, here’s what Boehner had to say:
“I think there’s a place for infrastructure, but what kind of infrastructure? Infrastructure to widen highways, to ease congestion for American families? Is it to build some buildings that are necessary?” He stated. “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.”
Ummm....sure, Boehner, you're right. Plenty of Americans aren’t accustomed to using their bicycles to commute. Most of us, in fact, are used to living in cities and towns where bicycling infrastructure is so woefully inadequate that the idea a bicycle could be used for anything other than recreational rides in the park is almost unimaginable. So, yeah, naturally some of your constituents are going to be skeptical of what might, at first, sound like pork.
But, honestly, Boehner, what really pisses Americans off is when our politicians make boneheaded remarks that don’t make sense. Let me get this straight: widening highways to ease congestion is a good idea, yet reducing congestion by making it feasible for more people to commute by bicycle is not? Boehner, did it not occur to you that building more bike paths in addition to more highways may, in fact, be one part of the solution for the traffic congestion that threatens the hard-working American families that you’re supposedly concerned about?
The next time you’re stuck in DC traffic, Boehner, here are some tidbits you may want to ponder while you wait:
• More than half of cars trips made by Americans would take less than 20 minutes on a bike, but ninety percent of all trips of between one and three miles or less are taken by car. Likewise, fifty-nine percent of trips less than one mile are made by car. (Source: Federal Highway Administration, National Household Travel Survey, 2001).
• Increasing the bicycle and pedestrian share of trips between one and three miles from the current level of 4 percent to about 10 percent would avoid approximately 21 billions miles of driving. (Source: Active Transportation for America, 2008.)
I know, I know, the boneheaded part of your brain can’t shake the feeling that investing in bike infrastructure is too expensive and must be some sort of cushy luxury for rich, coastal elites—not something “real” people from Ohio struggling to make ends meet might appreciate. Well, consider:
• For the consumer, the costs of driving per mile traveled far outweighs the cost of biking per mile. (Source: Active Transportation for America, 2008.) Note: There's no point using hard numbers as obviously they shift considerably as gas prices and other factors vary, but there’s no way around the reality that bikes are far more affordable as this website details.
• Building a single mile of a four lane urban highway costs $20 to $80 million per mile, while building a mile of bicycle path costs between a few thousand dollars per mile to $1 million dollars per mile. (Source: Active Transportation for America, 2008.)
• Over the width of one traffic lane, bicycling and walking can move five to 10 times more people than driving can. (Cycling: The Way Ahead for Towns and Cities, 1999)
Oh, Boehner, if you happen to be feeling a little fat while you’re hanging out in traffic breathing in all the fumes, you might also consider:
• In 2007, less than half of all Americans met the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendation of at least 30 minutes of modest physical activity on most days. (Source: Active Transportation for America, 2008.)
• Americans spend some $33 billion a year on weight-loss products and services. (NIDDK, 1999)
• Modest increases in bicycling and walking for short trips could provide enough exercise for 50 million inactive Americans to meet recommended activity levels, erasing a sizable chunk of America’s activity deficit. (Source: Active Transportation for America, 2008.)
The bottom line: please refrain from making such boneheaded remarks about biking in the future. It makes you look ignorant.