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Are We There Yet? The Popularity Of Biking

Editor's Note: Ultimately what is new about transportation in the 21st century, in cities as well as in suburbs, is more bicycles, a better network of sidewalks, better maps and cell phone apps that make taking transit easier, and other low-cost alternatives to driving that are easy and convenient and more conducive to improved public health. In this week's excerpt from Are We There Yet? we conclude the Moving chapter with a discussion of the increasing presence of bicycles in cities plus sidebar discussions on transit outside big cities and serving rural America.

The result of all this advocacy and all these improvements is that more people are walking and biking. Nationally, the percentage of commuters who walk or bike has increased by 10 percent since 2000. These commuters still represent a small share — just 3 percent — of all commuters. But some regions, especially those that include college towns — which are often designed to accommodate students who don’t have cars — have higher numbers of people who commute on foot or by bike, including Ithaca, New York, with 18 percent.

In Minneapolis, which Bicycling magazine ranked as the No. 1 city for bikes in 2010, biking has increased a whopping 53 percent since Bike/Walk Twin Cities began counting cyclists and pedestrians at 42 locations in 2007. In the meantime, the number of pedestrians increased 18 percent.

Bicycle advocacy efforts in particular have enjoyed very robust growth across the U.S., in part because the bicycle is increasingly seen as a good replacement for the car, especially for errands and short trips. Moreover, bicycles can “extend the reach” of transit into neighborhoods by providing easy, convenient and inexpensive ways for residents to get from transit stops to their homes or jobs.

The Capital Bikeshare program in Washington, D.C., for example, grew faster than its proponents ever imagined; in 2011, its first year of operation, there were 1,100 bikes in more than 130 locations and 15,000 annual members. The program is being expanded this year to include a dozen surrounding suburbs, including Howard and Prince George’s counties. Boston’s 60-station 600-bike program is after just four months expanding across the Charles River to Cambridge and Somerville.

Musician and writer David Byrne summed up the importance of bikes in a 2012 New York Times op-ed: “For me, and lots of other people, the answer to the question “What would improve the quality of our urban life?” involves simple things like ... um ... bicycles, which make getting around — and being in — the city easier, more pleasant and more affordable. New York is one of many cities that are creating all kinds of new green spaces, riverside parks and bike programs, all of which are symptomatic of our desire to make our cities into our homes.

“Look around you. Bikes are everywhere: in glamorous ads and fashionable neighborhoods, parked outside art galleries, clubs, office buildings. More and more city workers arrive for work on bikes. The future is visible in the increasing number of bikes you see all over the urban landscape. This simple form of transportation is about to make our city more livable, more human and better connected.”

Byrne was writing about New York City, but ultimately that is what is new about transportation in the 21st century, in cities as well as in suburbs — bicycles, a better network of sidewalks, better maps and cell phone apps that make taking transit easier, and other low-cost alternatives to driving that are easy and convenient and more conducive to improved public health. And in the meantime we must also find ways to invest in the transit infrastructure that will complement our extensive system of roads and highways with the goal of making our transportation system, and our communities, more complete and competitive. The Top 10 Lists on the following pages highlight some regions that are doing well along our Moving metrics, getting closer to building complete communities.

Transit Is Not Just For Big Cities

It’s difficult and expensive to serve sprawling low-density suburbs with public transportation. But transit agencies are coming up with innovations. Here are five suburban transit ideas that work:

  • Sprawling, suburban Prince William County, Virginia, is difficult to serve with public transit, but OmniLink’s flexible bus routes allow riders to schedule trips two hours in advance. Bus drivers and dispatchers use a real-time GPS system to coordinate trips up to three-quarters of a mile off the main line.
  • Highway 101 in L.A. is one of the most congested freeways in the U.S., but the Orange bus rapid transit line provides a hugely successful alternative for L.A.’s suburban San Fernando Valley because it connects residents with so many job centers and because dedicated lanes and signal priority at intersections ensure fast travel times
  • Buses are permitted to drive on reconstructed shoulder lanes along highways in order to bypass stop-and-go traffic congestion, saving transit riders time and frustration in parts of Minnesota, Ohio, Florida, Washington, California, Kansas and Virginia.
  • The New York City metro area has the most extensive transit network in the U.S. but driving is required to get to stations in some suburbs. However, when New Jersey Transit wanted to build a parking lot at the Maplewood commuter rail station the town protested, preferring to set up a shuttle service. Then a concierge service opened in the station, allowing commuters to patronize local business, return library books, send clothes to the cleaners, and have take-out food waiting upon their return from work.
  • Ridership on Orlando’s Lymmo downtown circulator more than doubled when it was converted to a bus rapid transit line with exclusive lanes, signal priority, stations with large shelters and real-time bus arrival information, and low-floor buses. The free service is part of a redevelopment strategy that has led to significant development downtown.

Serving Rural America

Rural Americans spend a staggering amount of their income on transportation – as much as 42 percent – with low-income households suffering the biggest burden. Expanding cost-effective transit options through innovative programming and resource sharing is key to improving the health and prosperity of rural residents and in making these communities more economically viable into the future, yet funding still prioritizes new highways. However, there are rural transit innovations:

  • In Alabama small communities use state and county vehicles including school buses to provide access to jobs and services.
  • California’s Kings County offers an innovative system of 346 vanpools and 23 rural bus routes to ensure access to schools, jobs and services in the rural San Joaquin Valley. Workers can self-organize vanpools and designate a driver; the county provides the vans and insurance.
  • York County Community Action Corporation in Maine provides an array of transit options over a 1,000-square-mile service area, operating bus transit to jobs and training, day care, shopping and medical appointments. A huge volunteer driver program provides service to residents whose needs cannot otherwise be met: Drivers volunteer their time and vehicles and are reimbursed only for mileage and tolls.
  • Mason County Transit in Wisconsin coordinates and shares resources with its school district in order to make the best use of available buses and drivers and to provide for economies such as buying fuel at bulk prices. The agency transports students to and from after-school activities if they have to miss the bus to participate; school buses, in turn, augment transit service during the afternoon commute when all the transit buses are in use.
  • St. John’s Council on Aging in St. Augustine, FL, began as a meal program serving seniors but now provides bus and shuttle service and has persuaded developers to contribute to a trust fund for public transit in lieu of building roads.

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