Yesterday, at the Pro Bike/Pro Walk Conference in Long Beach, the closing session was presented by a militant anti-car crusader, Mark Gorton. He was the founder/funder of the Streetsblog Network. Such speaker selection is pretty common — conferences of this type are typically filled with true believers, and there’s no point in taking a center path.
However, this very sense of extremism is the very thing that makes many cycle advocates completely out of tune with the communities they allegedly serve. One key statement in his talk, reported by multiple attendees and thus to be considered accurate until proven otherwise, shows the level of disconnect:
Walking hostile standard road design a violation of basic human rights #prowalkprobike
— Momentum Mag (@MomentumMag) September 13, 2012
To be absolutely fair to Gorton, many of his points were spot-on, without any sense of extremism:
- Cars are the most expensive form of transportation available in terms of both infrastructure, individual cost, and environmental cost.
- Our transportation policy limits economic mobility.
- What cars need is different from what people need.
However, to claim that transportation policy is a human rights violation cheapens actual human rights violations, and to claim such is the sign of entrenchment in first-world privilege. Limited options can restrict people’s access to their human rights, as described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it’s certainly no North Korean prison camp, either. Civil rights violations? Yes. It’s well-documented how frequently transportation policy flips the bird to civil rights, from bulldozing Rondo to USDOT finding that WisDOT ignored civil rights in 2012 Milwaukee.
As well, many of the principles of car-free living are very oriented to the urban environment. Unless we move to a post-apocalyptic, Hunger Games setup, where humans live in enclaves with broad, vacant expanses between, a fully blended policy is necessary. Many European countries held up as examples also fit within mid-size American states. You can certainly build walking-friendly county seats in rural America, and you can build rational road networks, but pure human-powered transport simply does not work to drive agricultural production.
The political divide in this country is pretty vast. Moving transportation planning to a more integrated model is long overdue. But this kind of talk is borderline offensive and is not going to do much to win over opposition. Strong economic arguments exist. ROI arguments exist. There are even some arguments that take advantage of the political divide that can be constructed (for instance, “building roads is another form of government subsidy for General Motors!”). But to claim full-blown human rights violation gets everyone precisely nowhere.
(There is another argument that the human rights claim also reflects the very white, very male nature of bicycle advocacy, which was also commented on at the Pro Bike/Pro Walk Conference — one attendee pointed out that “Not all poor people who can’t afford cars are Hispanic immigrants,” but that apparently they are the only low-income people PWPB know how to discuss. Women’s cycling was largely addressed in a 4-hour “addendum” to the conference. But that’s a different rant for another day.)