Column by Dennis Markatos-Soriano
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The oil drilling explosion that killed 11 people on April 20th and the spill now killing massive amounts of wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico is a sign. It’s a sign of how bad our nation’s oil addiction has gotten and of how much we need to launch a sustainable energy revolution.
Eisenhower 2.0: Eisenhower built our interstate highway system in the 1950s, before we fully understood that burning oil for everyday transport would be so harmful. Spills kill wildlife in places like Valdez and now the Gulf, an inordinate reliance on driving increases asthma rates in our cities from Los Angeles to Charlotte, N.C., and even our Earth is heated by combustion’s greenhouse gas emissions. But now we know.
And it’s time to act accordingly. It’s time to build an Eisenhower 2.0 of bicycle networks across our country. Weaning our nation off of foreign oil dependence won’t happen by pretending offshore oil drilling is safe – look where that got us. The effort will necessitate reducing our demand for oil.
Federal policymakers have increased fuel economy standards, which is a step in the right direction. But we need to build infrastructure completely free of oil dependence, infrastructure that provides safe and accessible routes for people to walk and bike for everyday work and school commutes.
I was glad to hear that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is open to giving bicyclists and walkers a seat at the transportation table. Now the oil spill couldn’t be a clearer call for quick action. We need to fast-track completion of the National Bicycle Route Network. The first main corridor, the East Coast Greenway, is already nearing completion. This most-developed, long-distance route in the country connects cities from Key West, Fla., to the Maine border with Canada.
Three thousand miles long, it’s fully mapped out with directions available online at http://greenway.org. The East Coast Greenway (ECG) serves tens of thousands of cyclists, from local daily commuters in New York City along the Hudson River to travelers who take the end-to-end trip for vacations. The route is 25 percent multi-use greenway (separated from car traffic) and 75 percent on the safest roads we could find.
While experienced cyclists feel comfortable on most of the ECG route, experienced cyclists make up but 1 percent of the population. We need to make more of the route greenways and bike lanes so that the ECG is safe and accessible to all Americans. We estimate that this effort will cost around $500 million during the next several years, a sum that seems large when compared to our own bank accounts.
But $500 million to upgrade 2,250 miles is only a fifth of the cost of a recent I-95 bridge over the Potomac that only stretches a few miles. And the figure is less than a tenth of the $5.6 billion in profits that BP just reported from last quarter alone. Other oil companies such as Exxon, Shell, and Chevron celebrated similar profits last quarter above $4 billion. And $500 million over five years would equal about .1 percent of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) annual budget, even though the East Coast Greenway could serve as much as 10 percent of the country’s population (30 million people live in counties the ECG connects).
The DOT has begun to invest in the ECG with more than $30 million in stimulus funding allocated so far. These outlays are supporting and creating several hundred construction jobs and they complete important ECG segments that will benefit the public for generations to come.
Cars and trucks, along with trains and planes, will still be useful for quick, long trips to visit family and carry freight. But for daily commutes and to experience America, its awe-inspiring natural and urban landscapes, there is no better vehicle than the bicycle. Biking and walking can increase in share from 8 percent of trips nationwide to more than 30 percent, a percentage similar to that in many European nations.
Some might say electric vehicles are the answer to over-dependence on oil. But bicycles and sneakers are lower cost tools that also solve the obesity epidemic in the same fell swoop. And bicycles don’t rely on polluting coal plants for their fuel like much of today’s electric grid.
We all want clean air. We want good exercise. We want to move away from fossil fuels that kill fellow Americans and wildlife. So, federal, state and local leaders — let’s invest in the East Coast Greenway as catalyst for a nationwide bicycle network. We can even chant “Pedal, Baby, Pedal!” along the way.
Dennis Markatos-Soriano is executive director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance.