Metro President speaks about transit, walking and biking before US Senate Committee

This Tuesday, July 14th, Metro President David Bragdon spoke before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works as part of a panel on transportation’s role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Senator Jeff Merkley lauded the Portland region’s trail system, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made clear his feeling that new fuels and technologies are only one part of a climate change solution, and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker gave an impassioned account of the latent demand for safe bicycle routes that he has discovered in his community.

The hearing was held to inform a Climate Change Bill that is currently being drafted by Senate Democrats, but it was also an opportunity to discuss goals and strategies that might be incorporated into the next Federal Transportation Bill, due for reauthorization (and, the BTA hopes, serious reform and reinvention) this year or next.

You can watch the hearing at the Committee’s website.

Secretary Ray LaHood (at 41:00 minutes) reported to the committee that nearly 1/3 of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation, of which 2/3 come from passenger automobiles. And while new technologies – like low-carbon fuel sources and higher fuel economy – will help, they are “not sufficient” and can, at best, “only cause a modest decline in carbon emissions.”

<em>U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood</em>

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood

“We must implement policies and programs that will reduce vehicle miles traveled – light rail, fuel efficient buses, and bike and pedestrian paths that connect to transit,” said LaHood. (This statement could not contrast more strongly with former Transportation Secretary Mary Peters’ contention in 2007 that bike paths and trails are not transportation infrastructure.)

Metro President David Bragdon, in his remarks (beginning at 101:30), stressed the importance – and proven success – of good community planning in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

<em>Metro President David Bragdon</em>

Metro President David Bragdon

The Portland-area’s emissions are trending in a different direction from those of the rest of the country (as Senator Merkley later enumerated, the country as a whole has seen a 17% rise in emissions since 1990, while Portland’s emissions have been reduced by 0.7% since then), because in this region “people have choices good transit, the ability to bike and walk, and also, we simply drive a little bit less because of the way our community is laid out.” He added that “transit ridership and the use of bicycles is growing far faster than the growth in population.”

The two lessons learned in the Portland region, Bragdon suggested, are that “first, our nation cannot successfully address climate change without reforming our transportation system; and second, we cannot successfully reform our transportation system without also improving the way our communities are designed and reducing the need for people to drive.”

“There’s a mythology,” Bragdon later noted (at 141:25) “that the development patterns of the last 30 or 40 years are somehow the product of a market or the ‘invisible hand,’ but in fact…they are the result of very explicit and implicit federal policies as well as state and local policies.”

Finally, Bragdon asked that the Senators tie the goals of the climate change bill currently in the drafting stage to the new Transportation Bill (which is due for reauthorization, to being this year).

<em>U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)</em>

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)

In a follow-up question for President Bragdon about Intertwine, a regional project to integrate greenspaces, trails and active transportation (formerly known as Connecting Green), Senator Merkley noted that, in this region, “the walking trails, the biking trails, and the greenspaces have grown into a system that enables citizens to have very significant choices, whether it be in recreation or in commuting.”

<em>Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker was notably cheerier after talking about bicycling</em>

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker was notably cheerier after talking about bicycling

Mayor Becker told the story of his city and its success developing and benefiting from a system that resembles Portland’s – with light rail, streetcar, and transit-oriented development in urban and suburban areas. He asserted (at 130:40) that

“multimodal approaches are the real key. Transit has to be convenient and accessible…

We need bikeway systems. In a valley like ours, big wide streets like ours should be so bikeable, but people are afraid to get out on the streets to commute…

[143:00] People want other modes of transportation. They don’t like being caught in congestion, but it’s what has been available to them. As we offer good choices and alternate modes, we’re finding in Salt Lake City that we are exceeding the projections for transit use, and we’re finding that as we improve our bikeways we’re getting many, many more people using bikeways…

I’m a cyclist, but before I became Mayor [I didn't] cycle that much as a commuter because I was scared to. But when i was walking door to door running for Mayor, I was so surprised at the number of people whose doorstep I went to whom, when I said “What do you want for Salt Lake City?” they said “You know something, I like to bike but I don’t dare bike in my community.” Well, as we improve the biking infrastructure, we’re providing that option for people, and as more and more cyclists get on the road we feel more secure on the road.

Providing that sort of access for people – in terms of [biking] as a transportation mode – that’s what’s going to make the difference. It’s not that people don’t want to use transit or don’t want to bike or to have more walkable communities; to the contrary I think people do, at least we certainly find that in our community. But we have to provide it, and that means a shift in what we invest in.”

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