Ray LaHood: “People Want Out of Their Cars”

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood surprised delegates at the National Bike Summit last month, when he jumped up on table and proclaimed that national policy would no longer “favor motorized transportation at the expense of nonmotorized.” It was a watershed—a direct statement from the US czar of transportation that fuel-efficient auto technologies, such as hybrids and electric cars, are only part of the solution.

“People want out of their cars, they want out of congestion, they want to live in livable neighborhoods and livable communities,” LaHood told the crowd.

Despite the federal support for electric-drive cars–$2.4 billion in grants and $25 billion in low-interest loans for retooling, it will take decade or more for hybrids and EVs to rise above their niche status. The greenest cars are still cars—that require tons of energy, produce lots of emissions, and erode the quality of life in increasingly congested roadways. And after all, bicycles are the only true zero emissions vehicles.

Bike-Riding and Twittering

National Bike Summit

2010 National Bike Summit

Mr. LaHood, the 64-year-old former Republican member of the US House of Representatives, outlined the new policy in his blog. He called on state and local governments to go beyond minimum planning and maintenance requirements to provide convenient and safe amenities for bikers and walkers. “Walking and biking should not be an afterthought in roadway design.” Transportation agencies are urged to take action on a number of fronts, including the creation of pathways for bike riders and pedestrians on bridges, and providing children with safe biking and walking routes to schools.

In a follow-up tweet, LaHood wrote, “More cars on more roads may not be the best way to move people more effectively.” The response from the blogosphere was almost all positive. One enthusiastic commenter wrote on LaHood’s Facebook page, “Finally we have a Secretary of Transportation and not a Secretary of the Automobile.”

As you might expect, the response from industry was less positive. “Treating bicycles and other nonmotorized transportation as equal to motorized transportation would cause an economic catastrophe,” warned Carter Wood, a senior adviser at the National Association of Manufacturers. “If put it into effect, the policy would more than undermine any effort the Obama Administration has made toward jobs. You can’t have jobs without the efficient movement of freight.”

At a House appropriations committee hearing last week, Congressman Steven LaTourette, Republican of Ohio, accused Mr. LaHood of being on drugs. “I don’t even understand how you get a bang for the buck out of a bicycle project,” Mr. LaTourette subsequently commented. “I mean, what job is going to be created by having a bike lane?”

LaHood Defends Policy

Secretary LaHood defended his new focus on biking and walking, in an interview with the New York Times’ Green Inc. blog:

“It’s a game changer from the point of view that it’s a major component of livable and sustainable communities that provide alternatives to automobiles. And some of it is transit, some of it is light rail, some of it is street cars, some of it is good buses. But certainly a big part of it is the opportunity to bike or walk to the grocery store, to work, to the drug store or just spending time with the family and getting some good exercise.

We’re always going to take care of our highways. As I said, we have a state-of-the-art interstate system that’s been developed over three or four decades. We’re not going to give up on our roads. We know people are always going to drive cars. They’re going to use their cars for long distances.

But as we develop our livable and sustainable communities program, biking and walking paths will be a major component of it. And they will get some significant dollars.”

Ray LaHood’s improptu speed from on top of a table at the 2010 National Bike Summit.

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  • Charles

    I think I will ride my bike after work today. Not that this article has anything to do with it. I ride almost every Wednesday in the spring, summer and fall.

    My bike commuting varies with the quality of the showers at work. All the bike paths, wide outside lanes and share the road signs mean little if I cannot clean up after getting to work.

  • booHaa

    I would like to bike to work. But it is dangerous considering the way they have created the bike lane.

    Bike lane should be adjacent to pedestrian lane, not adjacent to the regular road.

  • Paul Beerkens

    I bike to work most days. Reduce congestion, reduce pollution, reduce dependence on foreign oil at virtually no cost. How can that not be a positive thing for the economy?

  • Susie Arak

    I really hope that the initiative put forward by Secretary LaHood results in more people riding their bicycles everywhere! Bike riding is an easy way to get around and to stay in shape. Bicycles can also be very convenient. I have a folding bicycle by Montague and I have been extremely happy with it. It folds down to fit in my trunk or closet. Anyone looking for a great bike that’s easy to get around should look at their website: http://www.montaguebikes.com.

