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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Counting the Impact of Bike Commuting

Air Date: Week of

If you build bicycle trails, will they come? A pilot program doled out millions of dollars so four communities could bulk up their bicycle infrastructure. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to Marianne Fowler, senior vice president of federal relations for the Rails to Trails Conservancy, about the difference a little funding makes.


GELLERMAN: It's Living On Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. May is National Bike Month. It’s a time to commemorate a fast, cheap, pollution free way to get some exercise and smile away the miles on the way to work. Across the U.S. – three quarters of a million people regularly commute to work by bike - that’s up 40 percent in about a decade.

Davis, California, with 22 percent of workers commuting by bike, tops the list of cycling communities; Boulder, Colorado is at 10 percent, Eugene, Oregon at 8.3 – and Cambridge, Massachusetts rides in at just under 7 percent. In Cambridge, they paid homage to biking with a race to find the fastest mode of commuter transportation.

ANNOUNCER: Good morning everyone and thank you for coming to the first annual Rush Hour Race, to raise awareness about all our transportation options…

GELLERMAN: The three-mile rush-hour race pitted a bicyclist, a driver in a car, and a subway rider. And the winner was - well, we’ll tell you in a few minutes at the end of this segment…who do you think was fastest? But first, let’s back pedal five years. That’s when the federal Department of Transportation gave four places in the United States 25 million dollars each to improve their bike ridership and get people walking.

Money for the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program went to Columbia, Missouri; Marin County, California; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Sheboygan County, Wisconsin. Now to see if the hundred million was money well spent, we turn to Marianne Fowler. She's senior Vice President for Federal Relations at the Rails to Trails Conservancy.

FOWLER: The idea here is to build a system. One of the things we had found with previous investments was that we had a lot of projects on the ground but they didn’t connect. So the purpose of this project was to see if we gave four communities sufficient funds to start connecting their different facilities, would it accomplish a mode shift and a change in people’s behavior from driving cars to walking and biking - and of course the answer is, resoundingly, yes it did.

GELLERMAN: Wow - so you built it and they did come!

FOWLER: They did come! Now, there was urging. It was a combination of promoting, letting them know what’s going on, involving them in the whole process, involving the city or county leaders in the whole process. It really became a community effort: we’ve got this money, we’re going to build this system, now let’s use it.

GELLERMAN: So how well did it work?

FOWLER: It worked extremely well. It worked fantastically well. It worked well beyond our wildest expectations. In the three-year period, measured from 2007 to 2010, the four communities in aggregate showed a 22 percent increase in walking and a 49 percent increase in biking. And what this means is trips that would have otherwise have been taken by a car were converted and taken instead by walking or biking. And what those trips mounted up to over the three years was about 32 million vehicle miles averted.

GELLERMAN: 32 million miles! That’s about a third of the distance to the sun!

FOWLER: Is it really? I didn’t know that! I don’t think they were heading to the sun, I think they were heading to work, to school, to the library, to recreation, to the movies, to the grocery store, but I know they were out there enjoying the sun as they went.

May is National Bike month (Rails to Trails Conservancy)

GELLERMAN: What about the potholes to bikedom. Any disappointments and downsides?

FOWLER: Well, we’ve heard legends about how difficult it is to build roads, how difficult it is to deal with the bureaucracies of both the state DOTs and the federal DOTs, and those same sort of procedural barriers - we experienced those in the pilot project. If you want to install a bike rack, or if you want to build an interstate, you still have to go through a lot of the same procedures.

GELLERMAN: So, it’s bureaucracy, bureaucracy, bureaucracy.

FOWLER: Well, we can take off one of those bureaucracies!

GELLERMAN: (Laughs).

FOWLER: You can just say it as bureaucracy, bureaucracy. But the bureaucracy is there to ensure that we end up with a better product so that we are safer in the long run. We have the very important savings of safety, this increased safety, and in the four communities - fatal bicycle pedestrian crashes held steady or in some cases, they actually decreased.

GELLERMAN: So you had more people riding and walking and in most cases you had a decrease in the number of accidents. Oh!

FOWLER: Yes, because of the great community awareness that was created - the driving community was actually looking out for bicyclists and pedestrians. And obviously the more you have, the more accustomed you are to seeing people walking and biking, and so it had an overall safety impact. And keeping in mind that transportation is the biggest expense to American families after housing, if you make a big shift to walking or biking, you’re really saving your pocket book a lot of money.

GELLERMAN: Transportation is the second highest expenditure per household after housing?

FOWLER: Yes. Higher than food. I did a calculation of four communities in aggregate based upon what I had paid at the gas pump the Sunday before last, which was $4.15 for regular gas, and the savings came out to something over $6 million dollars.

GELLERMAN: Well, that’s still 94 million dollars less than what was spent. So I think a cynic and opponents to this system might say: well, come on, that’s not a fair trade….

FOWLER: But the infrastructure will last forever. The savings aren’t just for one year or just for the three years that we’ve measured so far - they’re cumulative and they’re ongoing. We’ve planted the seeds, the infrastructure has blossomed and it's there to be used into the future.

GELLERMAN: Well, I know the opponents keep on opposing this kind of expenditures- Republicans in Congress call it, quote: “frivolous use of tax payer money.”

FOWLER: Actually, I think the latest phrase is “unconscionable use of tax payer money!”

GELLERMAN: Uh huh. Well, they want to cut it out of the next transportation bill.

FOWLER: Some of them do, but not all of them do.

GELLERMAN: How much money do you think should go for bike and walking in the federal transport bill?

FOWLER: Hmmm. That’s a good question. So often we deal in the possible not the ideal. Years ago Bobby Kennedy had what was called the three percent solution. Three percent of the transportation bill should go into investments in biking and walking. And right now, we’re sitting at about 1.7 percent, and I would be happy in the next bill if we had a three percent investment in walking and biking.

GELLERMAN: Ms. Fowler, do you ride your bike to work?

FOWLER: No, I don’t, the distance is a little too far. But what I do is I ride my bike to my local metro station, metro to the closest station to my office, walk from that station to my office - so I actually get to do all three things - I get to ride a bike, use transit and walk - everyday.

GELLERMAN: That's Marianne Fowler. She's a Senior Vice President with the Rails to Trails Conservancy.



The Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTPP)


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