Why aren’t we doing more to protect no-carbon commuters?

Our car-obsessed culture is largely responsible for the outsized impact the U.S. has had on the climate. We represent less than 5 percent percent of the global population, yet we’re responsible for nearly 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. There seems to be a bit of an obesity epidemic in this country, from what I’ve heard. Biking and walking as a means of transportation are quick and easy ways to reduce emissions and shed a few pounds, so you’d think our elected officials would be doing more to promote them and ensure that bike and foot commuters are safe. But you’d be wrong.

As an extremely car-averse bike commuter myself, I am certainly biased when it comes to the issue of funding measures to make our cities more walkable and bike-friendly. The mere idea is anathema to our car culture — but the ranks of commuter cyclists and commuter walkers are growing every day.

However, the Alliance for Biking and Walking has just released a report showing that while there are some encouraging upward trends in the number of folks who get where they need to go either on two wheels or their own two feet, our government is still doing far too little to promote bicycling and walking as healthy, carbon-free forms of commuting — and this failure to promote bicycle- and pedestrian-safe cities is literally killing us.

According to the report, just 1.2 percent of federal transportation funding is spent to make cities safer for bicycling and walking (there’s a good breakdown of the federal funds available for projects that promote walking and biking on this StreetsBlog post). This number remains abysmally low despite a 42 percent increase in the number of people commuting by bike between 2000 and 2007. Today, 3.3 percent of all commutes are by bike or by foot, and when you just look at all trips, that number jumps to 10 percent. Yet a disproportionate 13 percent of all traffic fatalities are bicyclists or pedestrians.

Worse yet, in big cities, where cycling and walking are especially attractive options because of more traffic and shorter distances, nearly a third of traffic fatalities are pedestrians or bicyclists.

Particularly in big cities where the traffic is atrocious, it shouldn’t be too hard to encourage people to cycle and walk by simply making sure your city is safe enough to bike or walk in. Nearly 40 percent of all commutes made in Copenhagen are by bike, for instance, largely due to bike-friendly traffic patterns that result from much higher levels of investment in bike-safe streets.

So what can you do? Find a local cycling advocacy group near you, for starters. According to Transportation for America, “no state spends more than 5 percent of federal transportation funds on sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic calming, speed humps, multi-use paths, or safety programs for pedestrians or cyclists.” So local advocacy can really make a huge difference. I’m a member of the SF Bike Coalition, and heartily recommend getting involved with them to anyone in San Francisco; they’ve achieved some spectacular victories for bike commuters! There are lots of similar groups around the country, get in touch with your local bike advocacy group and see how you can help.

But of course, federal transportation policy could and should be prioritizing the safety of all commuters. And given the fact that Congress has failed to take any kind of action to address climate change, promoting no-carbon forms of transportation is one of the quickest and easiest ways the Obama administration can demonstrate that they’re serious about reigning in greenhouse gas emissions. You can take action right now to urge Obama’s Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, to make cyclist and pedestrian safety a priority of the Department of Transportation.

Photo credit: mjmonty via Flickr

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