  • nycsolar

    I biked to work today. 3 miles. I don’t always bike, but I bike when the weather is pleasant and when I am not always rushing. Biking once a week is enough to reduce the pollution of my commute 20% (since I work 5 days a week). Instead of paying billions for gas and healthcare for overwieght people, encourage people to bike when they’re young and we won’t have quite as many problems as we do now. It’s cheaper to provide every american with a reasonable bike than it is bail out any of these auto companies. Maybe we could even make them here.

    The biggest problem is that people think it has to be some craziness where you bike to work even in a snow storm or a hurricane. IT doesn’t have to be that way. Bike when it’s nice. Drive when it’s crappy. You’ll still probably reduce your commuting emissions 20-50%. You’ll probably reduce your weight 10-20 pounds and look much nicer.

  • DownUnder

    Now Americans realize what the Europeans have been doing for years… A good start.

  • bickster

    That’s a nice “feel good” sentiment from the Obama Administration – but it is hardly a practical solution or meaningful direction for a national transportation policy. Study the numbers and projections of the experts – you’ll learn that even the cherished hybrids and electric vehicles will take another decade to comprise even 20% of the US vehicle fleets. The sheer economic forces at work will continue to make this reality – unless the gov’t chooses to make fossil fuel transport significantly more expensive with a carbon tax. And that would come at the expense of the US economy – and the resuting oil “saved” will merely consumed elsewhere on the planet at a slightly cheaper price. I yearn for someone in power to frankly place these pragmatic realities before the American instead of running for office on feel-good sentimentality…

  • ex-EV1 driver

    I’ve always thought that bike lanes were a good thing, especially if they are coupled with rapid mass transit.
    Without well deployed mass transit, they aren’t really practical for the way most of the US is currently laid out. Also, the temperature/weather in most of the US makes bike commuting impractical much of the year.

  • FamilyGuy

    Showers at work and the required attire are key. When I worked and thought about biking, my draw back was the lack of ability to clean up after my ride. I felt like I had no place to stash a week’s worth of business causal cloths in my little cube. Another issue I had was where to store my bike. My cube was not big enough and I did not trust leaving it chained up outside. My final issue was the 25 mile commute. For me, that’s 1.5 to 2 hours worth of biking (nevermind the fear of getting a flat tire and adding time). On the way home, it’s worse because I’ve worked the entire day and it’s mostly uphill. I thought about finding some sort of park-and-ride where I could at least save half of my commute on the bike.

    I’m a big fan of biking to work, but there are lots of logistics to work out. I proof read this and it sounds like alot of belly aching, but it is what it is.

  • JBob

    First off Steven LaTourette is a tool. Guy looks like 240/250 pounds, so its obvious he doesn’t even touch a bike (might think about it, before he keels over from too much KFC).



    Two words for you guys ‘BABY WIPES’!

    I bike twice a week to work going 24 miles round trip. Our place does not have showers or a locker room. I use the handicap stall in the bathroom and do my change up in there (a good bike carrier bag does wonders, carries my clothes for the day, deoderant, and of course baby wipes). I smell baby fresh and they are toilet safe so I can flush’m when done.

    I store my bike in my cubicle. For those with overly cluttered or ridiculously small cubes, get a folding bike. I have one and you can tuck it underneath you desk! As for worrying about tires going flat, get them ‘slimed’. I’ve had the same tubes for 3 years now, saved my bacon from more nasty road debree than I care to remember!


    “I don’t even understand how you get a bang for the buck out of a bicycle project?”

    Simple their called small businesses (not mega corporations like you support). People need food, water, tubes, tune-ups, rest stops, internet access, rest, recreation, maintenance etc. You plan a well thought out bike route that accommodates areas for these type of businesses, you’re going to see jobs and tax revenue.

    ~ fin

  • Susan Cloud

    Yes, biking is not the answer for everyone, and yes, it takes a while for any new thing to become mainstream. But neither of these is a reason to outright reject biking as a viable transportation option.

