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Active Transportation

May 19, 2014

Connectivity.

It’s the term used to describe the degree of connectedness within a transportation network.

For traffic engineers, city planners and developers, connectivity is measured by intersections between streets, roads and rails. The better the connectivity, the more accessible and less isolated a community can be. The less connected community is more isolated and less accessible.

More than ever, accommodations for bike lanes and sidewalks are being included in the push for connectivity as the number of people riding bikes and walking — whether it’s to work or to play — increases.

Two surveys, which both show increased walking and biking statistics, track Americans’ modes of transportation: the National Household Travel Survey and the American Community Survey.

The American Community Survey only tracks trips to work. The 2012 survey shows that 0.61 percent of commuters report that they rode their bike to work. While it’s not a whopping percentage, the figure is a 9 percent jump over 2011 when 0.56 percent of those who commuted reported using their bikes. And it’s a 61 percent jump from the number of commuters who reported using their bikes in 2000.

The 2009 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) tracks modes of transportation for all travel, whether to work or a trip to the in-laws. Recent NHTS data indicates that 1 percent of all trips taken in the United States are made by bicycle and 10.4 percent are by foot. Large cities — those with populations of more than 200,000 — have slightly higher rates than the national average — with 1.2 percent of trips made by bike and 12.7 percent of trips by foot.

By all indications, active transportation is on the move. With proper planning, increased advocacy and safer traffic environs, biking and walking are picking up speed.

Culture shift

“The environment today is way different than it was 25 years ago,” said Morristown, Pa.,-based landscape architect Peter Simone, who has 40 years professional experience. “If you talked about bikes (with the U.S. Department of Transportation) it would have been ‘Yeah, that’s nice. Run a bake sale and get money to fund it.’ The conversation has shifted since then.”

Conversations about bike lanes, cycle tracks, bike parking and connectivity not only include enthusiasts who want safe paths for recreation, but city planners, traffic engineers and landscape architects like Simone who see bike lanes as inexpensive infrastructure, a smart use of land and a means to support a viable transportation mode. Joining them in the conversation today are public health advocates who see active transportation as an effective tool in the battle against obesity.

Utah Department of Health Physical Activity and Community Transformation Coordinator Brett McIff, Ph.D., knew that the built environment affects people’s activity levels. Improving transportation infrastructure to promote paths and sidewalks, encouraging better land-use patterns and promoting urban design would help tackle the obesity epidemic and curb the increase in preventable diseases by providing the environment that makes people want to move. People exercise not because they make a conscious decision to go to the gym, but because the environment around them encourages activity.

Proper planning for active transportation

With this “Build It and They Will Move” mindset, Dr. McIff found a CDC program called Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) and tapped in to its federal public health dollars available for use in projects that address obesity issues. He assembled a network that included professionals from the Utah Department of Transportation, Utah Transit Authority and the state Public Safety Highway Safety Office, as well as representatives from Safe Routes to School, the Salt Lake Valley Health Department and the Wasatch Front Regional Council, which is responsible for coordinating the transportation policies for the greater Salt Lake City and Ogden areas and is the designated Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The goal was to put together a “how to” guide that could be used by city planning departments to promote non-motorized travel. After more than a year of work, the group — which called itself the Bicycle Pedestrian Task Force — published the Utah Bicycle & Pedestrian Master Plan Design Guide. McIff said the guide was distributed to planning departments throughout the state of Utah to develop safe bike lanes and connectivity.

Despite the lengthy bureaucratic name, McIff jokes the guide is reader friendly and geared toward city planners and transportation engineers and others interested in transportation across Utah, which includes rural areas such as St. George to more urban areas like Salt Lake City and Orem. There are 40 pages tucked in the back of the guide that offer options to make walking and cycling more connected and safer for people. They range from recommending cut-throughs in neighborhoods with meandering streets and cul de sacs to hiring additional staff in municipal offices to promote active transportation projects.

As McIff released his guide across the state, both Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County adopted a “Complete Streets Policy,” which ensures transportation planners and engineers design and operate safe streets for all users, from pedestrians to mass transit users to cyclists to drivers. The city was also given recognition from the League of American Bicyclists for its efforts to make the area more cycle friendly.

“It was the right place and the right time,” McIff said of publishing the guide and the growing movement to better incorporate biking into transportation plans.

Advocating for the activity

As the bicycle and pedestrian movement picked up momentum in the late 20th century, the Alliance for Biking & Walking appeared on the scene. It formed in 1996 as an umbrella organization for bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organizations and started with 12 member organizations. Today, with 200 organizations across the United States operating under the umbrella, the Alliance for Biking & Walking biennially publishes a report documenting trends in active transportation.

The latest analysis, called the 2014 Benchmarking Report, shows that, from 2009 to 2012, federal transportation dollars targeted to non-motorized transportation equaled 2.1 percent of total transportation dollars. While it was an all-time high for non-motorized infrastructure, it still is woefully lacking when compared to funding for motorized transportation.

