U.S. DOT envisions trails can be part of core transportation networks

Historically, the mission of the U.S. Department of Transportation has been about moving cars. But that mission has expanded.In 2010, the DOT signed into law a policy statement noting that “every transportation agency has the responsibility to improve conditions and opportunities for walking and bicycling.”

In 2015, former Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx went further, launching a Safer People, Safer Streets initiative “responding to the trend of increasing bicycle and pedestrian fatalities,” said Laura Toole of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) during a recent webinar about best practices for local officials and planners on constructing trails.

Christopher Douwes, also of the FHWA, said that his agency is using “a data-driven approach to inform and encourage evidence-based decision-making.” Connecting networks and applying the massive data at our fingertips have become the holy grail of contemporary mobility, and this webinar, and the resources it pointed to, help make that possible.

The webinar, hosted by American Trails and titled Connecting Communities: Integrating Transportation and Recreation Networks, helped showcase the FHWA’s plethora of publications to advance biking and walking as part of our multimodal networks.

By now, planners have multiple best practices at their disposal for creating walkable, bikable networks that benefit all kinds of people, connect communities, and use modern technology. Funding is even available from the U.S. DOT. Still more information and training is available on the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center website. And activists can use these tools, too, to push for their favorite projects.

There is no reason to simply dream – it is now viable to go out and build a hiker-biker paradise.

New thinking on trail use

If a bike trail has traditionally been considered a recreational amenity, the new thinking considers it part of transportation – and even deconstructs the difference between recreation and transportation. Either term applies to a bike ride to a park, said Douwes, adding that it’s getting you somewhere and you may even stop for a purchase along the way.

“Transportation and recreation are not either/or,” he added. “It can be both/and.”

Bicycle and pedestrian fatalities have, however, been increasing, and Foxx tasked the DOT with both finding out why and implementing safety measures.

Douwes explained, “Pedestrians of course are vulnerable roadway users that are at the greatest risk of injury or death. In a crash with a car or a truck or transit vehicle, the bicyclist will sustain more damage.” Indeed, he said, “Pedestrians account for an estimated 15 percent of all roadway fatalities.”

One result has been a Strategic Agenda for Pedestrian and Bicycle Transportation, with goals of an 80 percent reduction in fatalities and injuries in 15 years and zero fatalities in 20 to 30 years. The Ohio DOT, for instance, studied areas with “a history of pedestrian and bicycle crashes,” explained Toole, to come up with best practices. Columbus, Ohio, examined a key east-west route, Williams Road, to figure out how to safely connect previously isolated biking areas into a safe network.

Coming out of these efforts, U.S. DOT manuals highlight numerous safety features, such as rumble strips that provide a margin of safety for bike riders (although not as much as separated bike lanes). As localities work to increase their trail networks, best practices are being established. A “road diet” is useful for adding bike lanes to existing roads – which can enhance connectivity. Simply by narrowing lanes a bit – which slows driver speed and improves safety – room is made for a bike lane. Other techniques include “the pedestrian hybrid beacon, medians, and pedestrian crossing islands,” Toole said.

Some of the U.S. DOT’s “proven safety countermeasures”

Only connect

Along with safety, ongoing efforts emphasize improved connectivity. Douwes suggested that, in some places, one link can utterly change connectivity – for instance, joining two otherwise isolated sections.

In addition, studies have found that including a trail alongside an operating rail-line is, indeed, safe and efficient. Old rail lines, of course, have long been converted to trails, but even an underused expressway will do, as happened in Chattanooga, Tennessee, according to Douwes.

Douwes also said that more links are needed to get people from transit lines to scenic trails and national parks. It’s important to extend existing transit service, both in area and time, such as adding weekend service. The benefits can be great, particularly for low-income communities.

As Douwes explained, the U.S. DOT is even working on increasing connectivity for less conventional forms of transportation, from horses – used by the Amish, for instance, for transportation – to ATVs and snowmobiles, which are used to get around in the northern states, such as Michigan.

