May 14, 2009 The Pump Handle 3Comment

In honor of the Washington, DC Area Bicyclist Association and their annual Bike to Work Day (Friday, May 15)

by Reut Tenne

A couple of days ago, I announced to a few friends that I regret not participating in the District of Columbia’s (DC) bicyclists’ movement.  I am not sure that there is such a thing, but I sure would have liked to create one.  For the past two years, I have gotten myself everywhere with my little old bike, and it has become my pride and joy.  When I bike down a street crowded with cars, I feel superior to all the drivers; I see them as trapped in their big polluting vehicles while I get to enjoy Mother Earth’s mood for the day, rain or shine.  My feeling of superiority, however, is quickly removed by the drivers and urban planners who make city biking complicated and dangerous.

After the conversation with my friends, I wondered why D.C— a symbol of our nation’s capabilities and priorities— has not taken steps toward more sustainable environmental living.  After a quick research of cities that have done so, I came across Curitiba, the capital of the State of Parana, an agricultural region in Southern Brazil.  Curitiba, “the city of all of us”, became a center of physical, economic and demographic growth in the 1970-80’s after former mayor, Jaime Lerner, prioritized first the people and respect to the environment. 

In 1965, Lerner became involved with the City’s Master Plan and found the Urban Planning Institute of Curitiba (IPPUC).  Indeed, Lerner’s commitment to creating an ecological city maximized the efficiency and productivity of transportation, while also creating more jobs and social benefits.  Curitiba has adopted the idea of an all-bus transit network with special bus-only avenues to help get quickly from one side of the city to another.  The buses require an inexpensive “social fare” that charges a standard rate for all trips.  The shorter rides subsidize the longer ones and therefore the poorer residents who reside on the city’s periphery can enjoy a cheap ride back home.

The city has taken additional ecological incentives by providing tax break to builders whose projects include green space, and by creating a program that  allows people to exchange their trash bags for bus tickets and food.  This creates less litter and disease, and allows the garbage to be dumped in more controlled areas.  This incentive to use public transportation while reducing the use of private automobile emissions has dramatically improved the city’s public health outcomes.  Car emissions are highly linked with respiratory illnesses, central nervous system impairment and cancer. Indeed, an unhealthy environment leads to unhealthy people, and we have to stop the cycle.

While I am not criticizing the public transportation in D.C (although there is much to say), I do think Mayor Fenty should take steps to create an ecologically sustainable system that is friendly to both bikers and public transportation.  I decided to look into what Mayor Fenty and the DC Departments of Environment (DOE) and Transportation (DDOT) have planned for Mother Earth.  The simple answer is not much.

All DC government websites proudly define “environment” or “sustainable development”, but with no indication of how these definitions guide our city’s environ-mental policies. Chapter 3 of the DDOT Environmental Policy and Process Manual discusses the city’s transportation solution to relieve environmental harm.  Yet, once again, DDOT chooses to respond with definitions rather than plans.

Yes, I am aware of the definition of commitment, but how is DDOT committed to us bikers and commuters?  How will it provide a sustained system to minimize adverse health effects?  I could not find answers to these questions; I hope they do exist, even in tiny print.  I also hope that our priorities change and that we come to a consensus that environmental issues are not issues dealt with only by “tree huggers” or “crazy hippies”, but should be of concern to the entire public.

The next time I check DC’s government website, I hope to find a concrete plan, like the one Mayor Lerner of Curitiba suggested in 1965.  Why, in our nation’s capital, can we still not replicate what was done over 40 years ago in a small agricultural town in Brazil?

Reut Tenne is a senior at the George Washington University graduating with a BS in Public Health and a minor in Spanish. While she loves DC, next year she will traveling the world and getting her yoga instructor certification! In the future Reut is looking into a career in biotechnology and public health and hopes to continue biking wherever she is!

3 thoughts on “Anything you can do, I can do better?

  1. We’re definitely not at Curitaba’s level, but having lived in DC for nearly a decade, I can say that I’ve seen some positive changes for non-car transportation over the past couple of years.

    A draft of a Pedestrian Master Plan has been developed, and they’re accepting public comments on it until June 20th. They started the whole PMP process back in 2006 with a survey, and they seem to have paid attention to the survey results. For one thing, a few people (I was one of them) complained about construction projects blocking sidewalks without providing adjacent walkways, and DC changed its policy to require that those walkways be provided. They’re also in the process of redesigning some of the most dangerous intersections. Progress isn’t happening as quickly as we might like, but it’s happening.

    On the bicycling front, there’s a bike commuter center being constructed at Union station (bike lockers, showers, bike repair services), and many more on-street bike racks have been added over the past few years.

    In addition to more bike lanes and bike racks, DC should do more education of drivers to remind them that bicycles have just as much of a right to the road as they do.

  2. A fantastic article. The thing that strikes me is that many of the things Tenne mentions are things that would be relatively easy for DC to address, in comparison to more major undertakings that city’s take on (take Boston’s Big Dig, for example). Also, Tenne shines a spotlight on the discrepancy between city officials defining and announcing their commitment to sustainability but failure to actually articulate what specific steps they plan to take, much less follow through with them.

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