Bike Paths are Unconstitutional?

I hadn’t seen this covered on many other bike blogs, so I thought I’d share the following with you to get your opinions on the issue:

In a recent interview with Streetsblog Capitol Hill, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) puts forth his opinion that federally-mandated bike paths are unconstitutional. Here’s a bit of the back and forth:

STREETSBLOG: I was just in an [Environment and Public Works] Committee hearing and there was some talk about the fact that some small amount of money in the [transportation] reauthorization historically gets used for things like bike trails. Some people think that’s waste; some people think biking is a mode of transportation. What do you think?

HUNTER: I don’t think biking should fall under the federal purview of what the Transportation Committee is there for. If a state wants to do it, or local municipality, they can do whatever they want to. But no, because then you have us mandating bike paths, which you don’t want either.

STREETSBLOG: But you’re OK with mandating highways?

HUNTER: Absolutely, yeah. Because that’s in the constitution. I don’t see riding a bike the same as driving a car or flying an airplane.

STREETSBLOG: How is it different?

HUNTER: I think it’s more of a recreational thing. That’s my opinion.

Read the full interview with Rep. Hunter by clicking here.

I’ve heard the argument that it should be a state-by-state decision to develop bicycle infrastructure and shouldn’t be a federal initiative, and I can understand that line of thought…but to me, Rep. Hunter’s comments just smack of being out of touch with the needs of the American people and dangerously adhering to a very narrow interpretation of the Constitution. Also in the interview, Rep. Duncan takes a “well, people drive to work and I’m not particularly interested in finding transportation alternatives for them” view. Troubling…

Your thoughts? Let’s hear ’em.


  1. Bob p.

    I must have an old version of the Constitution, because my copy doesn’t even mention highways.

  2. Ghost Rider

    I know, right? That’s what really caught my eye when I first read the interview…I cracked up when I read that part.

  3. Rob E.

    Not sure about this one. Seems very unlikely that airplaines are covered in the constitution. I don’t remember where transportation actually comes in to the constitution. If it does, then there’s no reason why bikes wouldn’t be included. But really the only place I remember anything relevent to the topic being covered is where roads are meant to be maintained for the purpose of mail delivery. But I don’t have the constitution committed to memory, so maybe I’m forgetting something. Now you could argue that mail goes on a plane, so planes are included, but that’s a pretty big stretch because the sky is in now way a road. Mail can be delivered by bicycle, and I’m sure it is somewhere, so by that thin justification, bike paths are just as releveant as airplanes and highways. But in reality if all this transportation spending is based on the one line in the constitution about mail delivery, then I’d say that neither airplanes nor highways nor bike paths are constitutionally justified. The mail can be delivered by the standard roads, and those don’t need to be maintained beyond their ability to accommodate a mail truck (or bicycle).

  4. karen

    Duncan Hunter is a reliable idiot.

  5. Conservative Rider

    From the brief snippet I can surmise this: The Constitution calls for the common defense. Highways (the Interstate system anyway) was a DOD initiative for the proper mobilization of the military should there ever be mechanized combat in North America.

    So, where do bike path’s come in to Federal purview? To his point, states and local municipalites can do whatever they please. Local projects are best decided by local people with local money. (See the 10th Amendment) But for Congress to enact Federal law, there should be a basis for it in the Constitution.

    This is where the title is misleading. The real question is, what in the Constitution supports the allocation of Federal tax dollars (i.e. OTHER people’s money) to the building of bike paths?

    Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see a real system of safe bike transportation in and between all major cities in the country. It would solve so many challenges at once, and I support any local initiatives to that end. However, unless there is a Constitutional amendment making it a right, I believe the onus is on the states and the local municipalities.

  6. Gary

    Highways: yup, right there in Amendment 28. May I name call on this BLOG? __________ .

