Bike Trails Threatened: A Close One For Urban Cyclists

Federal investment in bike trails has steadily increased since 1991, but tea party leaders now threaten to rethink government involvement.
By Sam Ross-Brown, “Utne Reader”
July/August 2012
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For years, funding for cycling infrastructure has been more or less below the mainstream radar. It is, after all, a tiny percentage of federal transportation spending, and bikers themselves are a growing, but still small, cohort.

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The bike lanes and pathways of Minneapolis are a local source of pride, and rightly so. The city’s beautiful Grand Rounds system connects countless neighborhoods together in a diverse 50-mile network of paths. Through the center of town, the below-ground Greenway gives cyclists and pedestrians a break from traffic, and runs continuously from nearby St. Paul to the suburbs. Especially during a busy rush hour, it seems much of the city is more accessible on two wheels than it could ever be on four. So when Bicycling Magazine named Minneapolis America’s #1 Bike City, locals displayed a lot of false modesty (this is still Minnesota), but little surprise. And while the magazine had a lot to say about innovations like the Grand Rounds, most of the accompanying article talked about the larger biking culture in Minneapolis: the bicycling couriers, the dozens of bike shops, the relentless winter commuting. In places like Minneapolis, cycling is not just a hobby or subculture—it’s a legitimate alternative for getting around, on par with public transit or driving.

But like other bike-friendly cities, Minneapolis owes a lot to federal investment in cycling infrastructure. And that investment looks perilously insecure.

Back in February, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted to eliminate federal funding for bicycling projects and infrastructure. As PRI points out, last year, federal support amounted to $1.2 billion—less than 2 percent of all transportation spending—a relatively small number that nevertheless made a big impact. The money went toward projects like the Safe Routes to School program as well as Complete Streets initiatives aimed at maintaining safe spaces for bikes and pedestrians on roadways. In the House Committee version (HR 7), all of this would have been gutted, along with dozens of other transportation programs. Back in 2005, the last transpo bill Congress passed included the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” which has since become a Tea Party symbol of pork-barrel spending.

In a February op-ed in The Hill, New Hampshire Congressman Frank Guinta boasted that HR 7 would remove thousands of earmarks from the 2005 bill and strip funding down to its (bare) necessities.

Luckily for cyclists, that version didn’t last very long. After the Senate passed a much better transportation bill (MAP-21), the House approved a new draft that would let bicycle funding stand (SAFETEA-LU). If Congress can combine and pass the new bills by July 1 (when funding runs out), it will probably include support for bicycle projects. But whether or not this happens, the debate was the first of its kind in a generation. Until very recently, urban cycling has been a bipartisan effort—cheap by Washington standards, and basically uncontroversial. The close call served as a reminder of how important federal dollars are in maintaining and expanding cycling options for city dwellers—and how much Washington’s spending priorities have recently shifted. 

Biking Infrastructure Not a Government Priority

For the past 20 years, federal support for bicycling infrastructure has steadily gone up. As Urban Land points out (February 22, 2012), biking in any major U.S. city wasn’t so easy before 1991 when Congress earmarked federal dollars for cycling infrastructure for the first time. The bill allotted less than 2 percent of federal transportation funding to expand bicycle infrastructure, but that was enough to completely reshape the look and feel of many cities like Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon (another recent #1 Bike City winner). And as The Nation reports (October 17, 2011), on the grassroots side, the Complete Street Movement has been advocating safer and more expansive bike routes for years. Governors in a number of states have approved their proposals, including Minnesota, and Complete Street language has found its way into federal legislation. In 2005 Minneapolis was also the recipient—along with Sheboygan County, Wisconsin; Marin County, California; and Columbia, Missouri—of a $25 million federal grant for a pilot program to further development biking and walking paths over 10 years.

The multi-city grant will not be affected by whatever happens in the House and Senate this year, but funding in other parts of the country is less secure. This year is a critical one for transportation funding, as benchmark legislation enacted in 2005 is set to expire soon. And unfortunately for cyclists, it’s also a big year for fiscal conservatism. As Huffington Post reports (November 11, 2011), the February House bill was only the latest in a series of barebones transportation proposals that have sent biking infrastructure to the chopping block. Fully three transportation bills introduced last fall would have cut or eliminated funding for cycling projects, the latest a proposal by Kentucky Congressman Rand Paul in November. At issue is whether states can afford to set aside money for these initiatives, when so much of our nation’s (cars-only) infrastructure is in disrepair. Misunderstandings are also rife, says Huffington’s Joan Lowy: in defending his legislation, Paul said that states’ priorities should not be focused on “beautification,” which apparently includes things like bicycle safety projects. (Rep. Guinta also touted this false equivalence in his Hill op-ed.)

The real danger for bikers is that Paul’s and Guinta’s attitude may be indicative of a changing dynamic in Washington, one that sees government spending on almost anything as suspect. While much can change over the next five months, right now it seems like the G.O.P. will likely retain the House, and even have a decent shot at the Senate, according to The Hill (May 9, 2012). Should this happen, transportation policy could look very different this time next year—especially if Congress waits until after the election to pass a full transportation bill.

But urban cyclists are nothing if not committed. In March, three-time Cyclocross champion Tim Johnson began a 520-mile trek from Boston to the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C., a gathering of thousands. The trip and summit were meant to raise funds and awareness on bike politics and safety, reports Slowtwitch (March 22, 2012). The Summit also aims to push Congress toward more immediate action to preserve urban cycling for the next generation. For that to happen, the next few months are critical.

For years, funding for cycling infrastructure has been more or less below the mainstream radar. It is, after all, a tiny percentage of federal transportation spending, and bikers themselves are a growing, but still small, cohort.

That being said, if gas prices rise as quickly as some predict, and if young people remain less interested than their parents in driving, cycling may enter the national conversation in a bigger way. Whether we can repeat success stories like Minneapolis and Portland may have a lot to do with what happens this year.

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