Future Transportation Funding: Road Repair vs. Special Roads for Bicyclists

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Are these two interests in conflict? America’s 196 million motorists want smooth pavement and dependably flowing traffic. About 20.9 million people actively bike, about five percent of whom (1 million) use their bicycles to commute to work. Yet, as scarce federal transportation dollars are divvied up, some call for a full 10 percent to be allocated to accommodate bicycles and walkers.

Is that a realistic allocation? Is this a “build it and they will come” strategy – and what tells us that those dollars would accomplish the goal, to get more people on bicycles and out of cars?

To look at some of the proposals for transportation reinvention, you might get the impression this is an epic battle of good vs. evil.

The discourse and rhetoric on the topic gets understandably heated. At stake are billions of dollars for highway repair and construction –which is woefully inadequate to maintain the already-built roadways that increasingly deteriorate with time. This can only get worse when finite government dollars are channeled to off-road, bike-friendly trails.

But the idea that these two interests are in conflict is an overly simplistic view. Many bikers also drive, after all. So just the same as there are people who both drive and bike, might there be solutions that serve both modes of transport?

There is in fact middle pavement, so to speak. Both cars and bicyclists have to want good quality roads. A pothole can inflict hundreds or even thousands of dollars of damage to a car. But to a biker, the wrong pothole at the wrong time is a matter of life and death. A large number of bike advocates want to see more car-free roads constructed expressly for bicyclists and other non-motorized, recreational modes of transport. Conversely, other bicycle advocates are adamant about not constructing off-road routes.

Schwarzenegger calls it as he sees it

Exactly how transportation dollars are spent will always be a political football, of course. But even an exercise advocate from a fitness-forward state sees the economic imperative for quality roads and bridges.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said on ABC-TV’s “This Week” (2/21/2010), “If we don’t rebuild our infrastructure, we’re going to fall behind economically and we’re not going to be the number one nation anymore. I mean, right now, we are the most powerful nation, but it is because we have this great infrastructure that over the last 100 years, we have built, built and built. But in the last few decades, we have stopped maintaining that infrastructure and we have stopped building and expanding that infrastructure, even though there’s tremendous demand for that infrastructure.”

The Terminator obviously believes in the importance of good roads. So might most bicyclists, as it turns out.

We don’t want no stinkin’ biker-only trails

The cycling advocacy group that takes the hardest stance against the construction of off-road recreational bike trails is Chainguard/ProBicycle (http://probicyle.com). The all-volunteer group was established in 1973, and makes several bold declarations on its website:

  • Same Roads. Same Rights. Same Rules.™
  • Cyclists should expect and demand safe accommodation on every road, just as do all other users. Nothing more is expected. Nothing less is acceptable.

ProBicycle takes exception with other bicycling advocates who wish to see off-road, recreation-designated routes for bikers and other non-motorized traffic. The group basically promotes a utilitarian, “vehicular cycling” position that it puts at odds with what it calls the “American Toy-Bicycle Syndrome:”

The Toy-Bicycle Syndrome began in the 1950’s and is based upon the concept of bicycling as children’s play activity, which in fact it largely was in the America of 1950. In the 1970’s a fitness-crazed adult American public discovered the modern lightweight 10-speed bicycle and the “bike boom” began. Millions of cyclists took to the roads and panic set in with motorists and transportation planners that had long held the belief that bicycles belonged on sidewalks. Thirty years later, those same concepts prevail and control the American bicycling environment.

Worse than ignorance alone, the American public and transportation establishment base their beliefs and actions on a false foundation. Motorists and the vast majority of bicycle owners have no understanding of the concepts and safety of proper cycling and how easy it is for motorists and cyclists to coexist. Rather than working for the little that is needed to make vehicular cycling safe, easy and practical on every road, American bicycle advocacy, decisions and goals are invariably based on the toy-bicycle syndrome.

Going a bit further, the group asks, “Do you feel that 93% of federal funding for bicycle transportation should be used for shared pedestrian/bicycle paths and trails with less than 2% going for such things as education, sharable-width lanes and bikeable shoulders? Does your bicycle advocacy organization measure success in terms of ribbon-cutting ceremonies? If so, congratulations – you are a modern American “bicycle” advocate and you are well represented.”

With its somewhat sarcastic tone, Chainguard/ProBicycle appears to be a minority voice relative to the two-wheeled promoters. But cycling transportation engineer John Forester, author of Effective Cycling (1992, The MIT Press, now in its sixth edition), shares a similar philosophy on bikers sharing the roads with cars. His book provides practical advice on safe biking in traffic that otherwise intimidates many recreational cyclists. As one reviewer said, “The core of John Forester’s concept of Effective Cycling is that bicyclists fare best when they act, and are treated in return, as drivers of vehicles, with the same rights and responsibilities that motorists have.”

The Chicago experience

Of course it’s one thing for authors and advocates to take a position. But when the mayors of major centers of commerce put resources into bikeable cities, it’s quite something else.

Chicago, a hub of national transportation (shipping, rail, air and surface modes) for more than a century, is also rated as one of the nation’s most bike-friendly cities. This did not come about by accident. Mayor Richard M. Daley is himself an advocate, funding the city’s Department of Transportation Bike Program, which coordinated community organizations to create of more than 165 miles of signed bike routes (111 miles with dedicated bike lanes), and established 10,000 bike racks throughout the city.

