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Rep. Earl Blumenauer Thinks Biking Is About To Have Its Big Moment

..and he hopes to catalyze that revolution as he leaves the halls of Congress.

The last time we interviewed Congressional Bike Caucus founder and chair Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, it was just days before he announced that he would not be seeking re-election after 28 years in the House. But leaving office doesn’t mean he’ll be biking off into the sunset — and he says he’ll be fighting for livable communities just as fiercely in his next chapter. 

We sat down with the bow-tied cycling icon to talk about the future, and why he’s more optimistic than ever that biking in America is ready for its big moment.   

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Streetsblog: You’ve had a long career in Congress. In your view, what’s unique about this moment in the sustainable transportation movement? 

Rep. Earl Blumenauer:  There are unprecedented resources available to promote a cycling agenda right now. The Vision Zero notion is not just a theory; it’s part of what the Biden administration is actively working on. We have hundreds of local plans and people who are involved with these [efforts]. It is just incredibly encouraging for me, and it's something that we can share with virtually anybody.

But helping people understand what's there and how to implement it, I think, is absolutely critical. So that's part of what I am focusing on now; helping people understand what we've got, and how to utilize it. This is the first time we have an administration that is committed to rebuilding and renewing America in a low-carbon, equitable fashion, and it's a gift.

Streetsblog: Something that’s been a major focus of your career has been raising the gas tax. But you've said in recent interviews that you've kind of given up on that goal because you think it's time to pivot to a new strategy as the transportation sector is being electrified. What funding solutions do you hope the next Congress and the next generation of state leaders will explore? Is it the vehicle miles traveled tax that Oregon has been piloting for some time? Is it something else?

Blumenauer: The plain fact is, financing our system based on gallons of fossil fuel consumed is an inevitable downward spiral. It's swimming upstream; it’s a declining revenue base, even if you could get [an increase] enacted — which I am convinced is not going to happen in our lifetimes.

Experiments with a vehicle miles traveled tax started in Oregon, but now we have so many pilot projects around the country that I've lost track. There's more and more people who are familiar with this concept, and who are experimenting with ways to implement it, and the public acceptance is greater the more people understand what the impact can be.

[VMT taxes] are something that we can use to improve the transportation experience [in other ways, too]. The same technology that can keep track of how far we drive could tell you where the closest parking space is, and allow you to pay for it. Taking advantage of the technology going forward, I think, is very important; I think there's a wider acceptance, and I think it's teed up.

Streetsblog: Another focus of your legislative career has been around marijuana legalization. Do you have any thoughts on how roadway safety intersects with that issue, and the complicated body of research that's emerging around it? 

Blumenauer: Well, part of what needs to happen is getting a good test for impairment. The recent rescheduling of cannabis gives us an opportunity to deal with that research. But the bottom line is that we don't want impaired drivers on the road, whether it's alcohol or cannabis — or worse, a combination of the two, which is what’s really deadly.

But, frankly, we've got a whole host of issues that deal with road safety that thankfully are more important. We've never fully recovered from the impacts of the COVID crisis — [including] road rage and people who are just not paying attention anymore. I see it every day whether I walk, bike, or drive through Portland; I see people crashing through red lights, running stop signs, and being reckless on the road.

This is an opportunity for us to get back to the basics. I’m talking about land use and transportation design; we have so many roadways, particularly in areas where there's been a reduction in traffic, that are [designed in a way that’s] an invitation for people be reckless. And we can improve those road designs. 

I am a huge fan of roundabouts. They avoid those T-bone crashes, they slow people down, they make people more alert, they're safer, and they save energy. Why wouldn't we have a uniform program promoting roundabouts? We should. Even things like street trees can change how people look at the roadway. We need road diets so that we're not sending the wrong signals by having roadways that are wide enough to land at 747. Narrowing streets in neighborhoods [so drivers] have to slow down to be able to pass is a powerful design incentive for greater safety. 

These are things that we understand that we can do, and they aren't expensive at all. And part of it is integrating land use planning into the transportation system, which is a huge tool to be able to reduce the carbon footprint and enhance the quality of life for individuals. Pedestrians and cyclists are the indicator species of a livable community, and we need to focus on them more.

Streetsblog: I really appreciate you putting the emphasis on those safe system solutions that we have today, and that we’ve already had for centuries. 

Blumenauer: Well, you folks have been on it! [Laughs.] I appreciate your efforts, and I think the cumulative effect of these messages is making the difference.

