Thursday, April 15, 2010

Not 1¢ for Cycles!


Truckers don't get it and don't want to. Their groups would crush Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood into the pavement and obliterate his benign comments about walkers and cyclists.

After reading and hearing all the brouhaha on this mess, I had to track down the actual material. Sure enough, the likes of two lobbying groups are behind the relentless distortions and slurs.

While unnamed in most print and broadcast tales, they are the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the American Highway Users Alliance. NAM is like it says, but the Highway Users is deceptive. They claim to represent all motorists, a sort of jolly uncle taking care of car and RV drivers and, oh by the way, trucks and buses.

The reality is that they are the lobbying arm of truck and bus companies. Their business is ensuring the continuity and even expansion of the subsidies for highways over anything and everything else. They don't like those concerns over the environment or anything that would slow or alter the present outrageous subsidies for highway construction, maintenance and policing.

In various previous professional lives, I have written about and been familiar with the advocacy groups for construction, manufacturing, computers, grocery, small businesses and more. Their lobbyists are single-minded and often duplicitous, the epitome of why PR can be so risible. Each would have you believe that their industry or interest group is the major driver of the U.S. economy and unique, requiring special consideration.

Professional liars



Reasonably enough, the jobs of the lobbyist and other top staff at these groups is to promote the devil out of their members' positions. Unfortunately, that passion can drift into hyperbole and lies. In the case of NAM and the Highways folk, the attitude clearly is a zero-sum game. A single cent or the slightest consideration for pedestrians or cyclists means they are being robbed of what has become their rights.

They want the rights to all federal transportation moneys. They don't want any grants or even matching funds going to bike or pedestrian paths or even adding ped/cycle accommodation to highway and other construction or rebuilding.
Bias note: I am an active cyclist. I do own a car, but take most trips by cycle or foot. Less frequently, I take a bus or subway.I use the car for grocery shopping and similar errands.
So what is it that LaHood said that so riled the flacks? You can read his thinking and background at his blog. That post includes links to the bicycle-summit talk as well as Transportation's policy for what has come to be called pedal parity.

He summarized the policy as including these recommendations for states and municipalities:
  • Treat walking and bicycling as equals with other transportation modes.
  • Ensure convenient access for people of all ages and abilities.
  • Go beyond minimum design standards.
  • Collect data on walking and biking trips.
  • Set a mode share target for walking and bicycling.
  • Protect sidewalks and shared-use paths the same way roadways are protected (for example, snow removal)
  • Improve nonmotorized facilities during maintenance projects.
Those are in line with the regs from the Mass. DOT. Those work OK here except for a state-level problem and one huge federal issue. Locally, the requirements for streets and highways being designed, re-designed or maintained have huge loopholes.

For example, they mandate adding pedestrian and cycling accommodation wherever possible, such as painting bike lanes. In reality, any road where the engineers can can even tenuously that they finished design before the rules kick in have exemptions. More practically, roads with such strictures as old stone walls by the shoulder are exempt. In short, it is the exception that a repainted or repaved street gets a sidewalk, ped/bike path or even bike lanes. Whining overrules the rules.

The federal issue is that highways are funded at a 90%/10% or 80%/20% federal/local level. If bike or pedestrian accommodations get any money at all, they are well below that, often well below 50% federal. It's crazy for the feds to call for less traffic, gas use and pollution and not pony up.

Multi-modal magic



So, the Secretary offers options, a.k.a. recommendations, not mandates. He'd like planners to consider walkers and cyclists along with motorized-vehicle drivers. By the bye, his list dovetails and builds on what citizens, towns, dates and the feds have been preaching for a long time now — less traffic, less pollution, fewer accidents, lower noise, and all wrapped up in multi-modal transportation.

Then consider some of the reactions from the truckers and NAM. Start with the federal-bucks-are-ours approach in the NAM post Maybe the local folks should pay for their own bike paths:
We’ve already pointed out (here, here and here) that 80 percent of U.S. freight moves by truck and argued that LaHood’s pedal parity is nonsensical for a modern industrial nation.

In his expert response, Greg Cohen, President and CEO of the American Highway Users Alliance, also raises the important point that the public overwhelmingly believes funding for bike paths and the like is primarily a city and county responsibility, followed by the state.
Also, even though LaHood was at a bike summit and speaking specifically to ped/cycle issues, NAM was outraged that "In the entire interview (with the NY Times), there is not a single mention of 'freight.' The words 'truck' and 'trucking' do not appear. What Americans want right now is jobs, the creation of which requires the efficient movement of freight on trucks. Secretary LaHood’s expressed vision of transportation priorities just doesn’t seem to recognize that economic reality."

