Congressman Blumenauer Is Bicycling’s Biggest Advocate
By: Kiran Herbert, PeopleForBikes' content manager
We spoke with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) about the push for safe infrastructure, federal bike policy, and the trend toward electrification.
When in Washington, D.C., Congressman Earl Blumenauer doesn't drive. That’s an incredible feat considering Blumenauer is 75 years old and has served as a Democratic representative for Oregon’s 3rd congressional district since 1996. For decades, the congressman has commuted to Capitol Hill and around town by bike, living his values while simultaneously advocating for bicycling at the national level.
During his tenure, Blumenauer founded the Congressional Bike Caucus, fought to extend commuter benefits to cyclists, and co-sponsored the introduction of the E-BIKE Act in 2021, which though it has yet to pass, has inspired a proliferation of e-bike incentives at the state level. This Congress, Blumenauer reintroduced the E-BIKE Act alongside the Bicycle Commuter Act, which would offer tax benefits to Americans commuting to work by bike, and the Sarah Debbink Langenkamp Active Transportation Act, which would unlock Highway Safety Improvement Program funding for projects that connect two pieces of safe cycling infrastructure.
Blumenauer’s efforts have also directly improved his daily commute: Over the course of two years, he successfully lobbied to get two miles of protected bike lanes built on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol, a powerful symbol of integrating bicycling into our nation’s the transportation ecosystem.
“The key for me has been to take the bicycle, the most efficient form of urban transportation ever designed, and be able to try and help people understand its power,” says Blumenauer, who regularly positions bicycling as a way to create a healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable world. “The ability to be able to make that case, to engage people, to show what a difference cycling makes — that’s something I'm very proud of.”
Blumenauer was a featured speaker at PeopleForBikes’ recent SHIFT‘23 conference in Bentonville, Arkansas. We interviewed the congressman ahead of the conference to talk about federal support for bicycling, the need to close the de minimis loophole, and — in line with this year’s conference theme — all things electric bikes.
Your focus has always been on leaving a better world for our children. Can you speak to that and how a push for bicycling makes sense in that context?
The bicycle is such a powerful tool and we need to make sure that it is integrated in both domestic and foreign policy. As I’ve said, the bicycle is the single most efficient form of transportation ever designed. It liberates young people, it costs relatively little to access, it's better for congestion, and it allows the rider to burn calories instead of fossil fuel, something that is important if we're going to fight climate change. There are also a great number of positive economic impacts.
What are some of those economic impacts?
There's so much money that is, for example, consumed parking cars. We have some estimates that there are six, eight, ten parking spaces or more for every vehicle. Those spaces give the illusion that we provide “free parking” — well, that is paid for with higher rents, more air pollution, and problems with stormwater runoff. Parking spaces cost $8,000-12,000 per parking space, and if it’s structured parking, we’re talking about $20,000-30,000 per space. “Free parking” is extraordinarily expensive.
You can easily park eight, nine, or ten bicycles in a space that would just be one car. And part of what we are finding is that people who bike are actually better customers. If you're biking at 10 or 15 miles per hour, you're more likely to pull over and explore something. You're more likely to have lunch or shop as opposed to when you're whizzing through a neighborhood at 40 miles per hour.
We know that parking reform is key to building bike-friendly cities, but I think it's hard for the average person to see the connection. How do we talk about bicycling more holistically in the context of some of our nation’s most pressing issues?
When parking is removed, that makes it much easier to finance and build affordable housing. There are so many of these elements that are ingrained in the way that we do business. Less parking means more choices and healthier air. You have to show people the impact the bicycle can have.
More bike utilization gives us a way for us to reduce the challenges for housing. It's a way to reduce congestion since every bicycle that's next to you when you pull over a stoplight is a car that’s not in front of you. Bikes provide a healthy alternative to cars and the more people take advantage of it, the more they're sold, which naturally helps build momentum.
What do you think are the chief impediments when it comes to getting people to bike in the first place?
A big part of it is having safe cycling infrastructure. Traffic safety is a huge problem in this country and the carnage on the road is really painful. The more we invest in improving that cycling infrastructure, the more people will actually use it. The bicyclist and the pedestrian are the indicator species of livable communities.
Part of what needs to happen — and I’ve been involved with this work in my congressional district in Portland — is that we need to redesign roads to be more bike-friendly. We need to lower speed limits and create bike boulevards. One of my proposals that was enacted included creating a $1 billion Safe Streets and Roads for All grant program to fund projects that help prevent death and serious injury on roads and streets.
