Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Theatre of Cooperation

Look up the word cooperation in Merriam-Webster. Entry number two is a very simple statement that says association of persons for common benefit. Take a closer look from another perspective you can easily see two ideas at work: operation, which is a definite action noun, and co-, which is a prefix just as strong in implying working, or coming, together.

Sadly, as people gather to be either combatants or spectators in the many skirmishes in the cycling advocacy war, the warring sides fail to see the greater picture; that cycling advocacy is more about a greater battle for an increased amount or, and better, transportation options than just a battle between the two poster children: Cyclists versus Non-Cyclists.

The result is that neither side really has any idea on how to cooperate with one another to bring about the radical change that people are clamoring for on a large scale. It’s not about cycling, per se; it’s about improved Transportation Enhancements (TE) (capitalized here because it is the current buzzword for the whole schmeer of alternative transportation options: bicycling, pedestrian, rapid bus, light rail, etc.). The nation’s people, particularly the 21st century’s urbanites, want greater public transportation options and improvements to infrastructures, they want better planning on roads and residential/business pods. Above all, many want to see this nation quit spending billions on foreign oil.

Unfortunately, many of the pro-change warriors are also cyclists. So, by default, cycling advocacy is seen as the main antagonist for the folks who desire that the status quo shape our nation’s TE policies for the foreseeable future. The combatants enter the arena wearing protective eyewear that induces a kind of myopia about their roles and mission. Thus, a great deal of energy gets wasted by a posturing that resembles two punch drunk fighters sparring, feigning jabs and awaiting their opponent to drop so they may claim a TKO victory.

I am as guilty of saber rattling as anybody. I see cyclists riding on the wrong side of the road, blatantly disregarding road rules, or just plain being jerk-offs, and the warm fuzzies that are wanting to be shared with a fellow cyclist are replaced with an apoplectic rage. As well, when confronted with opposition and disregard for my desire to see better TE options you will find me wanting to shake my fist in a face. Yet, as many sage advisors have stated in history, sometimes we are guilty of trying too hard to remove the small splinters from our neighbor’s eye when we won’t remove the plank from our own eye.

Still, more than anything, two statements by Tennessee public officials as America struggled with a great recession sum up where we are as a nation. They show that the battle lines are drawn so that more spectators see those champions of the status quo as the only true righteous voice of our future.

In early November 2009, after the state had $255 million dollars recissed in federal highway funds, the Memphis Commercial Appeal quoted Tennessee DOT Assistant Commissioner/Chief Engineer Paul Degges on the action. To wit, the article told the cuts would “hit projects to improve highway safety, air quality, and transportation "enhancements such as greenways, streetscape, and rails-to-trails projects."

"We didn't lose any bridge money, interstate (highway) money and national highway system money. Those are our major programs," Degges said.

As well a short time later I received a response from United States Senator Bob Corker after having written him about a September 2009 amendment (SA 2371) in Congress that would allow states to opt out of guaranteed TE spending.

“I understand your concern that these amendments would have hurt the development of bike paths, walking trails, and other infrastructure for alternative modes of transportation. I am an avid cyclist myself and greatly enjoy the outdoors. The two amendments mentioned in your letter would have removed spending requirements from state governments that receive highway funding from the Federal government. While one of the amendments was withdrawn, I did support S.A.2371. This amendment removed the 10% funding requirement on Transportation Enhancement programs in order to give states more flexibility in addressing their highway and transportation needs, and I felt that this would be appropriate given the current dire financial straits most states find themselves in.”

I could almost hear that nasal voice dripping with a sort of condescencion while he sought to sell me that the long-term effects of his nay vote would be diminished in the present day by the fiscal prudence.

I'm all for fiscal responsibility. But if people like Corker look further than the lobbying dollars clouding their vision, they might see that more of America wants a long-term solution. But alas, the majority of Americans, those who are concerned, and perhaps a bit enervated about the increased costs associated with spending massive amounts of tax dollars on highways that often resemble tarmacs, aren't the constituency of choice.

These two comments sum up that cooperation to improve this nation’s transportation infrastructure is a moot issue. It will not be considered by the cognoscenti in state and federal circles. Those whose wallets are primarily filled by big oil bucks; whose audiences are lobbyists, not constituents, spend their energies thumbing their noses at the masses of whom they are supposed to be of service.

As a cyclist, as a Tennessean, as an American, I, along with many others, stand ready to cooperate. But if we are the only side filling the theatre, then the concept is no more valuable than a Dead Sea scroll. Therein lies the frustration of believing in the value of cooperation.

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