The Politics of Transportation: Getting Serious About Non-Motorized Transportation (With a Poll)
I know. I know. We live 45 minutes (in light traffic) from the Motor City. Cartown. Cars as status symbols. Cars as sex symbols. Cars are King, and non-motorized transportation is perceived by some as the Court Jester. It’s perceived as the mooching in-laws by others. Money for bike lanes? Money to plow walking paths through parks? That’s money that could be spent, well, on making the commute just that much easier for those who travel by car.
We’re a long way from the Netherlands in more ways than one. There, 27 percent of all trips are made by bike and walking. In the United States, just one percent of all trips are made by bike and on foot.
We’re a one car family; maybe yours is, too. We have four bikes and those bikes act, in essence, as our second car between April and November. We take the bus regularly, and walk, as well. As a rule, we drive fewer than 6,000 miles per year. We’re not nearly as virtuous as, say, our friends Chris and Lori, who moved to New York and left their car behind in Ann Arbor. However, it has been six years since we sold our second car and decided to make do with one.
I have been a commuter bicyclist since I was in my 20s and living in Rome, Italy. I saved up my money and bought myself a spiffy red Olmo touring bike, complete with the requisite bell to which tourists in Rome never seemed to pay any attention. There, from April through December, I biked all over the Eternal City. In winter, I resorted to the dreaded bus/subway system. Oh, the system worked just fine. I preferred to bike because it was faster. On the bus or subway, it took 40 minutes from, say, the Vatican, where I taught, to the nearest Metro stop near my apartment. On my bike, I could zip home in half the time.
Anti-pollution politics rule in Rome now, in place of the Caesars, so the percentage of trips made by bike is on the rise. The city has about 100 miles of on road bike lanes, an additional 33 (20 miles) kilometers of bicycle lanes are designed, and 30 (18 miles) kilometers more are planned. In September of 2009, the Italian Ministry of the Environment allocated 7.6 million Euro ($10 million dollars) as incentive money for individuals to buy bikes. As a result of the program, 70,000 new bicycles are expected to be sold in Italy over the coming year.
I was talking to a Sierra Club leader, and he described the relationship between the non-motorized community and the City as similar to the relationship between an abused spouse and her/his abuser. The Ann Arbor non-motorized transportation community is glad for the crumbs of attention and financial support it’s given. I’m not sure I agree completely, because I have read posts to the Washtenaw Walking and Biking Coalition listserv in which members have expressed frustration at what they consider the meager financial and political support of non-motorized transportation. Others take the tack that something is better than nothing. Meanwhile, elected officials boast about increases in on road bike lanes by talking percentages. They run campaigns on the awards Ann Arbor has won for being a “bike friendly” community. We’re a “bike friendly” community, but are we a community with a plan and a political commitment to non-motorized transportation? Yes and no.
Let’s start with awards: some such awards to cities are handed out just for filling in the paperwork, others are truly prestigious and represent a win in the face of stiff competition. Awards recognize the hard work of our city staff, not the genius of our local politicos. The real measure of success however, is the daily use of Ann Arbor’s non-motorized transportation system by the people who live and work in our city. Right now, Ann Arbor has 42 miles of bike lanes, and according to data from the City, 2.4 percent of all trips downtown are made by biking and 16.5 percent by walking. That puts us just ahead of Bloomington, Indiana (2.8 percent and 15 percent, respectively), but well behind Berkeley, Cambridge and Iowa City. Over the past decade, about 3 miles of bike lanes have been added per year. In Boulder, there are currently 300 miles of bike lanes. New York City’s Bicycle Master Plan includes 900 miles of bike lanes.
In Ann Arbor we’ve had a “Build it and they will bike,” strategy. However, the percentage of trips made downtown by bike and on foot has remained relatively unchanged for several years. Why? Because merely charging staff to build bike lanes and walking paths up the sides of major roads leading to downtown doesn’t guarantee people will use them. It’s a strategy based on miles of lanes. Because of chronic underfunding and regressive political policies, those few miles of lanes often quickly become unusable thanks to faded guard lines, garbage cart placement, leaf collection politicies, and snow removal issues. We need to couple the investment in miles of bike lanes with a political commitment to non-motorized transportation policy. This means setting measurable goals that are, well, actually measured and followed up on by Mayor and Council.
