At least (and at last), that’s the news from the US Department of Transportation. The Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, in a policy announcement reported in the “Autopia” blog at Wired, said that the department will aim to give as much weight to the needs of cyclists and pedestrians as it does to the needs of motorists.
In what amounts to a sea change for the Department of Transportation, the automobile will no longer be the prime consideration in federal transportation planning. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says the needs of pedestrians and cyclists will be considered along with those of motorists, and he makes it clear that walking and riding are “an important component for livable communities.”
Secretary LaHood has also posted an article about the new policy (announced March 15) at his official blog, “Fast Lane” (shame about that name, though), following his appearance earlier this month at the National Bike Summit in Washington DC.
This change, if it is followed through, is a very welcome one. Cyclists and pedestrians have been getting the short end of the stick in US transportation planning for decades. I moved to my present house a couple of years ago, but before that I lived in a relatively quiet residential area here in northern Virginia. There were no sidewalks or shoulders to the roads. That was not so bad on the side street where I lived, but to get anywhere you had to go onto a two-lane, winding, hilly road, featuring sub-standard width lanes, heavy traffic, no crosswalks, and a 40 mph speed limit. Now I have, according to my bicycle’s odometer, ridden over 50,000 miles in the last ten years or so, and I think that road is very dangerous. There are many places where the sight distance is less than 100 feet. And I could cite many other examples.
The new policy recognizes that making reasonable accommodation for pedestrians and cyclists is not very expensive, in the total scheme of things, and can deliver significant benefits. As Mr. LaHood puts it in his blog:
Look, bike projects are relatively fast and inexpensive to build and are environmentally sustainable; they reduce travel costs, dramatically improve safety and public health, and reconnect citizens with their communities.
It should hardly be necessary to say that, in this era when obesity is being described as an epidemic, there are some public health benefits to be had by encouraging human-powered modes of transportation.
Safety is also an important issue. Many roadways, especially in suburban areas, are incredibly dangerous for pedestrians. As a cyclist, I am very much a supporter of the vehicular cycling principle elucidated by John Forester in his book, Bicycle Transportation:
Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.
(This message was part of our ongoing safety training for participants in the AIDS Rides, for example.) With certain exceptions (e.g., limited access highways), cyclists have just as much right to use the public roads as motorists. Yet any experienced cyclist can tell you plenty of horror stories.
Of course, a change in policy will not change the situation “on the ground” overnight. But I’m hopeful that including the needs of cyclists and pedestrians in the discussion and planning of facilities, rather than treating them as unfortunate impediments to automobile traffic, may make things better over time.