Rep. Earl Blumenauer Reflects on His Career, And Why ‘Bike-Partisanship’ is America’s Secret Weapon
As he concludes his nearly 30-year career in Congress, Earl Blumenauer says America has never been better positioned to make a "quantum leap" towards bikeability.
12:00 AM EST on November 14, 2023
As co-founder of the Congressional Bike Caucus Rep. Earl Blumaneuer (D– Ore.) has long been one of Washington's staunch advocates for sustainable transportation — not least during the writing of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which he fought to make better for vulnerable road users through the inclusion of programs like Safe Streets for All and Reconnecting Communities.
Now, on the two-year anniversary of that law's passage, host Kea Wilson sits down with Earl himself to reflect on the BIL's bright spots — as well as his own 27-year career in Congress, which he recently announced is about to come to an end. And along the way, we also chat about how bikes can help unify a polarized political landscape, how a federal parking cash-out law could create a more just society, and why he considers a little site called Streetsblog the "secret weapon" of advocates everywhere.
This conversation was on October 11th. The following excerpt has been edited for clarity and length.
Wilson: I'm so excited to meet you, and I'm a longtime admirer of your work. It's really an honor to get to hear a little bit about your legacy as the chair of the Congressional Bike Caucus — and also the topic that your staff suggested we talk about today, or at least use as a spine for a broader conversation, which is the last two years of the bipartisan infrastructure law.
Blumenauer: I'm happy to do that, but let me just say — I appreciate your work. Streetsblog is our secret weapon. And for anybody who takes the time to become acquainted with it, you you help bring it home in in ways that are very realistic. We have a great group in in Portland, especially Jonathan Maus, but you play a vital role as part of this national network. And I'm looking forward to the conversation. Thank you.
Wilson: Yes, shout out to Bike Portland as well; we republish them a lot and deeply admire their work!
So just to take it back to the big picture: we are, again, two years into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law now. And I was wondering if you could just say, broadly: what impact has this legislation had on the bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users of America? And what impact do you anticipate it having in the years to come?
Blumenauer: Well, it is an example of where we can actually get something done. This is an area where, for the first time — I've been working in this space for decades — this is the first time we've had an administration that was committed to rebuilding and renewing America and spending money on it. This is very exciting. As you know, these are unprecedented sums; these are game-changers. For years, I've been working to try and deal with the problem of inadequate transportation funding, and looked at different ways to go about it, trying to make sure that Congress owned up to its responsibilities. But with the passage of this legislation, the floodgates opened.
Between the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Legislation, there's just a gusher of money, and a wide array of ways that people can access it. And this is something that is fundamental, here: we need to have people appreciate what difference it makes to be able to incorporate these resources in ways that can bring about a low carbon, equitable future.
Wilson: You've used the word "bike-partisanship" several times this conversation. I think it's really great. Could you say a little bit more about what that means? And was it easy to make cycling a bipartisan issue when you founded the Congressional Bike Caucus?
Blumenauer: One of the things I found when I came to Congress is that everybody has a bike story. And bike partisanship is something that is under-appreciated and utilized. That's why we tried to ramp up the work with the bike caucus; it's sort of to share the love, have people understand their own connections to cycling.
There was a senior member of the Appropriations Committee when I first came [to Congress] who told me a story. He said, You know, 'one of the things I did before I went on the Appropriations Committee, when I was on the transportation infrastructure committee, was to secure some funding for a bike path in my community in Ohio. And I got a lot of grief because people wanted roads and bridges. It was like, you know, what's this bike stuff?' And he got lots of pushback. But he told me, 'you know, within three years, the bike project that I got funded, was part of the city's official seal.' It was popular in terms of recreation, and in terms of what happens economically, the bike customer spends more money than somebody who's racing through a neighborhood.
I was Portland's Commissioner of Public Works for 10 years before I went to Congress, and one of the things I found is that a lot of people's single most prized possession was having a parking space in front of their bookstore, or their brew pub, or in their in their neighborhood. But we've watched in Portland over the years as we've been working to integrate cycling into the broader transportation and community landscape. And we found that on streets where we've been able to calm the traffic, what happens is that the property values on those streets are enhanced. It's not just that they're safer.
The bicyclist is the indicator species of a livable community. And it strengthens the bonds of the people who live there. We have had well over 150 people in Portland volunteer to have that precious parking space in front of the bookstore or the brew pub converted to bike parking. These are people that, voluntarily, sought to make bike parking permanent. They've done the math, they understand that you can have six, eight, ten, bike parking spaces for where that one car would be located. And as I mentioned, people who biked through the neighborhood actually spend more money and take more time.
So it's a matter of helping people understand the power of these concepts, to take advantage of the federal legislation, but more fundamentally, to take advantage of what they can do at the local level. Because these issues are inherently very personal, local; you're talking about your business, you're talking about your neighborhood. And being able to protect and defend and enhance the quality of life where you live and work is really very powerful.
Wilson: You know, as I'm hearing you talk about the importance of these personal local actions — things like removing parking spaces to build bike parking — that, to me seems like a huge win and a huge deal that, on aggregate, can make a massive impact for our planet. But you deal with issues all the time in Congress that, to others, might feel a lot more urgent. How do you make the case that bicycles, pedestrian issues, the things that we talk about on Streetsblog all the time, really matter ,in the context of a time period where there are cascading global crises that are competing for our attention, especially in Washington?
Blumenauer: We're dealing with a lot today. I mean, I'm talking to you in the midst of a war breaking out in the Middle East; we're fighting a war against Russian aggression with Ukraine; and many of us have been fighting the climate battle for years. And it seems almost overwhelming. It seems like many people are on the verge of despair.
But what we're talking about here is a way to empower individuals to make a difference. We're not going to have a single policy or project that's going to solve the climate crisis. It will be the collection of billions of individual decisions that we all make every day: what we eat, where we live, how we move. The collection of those decisions, is what, ultimately, is going to save the planet and our neighborhoods.
And what we're talking about here is a scale that anybody can relate to. Anybody can make a decision, for example, to walk a little more, to eat a little more strategically, to support the environment, and the neighborhood environment. That, collectively, makes a huge difference in terms of the carbon footprint, in terms of being able to withstand natural disasters, in terms of being able to keep our families safe, healthy and economically secure.
And this is the key to fight the despair. That is, I think our our greatest challenge: that people just seem overwhelmed. And trust me, I understand! But what gives me hope and encouragement is knowing that there are these decisions that are totally within our capacity that are not expensive. To the contrary, they add value. And that once you get people engaged, they kind of get it. They like the opportunities to have locally-sourced and grown food; making streets safer around our schools is something everybody can get behind. And with all of the opportunities for safety for environment and revitalization that we have before us today, there's something for everybody.
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