Rails to Trails Guest Post: National Bike Month

Throughout National Bike Month we are highlighting the efforts of some of our advocacy partners who are making a difference for cyclists throughout the US. Last week we turned our blog over to our friends from People for Bikes, and this week we’re letting the good folks at the Rails to Trails Conservancy lead the train. Read on below to find out what they’re doing to make cycling safer and more accessible, and how you can help.

I bet most of you have a good trail or bike path close by, right? Yeah, I do – the Capital Crescent Trail between Maryland and Washington, D.C. I ride it each day to work, and sometimes on the weekend to meet buddies in the city.

For those of us fortunate enough to have access to a trail, bike lanes or just some wide-open space, riding a bike to get around is a pretty simple, visceral pleasure. The wind in your face, the adrenaline pumping… you save time, save money and generally feel good about things. Simple.

But as basic as this joy seems to those of us who ride regularly, in many parts of America there are significant barriers to this simple activity. In a landscape often designed for cars to the exclusion of walking or biking, millions of Americans lack a safe and convenient place to ride at all, let alone a network of trails, bike lanes and paths that enable others to ride to work, to school, to visit friends or go shopping.

Riding the new Windsor/Ash bicycle boulevard in Columbia, Mo.

That’s what drives us at Rails to Trails Conservancy. We have an ambitious target—referred to here in our office as the Big Hairy Audacious Goal—to put 90 percent of Americans within three miles of a trail system by 2020.

We are working toward that goal by helping communities develop rail-trail projects, by supporting trail-based business and residential development, by working hard on Capitol Hill and with state and local governments for policies and funding that recognize the importance of biking to our transportation system, and by building a movement of people who love their trails and want to spread that love!

Opening day of the Windsor/Ash bicycle boulevard in Columbia, Mo.

National Bike Month this year is a particularly significant one for us, as it marks the release of a report on active transportation we have been eagerly anticipating. Launched by Congress in 2005—and with management support from RTC—the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTPP) dedicated $25 million to each of four communities to invest in biking and walking infrastructure. The idea was to see what this kind of unprecedented, targeted investment could do to change and grow a culture of biking and walking in these communities.

Essentially, it was an experiment into whether Americans were interested in non-motorized transportation – whether, to borrow loosely from a famous baseball movie about a guy in a cornfield, “If we build it, will they come?”

The results came in last week, and just three years into the pilot the change in transportation behavior tells a truly compelling story.

Across the four communities, counts revealed a 49 percent increase in biking. Compared to a national increase of 15 percent from 2001 to 2009, that spike is astounding. In just three years, the pilot communities achieved triple the expansion in biking activity the rest of America took eight years to realize.

Building the Cal Park-Hill Tunnel path to San Francisco in Marin County, Calif.

Although the pilot program did involve education and safety programs, a huge part of this increase was directly tied to infrastructure – physically providing safe, convenient and direct pathways that actually take people where they need to go.

In Columbia, Mo., the new Windsor/Ash bicycle boulevard completed in 2010 resulted in a 124 percent increase in bicycle traffic. In Marin County, Calif., the new Cal Park-Hill Tunnel path to San Francisco—constructed through a hillside and alongside active rail tracks—resulted in a 400 percent increase in weekday bicyclists. Nearby, the new Alameda Del Prado bicycle lanes increased weekday bicycle traffic by 366 percent and weekend bicycle traffic by 540 percent.

No question, if we build it, they will come. Big time.

Heading into the Cal Park-Hill Tunnel path in Marin County, Calif.

So what does this mean for you? Well, right now the U.S. Congress is debating whether to dedicate any transportation funding to biking and walking infrastructure, as part of a new federal transportation bill. Many of our Congressional representatives believe that money spent on enabling biking and walking is “frivolous,” and a waste of taxpayer dollars that should be spent exclusively on roads.

Rails to Trails Conservancy is doing everything we can to make sure our transportation system provides a better balance and gives people the healthier, cheaper, cleaner and greener option to bike and walk. If you have a moment, tell your representative that a car-only landscape isn’t the way you want to roll, and that being able to bike is an important part of your transportation future.

It’s a critical time – every voice and every vote counts.

Happy National Bike Month, everyone!

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