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National Bicycling and Walking Study: 15-Year Update

The most remarkable thing to me about the latest status report on the National Bicycling and Walking Study ( is that it’s the 15-year update. Fifteen years? I remember like it was only yesterday sitting down with Bill Wilkinson and the folks in the office of then-Congressman Martin Sabo to suggest the study, and that was way back in 1990 – then it got funded, consultants were hired, and the report was finally delivered to Congress on National Bike to Work Day 1994. Surely it can’t be that long ago…

The 15-year update is really pretty positive. It captures many of the exciting new trends and initiatives that have helped increase use and improve safety, especially in the last two or three years. The report is rightfully optimistic about where these trends will take us – and with continued leadership of the Department of Transportation and Secretary LaHood, who knows what we can achieve together.

I must say, though, that there is something missing for me. The original study came at a time of similarly high expectations. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act was really kicking into gear and spending was increasing; states had newly-hired, enthusiastic bicycle and pedestrian coordinators;  the USDOT and FHWA themselves had newly appointed bicycle and pedestrian program managers; and after more than a decade of real neglect, bicycling and walking was starting to be taken seriously again at all levels of government. The case studies written as background to the overall report provided an invaluable snapshot of where bicycling and walking issues really were in the early 1990s.

The National Study itself had a very specific 69-point action plan for the Federal Government, as well as lengthy recommended action plans for state and local government. The five-year update reported on progress towards each of those 69 action items – and to be fair many of them had been completed. The 10-year update didn’t do a whole lot more than search and replace the dates and plug in some new crash and census data. So while the 15-year report references the new USDOT policy statement and documents the great success of the Safe Routes to School, Complete Streets and other programs…I’m still wondering where the action plan and leadership is for FHWA and NHTSA to capitalize on all this.

As the National Study came out in 1994 – hey, wasn’t there a World Cup going on then as well…right here in the USA? – Federal Highways and NHTSA embarked on a multi-year, multi-million dollar research program that resulted in crash analysis tools, level of service measures, training courses on the ISTEA planning process, a university-level design course for engineers, a bicycle safety research synthesis…all kinds of good stuff that helped move the ball forward. When TEA-21 was passed, FHWA came right out with detailed guidance on the new law and on what we now call complete streets.

That’s the kind of leadership we need anew at FHWA and NHTSA to really turn Secretary LaHood’s policy and support into concrete action. And in particular we need FHWA and NHTSA to demonstrate that kind of leadership to the State Department’s of Transportation because, if truth be told, a 15-year report on how state DOTs are doing in this realm would not make for such encouraging reading.

So, I am delighted to see that bicycle use and walking are up from 7.9 percent to 11.9 percent of trips and that fatalities involving the two modes are down 12 percent and 22 percent respectively since 1994 – and I am looking for the next milestone to be set; and this time with a deadline! We need to get to a 20 percent mode share by 2020 to really start to see the kinds of health, environmental, energy and traffic benefits we know we can all enjoy from getting more people out of their cars and onto their feet and their bikes.  That’s the target we’re looking for now.

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