Winning Over the Old Man Wilsons of American Politics
Much has been written and stated regarding Washington gridlock lately. Coming from the National Bike Summit this past week, I can report one piece of good news. On Capitol Hill the bicycle lobby - and most of the proposed bike legislation - is increasingly received warmly by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The same guys who have been locked in some weird prison fight, one wrist taped to one hand and a shank in the other, have come to appreciate the happy, healthy bike stuff.
For a decade we've been nice and patient, knowing bicycling's truths to be self-evident. We learned to take off the day-glow vest and put on a suit or a dress, to shave, wear deodorant, and not to eat lentils out of a faded yogurt container during a meeting with a U.S. Senator. With polite persistence from us, even James Imhofe (R-Oklahoma) will get it. These guys have been to enough bike path ribbon cuttings; they have received enough positive constituent feedback from business owners; they have been fed enough economic data. They have come to realize the ROI on bike investments - in both financial and political currency - could be better than any other crust of bread available in this political refugee camp.
Here is the good news from Washington. After 13 years of lobbying by advocates and industry leaders (sadly the racing community does not show up) the folks on Capitol Hill no longer see bicyclists as easy targets. I enjoyed watching 10 lawmakers, from both sides of the aisle, speak at our Bikes PAC reception. I relished the speech a day prior by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, a Republican and stalwart supporter of bike investments. And I was privileged to be at a private dinner with former Rep. James Oberstar.
I came to this year's summit somewhat deflated and defeated. After the 2010 election and ensuing financial acid bath, federal funding had dissolved. Our ranking champion Oberstar had been bounced out of office by a nut-job Tea Party candidate. Much seemed lost.
But every lawmaker had one message: Physician Heal Thyself. These guys used to laugh at this dis-organized and disheveled mob. But some, especially Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) rallied our forces. Every politician who spoke had enormous praise for how our forces - actually rewiring all the circuitry after the disastrous 2010 election - simply flowed around any and all obstacles, like water. We kept things going with or without Washington's help.
Like Obi-Wan Kenobi taking the sword from Darth Vader with his protege Luke Skywalker watching, Oberstar, who had organized, galvanized and trained these Jedi Knights of bike advocacy delivered a message this year: You can win on your own. And the games is being played in your hometown.
Indeed the victories in bike advocacy are no longer in Washington DC. Great bike policy has gone viral. And its not just in Portland or Boulder. There are so many great things happening in such unlikely places as Atlanta, Indianapolis, Memphis, Richmond, and Orlando. Even AAA, historically an enemy of any transportation funding for anything BUT automobiles and highways, has become pro-bike, going so far as to develop television ads promoting cycling and sharing the road. And they sponsored the summit just to get this word out.
And there is more going on than just bike lanes and bike paths. Commercial real estate developers in such horrid places as Tyson's Corner - which went from being Virginia farm land in the 1950s to the 12th largest commercial center in America without even being a formal municipality - are starting over to erect new buildings that weave transit and cyclepaths and bike parking into their design. Aaron Georgelas, a developer and cyclists overseeing the construction, described this as the "most important suburban experiment in the world." They have realized that in 1990 walk-up traffic in stores was at just 24 percent. But by 2001 that number had grown to 33 percent and by 2009 that figure had leapt up to 49 percent.
These "Beltway" communities, suffering from perhaps the worst traffic congestion in America, have surrendered after decades of incessant construction. They have realized that widening highways to alleviate congestion is akin to letting out one's belt to alleviate obesity. After 50 years of relying on highway designs developed in the 1950s, engineers and planners and developers have started over. Woven into those new manuals are bicycles. This community has fallen in love with the Washington and Old Dommion Rail Trail, the Mount Vernon Trail, the C & O Canal Towpath, and countless other bike facilities that also serve walkers and skaters and joggers.
Get this, Arlington County, Virginia, will no longer issue a certificate of occupancy to a new commercial building unless it provides indoor bike parking, welcoming bike access (no more locking your bike behind the dumpsters) and showers for its tenants.
I have often stated that the easiest way to build a bike path is to build a bike path. By this I mean once you have one path, it's easier to show the benefits and then build a second. But now that reference point is being established with businesses trying to both attract customers and retain employees. I do not know of any bike facility, lane, or path in America that has failed. Even in such regions considered politically hostile to cycling as Florida, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Mississippi, bike paths flourished. No community has ever torn up a path or painted over a lane to revert back to its prior design. These lanes and paths are simply assimilated into the traffic landscape in the surprisingly stressless fashion with which a family adds another child. There is a bike lane down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, arguably America's most famous street, and the motorists have not been impacted at all.
Another example is in Brooklyn, where city planners overcame inflammatory journalism and a hysterical minority opposition to construct a European style separated bike lane in 2010. The rewards have proven staggering. Sales tax revenues along that strip have gone up 50 percent since the project was completed. And the commercial vacancy rate has dropped to zero.