Streetsblog: I hope so! But I have to say, things like road diets and bike lanes and changes to the roadway environment can be so contentious — even in progressive districts like yours that have been at the forefront of this movement. You speak very persuasively about the power of “bikepartisanship,” but what about bike skeptics? How do you communicate with people who view the bicycle as a symbol in the culture wars, or an affront to the “rights” of motorists, or things like that? What advice do you have for talking to those people and moving the conversation forward?

Blumenauer:
It's very important for us to listen to what people are saying, because the core concern that many people have is that they're not being heard [or that] this is an elitist agenda that's being forced on people in a way that would disadvantage their community. 

There's no shortcut for having a good public process. Because when folks listen to the evidence, when we do this right — It’s pretty compelling. The advantages of giving people more transportation choices are critical. And importantly, we need to do a better job of celebrating our successes.

There’s one [project] in Southeast Portland that stands out in my mind. It took so long to put this project in place, and it was very challenging, and when we finally got it, all of the original people on the neighborhood team had moved on. [But] the results of calming that street were so significant. The street became safer. We saw families out walking in biking. And one of the things that was fascinating is that it ended up enhancing the property values along this street, because it was more welcoming and effective.

When we put these projects together, they may originally be contentious. But within six months, people will put on their little real estate fliers that they're adjacent to the bike path. [Laughs.] It becomes a selling point for the community. 

So we've got the evidence, but [it’s about] being able to listen to people's concerns, and being able to work it through in language that makes sense to them. We're in this for the long haul. And frankly, and I don't mean this to sound arrogant here, but we're right. And we can prove it. 

And so [it’s about] being patient, being open, listening, and getting this across the finish line. [And eventually people say,] ‘You know, it wasn't much of a sacrifice, in retrospect, for that owner of the bookstore to give up a parking space for a car in front of the shop in exchange for six, seven, eight bike parking spaces.’ Because again, the research is pretty interesting; customers who bike actually are more likely to stop and look and shop. Bike tourism works; they spend more money, rather than zipping through the neighborhood at 50 miles an hour. It's a different dynamic, and we have help people appreciate the power of that dynamic. 

So we've got the evidence, but [it’s about] being able to listen to people's concerns, and being able to work it through in language that makes sense to them. We're in this for the long haul. And frankly, and I don't mean this to sound arrogant here, but we're right. And we can prove it.

Streetsblog: To close us out, I think I'd like to turn to the future a little bit. You've said that not being in Congress will actually better position you to help communities make the kind of bike projects like you described in Portland real, and to help them access and implement that federal infrastructure funding to do it. Could just tell me a little bit more about that, and what you hope to do in your next chapter?

Blumenauer: To a large extent, answering the question of ‘how do we make livable communities’ has been my life’s work. And as a civilian, I think I may have a little more time to be able to actually interact with people in person, or even zoom calls, rather than being trapped in airports and on airplanes — and in frankly, some very non-productive political debates. 

This is not rocket science. But it's not intuitive for many people. And frankly, one of the things that I am very encouraged by is that the advocates are becoming more sophisticated. Our last National Bike Summit in D.C. had a lot more energy and involvement. We have all of this work that's taking place around the country; there are hundreds of communities that are doing it. It's absolutely essential to use their resources and to attract new resources. And we're going into a time of unique opportunity. 

Frankly, one of the things that gave me pause about not running for re-election is that we're going to be in the majority in the House of Representatives in the next Congress. I'm quite confident of that given the incompetence of the disparate groups of Republicans that are warring among themselves. Also, a lot of Trump-era tax cuts expire next year. This is all on the table, and [we’ll be] able to mobilize people who care about pedestrian safety, who care about e-bike expansion, who care about projects that make all the difference in the world. The leverage is shifting. 

[Think about] things like the e-bike revolution. We're seeing this with many local communities, which are stepping up to offer their own e-rebates. With Democrats in control in the house, I think that my E-BIKE Act is very highly likely to pass, and at a time that it's just amazingly popular … The e-bike turns any bicyclist into a bike commuter. Their carbon footprint is demonstrably smaller, it's fun, and it’s economical. These are things that are all on the horizon, and I think we're in a great position to capitalize on them .. 

These are powerful, simple concepts. And it works in Phoenix, Houston, Portland, New York — there are examples springing up around the country that I find very encouraging. And it's happening at a time when we need it more than ever.

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