  7. Johnny K

    I see nothing in the constition that talks about the building or support of any kind of transportation system and I would not think that there would be. President Eisenhower championed the building of a highway system for defense which would be in the rights of the President to do so since he is commander and chief of our military. It was an Act of Congress that made this happen and specifically the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. It is law however it is not in the constition since it is an Act and not an admendment. As for the conversation above with Mr. Hunter it is at best somewhat misleading by making one think that it is part of the constition and cannot be changed while in fact it is an Act and there can be a bill presented and voted to become law to provide for a highway system for bicycles just like this however we must come up with a really good reason to get it to pass and become an Act of Congress. According to the United Nations a bicycle is a vehicle and here in the US the bicycle is a vehicle however since there is a minimum speed limit on our federal highway systems here in the USA I don’t know how we could go about getting congress to vote for the use of bicycles on the US highway systems or providing a seperate system for bicycles. IMHO we should work to construct human powered vehicles that can obtain these speeds with the same effort of our 20 to 30 MPH vehicles we use today then this would all be a none issue.

  8. Bob P.

    Oh, I see it now, Amendment 28 covers highways, bank bailouts, and the right to require us all to purchase Froot Loops.

  9. Ghost Rider

    This idea of rigidly adhering to items addressed, however tenuously, in the Constitution is troubling. I agree that states and municipalities should be the ones really pushing for the development of bike/ped infrastructure in their areas, but there’s got to be SOME SORT of Federal mandate, shouldn’t there?

    The real kicker of Rep. Hunter’s comments is that he seems so unwilling to imagine that bicycles are a valid form of transportation here in the U.S. — just because his constituents are car-bound doesn’t make that blindered vision acceptable.

  10. Jack

    Highways in the Constitution caught my attention too.

    What is with people who say “such and such is in the constitution.” When they clearly don’t know.

    Nothing says “Dork” better.

  11. elvez

    If highways are in the Constition then driving is a right and not a privilege. Very interesting can of worms Hunter is opening up.

  12. Iron_Man

    Hunter shot himself in the foot with the constitution argument he put forward. But I do agree with him that bike lanes should not be funded by the federal government. Federal departments and mandates that are established to solve what should be local issues are more often than not a huge failure (No Child Left Behind) or a huge waste of money (pick any “bridge to nowhere” project) and more often than not both. I don’t disregard the good intentions behind those programs, I simply doubt the federal government’s ability to successfully deliver on those proposals. Bicycle infrastructure decisions must be left in the hands of community leadership and its citizens. Federal dollars often lack the oversight needed to protect against waste, fraud and abuse. So with those dollars you often get bike lanes that go nowhere, don’t make sense to the cyclists, are dangerous for cyclists, are located in areas that cyclists don’t want to ride, etc. etc. And what’s worse communities are often forced to ignore the easy fixes using existing infrastructures because the federal dollars come attached with so many regulations that make absolutely no sense to anyone outside of DC….if it even makes sense there.

  13. Kim

    Surely the question should, are roads really for cars?

  14. Kelly

    I agree that Highways and the Constitution was a jarring comment, but Conservative Rider has a point. The Constitution limits the Federal Government’s involvement in local issues. It does, however, grant authority to handle issues of National Defense and Interstate Commerce. Hunter may be thinking of Highways being within that Defense purview because of Eisenhower’s original rational for the Interstate System or he may be thinking of it’s more obviously vital role in Interstate Commerce. Personally, I thought Hunter’s comment was that Highways are about Interstate Commerce, bike trails are not.

  15. dukiebiddle

    He didn’t claim that bike lanes are unconstitutional. He said that highways are constitutional. Constitutionally mandated highways does not imply or indicate that bike lanes are unconstitutional, nor did Hunter claim that.

  16. Ghost Rider

    @Dukie…c’mon, he’s completely implying that. If highways are mandated by the Constitution (as he claims) and bike lanes are not, then they are by his skewed definition unconstitutional (“unconstitutional” meaning ‘not in accord with the principles set forth by the Constitution’).