  • Shines

    I am a fair weather bike to worker. More Americans would do well to bike to work more frequently. Nothing nicer than feeling and breathing the fresh air and enjoying outdoors on the way to work or the store or just for fun. Biking is healthy and good for the environment.
    On the other hand, biking to work on a path next to a freeway or along a buisy traffic clogged road is not particularly fun. It can be very noisy and smelly and dangerous. I have no desire to commute on my bike on a rainy day. Still it sometimes seems worth it.
    As far as “wanting out of my car” – that’s right I want teleportation!
    “Beam me over Scotty!”

  • Charles

    Hello JBob;

    I have not tried baby wipes for whole body cleaning. I will give it a try.

    As for Steven LaTourette being a tool because of his weight. I have to disagree. I think he looks more like 220-230 (on his web site). I am 220-230 and I have biked at 4000-6000 miles a year for 19 of the last 20 years. Now I do agree he is a tool for big business, but what Republican is not.

  • JBob

    Hi Charles,

    I did not mean that Steve is not a tool because of his weight. The picture on his website is Photoshopped, you need to look at news photos to get a true sense of his bulk (and I’m revising my estimate, more like 230-240). I myself am 215 and look like a flyweight compared to this guy…


    I meant he’s a tool because he makes assumptions that bike projects are a waste of money compared to large highway projects as far as job creation and tax generation. A good bike infrastructure coupled with public transport costs significantly less to build and maintain and promotes that growth just as effectively.

    ~ fin

  • Joe

    Government wants TOTAL CONTROL on how you can get anywhere! Get away from foreign OIL, but let the people decide!

  • Chewie

    When you build a city densely (more people per acre) and mix up things like homes, stores and offices, many things end up in easy walking or cycling distance, and you can support frequent transit service. Then you’ve got to have a commitment to make the streets bike friendly. You can design a road to make the traffic move slower and to include space for bike lanes, but it takes political will.

    The desire to drive is based on the incentives created by the built environment. If we build places that make it take forever to do anything besides drive (e.g. suburbia), and make it terrifying to get on a bike, surprise surprise, most people end up driving for most trips. But that has serious environmental, social, and economic costs.

    Cleaner cars have to be part of a broader conversation about the way we build cities. Really, we need cleaner cars, and we need to find ways to use cars less.

  • Geoff

    Some cities with older infrastructures and narrow lanes will take longer to adapt to bicycles. Longer commutes make 100% bicycle commuting impractical, but pairing bus and bikes can resolve a lot of that. I found I could comfortably commute by bicycle 100% when the ride was 10-13 miles, but longer commutes (18 miles) require a bus one-way on occasion, even with good bike routes and paths.

    The comments of Steven Wood and Carter LaTourette above completely miss the point of the initiative. Like, the only way to run our economy is to build cars? And by getting 1-2% of the current drivers out of their cars now and then is a bad thing? So then we should stop working on mass transit, that kills jobs too. No, wait, mass transit is good, isn’t it? Wood and LaTourette can put a sock in it.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    I agree with the need for mass transit but I don’t consider buses to be much good except for keeping the poor poor and the rich (who don’t use them) rich. We need rapid mass transit. It must be fast, independent of clogged roads, more economical, consume less real-estate, and be more efficient. It needs to require less labor and energy to operate in off-hours so that it can be available 24/7 and get people where they need to be, when they need to be there.
    Modern rail lines, of course, offer this the best. Buses that are synchronized with rail stops can probably offer last-mile connections but I don’t know of any mass transit authority that is competent enough to make this work.
    Without a good, economical, mass-transit system, the poor will use the mass-transit and the rich (or those who aspire to get rich) will use private transportation.

  • xprojected

    “Government wants TOTAL CONTROL on how you can get anywhere! Get away from foreign OIL, but let the people decide!”

    “The people”, as a whole, are dumb. They would decide on oil until it runs out, then panic.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic the last few days–I’m actually writing a paper on it. It seems very clear to me that public transit an non-motor transportation is the most sustainable solution set. I bike 45 minutes to my school campus every day, and from there take a shuttle to class. Its fun, healthy, and energizing. People are shocked when I tell them it takes me an hour to get to school only a few miles away. I tell them I’m not in a hurry.