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Why are Bicyclists Being Targeted by Congress?

Minneapolis' rise as America's top bike city owes a lot to federal programs


Rand Paul’s amendment to strip federal funding for bicyclists and pedestrians was defeated 60-38 in the Senate on November 1. Bicycle and pedestrian advocates generated more than 50,000 letters to Congress in 48 hours. This marks the third defeat of Republican proposals to eliminate federal funding for bike and pedestrian programs since July. The battle now shifts to the multi-year surface transportation bill under discussion in Congress.

The commons is under attack in Washington, D.C..

There’s nothing new about that— what belongs to all of us from the environment to public services have been continually threatened over the past two years—but the latest target comes as a complete surprise: bikers and pedestrians.

What in the world could be less controversial than biking and walking? They’re good exercise, fun to do and—as an alternative to driving everywhere—help us save money and the environment.

Both activities have recently become potent symbols of the commons; when I ask people at meetings to name a favorite commons in their community, bikepaths, sidewalks and trails are often mentioned. Biking and walking are on the upswing 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. (Here’s how to contact your U.S. Senators and Represatives to save federal bike and pedestrian programs)

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 safe facilities for the millions of kids and adults that bike and walk every day are 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.

What a Difference Federal Bike Programs Make in One American Town

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 the 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 beat out cities on the coasts as a bike capital.

But 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 federal Transportation Enhancement funds. 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.

To make that happen, Minneapolis is committed to creating separate rights-of-way for bikes wherever feasible—which helps explain why the city defies trends of bicyclists as overwhelmingly male. While only a quarter of riders are women nationally, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reports 37 percent in Minneapolis.

Research shows that most people—including many women, families and older citizens—are wary of biking alongside motor vehicles on busy streets. Having the option to ride apart from heavy traffic encourages more people to try out biking as a form of transportation.

Bike projects in the Twin Cities are not limited to Minneapolis. St. Paul and many suburbs are also making it easier for people to travel on two wheels and two feet. Steve Elkins, Transportation Chair of the Metropolitan Council, a government body that guides development throughout the region, highlighted his efforts as city council member in suburban Bloomington (home of the Mall of America) to push the idea of Complete Streets—meaning that roadways should serve walkers and bikers as well as cars.

One theme recurring through the entire tour was that better bike facilities benefit not just bicyclists, but everyone. Bike lanes improve safety for motorists too, by slowing the speed of traffic explained Mayor Rybak, noting “we’ve found they’re the best traffic calming device around.”

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.

And at a time when gasoline prices are high and transit service is being cut across the country, bikes can help fill the transportation gaps in poor communities and among young people. The option to commute and do errands on bike make it easier for many families to get along with one car, with happy results for the household budget.

Minneapolis Was Once a Lousy Place to Bike

Minneapolis was not always a great biking town. I live here, and would have howled with laughter 25 years ago if you told me Minneapolis would one day be named America’s best city 30 years ago. It was a frustrating, uncomfortable and dangerous place to bike.

What changed in Minneapolis was that local bike riders patiently lobbied for better conditions, slowly winning over elected officials and city staff. Also, as the number of bike riders steadily rose, motorists became accustomed to sharing the streets with us.

Other factors that boosted Minneapolis as a bike town, besides the federal funds available to do innovative projects, include:

* Minneapolis was originally laid out for streetcars—like most cities outside the Sun Belt—which is a scale that works very well for bike riders.

* The high number of recreational bike riders here eventually translates into bike commuters.

* There has always been a healthy spirit of the civic good here, which translates into strong social programs and first-rate public spaces, including bike trails.

This article is expanded from work appearing on the Shareable.net and Citiwire websites