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Environmental review makes it hard to do anything — even make a new bike lane

Mario Tama/Getty Images

An online dialogue between Leif Dormsjo, the new chief of the DC Department of Transportation, and a group of urbanist activists contains a gem of an exchange with pretty broad relevance for anyone who wants to understand why the wheels of government often seem to grind so slowly.

Specifically, here's Dormsjo explaining why it takes so long to get a new bike lane done:

Studies typically take about 12 months, but if we're talking about a federally designated roadway—as many of the roads in Washington are—the environmental process of going through an inventory of impacts to air, other environmental resources, community and safety concerns, that process can last from 12-24 months. And then design of improvements can take 12-24 months, and then you're in the actual implementation and construction phase. One of the imbalances is that we have a lot of study work. You can perform five studies in one year, but you can't deliver five projects in one year.

That's right — taking a modest amount of space away from gasoline-burning cars and giving it to bicycles requires a one- or two-year environmental review process.

There are a lot of ins and outs about why that is exactly, but at a high level the issue is that environmental impact review requirements were written with the general spirit of "Let's worry about someone proposing to do something bad." Yet it turns out the exact same process that makes it cumbersome to do something bad also makes it cumbersome to do something good. And at a time when status quo transportation infrastructure is heavily tilted toward moving private automobiles and filling them with gasoline, that bias toward inaction can be very environmentally destructive.

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