In the past ten days, US policymakers seem to have achieved the impossible. On March 11, 2010, US Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood pronounced the end of favouring motorized transportation over non-motorized transportation. And on March 21, 2010, the US finally passed its health care legislation. Aren’t these the first signs of the apocalypse?

Lahood, at this year’s National Bike Summit, announced his new Policy Statement on Bicycle and Pedestrian Accommodation Regulations and Recommendations. Key recommendations for state DOTs and communities include treating walking and cycling as equal transportation modes, ensuring convenient accessibility for all ages and abilities, going beyond minimum design standards, collecting data on walking and cycling trips, setting a mode share target for walking and cycling, protecting sidewalks and paths in the same way roads are protected, and improving non-motorized facilities during maintenance projects. At this point of course, it’s a Policy Statement; it’s not law. But it marks the profound shift that is occurring in North America away from car-dominated discourse and policy.

On the health care front, the health care bill passed in the House December 24, 2009 served as the basis for HR 4872, the Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act of 2010. HR 3590, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, was passed by the Senate on Christmas Eve 2009, as I reported in an earlier post. Its main measures, taking effect six months after its passage, prevent insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, prevents increased rates for children with pre-existing conditions, forces insurance policies to cover preventative care without co-pays, allows children to remain on parents’ plans until the age of 26, and bans lifetime monetary caps on insurance policies. In the future (by 2014), it will prevent insurers from charging higher rates for those with pre-existing conditions, expand Medicaid eligibility, offer tax credits to small businesses (fewer than 25 employees) who offer insurance, impose tax penalties on businesses with over 50 employees who do not offer insurance, impose a fine on individuals who do not have insurance, give tax credits to individuals who have heath insurance, and offer a state-controlled insurance option. However, it differed significantly from the bill passed in the House, HR 3962, the Affordable Health Care for America Act, particularly in terms of financing and subsidies. Because they were so different, President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced the reconciliation bill. HR4872 was passed in the House of Representatives March 21, 2010, in a close 219-212 vote (216 votes were need to pass the bill). Not a single Republican supported its passage, but it doesn’t matter: the bill will be signed into law by the president as early as tomorrow.

Canada has also had a few firsts lately, although they are small potatoes compared to these major American policy shifts. One was the announcement that woonerfs are coming to Toronto. A West Donlands neighbourhood, currently under development, would include these Dutch streets, narrow, mixed-use affairs without curbs, which are thought to encourage pedestrian and cyclists while discouraging cars. Dutch woonerfs include traffic-calming measures like speed bumps and planter “bump-outs,” and the streets are more like outdoor urban social spaces than thoroughfares. The other was the announcement that Canada had opened the first school to ever require students to use non-motorized transportation to get to school. The Halton Public School Board just opened a new school, P.L. Robertson Elementary in Milton, where the students who live within 1.6 km (1 mile) of the school are required to get there on their own two feet, and parents are forbidden from driving their kids. 98% of the 700 students walk, bike, skateboard or ride scooters to school, while the remainder, who live more than 1.6km away, are bused. The school board is running the pilot project for one year, and hope to expand it to other schools soon. If it is a success, project manager Jennifer Jenkins knows that other schools will rapidly jump on board; the wealth of research on this topic shows how much is at stake with increases in childhood obesity and diabetes.

All I can say is where is our national policy on transportation? Where is our Ray Lahood? And more importantly, where is our Obama?

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