    @Iron_Man — excellent points. The Feds just don’t have the oversight (or the track record) to successfully pull off a lot of the mandates they set forth. Nor do all the stipulations and regulations help things…

  17. Ghost Rider

    @Kim — the same argument applies here in the U.S. Historically, bicyclists were responsible (by the original League of American Wheelmen) for a lot of the road development/paving/rules prior to the introduction of the automobile…but conveniently, our governments have forgotten about all that.

  18. JaimeRoberto

    He’s not saying that highways are mandated by the constitution. He’s saying that the Feds have the constitutional power to mandate highways. I assume he would cite the defense powers and/or interstate commerce as the justification as others have mentioned.

    The proper funding source for this is at the state and local level. A mandate from DC would be ridiculous.

  19. harry krishna

    once again, we’re back to john forester and the mid-’70’s. ironic that both are in ca. i’m consoled by the fact that effective cycling works, with or without government support.

  20. ha1ku

    For the vast majority of the reps and senators, I think they are there to represent special interests not the needs of the people. And, the vast majority of the American people don’t want to get involved with anything. They want someone else to deal, so shit like this happens. Highways and car manufacturers will get the funding, while trains and bicycles get left out.

  21. dukiebiddle

    “@Dukie…c’mon, he’s completely implying that. If highways are mandated by the Constitution (as he claims) and bike lanes are not, then they are by his skewed definition unconstitutional (“unconstitutional” meaning ‘not in accord with the principles set forth by the Constitution’).”

    No. Failing to fall under the purview of constitutional protection does not equate with something being unconstitutional. Hunter’s argument, which by the way I completely disagree with, is that bike lanes do not qualify for federal interference under the 4th Amendment Privileges and Immunities Clause [the clause the Supreme Court sites in all of its freedom of movement decisions], as his opinion is that interstate bicycle movement is a recreational activity, not a transport matter. To Hunter, if New York and New Jersey choose to coordinate their bicycle infrastructure with their money that is their right to do so, but since (to him) there is no constitutional clause requiring states to do this, it is the right of congress to slash, cut and block federal funding to coordinate interstate bicycle movement if they consider it wasteful spending. That is not the same thing as declaring something unconstitutional, which means it is the responsibility of the federal government to interfere with the states autonomy on the matter.

  22. dukiebiddle

    FWIW, I’ve never once before considered interstate bicycle movement to be constitutionally mandated, but now that Hunter has drawn my attention to the Privileges and Immunities Clause and the Supreme Court’s decisions on freedom of movement cases, I kind of do think bicycle transport infrastructure qualifies, especially in places where multiple states and districts share a metropolitan area. [NYC, DC, Chicago, etc.]

  23. Ghost Rider

    @dukie — ok, that makes sense. I was subscribing to a very narrow definition of the word “unconstitutional”, but your explanation set me straight. I really like the line of your reasoning in the comment above, too.

  24. Ben G.

    Um, I think the constitutional question is a little more general than people are putting forth here. The question is, for Federal funds allocated to states for local projects, does Congress have the authority to place requirements on the use of those funds, the construction of bicycle paths being a requirement?

  25. Iron_Man

    @Ben, that question forces me to assume that it is constitutionally OK for the federal government to collect funds (either through taxation or taking on debt) for the purpose of allocating to states for local projects in the first place. Since as a libertarian I don’t believe that is the federal government’s role I’ll have to answer “no” to your general question. I just can’t buy the notion that it’s somehow moral to take money from people in say Iowa and give it to various bureaucrats in California to build bike paths for Californians.

  26. Matt

    This seems to me to be a classic argument over the boundaries of state and federal power with respect to the Commerce Clause found in Article I Sec.8 along with the Necessary and Proper Clause also found in Art I Sec.8 allowing for broad expansive power to accomplish the goals set forth in the Constitution for the federal government. Bike lanes surely represent commerce and even if they do not themselves go interstate, bike sales surely do. Politicians are always making comments about the Constitution but rarely do they know what theyre talking about.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *