The Public Policy

Biking With Bureaucrats

Flat tires for Obama's transportation policy.

By 2.13.13

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Bureaucrats are often characterized as faceless. But the modern bureaucrat is a political creature. He spends his time seeking to control the lives of those who pay his salary in ways his funders would find alternatively risible or riotable. Thus today’s civil servant must be tight-lipped about his work and adept at evading questions.

That’s why Ray LaHood, President Obama’s retiring transportation secretary, was so refreshing. LaHood, a former Republican congressman, never seemed comfortable with the requisite taciturnity of the bureaucrat. Asked in 2009 about his livability initiatives, LaHood responded, “It is a way to coerce people out of their cars.” Talk about transparency in government! If only all of Obama’s lieutenants were this forthright about their bullying.

LaHood came to power amidst much inside-the-Beltway flower-showering. He was a Republican in President Obama’s supposedly bipartisan cabinet. He was a moderate, one of only three Class of ’94 freshmen who never signed the Contract for America. And he was taking the helm of the Department of Transportation, for which the president had big plans. Joe Biden called LaHood, “the star of the Cabinet.”

LaHood himself summed up the administration’s transportation policy with more trademark frankness: “Today, I want to announce a sea change,” he wrote. “People across America who value bicycling should have a voice when it comes to transportation planning. This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.”

Republicans wondered if LaHood was on drugs. But he was serious, and under his stewardship the Department of Transportation became a case study for bureaucrats looking to pick winners and losers based on their own enlightened preferences.

The most blatant manifestation of this was LaHood’s pet project, the DOT’s TIGER grant program. Started in 2010, the government awarded hundreds of millions of dollars every year to infrastructure projects that it considered innovative and cutting-edge – like bike paths and walkways.

The DOT was particularly keen on “multimodal” initiatives, meaning those that combined different modes of transportation, be it car, train, or bike. One 2012 TIGER grant went to a multimodal facility in Pittsburgh that linked bus service with road improvements and a “bike and pedestrian access bridge.” Another grant was awarded to a multimodal project in Birmingham, Ala., which “is considered highly dangerous for bicyclists and pedestrians.”

Other grants were more explicit. Washington, DC got $10 million for bike paths around the Anacostia River. (Anyone familiar with Southeast DC knows the lack of cycling is the least of that area’s problems.) Another $5 million was assigned to build a commuter center in rural Jefferson County, W.Va., accommodating bus and rail, and surrounded by walking paths.

It’s not that none of the TIGER projects have merit. One of this year’s grants was to help restore the beleaguered I-95 Viaduct bridge in Providence, R.I. (although even there the DOT found a way to brag about benefitting cyclists). But TIGER is a quintessential example of the feds dictating policy, and inflicting people with products and services they don’t want.

This federalization of our transportation system started well before LaHood. The federal government spearheaded the construction of the interstate highway system in 1956. After its completion, the feds clung to their new powers, carrot-and-sticking the states with funding and the law to set a national transportation policy. Eventually highways fell out of vogue, and “intermodal” became the new buzzword.

Today states must set aside 10% of their federal highway funds for “enhancement” projects, which, as one DOT bureaucrat told the Huffington Post, means “almost exclusively bicycle and pedestrian projects.”

Into this bubbling federal laboratory stepped Ray LaHood. Armed with more than $48 billion in stimulus funds and billions more in TIGER grants, LaHood furthered the government’s obsession with antiquated forms of transportation, coercing -- or at least nudging -- people out of their cars by trying to flood them with other options.

But Americans, in all their wonderful stubbornness, just aren't cooperating. According to the government’s own Census data, 86% of Americans drive to work, and 76% do so alone. Less than 3% walk to work, while only 0.6% ride a bicycle. The cities where Americans bike tend to be either wealthy or dominated by college life. Biking isn’t a godsend for a weary commuter. It’s a fitness ritual for the trendy and comfortable; a bit like yoga, except the government isn’t hurling money at meditation studios.

If Washington is going to dangle transportation dollars over the states’ heads like a leering cat lady, it should do it in a way that serves the 86% of motorists, rather than the 0.6% of cyclists. It’d be a nice gesture, especially since life for We the Drivers is growing more aggravating. By 2020, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute estimates that the average carbureting commuter will spend seven more hours stuck in traffic every year, and waste an additional six gallons of gas. If the federal government must control our transportation policy, shouldn't its first priority be to meet the demand of today's drivers?

All together now, gentlemen: We! Are! The Eighty-Six Percent! Not to start a riot in Oakland, but I don’t see myself trading my muffler for a bike chain any time soon. The car, perhaps more than any other invention, enables individual freedom, allowing us to go where we want when we please. That’s a fine thing and doesn’t require any enforced evolution by bureaucrats (though it does require funding).

Back to Secretary LaHood, to whom we must be fair and acknowledge that coercively constructing bike paths isn’t his only legacy. He also tried to coercively construct high-speed railways, for example, and coercively stop people from talking on their cell phones in cars. Having allowed our roads to become choked with traffic, the DOT now wants to forbid stranded commuters from making contact with their fellow man.

Unfortunately the bureaucratic fun may be coming to an end. Not only is LaHood retiring, but last year’s transportation bill slashed funding for bike paths, and increased the federal share for highway and road projects to 95%. And the construction of California’s ballyhooed high-speed rail line has been plagued by delays and cost overruns.

Soon the bureaucrats may have to throw up their hands and concede that their scheme to change how we travel has failed. But that’s not to say their busybodying has to come to a halt. I hear there are still a few smokers out there in need of reeducation.

Get cracking, boys.

Photo courtesy Thierry Draus.

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About the Author

Matt Purple is The American Spectator's assistant managing editor.