From Steve Clark, Bicycling and Walking Program Director

In a recent report to Congress, Senators John McCain and Tom Coburn lambasted current transportation policies that promote “extraneous transportation spending” for things like bike lanes and walkways.

I heard this same sentiment expressed by a high ranking official in Minneapolis several years ago who jokingly said, “We know how to deal with you special interest groups…”

Even bicyclists will occasionally refer to themselves as a special interest, and most accept the premise that first and foremost streets are for moving cars, so we can’t expect all streets to safely accommodate non-motorists.

I say it’s time to challenge this mindset and restore the original paradigm of the public right of way.

Say what?

You know, the public right of way. The concept of streets as places for people to move, gather, and exchange goods and services goes back long before the car. Today it seems we simply accept that our public-right-of-ways have become “private-fright -of -ways.” Private? Yes, because the automobile is not universally accessible. There are vast numbers of people (children, disabled, elderly, low-income, those with intellectual disabilities, etc.) who cannot use a car.

Unfortunately, as our streets became dominated by private cars, the public right of way –a “commons,” if you will–has become unrecognizable in all but a few places.

Getting back to the concept of the ‘special interest’:

If you think about it, the bicycle, (including all of its variants, like the adult tricycle) is actually more accessible than any other form of transportation.

  • Those who cannot walk can use pedal power.
  • The bicycle is theoretically the most sustainable form of transportation (3 times more efficient than walking and four times faster); bikes can even be made out of bamboo!
  • The bicycle provides youth with their first real taste of freedom; as my grandmother discovered, there comes a time when a car becomes impossible to handle in a responsible way and the bike awaits you.

Walking, of course, as the most benign form of transportation (meaning it’s really hard to kill somebody when you run into them on foot), will always be at the top of the pyramid. In my opinion, only people moving at a pedestrian speed should have any true inalienable rights in a public right of way, (the other modes should be viewed as guests with privileges that our laws provide). To call pedestrians a special interest group is to call people a special interest group.

The reality is this: Even here in the United States, the automobile is only available and operable for a minority of the population. Now that’s a special interest!

And if this special interest group was as prevalent in all other nations on this planet as it is in this country, it would require the resources of six more planet earths!

So, sorry to all who think so, but I will not accept the premise that walking and bicycling are frivolous activities. As far as transportation goes, they are the beginning and the end.