Why Your Community Should Invest in Bicycle and Pedestrian Infrastructure

Many communities hesitate when it comes to spending limited tax dollars on pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

Cities often have competing priorities – updating infrastructure like water and sewer mains compete with funding for parks and trails. But they don’t always have to.

When tax dollars are needed to maintain or improve existing roads, sewer and water systems, many officials question spending money on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. But, by taking a closer look at the benefits this type of infrastructure can bring to a community, you may want to consider investing in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Infrastructure can range from high-end signature projects to simpler, cost-effective projects.

Here, SEH senior planner Nancy Dosdall and senior traffic engineer Heather Kienitz examine eight potential benefits to your community when you invest in the improvement and/or construction of non-motorized access and connectivity infrastructure.

1. It costs less than you might think

When people feel safe commuting or running errands by bicycle or on foot, there is less vehicle traffic. While bicycle paths or complete sidewalks can be expensive, their narrower width makes them significantly less expensive than new street infrastructure. Sometimes, the simple addition of a painted bike lane or crosswalk can improve the safety of people walking and biking. The markings also make motorists more aware of pedestrian and bicyclist presence.

bicycle infrastructure can be improved
Sometimes, bicycle infrastructure can be improved by efforts like changing lane striping/painting on an existing roadway to provide buffered bicycle lanes.

For example, the City of Farmington, New Mexico has made building new bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure a priority. According to Isaac Blue Eyes, Traffic Engineering Administrator, before each road paving, overlay or improvement project the City checks right-of-way and pavement widths to see if there might be room for bicycle lanes. The City often finds room for bike lanes, because many of their streets are oversized for the existing traffic. In addition to making it safer for cyclists and pedestrians, officials have found the narrower drive lanes result in less speeding, swerving between lanes and therefore less traffic accidents. A recent project to remove existing striping and restripe a critical connecting street cost $4 per foot or $8,040 for 2,000 feet of road.

2. Increase in public health and safety

The 2018 Benchmarking Report on Bicycling and Walking says cities that have invested more in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, have lower fatality rates of bicycle/vehicle and bicycle/pedestrian crashes.

Curb extensions, or “bump outs,” are another way of increasing safety for pedestrians and cyclists. By ‘bumping out' the curb area at an intersection, the crossing distance for pedestrians is shortened. At the same time, visibility is increased between driver and pedestrian. Traffic calming measures like decreasing four lane roadways to three or two lanes can also help to increase safety, by eliminating vehicle weaving and also by reducing the potential for the multiple threat pedestrian crash. This crash occurs on a multilane road when a driver stops to allow a pedestrian to pass, but the driver in the adjacent lane cannot see the pedestrian as the line of sight is blocked by the stopped vehicle, exposing the pedestrian to being struck by the second vehicle.

Traffic signal timing is another method for increasing pedestrian and bicycle safety. When using leading pedestrian intervals, or LPIs, traffic signals are timed to give pedestrians a head start to cross the street, allowing them to become established in the crosswalk and thus more visible to drivers. In this case, pedestrians receive the walk signal three to five seconds before any conflicting vehicle movement begins.

Finally, using rectangular rapid flashing beacons (RRFBs) can increase safety at pedestrian crossings. These are the bright, flashing, strobe-like indicators activated by pedestrians wishing to cross a roadway. According to the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), pedestrian crashes are reduced by 47 percent when using RRFBs.

What’s more, a study by the Journal of Transport and Health concluded that a rise in the number of bicyclists in a city correlated to safer streets for all users, not only bicyclists. Protected and separated bike facilities are among the infrastructure that most contribute to rider safety. By implementing physical barriers between riders and drivers, safety significantly increases.

Related Content: Three Simple Lessons from America's Most Bike-Friendly Communities

Increase in public health

Aside from an increase in safety, riding a bicycle is an aerobic workout. The Centers for Disease Control partnered with the Benchmarking Report noted above to state that moderate physical activity each week can lead to health benefits like preventing hypertension, diabetes, obesity and asthma, according to the report.

It’s often said that bicycles don’t pollute, and it bears repeating. Of course, we can’t do anything about the manufacturing process, but once they hit the road, there isn’t a cleaner form of wheeled transportation.

3. Economic development

Bicycles cost money therefore contributing to economic development. Creating more infrastructure can contribute tax money into a community. In fact, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources study found that the value of goods and services spent by bicyclists totaled $261 million. It also helped support more than 5,000 jobs and $35 million in income taxes.

Many bicycle models aren’t cheap. If people are going to use bicycle infrastructure, they usually have to purchase a bike. Serious bicyclists often purchase more than one, coupled with myriad peripheral devices, clothing, carriers, and other items. These purchases often depend on people being employed at bike shops, sporting goods stores and other retail establishments. Many consumers opt for the tactile experience of purchasing a bicycle in person, where they can better determine, fit, feel and function. What’s more, bicycles need maintenance and tuning – jobs often reserved for professionals. All of these contribute tax money into a community.

