by Kim Krisberg
Mark Martin isn’t inclined to sit down and shut up — well, unless it’s on the seat of a bicycle.
“More people need joy in their lives and there’s a real simple way to get it: ride a bicycle,” Martin told me. “It’s a joyous thing to ride a bike.”
The Baton Rouge, La., bicyclist hasn’t owned a car in 20 years — “I just love my bike,” he said. In fact, he loves biking so much that he said he was driving people crazy talking about the need for better biking and pedestrian infrastructure in his community. Somebody ought to do something about it, he thought, and so he did. About six years ago, Martin founded Baton Rouge Advocates for Safe Streets, known simply as BRASS, and has been making (safe) inroads for his fellow bicyclists ever since.
Before BRASS, there weren’t a lot of bike-friendly spots in Martin’s community of East Baton Rouge Parish. There were a few unconnected and scattered bike lanes that had been installed as traffic calming devices and the older neighborhoods had sidewalks, but you couldn’t really get safely to and from desired destinations on a bicycle, he said. But today, with what Martin described as his “pleasant persistence,” things are beginning to turn around.
The biggest success so far is that local planning officials now consider biking and pedestrian infrastructure in their decision-making, Martin said, noting that “we are, I hope, on our way to getting this firmly entrenched in the thinking of the city parish.” For example, in 2005, the residents of East Baton Rouge Parish voted on and passed a bond issue to support street and roadway improvements via a local project known as the Green Light Plan. Under one of the plan’s projects, an already existing bike lane was slated for elimination, so Martin began gathering signatures to save it. It worked and since then, officials “have been pretty good about the Green Light projects being bike- and pedestrian-friendly,” he said. However, this is no time to back off — “unless we let them know that we’re continuing to pay attention, they’ll stop doing it,” he said.
Unfortunately, the same can be said at the federal level, where funds for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure face an uncertain future as well as powerful opponents. In Baton Rouge, it’s a battle Martin will be watching. “Federal funding is very important…that’s what our local folks are looking toward,” he said. “It’s critical for us as a locality and as a state in order to make any progress at all.”
Pedal to the Metal
For now, federal funds for bike and pedestrian infrastructure are safe, but it didn’t come without a fight.
First, a little background: The funds are included in a massive federal surface transportation spending bill known as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (or simply, SAFETEA-LU), which was signed into law in 2005 and officially expired in 2009. Since its expiration, the bill has been subject to short-term extensions to keep it alive, but has yet to be officially reauthorized by Congress. Within SAFETEA-LU is the Transportation Enhancement Program — this is where you’ll find funds for biking and walking. According to the National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse
“(TE) activities are federally funded, community-based projects that expand travel choices and enhance the transportation experience by improving the cultural, historic, aesthetic and environmental aspects of our transportation infrastructure.”
The TE program accounts for 1.5 percent of the overall transportation program, of which about one half is spent on bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
“This has made a real difference in communities across the country,” Kevin Mills, vice president of program at Rail-to-Trails Conservancy, told me. “You get a huge bang for your buck in terms of health, environmental conservation, historic preservation…we think it’s been one of the greatest unmitigated success stories in the nation’s transportation history.”
Nevertheless, the program has found its way onto the budgetary chopping block. In September during negotiations for SAFETEA-LU’s six-month extension, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., held up the bill, demanding that transportation enhancements be eliminated. Fortunately, for people who’d like to safely bike and walk around their communities, Coburn was not successful, but only because he cut a deal to release his hold on the bill: The next transportation bill may include language that would allow states to opt out of spending federal funds on transportation enhancements. This, say advocates, is not a good compromise.
“State departments of transportation have not been the friendliest to bike and pedestrian investment — it’s usually the local communities that are conscious of quality of life and safety impacts,” said David Goldberg, communications director at Transportation for America. “If we don’t have dedicated funds, we won’t see the results…an opt-out is really a nonstarter.”
From advocates’ perspectives, the debate is about more than creating an active and holistic transportation system — it’s also about using limited resources to reap the most benefits. Biking and pedestrian funds not only build physical infrastructures, they help prevent injury (14 percent of today’s roadway fatalities are among bicyclists and pedestrians); promote physical activity and better health (studies shows that people who live in neighborhoods where they can safely bike and walk are (surprise!) more likely to bike and walk); and encourage less dependence on motor vehicles, which translates to less pollution and fewer health risks and emergency room visits for people living with respiratory illness.
“Why would you spend your money on transportation in a way that exacerbates our health problems,” asked Caron Whitaker, campaign director at America Bikes. “I think Congress needs to be thinking more holistically. We will have another fight and it’ll be a chance to make health and transportation come together.”
In fact, public health folks are increasingly getting in on the transportation discussion, realizing the difference that smart transportation spending can have on Americans’ health. Eloisa Raynault, program manager for transportation, health and equity at the American Public Health Association told me that while she expects further battles over TE funds, the “silver lining” is that the debate is mobilizing advocates from a diverse range of disciplines.
“We know that biking and walking facilities are vital to increasing health and safety,” Raynault said. “(Cutting TE funds) is a risk that the nation can’t afford to take.”
For more info on biking and pedestrian funds as well as the intersections between transportation and public health, visit Transportation for America and APHA’s Transportation from a Public Health Perspective.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance health reporter living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for almost a decade. While her education is in journalism, her heart is in public health.