This attitude of indispensability is not exclusive to truck and factory types. Anyone who claims to speak for small businesses likewise claims that the country would collapse if not for them. Many sectors of the economy are equally egocentric and parochial.

However, NAM and the Highways lobbyists outdo themselves. Merely mentioning the possibility of pedestrians or cyclists getting design consideration and maybe a small share of the huge highways pie makes the interest groups seethe.

End of the world as we know it


For a solid example, check the Highways folk's take in their Raging Battle brochure. The inflammatory title sets the tone including the incendiary descriptions of what they claim is really behind LaHood's words:
Highway Funding for Six Years
As our elected officials consider the next six years of transportation funding, many are responding to well-funded national and grassroots activists that demand radical antimobility policies for every corner of America.
Anti-Mobility Policy Proposals are
gaining momentum...
• Reducing the share of highway user fees actually spent on highway projects.
• Sanctioning the federal government’s takeover of local land use plans so that they are less accessible to auto and truck traffic.
• Limiting the amount of highway funding available for new capacity.
Congressional/U.S. DOT Proposals are
being considered...
• Reducing miles of auto travel.
• Restricting movement of goods by truck.
• Coercing people out of their cars (“livability initiative”).
• Manipulating the price of fuel to make driving less affordable.
So, to them, the Secretary is anti-mobility and including pedestrians and bikes in road design is coercing people out of their cars. Clearly (to the trucker flacks) American liberty itself is at stake here. The only line missing was something about prying my steering wheel from my cold, dead fingers.

It's really pretty silly stuff, but consider the audience. NAM is plain about representing manufacturers. The Highways lobby is slier. It's site's graphics as well as words suggest it's for plain Americans who drive cars, pickups and RVs.

Judging from their membership levels and fees, they are not quite so egalitarian and plebeian. They offer corporate, small business, state advocate and conference only member levels. (No, there's no soccer mom or commuter level.) The conference is a relative bargain, assuming you have a place to stay and don't have to travel to the location. The other annual memberships run from $1,000 to $3,000 to $5,000 to $10,000. Somehow that lacks the Everyman touch.

The real disconnect and what shows the lobbyists so out of sync with reality can be in their reactions to that NYT interview. LaHood said, "We're always going to take care of our highways." He just sees it as more American to expand our options:
My response is that this is what Americans want. Americans want alternatives. People are always going to drive cars. We’re always going to have highways. We’ve made a huge investment in our interstate highway system. We’ll always continue to make sure that those investments in the highways are maintained.

But, what Americans want is to get out of their cars, and get out of congestion, and have opportunities for more transit, more light rail, more buses, and some communities are going to street cars. But many communities want the opportunity on the weekends and during the week to have the chance to bike to work, to bike to the store, to spend time with their family on a bike.

So, this is not just Ray LaHood’s agenda, this is the American agenda that the American people want for alternatives to the automobile.
But to the liars and loonies among the lobbyists, this remains an either/or. It seems to be the transportation version of adultery even to speak of funding multi-modal. Consider NAM's Embracing bicycles at expense of freight jobs reality:
Treating bicycles and other non-motorized transportation as equal to motorized transportation would cause an economic catastrophe. If put into effect, the policy would more than undermine any effort the Obama Administration has made toward jobs. You can’t have jobs without the efficient movement of freight.
So, not only would LaHood and DOT be unfaithful to trucking. They would also cause the loss of jobs and threaten all of America. Bike trails are surely the road to ruin, eh, guys?

Money...not yours


Unfortunately, the NAM and Highways lobbyists are likely not joking. They may well believe a penny spent elsewhere is stealing from them. That suggests more than their failure to see the present and future. It also points out how overly entitled they are.

Their members' gas taxes and road use fees don't begin to repay us for the costs of building, maintaining and policing highways. Yet, they still want every federal transportation dollar by rights.

Some economists point out that by deeply subsidizing highways, we make moving freight cheaper. In turn, that makes things that move by truck, like groceries, less expensive than they would be otherwise. Yet, it is time to wonder whether hiding the true costs and passing them along as taxes to all of us is of questionable fairness and equality.

It may be time or even past time to make trucking firms, bus companies and even car drivers pay much more for highways, enough to compensate for roads' costs. Then they would charge more to move goods and pass those costs along to consumers. Yet, we could drastically reduce the multi-billion dollars of taxes that go to subsidize highways.

We haven't lived that way since then President Eisenhower started the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways in the middle of the last century. It would be a huge shock to have people pay for what they use instead of concealing it as taxes.

Never mind. Let's stick with LaHood. He just wants us to stop whining about congestion, noise, pollution and traffic. He wants us to start doing the minimum — considering ped/cycle when we build or re-build. I'm with him.

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