Note that these routes are on existing city streets, over and above the recreational routes that exist along the city’s lakefront park system. Bicyclists co-exist with cars, largely commuting to and from work downtown. Between the years 2003 and 2008, bicycle commuting increased 377 percent, according to measures taken by the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council.

In the famously pragmatic “city that works,” the car-bike shared roads are simply a practical way to reduce traffic and parking congestion.

The city follows a blueprint known as the Bike 2015 Plan, approved in 2006, which specifies “bicyclists’ needs should be considered in the planning, design, construction and maintenance of all streets. Special attention should be given to bicycling whenever bridges, underpasses and expressways are constructed or improved so these facilities do not become significant barriers to bicycling. Road hazards such as potholes, broken glass and sewer grates that trap bicycle wheels should be identified on a regular basis and repaired quickly.”

In other words, bike-friendly policies are simply a layer of consideration in the construction and maintenance of vehicular-traffic roadways. Incremental costs are minimal.

Transportation For America Blueprint funding realistic?

A more mainstream effort supported by more than 320 local and state groups, 13 mayors, 45 state legislators and 105 national organizations and trade associations promotes separate bikeways where sharing vehicular highways is deemed unworkable.

The group assembled “The Route to Reform: Blueprint for a 21st Century Federal Transportation Program.” The document is sweeping and comprehensive, an effort to establish a coordinated voice of sustainability practices in transportation design and construction, with a decided focus on increasing alternative modes of transportation: rail, public transportation, pedestrian and bicycle. Overall, it presents a scheme to fund an increase in federal dollars dedicated to all transportation to about $500 billion over a six-year period.

To be fair, the blueprint offers schemes for increasing transportation dollars through such things as raising the federal gas tax, indexing the tax to inflation, transition taxation to vehicle miles traveled (from the current per-gallon structure), congestion pricing, a National Infrastructure Bank and per-barrel oil surcharges. Political feasibility of any of these remains a big question.

The plan criticizes how funding for different modes of transportation is in silos, lacking cohesion. It also proposes an “active transportation” program for bikers and walkers, urging that ten percent of funds be allocated to projects supporting these modes because, it says, ten percent of all transportation is currently done by foot or bicycle. The problem with the report is this figure is not supported.

Somewhat contradicting this number, at least on the bicycling front, are data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. In its report to the U.S. Congress regarding the Non-motorized Transportation Pilot Program (SAFETEA-LU, the Safe, Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act), which provided funds to four communities to develop infrastructure supporting pedestrian and bicycle travel, the highest percent of trips by bicycle amounted to 2 percent. Walking was higher at 6.6 percent, but even if these numbers doubled over time, would it really require siphoning off 10 percent of transportation funding to accomplish it?

It is conceivable that through an educational program the percent of bikers could rise in these pilot communities. But by how much? At the low end of four cities studied was Sheboygan, Wisconsin, with only 0.7 percent of commuters choosing to bicycle, and 6.6 percent walked. Minneapolis scored higher with both bicycling (2.0 percent) and walking (17.6 percent), far above the four-city average; the city’s program includes 43 miles of dedicated bike lanes on car-streets, and 84 miles of off-street bike paths.

The Minneapolis and Chicago experiences are exemplary. Both did it with existing funding and a lot of community input.

The conditions of America’s roads – and pavement preservation dollars

Identifying a direction for how to spend scant transportation dollars could not come at a more crucial juncture. According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), one-third of existing major highways (Interstates, freeways and major roads) are in poor to mediocre condition. Urban roads, which carry two-thirds of all daily traffic, are in even worse shape.

The country has invested $1.75 trillion in the public highway system – four million miles of roads, 660,000 bridges – over the past fifty years. Unfortunately, those roads are rapidly deteriorating with age, even while population increases have seen traffic loads jump by 41 percent between 1990 and 2007.

The best estimate on costs for just the “shovel ready” road and bridge repair is at around $64 billion. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 allocated only $27.5 billion for surface transportation, with another $48 billion earmarked for rail and public transportation projects.

So with a clear shortfall, what will happen to roads if allocations are designated to bikeways that don’t yet have bikers? When a dollar isn’t spent on pavement preservation, seven dollars will need to be spent in a few years. This is ugly math.

Can’t we all just get along?

Methods for road building and pavement preservation have fortunately gotten better in recent years, thanks in part to a program called the Strategic Highway Research Program–SHRP, funded by the U.S. Congress. From that program arose Superpave, an asphalt mix-design process that accounts for the differences in local conditions found in divergent climates and traffic loads. For each location, an ideal asphalt binder is prescribed, ultimately leading to greater resilience to traffic and weather.

Focused, creative thinking can sometimes yield great benefits. Continuing research will likely bring even better road building and repair innovations.

On the alternative transportation options front, one program stands out for its own kind of creative thinking. The Safe Routes to Schools program, established by federal law in 2005, provides for primary and middle school communities to develop strategies and programs that make walking and biking to schools more accessible. With national funding of about $120 million per each of the last five years, the program has fostered more than 4,500 local programs, many of which require no capital expenditure whatsoever. In those communities, simply sharing ideas with other school districts resulted in creative solutions in routing, crossing guards and other factors that largely increased pedestrian travel to as much as 15 percent of students (bicyclist levels were fairly constant at 2 percent).

One has to believe in innovation. The experiences in Chicago, Minneapolis and 4,500 school districts suggest it can be done.