According to the 2014 report released in April, the Alliance for Biking & Walking estimates that funding for active transportation projects from 2009 to 2012 amounted to $3.10 per capita, but motorized funding per capita was $583.57 for the same period. Targeted funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects in 2013 totaled $676 million.

Through benchmarking, the Alliance for Biking & Walking hopes to identify best practices across the nation so cities can emulate success stories and avoid mistakes, not repeat them. The success of bicycle- and walking-friendly initiatives cannot be measured, though, without a review of the data. With the goal of providing a resource for professionals who can influence walking and biking capacity and accessibility, the Alliance in 2003 tested its data-collection capability through a pilot effort involving 15 cities and 15 states. Four years later, the first full report on biking and walking was published with information from the 50 most populous cities and all 50 states. The benchmarking report was updated in 2010, 2012 and again now.

The reports rely on data that is collected from a number of government and nonprofit sources, as well as information gleaned from biennial surveys of cities, states and advocacy organizations. These surveys record locally tracked data, such as funding spent on bicycling and walking, number of staff employed by advocacy organizations, extent of bicycling and walking facilities, city and state education efforts, and policies and legislation enacted. Over the years, the report has expanded beyond collecting data on walking and biking and now identifies trends and analyzes state and local efforts to provide bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly communities.
Its efforts may be paying off. Since the first report was published in 2007, the number of states and large cities that have published goals to increase either walking or bicycling levels has ballooned. The number of cities with published goals increased from 25 to 47 between the 2007 and 2014 reports and the number of states with published goals to increase active transportation increased from 16 to 36.

Making the movement safer

There are five counties in Pennsylvania and four counties in New Jersey served by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. Office of Transit, Bicycle and Pedestrian Planning Manager Greg Krykewycz said properly connecting the bike and pedestrian paths to improve local mobility is key for the commission, which serves as the federally designated Metropolitan Planning Organization for the Greater Philadelphia Region. So, too, is improving communities’ connections to public transit to improve regional mobility.

Krykewycz said the planning commission has transit passenger survey data that shows people who live one mile away — and even less — will choose to drive their car to the station and pay to park as opposed to bike or walk to the transit station. While some may never be converted to biking or walking because of weather conditions or steep hills, others could be converted with better infrastructure, he said.

“There are also some people who drive because they don’t feel safe walking or biking even if the distance is short, because there are no sidewalks or trails, and the streets don’t feel safe to bike on,” said Krykewycz. “We can allow some of these folks to walk or bike by creating some of these missing connections — installing more sidewalks, trails and bike lanes around transit stations,” he said.

The more people biking and walking to mass transit, the safer it gets and the more at ease they are on streets and paths. “There’s a real safety in numbers, which the data bears out,” Krykewycz added. “The more people who walk and bike, the safer it is to walk and bike.”

Indeed, as the push to increase the number of bike lanes has increased so, too, has the call for increased safety. Nationwide, 677 people lost their lives and an additional 48,000 pedalcyclists were injured according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 2011 data. That figure is up 9 percent from 2010 and also is higher than the number of fatalities in 2009.

Meanwhile, there were 4,280 pedestrian fatalities in 2010 (the latest available data) and another 70,000 injuries. That’s a 4 percent increase in fatalities from 2009.

The cycling advocacy organization PeopleforBikes has shifted the transportation conversations from offering conventional bike paths to building “protected” bike lanes. It has launched a program called Green Lane Project, the goal of which is to help cities build better, safer bike lanes and less stressful streets.

Unlike traditional bike lanes identified by painted lines or signage, protected bike lanes — or cycle tracks — are on street and have some form of physical barrier, whether a curb, parked cars or posts, between the bike and motorized transit. Protected bike lanes also are wider than the general bike lane and are used by cyclists only.

They increase safety through a number of ways, not the least of which is making people more at ease with traffic by separating riders from cars, said Green Lane Project writer Michael Andersen. By abating safety concerns, more people are willing to consider bikes, which in turn, increases the pool of potential bike riders. Like Krykewycz at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, Andersen said, the more cyclists, the safer the environment.

“There is safety in numbers,” he said, explaining that drivers have a tendency to be more aware of bikers when their numbers increase.

One example of a Green Lane Project bike lane is at Bluebonnet Lane in Austin outside the Zilker Elementary School. There was some initial resistance to the lane because it removed a lane of parking from the front of the school. However, the complaints have disappeared since the lane was opened.

“Some of the children ride by themselves or in groups,” Zilker principal Randall Thomson told Streetsblog, an online news source advocating for sustainable transportation and more livable cities and towns.

In its first two years of operation, Green Lane Project staff worked with officials in Austin, Chicago, Memphis, Portland, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. In March 2014, Green Lane Project named another six cities it would work with: Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Seattle.

Nationwide, there are now 141 protected lanes totaling 157 miles, Andersen said. Sixty-three of those miles were added in the last two years, some with the assistance of the Green Lane Project. The ultimate goal, Andersen said, is for the Green Lane Project to become obsolete.

“We want to make this so widespread that we don’t have to teach people the basics about these things because they already know about them,” Andersen said.