New technology also requires new thinking, such as for electric bikes, currently allowed on trails (at moderate speeds), and automated vehicles, which may cross the path of hiker and biker trails. Autonomous vehicles may even confuse trails for roadways unless the programing is done right.

Another bit of conventional wisdom that can be disposed of is that trails – at least for transportation’s sake – are not useful in rural areas. Done strategically, Douwes said, such trails can be a key link between towns. From cities to the countryside, more people can walk and bike if only well-conceived infrastructure exists.

Increasingly, then, planners and engaged citizens need not wonder at whether or how safe trails can be added to our transportation networks. The technology and practices are available, easily accessible, and ready to go.

Photos by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and the U.S. DOT. Cover photo by A Plus Photography.com/Flickr

5 reasons why retail business can no longer afford to ignore bicyclists, also from Mobility Lab

Once, providing a secure bicycle parking infrastructure was an option that was only considered by socially-conscious business owners in bike-friendly communities. But with bicycle commuting rapidly growing, that has changed. Now, business owners in almost all communities must face the reality that a significant portion of consumers now pedal their way to shop and dine. Although it was once thought to be an extra feature, the provision of bike parking has become a necessity for successful retail businesses and workplaces.

Let’s review why:

1. The numbers

Have you noticed more people pedaling past your business lately? There’s no doubt that bike commuting and bicycle tourism are growing trends in North America’s largest urban centers. Bicycle commuting rates increased by 62 percent nationally between 2000 and 2013, and, in some communities, the increase has been even more drastic. Not catering to this growing demographic means missing out on their business.

2. Revenue

Providing accommodations for cyclists has the potential to not only boost the number of people who visit your business, but also to boost revenue. While many business owners have voiced concern that bicyclists tend to spend less money than their automobile-driving counterparts, research shows people on bikes visit businesses more frequently, and, as a result, in many cases generate more overall revenue. In fact, with all the money they save on gas, maintenance, and parking, some bicyclists spend even more than drivers. In New York, for example, a 2012 study found that bicyclists spent the most among commuters, on each shopping trip.

3. Job satisfaction and employee performance

A bike parking infrastructure isn’t only a benefit for customers; it also increases employee happiness. With secure bike parking at their workplace, employees are more likely to ride to work. Bicycling is a vigorous cardiovascular activity that increases physical fitness and reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes. It can also improve mental health which has a positive effect on the workplace. One study found that bicycling before work can increase productivity by up to 15 percent, while also reducing sick days by 15 percent.

4. Brand image

Today, image is everything for businesses. A commitment to sustainable transportation will help businesses promote both their progressive change to a more responsible lifestyle and their commitment to supporting a diverse customer base. Providing secure bike lockers or bike racks is an effective way for a retail business to help shape the culture.

5. Reduced expense

From the reduced cost of parking maintenance to the decreased cost of health insurance for cycling employees, the installation of secure bike storage options can lead to savings for your business. Often, in situations where vehicular parking must be shared, bike-friendly businesses can save the expense of renting or validating the spaces the bicyclists would otherwise use if they drove. Businesses that encourage bicycling may also save on the expense of compensating short-distance business travel for their employees. On top of it all, the provision of bike racks allows businesses to add parking capacity in space they already own.

Having parking infrastructure that accommodates bicyclists offers numerous benefits to business and requires little in terms of investment. Bike parking requires far less real estate than parking spaces for automobiles. As well, a single bike rack can offer parking for multiple bikes at a convenient location, granting prime access to a building entrance.

Municipal support has also grown with the popularity of bicycling. Many community programs now offer financial assistance to businesses looking to increase bike parking at their locations. Through these programs, community groups and government representatives can help plan for bike racks – and in some situations, may even offer free hardware and installation. With business incentives and many signs indicating that bicycling rates will continue to increase, providing secure bicycle storage is an investment that retail businesses cannot afford to miss.

Ed.: For business and property owners interested in adding bike parking, Arlington County’s TDM for Site Plans team has a detailed explanation of bike parking best practices.