That Washington

A Few Good Reasons to Love Ray LaHood

By Josh Cohen April 28, 2010

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U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood made headlines last month when he delivered a table-top speech at the close of the National Bike Summit. He announced that biking and walking advocates had a "full partner" in the U.S. Department of Transportation. A rousing, pro-bike speech from the man making our nation's transportation decisions is exciting, but it's just one small part of the reason I'm happy about LaHood. So, in no particular order, here are some of the finer attributes of our Secretary of Transportation.

He's A Man of Action

It's not exactly risky politics to stand up in a room filled with bicycling advocates and proclaim your support for bikes at the closing event of the National Bike Summit. But LaHood wasn't just trying to gain political points or deliver a few good sound bites (though he certainly accomplished both). He followed up his Bike Summit appearance by rolling out a new DOT bicycle and pedestrian policy, a policy that he said marked "the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized."

First and foremost, the policy states that bicycling and walking should be treated equally to all other types of transportation. It also calls for building bike and ped infrastructure beyond minimum design standards, increasing transportation choices, incorporating non-motorized facilities into all bridge and roadway projects (whether its new construction or rehabbing existing infrastructure), and for data collection on bike and ped trips.

He's a Republican

LaHood served as a Republican congressman for 14 years before his appointment to the DOT. I don't necessarily chalk that up as a great attribute in-and-of-itself, but having a Republican supporting an alternative transportation policy is significant. Bike advocacy is seen as a hippie liberal cause. While that is not surprising, it's more than a little ridiculous. Cycling is a nonpartisan activity. Having a long-time Republican stand up and say bicycles and pedestrians should be fully accommodated in America has a greater impact than a life-long Portland liberal like U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (in the pic above in the, um, bow tie) saying the same thing. That impact might help balance the notion that bike advocacy is a Democrat fight. (It might also help eschew the notion that being a bike commuter requires giving up animal products, showering, or cars all together).

He's Supports Labor

LaHood's declaration that bikes should be treated as equals caused a bit of an uproar over a misinterpretation of his intentions. Trucking and manufacturing groups said he was out of touch with reality and bemoaned their impending doom. The National Association of Manufacturers wrote on their Shop Floor blog, "Treating bicycles and other non-motorized transportation as equal to motorized transportation would cause an economic catastrophe ... a great nation and modern industrial economy cannot operate if executive branch agencies are incapable of making a distinction between bicycles and trucks."

On the contrary, LaHood argues that good bicycle infrastructure benefits truckers. He wrote on the DOT's Fastlane blog, "we're talking about making their jobs easier by taking vehicles off those roadways and easing congestion so the trucking community and bus and taxi drivers can deliver their goods and passengers more smoothly." His logic is sound. Regardless of how freight ships across the country or around the world, short-haul trucking is going to remain essential for getting goods to their final destination. If bicycle infrastructure improves dramatically and more people ride instead of drive, truckers' jobs will be that much more efficient. The trucking industry has significant influence on transportation infrastructure. They could be valuable allies in the effort to reduce car congestion in cities.

Ray LaHood isn't going to revolutionize transportation in America. The majority of infrastructure improvements are still going to come from the hard-fought battles of groups like the Bicycle Alliance and Cascade Bicycle Club. But having a U.S. Transportation Secretary understands that bicycling is a viable form of transportation, not a fringe activity, and is willing to work to improve bicycling is a huge step in the right direction towards getting people out of their cars and onto two wheels as part of their daily lives.
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