A Close One For Urban Cyclists

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The bike lanes and pathways of Minneapolis are a local source of pride, and rightly so. The city’s majestic 50.4-mile Grand Rounds pathway system connects countless neighborhoods together in a cohesive, reliable network that’s as user-friendly as it is beautiful. In 2010, Bicycling magazine named Minneapolis the #1 Bike City in the U.S., citing innovations the city’s bikes-and-peds-only below-ground Greenway through the center of town. But most important in the decision was the biking culture that goes along with innovations like that: 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.  

Last month, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted to eliminate federal funding for bicycling projects and infrastructure. As PRI reports, last year, federal support amounted to $1.2 billion–less than 2 percent of all transportation spending–that 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, all of this would have been taken out. To the relief of many, a Senate version introduced early in March restored this funding, and it is likely to pass this week. 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. 

For the past 20 years, federal support for bicycling infrastructure has steadily gone up. As Urbanland points out, biking in any major U.S. city wasn’t so easy before 1991 when Congress (and then-President George Bush Sr.) 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, 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, WI; Marin County, CA; and Columbia, MO–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 month, 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 2003 is set to expire soon. And unfortunately for cyclists, it’s also a big year for fiscal conservatism. As Huffington reports, 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 Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) 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 bike safety projects.

Paul’s attitude about urban cycling may be a harbinger 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. Should this happen, transportation policy could look very different this time next year.

But urban cyclists are nothing if not committed. Already, three-time Cyclocross champion Tim Johnson has begun a 520-mile trek from Boston to the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C., scheduled for later this month. The trip and the summit are meant to raise funds and awareness on bike politics and safety, reports Slowtwitch. The Summit also aims to push Congress toward action on the Senate bill, which may stall due to lack of support in the House, says Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. Whether that happens will depend on whether cycling enthusiasts can muster enough of a presence in Washington later this month, writes Clarke in the League’s blog.

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, group of people. But as gas prices approach potential record highs this summer, 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.

Sources: Bicycling Magazine, PRI, Urbanland, The Nation, Bike Walk Twin Cities, Huffington, The Hill, Slowtwitch, League of American Bicyclists, NPR.

Image by jglsongs, licensed under Creative Commons.

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