Spinning the Political Wheels

A Costly Commute? Funding for bike paths may be in danger across the U.S., but not in Colorado where voters have approved taxes to pay for them. Photo: Bikes Belong

Kevin Krizek is the quintessential Boulder bike-aholic. He pedals to work and the grocery store, he races on weekends and he owns a bicycle for every occasion—a commuter bike, a road bike and time trial bike, a cyclocross rig and mountain bike, a beach cruiser and a singlespeed. All told, Krizek and his wife and five-year-old son have a whopping 18 bicycles. “All of them,” he says with a laugh, “get ridden.”

Krizek, a University of Colorado professor of urban planning who specializes in bike-friendly urban design, exemplifies the nation’s growing love affair with bicycles. According to statistics from the Outdoor Industry Association, cycling is the second-most frequent activity in the United States (behind running, jogging and trail running), and over 7 million Americans mountain bike. Nearly half of Americans say they want more bike paths, bike lanes and trails to ride on according to advocacy group Bikes Belong and bike commuting is up 163 percent in Colorado and 181 percent in Denver since 1990.

The bike boom is due in part to steady increases in funding for bike infrastructure, with the biggest pot coming from the federal transportation bill. Bicyclists benefit from three primary federal programs: Safe Routes to Schools, the Recreational Trails Program and Transportation Enhancements (which funds bike lanes and other cycling infrastructure). Bicycle-related funding hit its apex in 2009 at $1.4 billion thanks to an infusion of stimulus money, declining to $791 million in 2011.

Federal funding for bike paths and other infrastructure is crucial because American roads and communities were designed for cars. The Boulder-based group Bikes Belong was formed specifically to maximize federal funding for bike infrastructure. “Good infrastructure is a critical element of getting people to ride bicycles for transportation,” says Professor Susan Handy, director of the Sustainable Transportation Center at the University of California, Davis. “You need a safe and convenient bicycle network that will get people to their destinations before you get significant numbers of people bicycling. But it takes money to build those quality networks.”

Davis is recognized as the country’s most bike friendly small city due to its plethora of bike lanes and paths. About 15 percent of Davis workers commute by bicycle, the highest rate in the United States (about 10 percent of Boulderites commute by bicycle). But Davis’s success was hardly achieved overnight. In 1967, Davis striped the first bike lanes in the United States, and today the city has more than 50 miles of off-street bike paths in an area of less than 10 square miles.

But even bike-friendly localities like Portland, Boulder, Davis and Minneapolis have room for improvement. While just 12 percent of trips in the United States are by bike or on foot, that figure is 51 percent in the Netherlands. In Denmark and Germany, biking and walking comprise a third of all trips.

“There are lots of trips that could be shifted to bicycling if the conditions were right,” Handy says.

“We have to invest in infrastructure but we also have to get people to change their attitudes toward bicycling.” Handy’s research shows that people who “strongly agree” with the statement “I like riding a bike” are twice as likely to ride as people who simply “agree” with that statement. In other words, people’s attitudes toward cycling are a great determinant of whether they ride. “In most places in the United States, bicycling is perceived as recreation not transportation,” Handy adds.

Bump in the Road

The effort to get more Americans on bikes, however, is under threat. Some members of Congress, especially those in the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, want to eliminate dedicated federal funding for Safe Routes to Schools, the Recreational Trails Program and Transportation Enhancements—all of which play a key role in providing bike infrastructure. As this article went to press, the House had stripped funding from its version of the $260 billion transportation bill.

Bike advocacy groups and the bicycle industry were quick to respond: “We stand to lose $1.2 billion and over 3,000 potential bike and pedestrian projects,” Trek Bicycles CEO John Burke wrote in an email alert to bike shop workers and owners, who were urged to contact their congressmen.

“The opposition doesn’t make sense,” says Meghan Cahill, spokeswoman for the League of American Bicyclists. Biking and walking get just over one percent of funding in the transportation bill but they comprise 12 percent of all trips.

“It’s pretty simple math to figure out that the amount of funding that goes for bike programs is infinitesimally small,” says Mark Eller, communications director for the International Mountain Biking Association. “But it has become a whipping boy.”

