Is the ballot box stronger than the bulldozer?
President Obama signed the $120 billion transportation bill Friday afternoon, and despite some positive spin, this is not a step forward. For the better part of seven decades we have created a built environment that has replaced main streets with commercial strips, street life with cars roaring past, towns and cities with suburban housing pods, and public spaces with parking lots. Then we had the biggest housing crash since the Great Depression.
Now we have been forced to slow down, but this transportation bill is the hand of government pushing us in the same direction. There were many forces that created sprawl. They include development codes, finance rules, demand for suburbs in the last century, and also transportation policy and funding. We couldn't have done it without all of the road building, the ramming of highways through main streets, the engineering of thoroughfares where no sane person would walk or ride a bike.
This is a 20th Century transportation program. Anything that was forward thinking and might have taken us in a different direction was gutted, compromised, or taken out entirely. Bicycle-pedestrian funding, which makes streets more human-scale, was drastically cut — in absolute dollars, and then by diluting where those dollars go. It's not clear where the final numbers will come out for bike-ped spending, but advocates think it will be down by 60 to 70 percent.
The most innovative, progressive, and yet popular transportation program in years — the multimodal, competitive TIGER grants — was not funded. There's money for a similar grant program but I have doubts that it will be as good as TIGER, in part because cities, where many of the best multimodal ideas originate, will not be able to apply for grants. The popular and common sense "complete streets" provision was taken out.
Transit will continue to get its 20 percent, but how are people going to get to transit stops if the route is hostile to pedestrians? Remember Raquel Nelson, the Georgia woman who had to cross an eight-lane arterial to catch the bus and was charged with manslaughter after her son was struck by a car? That's the sort of thing we'll be seeing more of as poverty rises in suburbs with no walking connection to transit.
Do you like commercial strips better than main streets? Do you prefer car culture to street life? Do you favor having to drive everywhere, including to mass transit, over living in a walkable town? Cheers — this is your bill.
But if you prefer transportation choice, towns and cities worth caring about, and a financially more resilient country, then better luck next time. We have 27 months to prove that people are more powerful than the highway lobby.
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