How in the world can biking and walking be controversial?
They’re good exercise, fun to do and — as an alternative to driving everywhere — help us save money and the environment.
Both biking and walking are increasingly popular for transportation and recreation today, thanks in large part to a recent flowering of federally-funded trails, bikeways and pathways that make getting around on two wheels and two feet safer and more convenient.
But in these antagonistic political times, bikers and walkers are now being targeted by some members of Congress. In September Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn proposed stripping all designated federal funding for bike and pedestrian projects from the pending Transportation Bill. After an outpouring of opposition from citizens coast-to-coast, Coburn withdrew his amendment.
Now bicyclists and pedestrians are under attack again, this time in an amendment from Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. He wants to redirect every last penny of money dedicated to bicycling and walking to bridge repair instead.
It is scheduled for a vote next Tuesday.
Now we all agree that safe bridges are important. Look at the tragic bridge collapse four years ago in Minneapolis that took 17 lives.
But safety for the millions of kids and adults that bike and walk every day is important, too. Since 2007, 2800 cyclists and 20,000 pedestrians have died on America’s roads–many due to the lack of sidewalks, bike lanes and other safety measures that federal funds provide.
We shouldn’t have to choose between safe bridges and safe streets. Here’s why.
*First of all, Senator Paul’s amendment will not even come close to fixing America’s bridges. Biking, walking and the other so-called “transportation enhancements” that Paul wants to kill account for less than two percent of the total Transportation Bill. It would take 80 years using money saved from scrapping these programs to finance the backlog of current bridge repairs–not to mention future needs.
*States are not spending the money already allocated for bridge repairs. Last year, they returned $530 million to the federal government. That represents a big chunk of total bike and pedestrian projects.
*Federal money to make biking and walking safer and more convenient is a great investment in America’s future that pays off in safer streets, reduced environmental damage, greater energy security, improved public health and more resilient, neighborly, pleasurable communities.
To get a picture of the importance of federal bike and pedestrian funding to local communities, take a look at Minneapolis, which last year was named the #1 Bike City in America by Bicycling magazine. Federal funds through a special federal pilot program to promote walking and biking for transportation is a major reason for this honor, which was met with shock by many around the country who could not believe that a place in the heartland, famous for its ferocious winters, could outperform cities on the coasts.
But that skepticism fades with a close look at the facts. Close to four percent of Minneapolis residents bike to work according to census data. That’s an increase of almost 33 percent since 2007 when the federal Non-Motorized Transportation Program
began, and 500 percent since 1980.
At least one-third of those commuters ride at least some days during the winter, according to federally funded research conducted by Bike Walk Twin Cities (the local organization coordinating the $25 million Non-Motorized Transportation grant). Even on the coldest days about one-fifth are out on their bikes.
Minneapolis also launched the first large-scale bikesharing sytem in U.S.–called Nice Ride–and boasts arguably the nation’s finest network of off-street bicycle trails. It’s largest source of start-up capital came from the federal grant.
“Biking has become a huge part of what we are,” Mayor RT Rybak declared to a delegation of transportation leaders from Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio, on a Minneapolis tour sponsored by the Bikes Belong Foundation this summer. “It’s an economical way to get around town, and many times it’s the fastest. I frequently take a bike from city hall across downtown to meetings.”
This year the city is adding 57 new miles of bikeways to the 127 miles already built, again with a substantial share of the funding coming from Non-Motorized Transportation programs. An additional 183 miles are planned over the next twenty years.
In a city where bicyclists of all ages and backgrounds already ride recreational trails the goal is to encourage people to hop on their bikes for commuting or short trips. This is not a far-fetched dream, since nationally half of all automobile trips are three miles or less–a distance easily covered on bike in twenty minutes.
Mayor Rybak, who gained national prominence with his leadership during the 2007 bridge collapse and rapid rebuilding project, stressed that in these lean economic times, cities across the country need to be creative about how they spend transportation dollars. Big-ticket road engineering projects to move ever more cars must give way to more efficient projects that move people by a variety of means–including foot, bike, transit. “We need to get more use from all the streets we already have,” Rybak said.