In Obama’s second term, distinctive transportation policy must change focus to walking and bicycling


Barack Obama and his family on stage at McCormick Place last night. Photo by John Tolva. 

President Obama was elected to a second term yesterday, defeating former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. We are glad for this as we believe it will maintain the excellent ideas, initiatives, and enthusiasm for sustainable transportation for at least four more years. President Obama hired Ray LaHood to be the secretary of transportation. Partnering with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation crafted six livability principles that changed how grants would be distributed.


This Amtrak Lincoln Service train will be moving a bit faster this year. Photo by Eric Pancer. 

The Obama administration created the first-ever plan for high-speed rail corridors and after Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, “stimulus”) in 2009, Illinois rebuilt hundreds of miles of track from Chicago to St. Louis, Missouri, to speed up its busiest passenger train line. The plan is the best chance for European and Asian-style high-speed rail to connect Midwest cities, giving people more options and alternatives over driving with expensive gas and unfairly-subsidized roads.

Secretary LaHood consistently espouses the benefits of bicycling as a transportation mode and spoke at the National Bike Summit, a conference where bicycle interest groups lobby legislators annually, where he gave a speech standing on a table (more photos). And while the President and Secretary must cede funding appropriations and authorizations to Congress, they have continually awarded grants to rail, transit, and bicycle projects without a second thought. Many of these came from the new TIGER program, part of ARRA, grants awarded at the discretion of the Department of Transportation and its subagencies, according to well-defined performance measures.


Ray LaHood talking about bicycling in Washington, D.C. Photo by Jonathan Maus. 

President Obama can again show his leadership in transportation policy by starting to work now on the next surface transportation bill (STB). The current STB, known as MAP-21, expires September 30, 2014. The previous bill, called SAFETEA-LU, was extended nine times in the three years after its expiration. The extensions were not good because they perpetuated policies and funding sources and levels needed to change. The federal gas tax is woefully inadequate, requiring yearly infusions of general revenue funds, equalling about $50 billion; it hasn’t changed since 1993.

MAP-21 reduces funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects. While this is unlikely to affect the millions of dollars that the City of Chicago secures each year (providing very little of its own capital) because of its ability to access Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funds, this affects communities in the region that are less competitive or outside the CMAQ eligibility area.

Bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, the most universally accessible transportation modes, incongruously have the biggest disproportion of traffic injuries. They’ve been shown to create more jobs per dollar spent. The University of Amherst studied projects around the country:

Overall we find that bicycling infrastructure creates the most jobs for a given level of spending: For each $1 million, the cycling projects in this study create a total of 11.4 jobs within the state where the project is located. Pedestrian-only projects create an average of about 10 jobs per $1 million.

Communities the nation over cry out for basic features like sidewalks and bike lanes. We should no longer live “dangerously by design”. President Obama’s first term was heavily focused on rail projects (and maintaining highways and bridges). We ask that his second term continue to promote sustainable transportation, and to pivot national transportation policy so it prioritizes transit, pedestrians, and bicycle logistics and transportation.

Photo by Agence France Presse (AFP) via The Telegraph, 2010.
Photo by Agence France Presse (AFP) via The Telegraph, 2010.

That said, we’d like to take Barack and Michelle on a bike ride from Hyde Park to our neighborhood of Logan Square.

Update: I changed the title for the article because many people thought this was a prediction, that more attention would be paid to bicycling and walking. That’s not the case. This is an advisory to the president. 

16 thoughts on “In Obama’s second term, distinctive transportation policy must change focus to walking and bicycling”

  1. Obama should push for diverting a sizable chunk of funds for building highways to sustainable transport – rail and bikes – and increase gas tax. I think a policy of not building or expanding any new highways and only using funds for maintenance would be a good platform as well.

    1. I’m not 100% behind a gas tax increase. Fuel economy is increasing. If driving rates stay the same, the impact on roads stay the same but revenues decrease. And transit has been increasing. So there’s a need for a fairer system, like a driving tax. I wrote about this last year:

      It should be apparent that I wasn’t pushing for anything in particular except a new *focus* on biking and walking, because it’s something that’s cheap and all communities are desiring. I want to see what he did for high-speed rail and transit done for biking and walking. It was my intention to go on about how bikes can save the world and whatnot, but I was writing this at 3:15 AM after I got inspired to write something.

      1. I’m not sure how you’d be able to convince millions of drivers to put tracking devices in their cars, though. Maybe congestion pricing – as they have in London – would be a good compromise?

        I still don’t understand why all the expressways leading into Chicago are toll-free. Perhaps a toll on the Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Dan Ryan expressways would discourage some from driving into the loop and take public transport instead?

        1. It doesn’t have to be a tracking device. You can pay the tax at the pump by tracking the odometer. Your “account” would know what car you drive, too, so it could track real-world MPG.

          Free highways into Chicago? I don’t get it either. And it’s the suburbs closest around Chicago that have the better transit options.

          1. That sounds like a good idea, but it would be yet another device to carry/install in the car. Maybe it could be built into a new I-Pass somehow? Using I-Pass exclusively would likely require too much infrastructure to track the transponders.

            I think we should toll all the highways entering Chicago, and install extra I-Pass readers near the Loop (and perhaps West Loop and River North) to excise an additional toll for entering the central business district. Using I-Pass would eliminate any extra traffic backups caused by tollbooths.

          2. It could be simpler than that. It could be that you enter your account number into the gas pump and then enter the mileage. Every time your emissions are checked, your taxed mileage would be audited.

          3. That would require drivers to remember their mileage since the last time they filled up. It would need to be fool-proof in order to work. Maybe there’s a way to add a device to the car to track mileage and sync to an account (or credit card) that the pumps would read and apply the proper tax?

            That would still require a lot of hardware to install, however. Maybe drivers should just enter their yearly mileage in their tax returns?

          4. You wouldn’t need to remember anything. It would work like renting a U-Haul, wherein you record the odometer at the beginning of the trip and record the odometer at the end of the trip. So each trip to the gas pump you pay the tax on the odometer difference since the last time you paid. Go ahead and enter the wrong odometer reading. At your emissions audit you will have to pay all the back tax.

          5. How about just reporting it when you renew your registration every year? A lot let book keeping…

          6. In a previous comment, I suggested submitting mileage in the driver’s yearly tax returns, but vehicle registration makes more sense.

          7. Gas tax is a pay as you go tax, which is necessary to keep up the balance of the Highway Trust Fund which makes daily payments to reimburse states for projects.

  2. How are highways “unfairly subsidized?” Any busy intercity highway generates substantially more in gas taxes than it consumes.

    1. Highway Trust Fund expenditures are greater than their revenues, so General Fund revenue is being used to make up the difference. That means that the gas tax is not covering all of the projects the DOT is using the HTF for, a majority of which is funding for roads.
      Perhaps “unfairly subsidized” is not an appropriate phrase to describe the above.

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