GUY RAZ, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
A quiet revolution is happening in the world of transportation. Ray LaHood, the secretary of Transportation, recently announced what he's calling a sea change: He wants to make biking as important as driving when planning for and funding new transportation projects across America.
In a few moments, we'll hear from Ray LaHood, but first to the bicycle revolution that's already underway in several cities.
Washington, D.C., is quickly becoming one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the country and much of it because of bicycle enthusiast Gabe Klein.
Now, before he became the city's Transportation director, Klein worked for the urban car-sharing program Zipcar. Within two years, he says, Washington, D.C., will have more than 80 miles of bike lanes, and he sees cities like Portland, Oregon, as the model for the future of urban development.
I met up with Klein a few days ago to take a bike ride, and he showed me how the city removed a car lane from a busy street and turned it into a dedicated bike lane.
Mr. GABE KLEIN (Director, D.C. Department of Transportation): This is a critical area of the city in terms of residential people commuting downtown to work, and we thought we have this, you know, very large, four-lane, one-way street, which unfortunately was doubling as a bit of a mini-freeway through the city, and we said there's way too much capacity here for cars.
If we took a lane out, it would have zero effect on the ability for cars to get through the city. However, it might calm the traffic a bit and provide a great opportunity to test our cycle tracks. So we launched this very quickly last fall.
And what's also really nice about this design is that it was inexpensive, you know, around $100,000.
RAZ: $100,000, and how long does it go?
Mr. KLEIN: Six blocks or so, eight blocks, and we're going to be extending it, actually, in the next couple months. So people will really have a direct shot all the way downtown.
RAZ: Shall we go for a ride down the street?
Mr. KLEIN: Sure.
RAZ: All right. How hard is it to retrofit a city like D.C. and create bike lanes because, you know, this is a city that is notoriously difficult to drive in at times? The traffic can be really bad at certain times of the day. People leave work and get out to the Beltway. So putting a bike lane in some cases makes that even more difficult for cars, I would imagine.
Mr. KLEIN: Well, you know, I think as we're ramping up our bike program, we do have to be very careful not to create more traffic problems. To be honest, we want to build support amongst all people in the city, including drivers, for our bike and ped programs.
And one of the things I learned working in car sharing and in cycling is when you make it hassle-free and inexpensive for people to use a certain mode, they will use it.
RAZ: They'll do it.
Mr. KLEIN: You know, we want, in a few years, nobody to have to invest in any form of transportation in terms of a capital outlay. You shouldn't have to buy a car. You can use car sharing. You shouldn't have to buy a bike because we're going to have a very large bike sharing program, and we should have the facilities so that a 16-year-old or a 75-year-old feels safe riding in the city, and that means having separated lanes.
RAZ: Now, you are getting some pushback from automobile advocacy groups, the AAA and so on, right?
Mr. KLEIN: We've had a little bit of criticism, that people say, we only -almost two and a half percent of people ride to work. So why are you going to make these investments?
RAZ: Right, why are you pouring so many resources into something that only two and a half percent of the city uses.
Mr. KLEIN: Well, we see a direct correlation between our investment in, like, bike lanes, bike sharing, bike facilities in geographic areas with a direct uptake or uptick in usage, and we've seen it over the last 15, 16 years. And so we recognize that the city's got to make the investment, and then the people come. It was the same thing with car-sharing. If it's not in your neighborhood, how are you going to use it?
RAZ: If you build it, they will come.
Mr. KLEIN: Exactly.
RAZ: That's Gabe Klein, the director of Transportation here in Washington, D.C.
Now, while alternative transportation options like biking or using the metro rail are available here, in other parts of the country, these aren't always realistic options.
So Ray LaHood, the Transportation secretary, wants to change that. He became a hero to bike enthusiasts last month, when he posted a notice on his blog saying that cycling and even walking should no longer be afterthoughts when it comes to federal transportation planning.
Secretary RAY LaHOOD (Department of Transportation): We're elevating it to the point that as we develop new road systems, as we develop communities where people can use light rail or street cars or buses, bike trails and walking paths will be equal partners, if you will, and equal components of those kinds of transportation opportunities in communities around America.
RAZ: And now Secretary LaHood, according to a recent story in USA Today, something like 90 percent, 91 percent of Americans, drive to work. Many Americans either don't live close enough to public transportation, or they can't cycle to work because it's simply too far for them to do that. What options would they have?
Sec. LaHOOD: Well, I mean, we've put almost all of our resources into our roads, and the reason that 90 percent of the people ride to work or drive a car to work is because that's where all of our resources we have a state-of-the-art interstate system in America that connects America.
If the commitment - when President Eisenhower signed the interstate bill - had been to high speed inner-city rail, think of where we would - we'd be in the same position Europe and Asia are in today. Our commitment has been to roads, and part of our commitment now at DOT is to create opportunities for alternatives to congestion, to automobiles, knowing full well that it takes time to change habits.
And we know that 90 percent of the people aren't going to be cycling to work. But that opportunity and that option and that kind of alternative is something that we think people want.
RAZ: What about funding? I mean, will you essentially say to states, look, we will increase your funding for certain projects if you include plans for things like bike paths?
Sec. LaHOOD: We will, as a part of our livable and sustainable community program, which will be a part of the new transportation bill that we'll be working with Congress on this year, one of its components will be walking and biking paths and the resources to fund those kinds of opportunities in communities.
RAZ: Tell me about this idea that I've been hearing of a national bicycle route system similar to the national highway system.
Sec. LaHOOD: The concept would be that you would create the kind of roadways where people, if they wanted to cycle around America, could do that. It doesn't really take that much money. It's more the initiative and the commitment to do it.
RAZ: Now, as you know, some skeptics were angry when you announced this sea change. They said, you know, this is - one group, industry group, that represents trucking called it nonsensical. Do you think that there's been an overreaction, or do you think that, you know, they have a point there?
Sec. LaHOOD: Well, look it, the trucking companies pay a lot of taxes to use the roadways, but there's plenty of room along the roadways for all forms of transportation, whether it's cars or trucks or cyclists or walking, and using the bully pulpit that I have as the secretary of Transportation to promote these has gotten a lot of attention.
RAZ: And are you a cyclist?
Sec. LaHOOD: Yes, I am. As a matter of fact, my wife and I have our bikes in Washington, and we, usually on Saturday or Sunday or both days, are out on the C&O Canal, and what we see are thousands and I don't mean hundreds, I mean thousands of people on Saturday and Sunday. And so my wife and I absolutely cherish the opportunities that we have to cycle together.
RAZ: That's Ray LaHood. He's the secretary of Transportation.
Secretary LaHood, thank you so much.
Sec. LaHOOD: Thank you.