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America needs a transformative transportation bill: It will take walking and biking to get there

Written by Kevin Mills | Published by The Hill

Our country is at a crossroads.

Decade after decade, major decisions about our nation’s transportation policy have been made using 1950s logic. Federal programs and priorities have evolved little since the early 1990s, while mobility needs, development patterns and technologies have rapidly shifted. We’ve continued to prioritize roads and highways, falling short of providing true mobility for all of America.

As we stare down the 2020 deadline to reauthorize the FAST Act, the current bill governing the nation’s surface transportation policy, Congress has hard, but important, choices to make. Do we continue with the status quo, or do we invest in bold policy solutions that address some of the most pressing challenges of our time—climate change, transportation justice, and the devastating rates of injury and death for those who walk and bike.

This week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) stepped up to this challenge.

Their “Moving Forward Framework” emphasizes policy strategies that protect the environment, protect people and protect our communities. In doing so, they acknowledged that America is long overdue for a transformational transportation bill. One that takes new and visionary approaches to creating a transportation system that meets the needs of every American—even those who don’t have a car or choose not to drive.

Throughout the framework, it is clear that these leaders understand the urgent need to leverage transportation policy to address the growing climate crisis. It is also clear that they understand just how risky it is to walk and bike in our country—bicyclist and pedestrian injuries and fatalities are skyrocketing while other vehicle-related fatalities are on the decline.

What isn’t yet clear is if they will seize the opportunity to make the right investments to connect walking and biking infrastructure, which is key to solving these problems.

The transportation sector is our country’s largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, but a recent Rails-to-Trails Conservancy study found that shifting short car trips to walking and biking trips has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 54 million tons annually. Congress’ own “Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program,” designed to demonstrate how active transportation infrastructure could instigate increases in walking and biking, proved that such mode shift is possible when we connect existing walking and biking facilities to everyday destinations; the program yielded 85 million miles of car driving avoided because of walking and biking.

The good news: Most trips taken in this country are within a 20-minute bike ride, and more than one in five trips are within a 20-minute walk. The bad news: While many Americans are interested in bicycling, concerns about safety prevent them from making it part of their everyday routine. If any part of a trip involves interactions with vehicles at higher speeds and is perceived as “high stress,” the majority choose not to walk or bike at all. Yet, many Americans, including some with disabilities, have no choice but to try.

In short, Americans are seeking more mobility choices, including the choice to walk or bike, but only if the facilities are safe, protected from traffic and seamlessly connected to get them where they need to go.

The evidence tells us that meeting the ambitious, important, clearly interrelated environmental, safety and economic goals that the House Democrats have outlined will require strategies that enable more people to safely and conveniently walk and bike. With the right strategic investments, it’s not a stretch to believe we can generate mode shift at a scale that could achieve those goals.

Creating active transportation systems—connected trails, sidewalks, bikeways and other infrastructure—will make it practical and safe for people to make walking and biking part of their daily routines. The nation’s 36,000 miles of multiuse trails could be leveraged to make these strategic connections. With focused investments, we could generate significant bang for our buck in connecting safe, convenient bicycling and walking routes to everyday destinations all over America.

The “Connecting America’s Active Transportation System Act,” also introduced this week by Reps. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), offers the direction to make those strategic investments. The bill would provide $500 million annually in funding for a federal competitive grant program to help communities and regions build connected active-transportation routes to ensure people can get where they want to go safely by foot, bike or wheelchair. This proposal, if included in the next federal transportation bill alongside increased funding for Transportation Alternatives and the Recreational Trails Program, would provide the necessary resources and policy changes to deliver a 21st-century transportation system to the nation and meet the goals outlined by House Democrats.

Already, more than 100 national and state organizations representing interests as far-ranging as biking and walking, transportation reform, the environment, health, disability rights and our nation’s local elected officials have signed on in support of the bill. We have evidence that demonstrates how essential active transportation is to our communities. The “Connecting America’s Active Transportation System Act” can deliver the connectivity that will maximize the potential of these routes.

The time is now for Congress to be bold to pass a transformative transportation bill that invests in a balanced system that meets America’s evolving transportation needs. The “Moving Forward Framework” provides the right goals; realizing those goals will require a robust investment that encourages more people to walk and bike by making it convenient and safe.

Kevin Mills is the vice president of policy at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the nation’s largest trails and active transportation advocacy organization, and founder of the Partnership for Active Transportation.

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