DOT hunts for ideas in Scandinavia (4/15/09)
Phil Taylor, Energy&Environment reporter
The U.S. Department of Transportation is sending a team of engineers and scientists to Europe next month to observe what Scandinavian countries are doing to keep bicyclists safe and welcome on the open road.
A spokesman for the department said the two-week scoping trip is being planned in anticipation of a new transportation authorization bill to be introduced later this spring that could include major funding provisions for bicycle and pedestrian projects.
The team hopes to glean insight from some of the world’s most bike-friendly — not to mention energy-independent — cities and towns.
“We’d like to go and steal some good ideas,” said Doug Hecox, a spokesman for DOT’s Federal Highway Administration. “We want to make American communities more livable.”
Lawmakers in Congress are working to craft a transportation funding bill that will succeed the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), which expires at the end of September.
Twenty-six percent of Danes commute this way every day, versus 1 percent of Americans. Luring more American commuters onto their bikes could cut urban greenhouse gas emissions dramatically and cheaply, but the Department of Transportation is exploring the changes needed. They include road marking, safety laws and whether driving habits can change enough to make this scene play in, say, Peoria. Photo courtesy of League of American Bicyclists.
The next bill is expected to come with a much bigger price tag and could promise billions of dollars to bike and pedestrian programs for things like new pathways, resurfacing projects, traffic signs and system management and planning.
“People are worried whether bicycling will make it into the next transportation bill,” said Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) at this year’s National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C. “There is no question except ‘How big will it be?'”
Oberstar, who is the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he plans to have an outline of the bill ready sometime this month.
Engineers at the department will meet with their counterparts in countries including Denmark and Sweden to observe features like bicycle road markings, traffic signals, parking facilities and overall system design. The goal is to identify strategies that could be applied to transportation systems in the United States, Hecox said.
“This will be the first time we’ve gone over specifically to find improvement for bikes,” Hecox said. “Europeans have found a way to balance the needs of bikes and motorists, maybe better than we have.”
It’s harder (and more dangerous) to get rolling in the U.S.
In the Netherlands, 26 percent of journeys are made by bicycle, according to a report released this year by the Dutch Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management. The latest U.S. census shows that Americans use bikes for less than 1 percent of all trips. Luring more Americans onto the saddle could be a relatively inexpensive way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, roughly a third of which come from vehicles.
But integrating more bicyclists into the transportation system carries distinct challenges in the United States, where cities are more sprawled and drivers are less observant about bikes and sometimes less willing to share the road. The DOT team will be paying close attention to how bicyclists are perceived in Europe, where in several cities bikes outnumber cars.
“There’s just so much more of the population that relies on bikes over there than here,” Hecox said, adding that Americans have only recently begun to view biking as a more legitimate alternative to driving.
“I think it’s very nice we’re giving it a little more credence,” he said. “A lot of people are finding that traffic is something you can easily beat with a bike.” But with traffic come risks and hazards for bicyclists, particularly in the U.S. transportation system.
In Europe, designated bike lanes are an important feature that countries use to protect bikers, but equally important is the coordinated development of junctions, circles and traffic lights, according to the Dutch report.
Such features have helped reduce bicyclist fatalities and serious injuries by 50 percent in Copenhagen since 1995, despite a significant increase in miles traveled over the same period of time, said Andreas Rohl, director of Copenhagen’s Bicycle Program Office.
Rohl, along with Danish Ambassador Friis Arne Petersen, gave presentations at the recent Washington bike summit on what the Danish government has done in recent years to prevent bicycling accidents and encourage more ridership.
Protections against ‘getting doored’ in Chicago
In Copenhagen, where up to 30,000 bicycles travel the streets on a busy day, bike lanes are given priority over vehicle lanes for snow removal.
In several Dutch cities, attempts have been made to separate bicycle and vehicle networks. Where this isn’t possible, some cities have painted bicycle lanes bright red, designating them as legal zones for bikes and off-limits to parked cars.
Such designations may be more difficult to pass in the United States, but they have already begun to take shape in cities like Chicago, which last year made it illegal to park in bike lanes. Opening vehicle doors when bicyclists are passing — setting up the possibility for a sudden and sometimes painful collision that bicyclers refer to as “getting doored” — also is illegal.
Copenhagen commuters face a different kind of parking problem. Photo courtesy of League of American Bicyclists.
Ironically, said DOT’s Hecox, the American road system was originally built to accommodate the needs of bikers, who complained that there were not enough safe places to ride. The “Good Roads Movement” was waged in the late 1800s by biking clubs anxious for paved roads and convenient riding space, many decades before automobiles began to take over.
“The American road system is largely the result of a bunch of angry bikers,” Hecox said. “It was seen as something that was badly needed, and was a widely accepted program for the mustachioed members of Congress.”
Ideas for the next transportation bill
The transportation bill that Oberstar is carving out will look to include language designating bicycling as a legal and sanctioned form of transportation, said Jim Berard, spokesman for the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The change is one of many Oberstar is looking to incorporate in the bill.
“The chairman has said all along that this next bill is going to be transformative,” Berard said. “He wants to tear the process down and start from scratch.”
Oberstar was instrumental in adding the Safe Routes to School program to the $244.1 billion SAFETEA-LU bill in 2005, and is hoping to create an “Office of Livability” in this year’s bill. The office would coordinate urban planning to make it easier for residents to walk or ride bikes for routine trips like picking up a gallon of milk or going to the post office.
Berard could not offer details about biking proposals the committee is trying to write into the bill, but he did say that a larger portion of funds would be going to transit and bike paths than in the past.
Oberstar is hoping to pass a six-year-long bill worth about $450 billion to $500 billion, but the biggest challenge will be reaching an agreement over how to pay for it, Berard said.