These are things that really make a difference to individual commuters, but they also provide a sense of safety and security so that those commuters then want their family to cycle with them. And when they do, they're healthier and they're happier. They also save money and are making a difference for the health of the planet.
What are you currently working on to address these challenges?
Between the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, we’re putting in the resources to ensure local bike projects qualify for federal funds and that much-needed infrastructure gets built. There’s been a 70% increase in funding to create and maintain bike lanes and sidewalks, and we’ve also made it so that shared micromobility like bike sharing and scooter systems are eligible for federal resources. Bike infrastructure is something we’ve dramatically underinvested in in the past and there’s now more funding for it than ever before.
We've also had a proposal to allow electric vehicle charging station credit to be used for two and three-wheeled electric vehicles. There's a lot of talk about the infrastructure for electric cars, but we need the same thing for electric bikes.
There’s also a piece of legislation that I’m going to introduce soon which would allow people to cash out on their employer-sponsored paid parking. Meaning, that if an employer gives them a free parking space, the employee has the right to take cash instead of that space. It’s about letting the employee make the choice about whether they’re going to drive, take transit, bike, or use shared micromobility — it’s about leveling the playing field so that our default isn’t unlimited free parking.
What else is giving you hope when it comes to bicycling?
For decades, we’ve basically surrendered to the single occupancy vehicle and that’s had devastating effects on communities. With its Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods Grant Program, this administration is actively trying to heal communities that have been harmed by freeway projects, which have divided neighborhoods and only increased congestion.
The new vision is a low-carbon, equitable future, which makes a big difference for people of color and low-income households who have been on the receiving end of historical harm. Part of what I hope we'll be able to make more progress on is being able to provide more cycling opportunities for low-income and people of color.
I’ve also been watching with delight some of the work that's being done around the country to broaden the range of people who are involved in bicycling. Whether that’s by putting diverse faces in cycling leadership positions or companies focusing on equity. It's making a difference and there's more that we can do going forward.
Electric bicycles are outselling analog bikes and electric cars, and it seems like every state is coming out with an incentive program of its own. How are e-bikes changing the conversation around bicycling in the U.S.?
An e-bike makes any cyclist into a bike commuter — the barrier to entry is so low, you can immediately begin cycling. There are a number of people I know whose second car is an e-cargo bike so that they can shop and schlep the kids around. We also see more and more companies looking to e-cargo bikes for deliveries. It makes a huge difference to congestion in our communities and to the environment.
It's really remarkable what an e-bike does in terms of ease, in terms of safety, and in terms of dealing with challenging geography. It has also been remarkable watching the number of people now who are using e-bikes, who got introduced to them with bike share.
I must admit, I was a little bit of a snob, holding out on buying an e-bike. But a recent vacation I took had me cycling in areas that were challenging for me on a conventional bike. The next day I took an e-bike and it was magic. So I am a fan. I'm planning on getting my e-bike this fall.
Do you think there’s still hope for a federal e-bike incentive?
I think we have an excellent chance at some point but nothing much is passing in this Congress. We're just trying to hold on to what we passed in the last Congress and get it implemented. But I think the handwriting is on the wall: E-bikes are extraordinarily popular, and they’re expensive for low and moderate-income people. An e-bike tax credit is a way to avoid that.
Many low-quality, uncertified e-mobility products are coming into the U.S. under ‘de minimis,’ the regulatory loophole that allows products under $800 to be imported without being inspected, taxed, or forced to adhere to safety standards. Can you speak to the Import Security and Fairness Act and how it aims to close this loophole?
Over two million packages arrive in the United States that are directly shipped to consumers, uninspected, and untaxed. Oftentimes, we're quite confident they’ve used forced labor. Of these packages, we also have inferior quality e-bike batteries coming in, which have been catching fire.
We're working hard to make sure that we close the de minimis loophole so that countries that are not market economies and are on the watch list do not qualify. People recognize the inequity of the loophole and there’s more interest in closing it from businesses. I think that's a very, very good sign.
Is there anything else you’d like to leave us with?
I don't believe that we have to declare war on the automobile, but we also don't have to surrender to it. There are all these little tiny decisions that we collectively make to prioritize cars, which are not really little tiny decisions when you multiply them by hundreds of thousands of times across the country. We need to move away from cars shaping our communities towards communities being able to shape the vision they have for the future.