The American Dream looks a lot different today than it did in the 1970s. For Millennials, Baby Boomers and everyone in between, the half-acre subdivision with the two-car driveway has increasingly fallen out of favor, supplanted by a small urban abode, a bus pass and a bicycle.
Vehicle miles traveled peaked per household in 2004 and haven’t bounced back, suggesting a high-water mark for car culture. New urban arrivals self-report that they didn’t choose the city life only to save money on transportation, though that is a key factor. Rather, they like cities for the proximity: shorter distances between home, work and entertainment, more active commutes, and less dead time behind the windshield.
But for those hoping that the political system will quickly digest these early signs of change, it’s time for a reality check. Though the shift in Americans’ housing and transportation preferences is real, it is very small in absolute numbers.
Nationwide, just 3.4 percent of commuters got to work by walking or biking in 2011 and 2012, according to the Alliance for Biking and Walking’s 2014 benchmarking report based on American Community Survey and Census data. (Commuting to work is only one kind of trip people take, of course, but it’s what the ACS tracks.) Over those two years, walking accounted for just 2.8 percent of commutes, up from 2.5 percent in 2005. Bike mode share stood at only 0.6 percent in 2012, up from 0.4 percent in 2005.1
In the 50 largest cities, biking and walking make up a larger share of the commuting picture. Walking commutes in these cities rose to 5 percent in 2012, up half a percentage point from 2005, and bike commuting rose to 1 percent in 2012 from 0.7 percent in 2005. Here in Philadelphia, 8.8 percent of commutes are walking commutes and 1.9 percent are biking commutes — the highest of the 10 largest cities, thank you very much.
Still, these are very small absolute numbers, and it’s not surprising that the shift has barely registered in Congress or state legislatures. Even in urban areas, cyclists remain a small minority of the population. Though increasingly politically organized, their small numbers make it difficult to move votes at the state and federal level.
The basic math reveals that it’s easier for cycling advocates to exercise power in city governments more so than in state governments, and in state governments more so than in Washington. Let me break it down for you:
What Washington Guarantees
In Washington, funding for biking and walking improvements has been a perennial target of Republican lawmakers, most notably Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, who took aim at the main federal multimodal fund — the Transportation Alternatives Program — in the latest budget standoff this past August.
So far, opponents have failed to seriously cut the bike-ped share of the budget. In fact, for the first time, more than 2 percent of federal transportation funding is going to bicycle and pedestrian projects. The Transportation Alternatives Program, which funnels money for these projects to states and regional Metropolitan Planning Organizations — more on this later — saw its budget increase from $809 million in 2013 to $820 million in 2014.
Yet the picture is a bit more complicated. The Transportation Alternatives Program is relatively new, combining the Transportation Enhancements program with two others, Safe Routes to School and the Recreational Trails Program. So while Congress technically increased Transportation Alternatives’ funding, levels were actually 26 percent less in fiscal year 2014 than the three separate programs’ combined funding in 2012.2
By comparison, consider how much money Washington lavishes on cars. MAP-21, the two-year federal transportation funding bill passed in 2012, included $206 billion for the Interstate Highway System and road safety, and just $72 billion for transit. The most recent spending bill, passed in December and dubbed the “CRomnibus,” keeps these numbers steady. However, it does direct the Federal Highway Administration to establish separate safety standards for cyclists and pedestrians, acknowledging for the first time that road users who aren’t driving cars have distinct safety needs.
Congress also sets aside competitive discretionary funding, of which the popular TIGER grant program — slated to dole out $500 million in fiscal year 2015 — is a part. Recent high-profile bicycle and pedestrian projects in Philadelphia have received TIGER grants, including stretches of the growing Delaware River trail network and a new boardwalk on the Schuylkill Banks.
What Washington Really Guarantees
That’s Washington’s official contribution to cycling, walking and transit, but there’s also an underbelly of tax expenditures that distorts transportation choices in ways that disfavor biking and walking.
For instance, a recent report from TransitCenter and Frontier Group flagged the federal tax benefit for commuter parking, which pays an estimated 820,000 additional people to drive at peak times of the day at a cost of $7.3 billion in foregone tax revenue. There is a federal tax benefit for transit users, but as the report points out, even bringing the two into parity would still subsidize vastly more driving than if the parking tax benefit were rescinded.
Meanwhile, the federal government’s largest housing subsidy — the $200 billion-per-year mortgage interest tax deduction — is also a de facto subsidy for driving, because it puts a heavy thumb on the scale in favor of single-family housing development in suburban and exurban areas.
On the other side of the coin, to a much lesser extent, there are ways in which cities can use federal money to indirectly further bike infrastructure. For a good example of this, Philadelphia can look to its neighbor on the other side of the state.
The federal government’s largest housing subsidy is also a de facto subsidy for driving.
“The way the transportation money comes down from the feds, to the states, and then to the region, you can’t apply for bridge money to do bike lanes,” Patrick Roberts of Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning told SPOKE. “But when we’re redesigning the bridge, we can certainly design it so it’s wide enough to incorporate them.”
