Would you prefer to live in a community where you had to drive everywhere for everything, or would you prefer to live in a community where you could walk, ride a bicycle, take public transportation, or drive to get to where you want to go?

This question is at the heart of the current debate over how transportation funds will be spent over the next few years. The U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted on February 2 to eliminate funding for nonmotorized transportation (e.g., bike paths and sidewalks) from the federal transportation bill working its way through Congress. The “wildly imbalanced transportation bill” also imperils federal support for public transportation systems.

In taking this approach, Congress took a giant step back—to the 1970s and 1980s, when federal transportation legislation strongly favored investment in highway infrastructure. Not until 1991 was the funding legislation expanded to other options, with passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). ISTEA broke from the past by including funding for mass transit and bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Since that time, about 20 percent of the highway trust has gone to support public transportation and about 2 percent of federal transportation funding has gone to various “transportation enhancement” projects—primarily bike trails, sidewalks, and related facilities. However, the new House bill severs support for such projects, with its supporters contending that these are frills and amenities with little impact on transportation.

However, transportation is about more than just roads. For example, in large European cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Stuttgart, up to 30 percent of all commuters reach their jobs by bicycle. Does this mean that Germans, Danes, and the Dutch don’t like cars? Of course not; they love them, just like we do. The difference is, they simply don’t have to use them all the time, because they have more transportation choices than we do. In addition to excellent public transportation systems, most European countries have extensive networks of bikeways, bike lanes, and other nonmotorized facilities.

Portland’s Bike Boulevards Become
Neighborhood Greenways

Nonmotorized transportation should be a high priority in the United States. Currently, 100 million Americans own bicycles, and walking and bicycling already account for 12 percent of all trips made in the United States. For the cost of one mile (1.6 km) of a four-lane urban freeway ($50 million), we could build approximately 100 miles (160 km) of bike lanes and bicycle boulevards or more than 150 miles (241 km) of off-road bike trails.

Of course, it is only when cities begin investing in bicycle infrastructure that residents begin to use bicycles at rates higher than the national average. Consider Portland, Oregon: in the 1980s and early 1990s, it was a city pretty much like any other in terms of transportation behavior. Today, however, over 6 percent of residents commute to work by bicycle; the national average is less than 1 percent. Bicycle use in Portland has grown geometrically while other modes have grown modestly or declined: since 1990 bicycle use has grown 400 percent, transit has grown 18 percent, and driving has declined 4 percent, all relative to population. From 1990 to 2008, Portland added more daily bicycle commuters than daily transit commuters. Portland’s city traffic engineer says that “bicycling infrastructure is relatively easy to implement and low cost compared to other modes.” The estimated cost of Portland’s entire bikeway network—which exceeds 300 miles (482 km)—is approximately $60 million, which, as noted, is just a little more than the cost of one mile (1.6 km) of urban freeway.

Another city where bicycling has boomed is Minneapolis, Minnesota. Today, about 4 percent of Minneapolis residents bike to work. Biking has grown almost 33 percent since 2007 and 500 percent since 1980. Even in winter, numerous cyclists commute to work at least some of the time. Minneapolis currently has almost 130 miles (209 km) of bikeways, with an additional 57 miles (91 km) planned or under construction. “Biking has become a huge part of who we are,” said Mayor R.T. Ryback during a recent interview.


Minneapolis has a long-term goal of achieving a 10 percent mode share for bicycles. This is certainly possible when one considers that 25 percent of all trips people take in the United States are within a mile (1.6 km) and 50 percent of all trips are within three miles (4.8 km), or a 20-minute bike ride. The biggest impediment to more daily bike riding is concerns about safety. Research shows that fear of collisions with automobiles is among the most pervasive factors limiting bicycle commuting in the United States.

To address these concerns, Minneapolis, like most European cities, is committed to creating separate rights-of-way for bicycles. For example, Minneapolis constructed the nation’s first “bicycle freeway.” The 4.3-mile-long (6.9-km-long) Cedar Lakes Trail allows commuters and recreational cyclists to safely travel to and from downtown on a pair of one–way, ten-foot-wide (3.04-m-wide) bicycle paths separated by a grassy median (like a divided highway). The bicycle freeway even includes a third parallel path for walkers and joggers.

Bicycle riding, whether for recreation or transportation, requires investments in bicycle infrastructure. Such investments yield results regardless of climate, topography, city size, or other factors. For example, in New York City (NYC), biking continues to go up even as driving and transit ridership stay nearly flat. According to the NYC Department of Transportation, bicycle commuting into Manhattan increased 13 percent in 2010 and has grown 262 percent in the past ten years.