Boulder, Colorado officials estimate approximately $52 million in economic activity occurs annually because of the local bicycle industry. Regardless of state, the economic benefits are apparent.

4. It may already exist

In smaller towns and more rural areas, it’s likely that off-road bicycle and hiking trails may already exist. Though, they may not be officially sanctioned trails. Whether it’s unimproved roads, old rail corridors, logging roads, irrigation canals or simply volunteer trails, sometimes all that is needed is to map and connect the informal systems. Of course, be careful that the existing network is on public land or easements have been granted permission by the private landowner.

converted bicycle path
Abandoned railroad beds are often converted into bicycle paths. Many communities already have these facilities in use by cyclists.

For example, Trails 2000, a Durango, Colorado trail advocacy group, was founded in 1989 exceeded their goal of building 200 miles of trails by the year 2000. The group’s mission is to plan, build and maintain trails, educate trail users, and encourage connectivity on roads, paths and trails. According to Mary Monroe, the group’s executive director, connectivity is an important part of the area’s trail infrastructure. Connectivity refers to how hard surface trails and bike paths intersect with soft surface trails to create a vibrant trail community. Because of the group’s work, Durango is frequently listed as one of the best cycling destinations in the country.

5. Increased tourism/recreation potential

When your community becomes a destination for biking and outdoor activity, the residual positive effects that drawing in a tourism crowd can have become obvious. Hotels, supermarkets, restaurants, shops and more are just a few of the businesses that can benefit by attracting out of town guests.

51 miles of bicycle paths
A system of 51 miles of bicycle paths turned traditionally snow-focused areas of Colorado into top summer bicycle destinations.

For example, Summit County, Colorado and the towns of Breckenridge, Frisco, Dillon, Silverton, and Keystone Resort, are a well-known winter recreation destinations. But what might not be as well-known is the fact that these communities began investing heavily in cycling infrastructure in the 1980s. Today, they have a system of more 51 miles of cycle paths, and are widely regarded as some of the top destinations for cycling. The area has grown from solely a winter based economy to a year round, recreation based destination.

6. Social equity

people walking along a trail

Not everyone drives. There are those that don’t have access or the ability to drive a car. Many small communities are lacking good public transit. Children under the legal driving age, people who choose not to own vehicles, and the economically challenged are just a few groups that cannot or do not drive. In these instances, infrastructure that works for wheelchairs, pedestrians, bicycles, strollers, scooters and others can be a great equalizer.

Most people have access to a bicycle and most have learned how to ride one. They can be expensive, but budget models are also readily available and there are also affordable bike share programs around the country.

Related Content: How to Address 8 Common Challenges of Complete Streets Design

7. Increased social interactions and community spirit

people biking along a trail

Cyclists are a community. Numerous social media groups exist and in-person cycling meetings take place in communities across the country. People gather together to ride cities, mountain bike trails and parks. When cities or geographic areas are recognized as hotbeds of cycling activity, cyclists travel to those areas to experience it – and often come back, time and again. Communities sometimes hold annual bike races or charity events surrounding cycling activity. The same can be said for races like marathons, 5K and 10K events, which often take place on paved bicycle infrastructure. These types of events garner lots of community support and are excellent for rallying people around a cause.

What’s more, bicycle groups exist for just about every type of riding you can think of – road biking, single track racing, working mothers, and the ever-popular ‘fat tire’ style bikes. Just log into Facebook and search for the group you’re interested in, it’s likely your community with have a group dedicated to it.

In addition to that, winter cycling groups may take advantage of trail systems often abandoned by other riders during the colder, snowier months.

8. We’re all pedestrians

At the end of the day, almost everyone can be categorized as pedestrians at some point. Even those that rely primarily on single occupancy vehicles for most of their trips are pedestrians once they arrive at their destination. Having a framework built out supporting non-motorized travel is an investment everyone can benefit from.

Bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure supports everyone in a community, not only people who ride a bicycle or walk as their primary mode of transport. Communities can see upticks in both economic prosperity and public health and safety. Improved bicycle and walking infrastructure shouldn’t be thought of as privileges reserved only for the wealthiest communities, but as a right everyone can enjoy. With a little creative thought and ingenuity, it may be easier than you thought.

About the Authors

Nancy Dosdall

Nancy Dosdall, AICP, is a senior planner, outdoor enthusiast and proponent of non-motorized travel infrastructure everywhere. Contact Nancy

Heather Kienitz

Heather Kienitz, PE*, is a senior multimodal traffic engineer, Complete Streets advocate and champion of bicycle and pedestrian safety. Contact Heather

*Registered Professional Engineer in MN

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