E-bikes a better way to help people than cheaper gas, says Oregon Congressman Blumenauer

Rep. Blumenauer at the launch of Portland’s Biketown bike share program in 2016. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

“I don’t want to sound like ‘Johnny-one-note’ with our cycling agenda, but burning calories instead of fossil fuel is something that will make a difference right now.”

-Earl Blumenauer

Thanks to inflation and the war in Ukraine, gas prices have hit record highs, and in the car-dependent United States, a lot of people across the political spectrum are unhappy.

But instead of using this as a wake-up call to shift toward low-car transportation and loosen the Americans’ grip on their steering wheels, many local and national officials have proposed band-aid policies to make gas cheaper. Recently, President Joe Biden announced a proposal to temporarily lift the federal gas tax – about 18 cents per gallon for regular gasoline – to lighten the financial burden for Americans who drive petrol-powered cars.

But this idea has not been very well-received. Critics say it’s a political gimmick at best. At worst, it’s outright climate arson to continue encouraging people to drive gas vehicles.

One of these detractors has been Earl Blumenauer, the U.S. Representative from Oregon who represents most of Portland east of the Willamette River. In a June 16th letter to Biden, Blumenauer urged the President to seek alternate solutions.

“While there is undoubtedly a need to provide American consumers relief from spiking costs, there is no guarantee a gas tax suspension would reduce prices at the pump or stem the broader inflation affecting the global economy, and it may only increase oil companies’ bottom lines,” Blumenauer wrote. “Suspending the federal gas tax would not lower prices for consumers, and would not have the desired political effect; it also would seriously damage important policy opportunities, and should be rejected by your administration.”

I spoke with the Congressman on the phone Monday morning and asked him to elaborate on what he thinks about the future of transportation policy given the political temperature in D.C. and the bipartisan fixation on ‘pain at the pump.’ One thing Blumenauer (who is the co-chair of the informal U.S. Congressional Bike Caucus, by the way) thinks would help? Bikes.

“One of the things we routinely emphasize is there are things we can do that would cost a fraction of this and would actually help people,” Blumenauer told me. “I don’t want to sound like ‘Johnny-one-note’ with our cycling agenda, but burning calories instead of fossil fuel is something that will make a difference right now.”

For the last year and a half, Blumenauer has been trying to use infrastructure talks to propel bike legislation, specifically with a bill to make electric bikes more affordable as a way to reduce car dependency.

“Electric bikes can transform even nominal cyclists into bike commuters. It really makes a difference.”

“Electric bikes can transform even nominal cyclists into bike commuters,” Blumenauer says. (We concur.) “It really makes a difference.”

One particularly troublesome element of the gas rebate discussion is how it ignores the fact that many lower-income Americans don’t drive cars. They need better active and public transportation infrastructure, not prepaid gas credit cards. Blumenauer agrees these people have been left out.

“Low income people and people of color are heavily transit-dependent. But [gas tax holiday proposals indicate] we shouldn’t be as concerned with them as we are with the suburban single-occupant vehicle commuter. It’s not rational, and it’s not fair,” he says. “It’s been really frustrating they don’t get the they don’t get the same attention.”

At this point, it seems unlikely Biden will be able to shore up support for a federal gas tax holiday. But several state governments, including in states with liberal governors, are going for it. And just the fact that it’s on Biden’s radar at all is cause for concern.

Even with these disappointing trends, however, Blumenauer appears hopeful for progress in the future. While bold transportation infrastructure investment may seem like a lost cause should Democrats lose control of Congress in the fall, Blumenauer says he still trusts Biden’s administration and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to make moves.

“Working with federal, state and local agencies, we can have a profound influence, regardless of the outcome of the midterm elections,” he says.

Blumenauer points out the transportation provisions in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed last year, acknowledging it’s only a “modest breakthrough” (advocates say it may actually increase carbon emissions) but that some of its funding will help fund active transportation projects across the country. He also says he is seeing a cultural paradigm shift against freeway expansions, including in very car-centric communities like Phoenix and Los Angeles. (Check out the Freeway Fighters Network map to see other places – including Portland – where this battle is playing out.)

Blumenauer says he sees Portland projects like the 82nd Avenue jurisdictional transfer, the plan to expand the Streetcar to the Northwest Industrial District and the upcoming bike and pedestrian bridge with his namesake as indicative of progress here that could be replicated elsewhere. And he says he and the ‘bike constituency’ (which includes other active transportation activists) aren’t going anywhere.

“Communities all over the country are struggling with the same challenges. A more diverse set of low-carbon transportation alternatives – with less reliance on single-occupant vehicles and more on bikes, pedestrian and transit – is key to success,” Blumenauer says. “We’re in it for the long haul.”

First Look: Protected bike lane on SW Multnomah Boulevard

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward
entering sw multnomah curb

(Photos by M. Andersen/BikePortland)

Like NE Cully Boulevard before it, SW Multnomah Boulevard has become a relatively far-flung street with a few blocks of one of the city’s best bike lanes.

With work nearly finished on the city’s eighth protected bike lane — three years in the making, it’s one of the last few bike projects begun under the Sam Adams mayoral administration — I stopped by Multnomah Tuesday to check it out.

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Biking, walking access lags on Washington County bridges

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

Bike access seems to have been an
afterthought on this bridge over the
Tualatin River on 99W.
(Photos: Jim “K’tesh” Parsons)

Back in December, amid smiles and celebrations at the groundbreaking for the Sellwood Bridge project, our roving West Side correspondent Jim Parsons reflected at the poor state bridge access on many Washington County roads.

With design drawings of the enviable biking and walking lanes slated for the Sellwood Bridge fresh in his mind, he fired off one of his trademark emails to his usual coterie of advocates, bureaucrats, and policymakers. The subject line read: “Bridge Improvements needed in Washington County.”

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Sidewalk in Tigard shows potential for suburban cycle tracks

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward
Amsterdam? Nope: Tigard.

Is this a cycle track?
Not quite.
(Photos: Will Vanlue)

You may not think the city of Tigard (about 10 miles southwest of Portland) has anything in common with Amsterdam or Copenhagen.

The latter two cities are world-renowned for their bicycle facilities while Tigard is known mostly for its freeways and shopping malls.

But there is one thing Tigard has in common with Amsterdam and Copehnahgen: a paved, grade-separated path next to a sidewalk, which you might even call a “cycle track”.

If you’ve ridden your bicycle along Durham Road between SW 85th and 92nd Avenues you may have seen a double sidewalk, of sorts, in front of Tigard High School. One half is cement, the other half is asphalt.

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East Burnside gets new bike lanes over I-205

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward
new bike lane on E Burnside over I-205-2-2

A woman enjoys the newly designated bike-only
space on E Burnside over I-205.
(Photo © J. Maus)

The City of Portland has installed new bike lanes on the East Burnside overpass of I-205. The bike lanes had previously dropped on either side of the overpass (at NE 94th and 97th).

The new lanes take advantage of a wide shoulder and PBOT has even a striped a buffered section in the center of the overpass. These new bike lanes have added importance because this is where the I-205 multi-use path jogs from one side of the interstate to the other.

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Video of the Week: Scenes from a New York City bike lane

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

Just finished watching My Commuted Commute, a video that I think everyone should spend five minutes to check out. A woman from New York City, Rachel Brown, shot helmet cam footage and offers commentary about what it’s like to ride in one of the new, green-painted, curbside bike lanes. For all the positive buzz NYC is getting lately, this video shows that it takes much more than paint to create a truly functional lane for bike traffic.

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