Active transportation is the missing piece in our transportation system. Bicycles are used for commuting worldwide, but only in isolated pockets in the United States. A 1995 Louis Harris poll found that a majority of Americans would be willing to ride a bicycle to work ”at least occasionally” if they could do it on a safe bicycle lane or designated off-road path. Even more remarkable, 13 percent of Americans said they would be willing to ride a bicycle to work on a “regular basis” if they had the facilities to do so.

The long-range potential of cycling as a mode of transportation is amply demonstrated in bicycle-friendly college towns like Boulder, Colorado; Eugene, Oregon; Madison, Wisconsin; Gainesville, Florida; Iowa City, Iowa; and others. Davis, California, a city of 62,500 people and home of the University of California at Davis, has 35 miles (56 km) of bike lanes and more than 50 miles (80 km) of off-road, multiuse paths, which have grade separations (bridges and underpasses) to minimize traffic interaction. As a result, more than 20 percent of all trips in the city are by bicycle. The Davis school district has given up its expensive school bus system, and according to a resident “one of the delightful features of life in Davis is observing the morning and afternoon ‘rush hours’ on the greenbelt paths, as groups of children travel to and from school on bikes, skateboards, and scooters.”

Since its inception, the federal and state governments have spent approximately $5 trillion to build and maintain the Interstate Highway System. Over the same period, federal investments in bicycling and walking facilities have amounted to less than a tenth of a percent of this amount. It is wrong to take away this meager amount, especially given the bang for the buck we get from walking and biking.

Next, consider the impact of bicycles on economic development and property values. In 2010, the bicycle industry produced and sold 19.8 million bicycles, generating $6 billion worth of sales in the United States.

There are currently about 4,256 specialty bike retailers in the United States, but these stores are not evenly distributed throughout the country. They are disproportionately located in bicycle-friendly communities. For example, a 1996 study found that the Denver metropolitan area (population at that time: roughly 2 million) had 149 bicycle dealers. By contrast, the Atlanta metro area of 3 million–plus people had only 28 bicycle dealers. The explanation: In 1996, Denver had almost 200 miles (321 km) of paved off-road bike trails, while the Atlanta area had less than 20 miles (32 km). Since that time, the Atlanta area—with the help of local cycling activists and federal transportation enhancement monies—has built numerous bike trails.

McMahonBicycle_4_250What’s more, numerous studies have shown that real estate values increase with proximity to bicycle paths and walking trails. For example, a study of the Monon Trail near Indianapolis, Indiana, found that “the average price for homes sold in greenway/trail corridors was nearly 10 percent higher than the average price for all homes.” Walking for pleasure is America’s number-one outdoor recreation activity; therefore, it is no surprise that walkability equals profitability.

Benefits from bicycling and walking far outweigh the cost of upfront investments in infrastructure, with benefits-to-cost ratios of 5 to 1 or more, according to the Rails to Trails Conservancy. If we simply doubled the current 1 percent of all trips by bicycle to 2 percent, we would collectively save more than 693 million gallons (2.6 billion liters) of gasoline each year, to say nothing of reduced congestion and improved public health.

Physical inactivity is the single greatest risk factor leading to coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. As a result, exercise is especially important to improving public health. Bicycling and walking can help fill America’s physical inactivity void as well as reduce health care costs.

A publication of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Promoting Physical Activity Among Adults, states that “the most effective activity regimes may be those that are modest in intensity, individualized, and incorporated into daily activity.” Bicycling or walking to work, school, shopping, or elsewhere as part of one’s day-to-day routine can be a sustainable as well as time-efficient exercise regime. It accomplishes two activities at once: travel and exercise.

Finally, bicycling and walking provide a variety of environmental benefits. Making fewer trips by motor vehicle means less air pollution and lower carbon emissions. It also means stores and businesses will need fewer parking spaces, which, in turn, reduces stormwater runoff and non-point-source pollution. The state of Minnesota estimates the public savings derived from reduced pollution, oil import, and congestion costs at 5 to 22 cents for every automobile mile displaced by biking or walking.
I recognize that bicycle commuting is not feasible in some areas and that many people, no matter where they live, will never seriously consider cycling or walking as a transportation option. But given the choice—and the availability of facilities—millions more Americans in small towns, big cities, and suburbs would choose to walk or bike more often.

Bike paths and sidewalks belong in America’s next transportation bill. Let’s hope our representatives stop their shortsighted attacks on public transportation and on bicycle and pedestrian facilities and craft an intermodal transportation bill that is truly multimodal.

ULI–the Urban Land Institute