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Washington Bicycling Hub - Spring '07
Better Cycling Infrastructure: The Solution?
Non-Motorized Pilot Project Slowly Moving Ahead
Four Communities Representing U.S. Focus of Study
By Charles Pekow
Mr. Pekow, a seasoned Washington, DC journalist, provides Bikexchange.com with continuing coverage of national legislative news on bicycling issues.
Remember the $100 million earmarked in the last transportation reauthorization bill for the Non-Motorized Pilot Project? Maybe you don’t, so to refresh you, in 2005, Congress authorized an experiment to see if creating coordinated community infrastructures for bicycle and pedestrian transportation would get people out of automobiles and reduce the problems they cause (pollution, energy consumption, noise, accidents and related casualties, lack of exercise, traffic jams, etc.). The legislation calls for creating coordinated networks including bike lanes and bike paths to connect directly with community facilities such as transit stations, schools, recreation, and other community activity centers.
Congress included the project in the Safe, Accountable Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, the official name for the current surface transportation law, better known as SAFETEA-LU. Four communities share the $100 million administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation over four years, so each gets $6.25 million a year in fiscal years 2006 through 2009, with an evaluation due the following year.
The legislation said that the grants would go to “the following four communities selected by the secretary,” and then immediately takes away the secretary’s authority by naming the four: Columbia, MO; Marin County, CA; Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN (though St. Paul dropped out of the project but Minneapolis is including some of its suburbs because it wants to examine transit in and out of the city); and Sheboygan County, WI.
So how did the legislation both give the secretary of transportation the authority to pick communities and take it away in the same paragraph? A typo. The earlier draft of the legislation presumed communities would compete for the grants. But during negotiations for the final bill, congressional committee staff asked the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) to name communities likely to succeed at the projects, related Marianne Fowler, RTC senior vice president for federal relations. RTC submitted a list, which included three of the final winners, she said. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of RTC.)
Though three of the four communities lie in the Midwest, “we have four very different places,” explained John Fegan, program manager of the Bicycle Pedestrian Program at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), who is in charge of monitoring the project. “Diversity has been a strength of the program.” The list includes two cities and two counties, a big metro area and a small Missouri college town.
Speaking at a session on the project at the National Bike Summit 2007 in Washington, DC, sponsored by the League of American Bicyclists, Fegan said the project formed a working group with representatives of the four communities and other interested agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control, Volpe National Transportation Systems Center (a federal research center based in Cambridge, MA) and RTC. The group meets fortnightly via conference call and members communicate through a listserv.
The communities, all of which started as relatively bicycle-friendly, were obligated to create a coordinated network so people could cycle across town–an uncoordinated list of bike routes wouldn’t cut it.
Evaluators will look for changes in the number of people using automobiles, public transportation and bicycles, as well as changes in health and the environment. The evaluation will consist of four phases, Fegan explained.
First, a baseline assessment. FHWA awarded a contract to the University of Minnesota to survey the communities. An interim report is due this September.
Second, Volpe is developing data collection methods to look at the project at the end. How can you evaluate a bike path?
Third, examine the project in 2010 after the communities have completed their plans, with a final report due in September of that year.
Finally, crunch the numbers from the first three phases. The evaluators are also looking as Spokane, WA as a control community to see if factors such as fluctuations in gas prices are changing transportation patterns as opposed to infrastructure improvements. They will also check patterns on multiple days to try to minimize the impact of weather, always a factor in transportation choices. All counts will note weather conditions. The project also aims to use some automated counting methods, such as cameras, to avoid the bias that survey takers may bring to the task.
The first phase “took longer than we expected,” Fegan conceded. And the results were less than ideal. The university sent self-mailer surveys to about 31,000 people and got back only 4,500. Researchers then contacted those who replied for a follow-up by phone but they could only interview about 1,500. “It’s not as great as it could be,” admitted Ben Rasmussen of the Volpe Center. “There was some self-selection in the responses.”
Phase II, now underway, involves the working group trying to figure out who does what when, Rasmussen explained. “Phase II does not look at impact but describes the projects,” he said. “We’ll look at goals, methods, analysis, reporting. We came across some challenges. There is limited funding available for evaluation. We are trying to determine goals and focus.” Somehow, the project will have to figure out how to get everyone on the same wavelength. It will also have to figure out how to separate the effects of infrastructure (are people biking more because of a new trail) and non-infrastructure (or because of a promotional campaign to get them out on two-wheelers).
A possible catch: The authorization and funding for the project will expire in FY 09 but the report isn’t due until a year later. Therefore, Congress might not have the data to evaluate how worthy the program is before it has to decide whether to fund more projects or continue examining existing ones. That might not be a problem given Congress’ track record though. It didn’t finish the current transportation bill until nearly two years after the previous one expired.
Marin briefly describes its WalkBikeMarin project on the county’s website. It says that to try to get people out of autos, it is targeting urban areas of the county and non-recreational riding. It hired a consultant to plan the project and plans to design and plan specific bike routes and pedestrian paths this spring, knowing it has to build them between summer 2008 and fall 2009, the end of the project period. See http://www.walkbikemarin.org/about.php.
Minneapolis, meanwhile, hired Transit for Livable Communities, a local non-profit, to administer the program. TLC established a 29-member board with representatives of various community groups and governments. See http://www.tlcminnesota.org/Resources/NTP%20Program/ntp.html.
Columbia’s PedNet Project finished its working plan in March, which includes more than 12 miles of new bikeways to get done by project end. It first plans to put new bike lanes on streets and realizes it probably can’t do the more comprehensive off-road bike paths until Fall 2008. See http://www.gocolumbiamo.com/PedNet_Project/index.php.
Finally, Sheboygan hired two staffers to oversee the project. It contracted with an engineering firm and sent out a newsletter asking citizens to call or email with comments and suggestions about where they bike, bike conditions, and what would encourage them to pedal. See http://www.co.sheboygan.wi.us/html/d_planning_nonmotorized_project.htm.
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