Creeps and Weirdos: The Auto Industry Agenda for Keeping You on Four Wheels

Recently, Dr. Richard Jackson, a friend and colleague (a leading expert in health and the built environment) received a letter from his building's management demanding he move his bike -- from leaning against the wall of his rented parking spot. Though he lives in LA, he doesn't own a car; his bike is his transportation. According to management, his bike posed an affront to the "safety, cleanliness and accessibility of the building." Meanwhile, the other tenants' cars apparently raised no such concerns.

The car is still king -- from parking lots to roadways. And car companies intend to keep it that way.

This Thursday, February 2nd, the House Transportation Committee is slated to vote on the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, a bill that would effectively eliminate funding for Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to School -- the two largest federal programs that fund biking and walking infrastructure. These programs are essential to communities across the country that are building safer streets, sidewalks and bike paths to ensure health and safety for everyone on the road.

But, the auto industry's profits depend on making sure that cars remain the standard mode of transportation -- and that car companies grow their customer base, not lose them to bicycles. Auto companies are fueled by profits, and the auto industry spent over $45 million last year alone on lobbying Congress and other federal agencies in order to maintain a monopoly on our roadways. The auto industry makes money by ensuring that the public values driving and that roads are built for cars alone -- even if this means greater demand for fossil fuel, increased environmental degradation, fewer opportunities for physical activity, and more road-related injuries.

They've gone beyond lobbying, releasing a spate of ads recently -- many in college newspapers -- that hone in on bikers and imply that alternatives to driving are humiliating or dangerous, and generally bad for communities -- despite growing evidence to the contrary. Shame becomes the bargaining chip in GM's recent ad depicting a biker, embarrassed to be seen by girls who are driving in a car. Another ad shows a bus with the destination sign reading "creeps and weirdos." But this campaign strategy makes no sense. Regular drivers benefit, too, when more people take alternate modes of travel. It means fewer cars will be on the road, which lowers the incidents of traffic crashes and helps to increase safety overall.

And, despite what these ads would have you believe, biking and active transportation are a solid investment in health, communities and prevention. Bikes could save our nation as much as $3.8 billion a year by promoting physical activity, decreasing chronic disease and reducing health care costs. An increase to 15% active transportation in the Bay Area would result in 2,236 fewer deaths, and a gain 22,807 total years of life. Bike commuting costs as little as five cents per mile, reduces water and noise pollution, road wear and traffic congestion. In Portland OR -- known for its biking culture -- researchers found that bike-related industry contribute significantly to the local economy -- providing somewhere between 850 to 1150 jobs and generating about $90 million a year. A new report shows that bikes saved Iowa $70 million in healthcare costs, and generate $1 million each day.

And more people are biking. Nearly half of 18 to 34-year-old drivers are driving less and owning fewer cars. Equally important, nearly two-thirds surveyed said they would drive less if alternative transportation, such as public transportation, was available. In urban centers across the country, biking has enjoyed a re-birth of hipster cool -- from fixies to cyclovias to bike rack art installations to Oakland's scraper bikes that 'go hard, I don't need no car.'

This is great news for bike enthusiasts, environmentalists and public health advocates, but we need our street infrastructure to support physical activity. Roads designed for cars -- and only cars -- have real impacts on our health and safety. A recent report found that the number of combined biking and pedestrian traffic deaths has increased in the last two years to 14%. This is an appalling but preventable outcome, likely stemming from more people walking and biking without changes to the built environment and structural support.

Cities across the country are already building health into their transportation policies and environments by supporting pedestrians and cyclists -- not just cars. Minneapolis MN now has 46 miles of streets with dedicated bike lanes, and 84 miles of pike paths. Detroit MI is currently in the process of implementing a Complete Streets policy -- rebuilding city infrastructure to support all modes of transportation, and creating 24 miles of new bike lanes and 11 miles of marked bike routes. In the last year, Nashville TN spent roughly 60% of their local transportation budget on walking, biking and public transit infrastructure. And it's paying off: nearly one third of Americans who regularly take public transportation get at least 30 minutes of physical activity daily (the amount recommended by the Office of the Surgeon General). These kinds of changes to the built environment will have a significant impact on our nation's health. But these advances are being thwarted by the car industry, and the federal government isn't helping.

Investing in cheap, proven solutions to improve health and the economy should be a top priority for our country. It's time to think differently -- to stand up to those who still say the car is king, and to create a new norm that is in harmony with the environment and our health. In order to do this, institutions need to support cyclists by providing bike racks, and not penalize them for locking bikes in parking lots. Cities can implement Complete Streets policies and include the needs of cyclists and pedestrians when plotting intersections and roads. But in order to do this, we also need support from the federal government -- not for Congress to cut entirely federal funding for biking and walking. And we need car companies to value health over profits, and work with communities -- not against them -- in finding solutions.