It was one of my first rides in Washington, D.C. and the tourists on the sidewalk were turning to stare.
Some dressed in spandex, other in skirts and high heels, a caravan of bicyclists paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue — and I was one of them.
Our excitement was obvious and the first reason was evident. We were pedaling down America’s Main Street, cruising safely in newly painted bike lanes. Bicycles were now visible and welcome on the same strip traveled by presidents and photographed by tourists. Even more important, transportation officials had managed to add bike lanes to a street so regulated that even the hue of the pavement is precise. Meaning: Creating space for bicyclists isn’t rocket science.
But our joyride down Pennsylvania was just the happy means to an even more exciting end.
The dangerous and environmentally destructive fact is that the U.S. transportation system has been built on one basic premise — move an ever-growing fleet of gas-guzzling vehicles, as far and as quickly as possible. That concept has spawned urban sprawl and strip malls with parking lots the size of football fields. That car-centric mentality has made Americans more sedentary, adding to an epidemic of obesity and heart disease. Perhaps most importantly, it makes us prime culprits in changing the earth’s climate. Currently, more than one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector.
Our entourage on this June afternoon was organized by a handful of national advocacy groups, including America Bikes and The Safe Routes to School National Partnership, that are attempting to change that paradigm. I had just started a communications job at the Alliance for Biking & Walking, a nonprofit group that trains and supports grassroots bicycle and pedestrian advocates. My small contribution to this little road trip was bouncing along in a bike trailer bringing up the rear — a poster-size thank-you card for the U.S. Secretary of Transportation.
Now, for a Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood (see photo) is something of a celebrity.
At the National Bike Summit this spring, America’s top transportation official literally jumped on a table in front of several hundred cyclists and bellowed his commitment to a more bike-friendly road system. A few days later, he issued a policy statement that set “walking and bicycling as equals with other transportation modes.” The policy pressed for local and state agencies to “go beyond the minimum requirements, and proactively provide convenient, safe, and context-sensitive facilities that foster increased use by bicyclists and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.” The statement concluded: “Increased commitment to and investment in bicycle facilities and walking networks can help meet goals for cleaner, healthier air; less congested roadways; and more livable, safe, cost-efficient communities.”
To some, those were fighting words. The statement was a dramatic shift from the status quo. Bicycle and pedestrian advocates gasped — and cheered. Officials in traditional road-sector industries called LaHood delusional. One conservative Congress member went so far as to say the Secretary must be on drugs.
And here’s the kicker. LaHood isn’t some liberal from San Francisco. He’s a Republican from Illinois. He’s one of the cabinet officials President Barack Obama tapped to prove he wasn’t bluffing about cultivating bipartisanship. So when a Republican in charge of the USDOT starts bucking the car-centric system, you got to back him up. So the Alliance worked with America Bikes to get grassroots bike-ped organizations in all 50 states to sign a letter of support for LaHood’s groundbreaking policy statement.
But, when we showed up to deliver the poster-sized praise, something kind of weird happened.
When our group of several dozens cyclists presented the thank-you card in front of a gallery of reporters and DOT staff, LaHood turned the tables on us. The Secretary took the opportunity to thank us — the growing ranks of the bicycle and pedestrian movement. “What you have done, in terms of getting the message out,” Lahood said, “is really beginning to change attitudes on Capitol Hill.”
This blog is about those people.
It’s about the folks who have taken a DIY approach to transportation, using their own energy instead of fossil fuels. It’s about the research and data that tells us bicycling and walking propel healthy, sustainable communities. It’s about the advocates who have taken that information to heart and are working to change our streets into places that aren’t just for cars, but for kids on bicycles and seniors walking to the store.
Ultimately, it’s about shifting our transportation system so the next generation has the option and ability to safeguard our planet’s climate.
The wheels are turning, and not just in Washington, DC.
A people-powered revolution is afoot.
Stay tuned and read all about it.
Photo by Carolyn Szczepanski