The Recreational Trails Program (RTP) has provided cash for singletrack in Boulder County, throughout Colorado and for thousands of trails nationwide. Cutting this money is economically short sighted, critics say, because recreation is one of the few prosperous industries during this economic downturn. “Money invested in trails creates more jobs than is created by typical transportation projects,” Eller says.

RTP money comes from an excise tax collected on fuel sales for off-road vehicles: dirt bikes, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and other gasoline-powered recreational machines. Thirty percent of the money collected goes to non-motorized trails, 30 percent to motorized and 40 percent for shared-use trails. Eliminating the funding would have no impact on federal spending because the money would continue to be collected but would be spent on highways instead. “There would be no savings,” Eller says.

Foes of bicycle programs say transportation money should go to highways and bridges. U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led the drive to eliminate dedicated funding for bicycling programs, which he says “do not serve a federal purpose.” In the U.S Senate, Oklahoma Republicans James Inhofe, a senior member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, calls eliminating “frivolous spending for bike trails” one of his top-three goals for the transportation bill.

The backlash against bike funding makes little sense because building infrastructure for bicycles provides a big bang for the buck in terms of health, economic and environmental benefits, cycling advocates say. Adults who bike to work have better weight, blood pressure and insulin levels, and women cyclists have a lower risk of breast cancer. Adolescents who bicycle are less likely to be overweight as adults. Substituting a bike for a car reduces carbon emissions that cause global warming, and it saves money on gasoline and other costs of operating an automobile. Bicycle commuters with a round-trip of 10 miles save about $10 daily. “This opposition to bicycling is not practical, and it’s not conservative,” says Jeffrey Miller, president of the Alliance for Biking & Walking.

Taking the Lead

The good news is that Boulder, and Colorado overall, will fare better than other localities (if there is a loss of federal funding) because of state and local financial support for cycling. Great Outdoors Colorado, or GOCO, receives a portion of state lottery revenues and is a principal source of cash for trails. GOCO has invested approximately $33.8 million in trails throughout the state since its inception. “Virtually all of our grants to trail projects contain a bicycle component,” says GOCO spokeswoman Emily Paton Davies. Examples include the Swan Mountain recreational path in Summit County, the South Platte Greenway in Adams, Arapahoe and Denver counties, the Colorado Riverfront Greenway in Mesa County and the Animas River Greenway in Durango.

Boulder County gets trail money from a voter-approved tax, and it leverages those dollars with GOCO grants. “We are busy constructing new trails every year,” says country trails supervisor Andy Tyler. Recent examples include the three-mile Benjamin Loop on the Betaso open space. For 2012 the county is in the planning stages for a multi-use trail near Longmont and another trail in Betaso.

“It’s expensive to open new trails,” Tyler says. Depending on the terrain, trail surface and width, it costs from $16,000 to $75,000 per mile.

Krizek says cycling is picked on by conservatives because it is perceived as an activity for liberals, hippies and environmentalists rather than as a wise and healthful form of transportation. “It’s considered a fringe mode of transportation,” he says. But as Portland, Minneapolis, Boulder and other cities get rates of bicycle commuting into the double digits, that attitude will shift nationally, he says.

Bike paths and lanes must be plentiful and convenient if people are to use them, Krizek says. People are willing to go 16 minutes out of their way on an average commute to access a bike lane, according to Krizek’s research, and they are willing to ride 67 percent further, roughly 2.6 miles, to access dedicated bike lanes or paths.

“Bicycling is a mode poised for greatness,” says Krizek, author of vehicleforasmallplanet.com. There will be ups and downs in the debate over how to fund bicycling infrastructure, but the positive trends of the past five years are hard to ignore, he says. “There is enough momentum now that it will be hard to go backwards. I see a bright future for bicycling. It just makes sense.”

Paul Tolme is a lifelong bike nut who started pedaling a banana seat Sears three-speed as a kid and now rides nearly daily all year round including to the post office through the winter snow, from his home in South Lake Tahoe.

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