Scapegoating our Shortcomings

Recently I’ve begun riding my bike to work. It’s a move that’s brought with it a lot of benefits—I get my exercise organically, without having to carve time out of my day for it, and my commute is actually quicker than it was via bus. I feel fresher when I get to work and—what the hell—a little smug as well, since my daily commute doesn’t require any energy other than the English muffin I have for breakfast every morning.

There are downsides. The usual idiots are a menace when they peel out of driveways or double park in the bike lane. People can be defensive when they find out your ride a bike, opting for preemptive snark against your presumed holier-than-thou-ness. (I’ve gotten the same reaction about being a vegetarian, although I’ve never bothered others about their lifestyles. Some people need to project the insecurity they have about their own moral choices.)

A major negative for riding a bike is that most people are completely clueless about bicycles’ right to the road. “Get on the sidewalk,” they’ll shout as they blister by, unaware of the illegality of their suggestion (in Chicago at least). Others feel completely confident in forcing you from the road if they want to pass at a bottleneck.

In light of this attitude, it’s with some frustration that I hear U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters state that bike paths “really are not transportation.” The subject came up on Newshour with Jim Leher, where Peters was trying to deflect blame for the Minnesota bridge collapse by suggesting it stemmed from wasteful government spending. (Forget the fact that Minnesota’s Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, used a giant red VETO stamp to gleefully slap down a bipartisan bill instituting a five-cent increase in the gas tax to raise transit funding. “How dumb can they be?” he sneered about the congressman who’d supported the measure.)

In her appearance on Newshour, Peters had the same goal of shooting down calls to raise the gas tax to increase funding for infrastructure. That’s an easy appeal to make. “No new taxes” has been a key plank of the Republican platform since 1980. But the gas tax has been static since 1993, and in the meantime inflation and depreciation have contributed to the steady degradation of our roadways. In an infrastructure report card issued in 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers rated America’s overall infrastructure as a D (transit received a slightly better D+), estimating that $1.6 trillion were needed over the next five years to bring our infrastructure to good condition.

The severity of the problem is what makes it so absurd for Peters to claim that the issue is that, “There’s about probably some 10 percent to 20 percent of the current spending that is going to projects that really are not transportation, directly transportation-related. Some of that money is being spent on things, as I said earlier, like bike paths or trails.”

Katherine Mieszkowski of rebuts:

“In fact, only about 1.5 percent of federal transportation dollars go to fund bike paths and walking trails. In the meantime, 10 percent of all U.S. trips to work, school and the store occur on bike or foot.” That seems like a pretty fair tradeoff.

The real root of the problem has nothing to do with bikes. The issue is that, quibbles over distribution aside, we’ve embraced a public philosophy that states that all government spending is waste. We’ve put our faith in the fairy tale that we can be taxed less and receive increased services. When the bill comes in, the interest due for our childishness is taken in wasted lives. We mourn the loss, and we then continue on the exact same underfunded path.

Update: Here’s the e-mail I sent Secretary Peters

Secretary Peters,

As a taxpayer and a person who conducts my daily 2.5 mile commute to work entirely by bike, I am dismayed to hear your comments on NewsHour with Jim Leher suggesting that contributions made to bicycle paths and pedestrian walkways played a contributing part in the recent, tragic bridge collapse in Minneapolis.

Bicycle paths and pedestrian walkways provide a conduit for countless daily trips throughout our country. They promote travel that is carbon-neutral and energy-free, important considerations given current environmental and global-political realities. We need more funding to encourage safe bicycle commuting, not less.

The real culprit in the Minnesota bridge collapse is the epidemic of anti-tax hysteria that has starved infrastructure throughout our nation. All citizens contribute to our roads, even those of us who drive rarely, and if that shared contribution needs to be increased to ensure safety, it should be. Using cyclists as a scapegoat to shortchange this debate doesn’t change this fundamental fact.