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.