As Barack Obama prepares to unveil his infrastructure-oriented green economy stimulus package, the major fossil fuel-based, greenhouse gas contributor transportation interests – the highway builders and all those focused on long distance/global transport of goods by ship, truck or rail, for example – are also gearing up to get a piece of the action. At the same time, the environmental and smart growth groups are putting together their own lists of more environmentally friendly projects such as upgrading bus and rail transit systems. At the margins of this discussion are bike riders and pedestrians, seeking even just minimal support to ramp up what should in fact be a major part of a green economy transportation approach.
Bikes, in fact, had at one time been at the center of the action when it came to transportation. A century ago, in the pre-automobile age, a bicycle boom emerged, with bikes supplanting horses as the main form of (environmentally friendlier) transport within cities. The bike boom meant new infrastructure (paved streets and bikeways), new manufacturing (plants springing up in industrial centers like Chicago), and new cultural shifts (bike riders including women who achieved new types of freedom in relation to dress standards and mobility). Bicycle production was identified as “the largest specific manufacturing industry in America,” and, in the Los Angeles region, the bike capital of the country, plans were afoot to create what would have been a “bike freeway” stretching from Pasadena to Los Angeles.
But over the next hundred years, the automobile, armed with what amounted to a huge shift in transportation planning and a vast set of subsidies in the form of auto-exclusive infrastructure support, systematically began to supplant first bikes, then the electric railway, and ultimately all other forms of transport. The automobile became king and brought with it a brown economy that reconfigured cities and suburbs, made air quality problems a fact of life, and ratcheted up our greenhouse gas emissions.
But now the auto industry, especially in the U.S. but increasingly at the global scale, is in trouble, begging for its own stimulus (read bail out) package. There are calls for accountability and a shift in planning to incorporate green economy goals. But, as I argued earlier, stimulating new bike production as part of an overall green transportation economy approach could also create jobs and help influence bikes as transport, at least for short 1-2 mile distances which may represent the most efficient mode of transportation. More to the point, we might well be entering a new post-automobile age, although when and how that will occur still remains to be seen. But as that happens, as sales of automobiles in fact continue their decline and the search for more radical strategies regarding global warming becomes more pressing, bikes need to be seen not just as a marginal opportunity but at the center of a broader shift in the way we think about transportation, about infrastructure, and about what we mean by a green economy.
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