Chasing a Nation’s Rise and Fall on a Bicycle

            From the earliest years of the 1900s to World War II, American cities spent increasing percentages of their annual budgets accommodating automobiles on street systems designed for horses, carriages and pedestrians.

            When the war was over, our infatuation with cars and cheap gas led us to build more and more highways to connect us with the shopping centers and schools and movie theaters we were building in our sprawling suburbs.  From the standpoint of land use planning, transportation drove many decisions.

            While we were becoming the world’s economic powerhouse behind the wheels of our Cadillacs and Ford pickups, across the Pacific the agrarian and mostly third world Chinese were wearing funny looking cone-shaped hats and  . . . riding bicycles.

            But world economic domination, like winning-season Tarheel basketball, is ephemeral.  Nations rise and nations fall.  American manufacturing plants have moved to China in numbers that reach into four digits, necessitating an upgrade in China’s roads and its transition to planes, trains, trucks and automobiles.

            The harbingers of a civilization’s ascent or descent have long been analyzed by historians and economists.  I don’t claim to be either, but I did notice this past week that the Chinese transition from bikes to automobiles has been answered by an official American policy to transition from automobiles to bikes.

            To quote humorist Dave Barry, “I am not making this up!” 

            On March 15, Ray LaHood, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, announced that communities that want federal dollars for road systems must “incorporate safe and convenient walking and bicycling facilities into transportation projects.”  The full text is at

            No agency rule-making requiring this change was involved, and no dollars to effect this policy have been appropriated.  But those aren’t the only carrots and sticks available to the federal government.  There is also the power to establish funding criteria.  The power to evaluate who goes to the front of the funding line.  The power to say “no.”

            US DOT also encourages all state and local governments to adopt similar policies.  For Main Street projects, this actually could be great news.  Most local streets have been engineered with some degree of convertibility. 

            But federal dollars, as a rule, don’t fund Main Street projects.  Or shouldn’t, anyway.  Federal dollars fund interstate highways and airports and billion dollar bridges that serve a handful of folks who chose to live on an isolated island in Alaska.

            Interstates 40 and 85 merge and then separate in south Greensboro in a section termed by locals “death valley.”  In my wildest fantasies I cannot imagine retrofitting this section of competing highways to make it possible – let alone desirable – for cyclists or pedestrians.

            The devil, however, is always in the details.

            I don’t run this zoo and have never asked for the privilege, but if I were king of the federal mountain I would require states receiving federal dollars to pass laws and regulations that made sure Main Streets and side streets became, over time,  multi-modal.  Neighborhoods with sidewalks and bike paths have staying power.  Leave the interstates and airports to cars and planes.

            And as for those funny looking cone-shaped hats . . . well, my UNC hat still works just fine. 

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