In this video (go to mark 17:54) from the City’s web site, we can see the City’s Transportation Manager, Eli Cooper, being (for lack of a better term) raked over the coals by Fourth Ward Council member Marcia Higgns. Higgins, frustrated, at the lack of progress on implementing aspects of the city’s non-motorized transportation plan, wants to know why little has been accomplished in four years. Good question.
Our city has a plan. It’s had one since 2007. That year, a group of citizens and city staff formulated the 200 page City of Ann Arbor Non-Motorized Transportation Plan.
This comes from the “Vision” section of the Plan: “It is further envisioned that this environment will result in a greater number of individuals freely choosing alternative transportation modes (walking, bicycling, mass transit, etc.), which will lead to healthier lifestyles, improved air and water quality, and a safer, more sustainable transportation system.”
Walking. Bicycling. Mass Transit.
Mass transit is, of course, motorized. So what’s it doing in the Non-Motorized Transportation Plan? Good question. The answer may help us understand why many of the goals relating to our non-motorized transportation plan have gone uunmet. A look at the percentage and amount of money devoted to non-motorized transportation should give us another clue. This comes from the 2007 City of Ann Arbor Non-Motorized Transportation Plan:
“The City Council passed a Resolution –R-216-5-04, which includes the annual dedication of 5% of the City’s funds received under Public Act 51, Michigan Transportation Fund (MTF) dollars, toward completing a system of non-motorized routes. This amounted to approximately $350,000 per year out of the total $7 million dollar earmark in 2004-2005. The funds allow for supporting maintenance activities, planning and design of capital improvements and as resources for direct investment in new facilities.”
Five percent is a token amount, not a serious commitment to implementing the recommendations of the Non-Motorized Transportation Plan. So what is the present state of the bicycling environment in Ann Arbor according to our own Non-motorized Transportation Plan? This comes from page 152 of the 2007 report:
“The approach to handling bicycles in the City is inconsistent and incomplete. In older areas of town there are some isolated bike lanes, in newer parts of town bicycles are expected to use sidewalk bikeways. Even together, the on-road and off-road facilities do not make for a complete system and transfers between on-road and off-road facilities are not logical or convenient. In short, there is no cohesive system.”
What to do? First, stop simply throwing money at non-motorized transportation just so that politicos can have bullet points on their résumés and photo ops. Page 167 of the Non-Motorized Transportation Plan lists several strategies which would increase walking and biking downtown, and help Ann Arbor work toward some concrete, if you’ll pardon the pun, and very important environmental goals.
Mass transit should not be included in our non-motorized transportation plan. There is certainly synergy between mass transit and non-motorized transportation, but so long as mass transit is included as a part of our City’s Non-Motorized Transportation Plan, it will continue to be allocated exponentially more staff time and funding. Having a non-motorized plan since 2007, the bulk of the recommendations of which have been ignored, is playing politics with transportation policy and what ought to be a very clear commitment to the environment. I’d like to see us, as a community, work seriously to meet the goals set forth in the 2007 Non-Motorized Transportation Plan.
Those who crafted the Plan write that they’re unsure why people ultimately refuse to bike in our downtown area. Researchers in the Netherlands have answered that question definitively: bikers of all ages have to feel safe, and both bikers and drivers must be educated about sharing the road.
Ann Arbor may have won an award as a bike “friendly” community in 2006, but between 2007-2010, we’ve done little but coast on our two-wheel laurels. It’s time to get serious about non-motorized transportation. Let’s increase the funding, but tie the increase to benchmarks which must be met, measurable increases in trips made downtown by bike and walking. Let’s launch a sustained initiative that focuses on education and safety for bikers of all ages. Let’s challenge and inspire city staff to meet the goals set forth in the 2007 Non-Motorized Transportation Plan of increasing from 2.4 percent to 6 percent the total number of trips downtown made by bike.
Let’s work to become a city of actual bikers and walkers, and not just a place where politicos brag about awards given by people who don’t ride our roads, but rather sift through piles of neatly written applications.
In Summer, what keeps you from biking downtown? This is a multiple choice poll. You may choose as many of the options as apply. If you do or don’t bike downtown, I’d be interested in hearing your opinions on non-motorized transportation in Ann Arbor. Is this a public policy we should fund and pursue more aggressively in your opinion?
Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=3052