A major revolution is underway, according to Bruce Katz of The Brookings Institute. He described this as the "urbanization of the suburbs." Where sprawling strip malls are dying, developers and communities are turning inward to create centers that have urban feel and cater to walk-up access and bike riding customers. His findings on demographic trends proved astounding, including one that indicated the automobile to no longer be such an aspirational object for American youth. In the 1990s more than 50 percent of 18 year olds had a drivers licenses; that number has plummeted to just 29 percent. While a teen coming of age in the 1950s saw the car as freedom and independence, a teen coming of age today sees the car as an expensive, cumbersome and dangerous hassle that needs to be purchased, insured, fueled, parked, registered, and maintained just for the privilege of sitting in a smoldering line of traffic.
Cyclists, however, hold certain truths to be self-evident.
But my takeaway from DC in 2013 is is that it is not about DC. It's about you and your town and your business and your lifestyle. You need to be the change you want to see. And the Federal and State governments - struggling to deal with obesity, energy supply and climate change - will support you.
This came to light for me a week prior to the National Bike Summit. I attended a public hearing, what may be the final hearing, in a different Arlington, the one in Massachusetts. After five years of hearings, debates, votes, editorials, social media campaigns, leaflets, and placards, the public filled the Town Hall to review this plan to take a mile long stretch of Massachusetts Avenue, presently as lawless as the OK Corral, and add medians to protect pedestrians and bike lanes for cyclists. But in order to use the $5 million in approved Federal funds, they would need to ascribe to national standards for lane width. Hence this lawless and lane-less strip would need to go down from four lanes to three for motor traffic.
This has infuriated a sector of the public who complain of morning congestion on that roadway all ready. Reviewing the audience, I realized the vanguard of the opposition to be cut from the Old Man Wilson cloth. You know the guy, Dennis the Menace's neighbor portrayed by Walter Matthau. They were mostly overweight, probably in bad health, looked to be in some physical discomfort, and pretty pissed off in general. Get this, one guy was stupid enough to spend $100,000 of his own money to defeat this plan.
I learned that despite unanimous support from the Board of Selectmen, majority support from Town Meeting, support from state lawmakers, support from town engineers, and about 80 percent of the speakers being in favor of this plan, a handful of Old Man Wilsons can stall things in America. If you read a Ezra Klein's article in the Jan. 28, 2013, issue of The New Yorker on how the filibuster has crippled Congress from passing any meaningful legislation, you realize how much easier we've made it to stop things from happening than to make things happen in our system.
We need to be patient, like water. The average age of a new car buyer in America has now reached 55, the oldest of all time. For folks over the age of 55, those born prior to 1957, the only thing they have known is the ever expanding network of roads and infrastructure for one mode of transit: the automobile.
But I realized that affairs in Arlington, Mass., are just as important as those here on Capitol Hill. When studying cycling infrastructure, as with military history, we must realize that geographic choke points are what converts places such as Ticonderoga into historically significant locales.
And this is what the opponents to the Arlington plan, and bike haters everywhere, cannot fathom. The locus of their logic is that the bicycle is a toy used solely for some gleeful Pee Wee Herman spree. The Minuteman Bikeway runs from Bedford through Lexington and in to Arlington Center, where it crosses Mass. Ave and continues about 1.5 miles southeast towards the Alewife subway station. But for those heading due south into or out of Cambridge or Boston for work or shopping by bike, the straight line is Mass Ave and not the bike path. In short, it's the hypotenuse of the triangle. Staying on the bike path adds about 10 minutes to the commute of the average Boston-bound cyclist.
If the Arlington plan goes forward, legions of soft-core cyclists - students, commuters, children - will be able to comfortably roll north from Boston and Cambridge to the Minuteman Bikeway with a safer, dedicated bike lane. And this means restaurants, coffee shops, doctors, dentists, movie theaters, gift shops, specialty shops, and that adorable salvage shop nobody notices when whirring by at 45 mph in a car will get more business.
People and animals prefer the shortest distance between two points. And Arlington, like Ticonderoga, is a choke point between the high tech and bio tech and defense tech jobs and internships of the Boston Beltway and the worlds largest college town. College kids ride bikes. And young parents saving for a home ride bikes. And middle-age folks trying to fix their hearts and lungs and heads ride bikes.
All the stuff written about here, however, is all "pull" marketing. Meaning the self-evident benefits of cycling - less expensive, more expedient, less stressful, more healthful - are the only thing working to date. Like a boxer with just one hand, we're winning over the Old Man Wilsons of the world.
But the "push" marketing is the second hand. When Peak Oil hits in the coming years (many forecasters, including such wild-eyed hippies as Deutsche Bank and Bloomberg, see 2016 as the critical year) gasoline prices are expected to dramatically rise. Some see $8 a gallon in the near future.
At such a juncture, our society will no longer view cycling as something Americans want, but instead what Americans need.
The blueprints are being laid out today for that change. Capitol Hill is ready to support this when the mandate arrives. They have learned, as Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City's Transportation Commissioner, stated during the Summit: "Turns out that what is good for Trek, is good for America."