Since Mayor Bill Peduto took office in January 2014, Pittsburgh has been aggressively tapping into whatever public and private money it can get in order to, as the mayor puts it, “leapfrog” other cities’ bike infrastructure. One of the largest sources of funding cities can compete for is the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program under MAP-21. Pittsburgh won a $1.6 million grant for its upcoming bike share program, which will cover the purchase of 500 bikes and the siting of 50 stations. The city also won $350,000 from the Transportation Alternatives Program for lane markings.
“The nice thing about bike-ped projects is that they score very high because they’re low-cost, high-yield,” Roberts said. “That’s why we’ve been going through the competitive programs.”
What Harrisburg Contributes
The state level, where most transportation policy is made anyway, has seen a bit more action on cycling than the federal level. According to the Alliance for Biking and Walking report:
Since 2010, 11 states and 12 of the 52 most populous cities have added new goals to increase bicycling and walking, or to decrease bicycle and pedestrian fatalities. Overall, 88% of states and 90% of the most populous cities currently report having at least one of these goals.
Here in Pennsylvania, cities and counties get a pot of money to manage through the state’s Transportation Improvement Fund. Municipalities draw up a list of their needs for roads, bridges, bike trails and other projects, and the state parcels out money from the fund. In the name of fiscal constraint, the state will allocate a fixed amount for a specific type of project.
“The state DOT will say, ‘over the next four years, you have $20 million to apply to bridge projects’, for instance,” Roberts said.
Thanks to the 2013 Act 89 transportation funding bill, which uncapped a state tax on gas stations, bike and pedestrian projects will have their own dedicated pot of money, too. The bill created the $36 million Multimodal Transportation Fund administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), of which the state legislature decided only $2 million a year can go to bike and pedestrian projects. Act 89 also created the homonymous $40 million Multimodal Transportation Fund, independently administered by the Commonwealth Financing Authority (CFA).
The CFA requires localities to put up a 30 percent match for the non-federal portion of a project. The tranche of projects receiving CFA funding here in Philadelphia included a mix of public efforts like bike share ($300,000), the University City District’s 40th Street trolley portal ($800,000), and the Spring Garden Street Connector streetscape project ($1 million). CFA grants have also gone to private developers like PREIT for pedestrian improvements at The Gallery ($1.06 million), and to AIMCO and Park Towne Place Associates for a pedestrian connectivity project off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway ($1 million).
What Philly Contributes
Another source of revenue in Pennsylvania comes from red light camera money in Philadelphia.
A state law allowing Philadelphia to become the first (and so far only) county in the Commonwealth to deploy automatic red light enforcement cameras passed in 2005 due to a revenue sharing deal with Harrisburg. Under the agreement, 50 percent of funds generated from the 108 cameras — $55 million between 2005 and 2013 — went to the state’s Automated Red Light Enforcement (ARLE) program, to spend on safety-related transportation improvements around Pennsylvania. The rest went to the Philadelphia Streets Department, which dolls out funds for bike infrastructure, among other things. The law was changed in 2013, ending the 50 percent guarantee to Philadelphia but giving its mayor the power to appoint half of the ARLE board members, with the other half appointed by PennDOT.
“The nice thing about bike-ped projects is that they score very high because they’re low-cost, high-yield.”
At the local level, Roberts said Pennsylvania cities budget seed money for bigger projects and spend staff time on engineering, planning and chasing grants.
“For planning and implementation, we have a bike-ped line item that’s a few hundred thousand,” Roberts said. “That provides in the neighborhood of a 20 percent match for anything else we could apply for. So if we have $200,000, we’re really parceling that out and could turn that into $5 million using the money as a match.”
City governments also employ staff in-house to have designs ready to go when pots of money become available. Roberts emphasized that staff time is an underrated constraint on building out bike infrastructure. In some ways, it’s more important than money. “Time-wise,” Roberts said, “if we had more money we might not be able to spend it because of limited staffing.”
But the biggest constraint of all is political capital, and elected officials who care personally about building a world-class bike lane network.
What Leadership Will Get You
With budgets tight, especially at the state and local level, investing in bike and pedestrian infrastructure makes fiscal sense. Once the policy focus is on moving people rather than cars, it’s amazing how many more people you can move for the relatively low cost of active transportation projects.
How low-cost are we talking about? Consider that Portland, Ore. was able to build an entire bike lane network for about the same cost as a single mile of urban highway, according to a 2011 report by The Oregonian. Local construction costs vary, of course, but the takeaway is clear: Actual infrastructure is cheap, but political capital is expensive.
What makes most bike, pedestrian and transit infrastructure improvements difficult isn’t really the money, but rather electing leaders who have the political will and drive to take space on public roads away from cars. For instance, U.S. politicians and planners often treat curb parking as a sort of naturally occurring condition, like a river or rock formation, when in fact it’s really a political choice to allocate 9 feet of the public right-of-way to idle vehicles instead of bike lanes, bus lanes or what have you.
If there’s anything to feel optimistic about, it’s that city governments are the easiest governments for bike and pedestrian advocates to influence. While political investments do take a long time to germinate into electoral gains and policy change, patience and determination eventually pay off big — even in unlikely places. ◆