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Bikexchange.com logo, link to Home        Washington Bicycling Hub - Summer '04      Bikexchange.com logo, link to Home 
Are MPOs Giving Bicycling Its Due?

By Charles Pekow 

Mr. Pekow, a seasoned Washington journalist, provides Bikexchange.com with continuing coverage of national legislative news on bicycling issues. 

Maybe metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) can become great catalysts for promoting bicycling. Not familiar with your local MPO? A handful does a variety of works for bicyclists. But a national effort to assess MPOs' work on cyclists' behalf came up with an incomplete portrait for the nation. The reason: a lack of responses.

In conjunction with the National Center for Bicycling & Walking (NCBW), the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations sent a questionnaire to all 340 MPOs, of which 144 responded. So it's not clear if survey results reflect the national picture; it's possible those with the most developed bicycling and walking programs were more eager to respond. Also, NCBW notes that it's not always possible to separate the work of MPOs from the state and local agencies they have to work with.

Since 1973, federal law has required states to establish MPOs to develop Transportation Improvement Programs in each urban area with a population above 50,000. States fund MPOs through the Highway Trust Fund. Most MPOs, however, don't manage or fund programs directly, leaving construction and planning of bicycle facilities to transportation departments or other state and local agencies. The vast majority (90 percent) of MPOs get some federal Transportation Enhancement money. About 28 percent get federal Congestion Management Air Quality (CMAQ) grants, which they can use to promote biking to relieve traffic congestion and air pollution.

(The referenced federal funding programs are currently in limbo as Congress continues to work on a surface transportation bill that was supposed to be ready by last October.)

Based on the survey results, NCBW released "Taking Steps: An Assessment of MPO Support for Bicycling & Walking." The study cites good works done by the Mountainland MPO but says that nationwide, MPOs could potentially do a lot more to promote cycling.

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1992 gave MPOs the power to approve spending of federal transportation funds and each must create a transportation plan covering all users, from motorists to bicyclists. This created power struggles as "most state departments of transportation resisted sharing their power with MPOs. For their part, many MPOs were ill prepared for the changes brought about by ISTEA. After years of minimal funding and responsibilities, MPOs were thrust into the position of being key players in transportation planning," NCBW concludes.

Today, some MPOs merely carry out the wishes of state and local governments, while others actively participate in creating biking strategies, NCBW reports. Most at least pay bicycling lip service. Almost three-quarters of MPOs responding to the survey assigned bicycle/pedestrian issues to a specific staffer (some consider bicycle and pedestrian issues separately; others didn't). The 27 percent that didn't assign specific staffers spread the responsibility out "under the assumption that bike-ped issues are everyone's responsibility."

Asked what they did for bicyclists, MPOs most commonly sited helping local governments with planning, workshops, and creating bike maps.

Only three percent of MPOs reported spending 40 hours a week or more of staff time on bike-ped issues and 53 percent reported spending five hours or less. "Even with a small staff of five people, this would yield no more than 2.5 percent of total time spent on these modes. We then considered the 58 percent of MPOs who did not…respond to our survey, and shuddered," the report says.

On the other hand, NCBW acknowledges that no one has ever calculated a recommended number of hours or percentage of staff time that should be devoted to these issues and time spent doesn't guarantee results. (Also, number of hours will necessarily vary with staff size.) "So, we simply suggest that MPOs estimate the amount of time they spend supporting bike-ped issues, ask themselves whether they are achieving the goal set by (the Federal Highway Administration) in interpreting (federal surface transportation law) - providing suitable accommodations for bicyclists and pedestrians everywhere they are permitted, and adjust their focus and time spent on bike-ped accommodations to hasten their compliance with this goal," the report recommends.

Almost everybody, however, is at least considering bicyclists' needs, with 96 percent saying their long-range transportation plans account for them and 92 percent including cycling in transportation improvement programs. But a smaller percentage (78 percent) said they had a separate bicycle or bike-ped plan developed or in the works.

Only 14 MPOs, however, had developed plans with "measurable goals," such as adding more paths or bike parking. But NCBW acknowledges that such plans don't provide a panacea. The report notes a "lack of evidence to suggest that plans with measurable goals are more likely to lead to routine bike-ped accommodations in all projects, an increase in bike-ped mode share, a reduction of bike-ped injuries, or any other desired outcome."

And it suggests "MPOs might do better to create plans with more general goals, and work with local governments on building specific projects likely to support these goals." Also it notes that some measurable goals are arbitrary - such as increasing the percentage of bike commuters or reducing the number of injuries by a given percent. Why shoot for a 25 percent injury reduction instead of a 50 percent one?

And only slightly more than half said local governments endorsed or adopted their bike-ped plan. (In some cases, the local government hadn't adopted a formal approval plan.) Most couldn't say that their state adopted their bike-ped plans.

"In fact, we have no evidence suggesting that the presence of plans of any stripe yields positive results," NCBW concludes.

So instead of worrying about plans, MPOs may spend their time better by working with advocates and creating public awareness of biking needs. They can increase community awareness of the benefits of cycling, collaborate with state and local agencies, and gather data. They need formats to take public input to get supporters on the record. Methods can range from hearings to public comment periods to creating committees mixing cycling advocates with planners and public officials. About three-quarters of survey respondents said they had established at least one bike-ped committee.

NCBW also suggests that MPOs advocate using fuel taxes, tolls and vehicle registration fees to finance bicycling projects. It says MPOs need to educate themselves as well as the public, noting "very few of them appear able to discuss the costs and economic benefits of (bicycling and walking), let alone offer comparisons with other modes or discuss the relative merits of related spending programs. We found only 10 MPOs who had calculated, with some degree of rigor, the percentage of transportation funds allocated to bike-ped accommodations." MPOs said they couldn't accurately gauge the amount of a highway project that went for the accompanying bike path, for instance.

MPO boards generally consist of public officials. NCBW only found one that includes private citizens: the Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana Regional Council of Governments. Most, however, use some method to obtain public input.

As its next project, NCBW plans to study how effectively local governments are making bike-ped accommodations routine in plans.

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