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The five principles of a Bike New Deal

Last week, congressional Democrats released a vision for the future, a Green New Deal to address climate change by “overhauling transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible.”

To us, the best bang for the buck in overhauling our transportation systems would be making them safe, convenient, and accessible for people who walk and bike. The bold idea of a Bicycle Friendly America for everyone, that also welcomes and provides dignity to pedestrians, is one that can eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, while addressing the public health crises of 35,000+ traffic deaths each year and chronic diseases associated with physical inactivity. Building better places for people who walk and bike is technologically feasible today and only requires leadership to make it a priority.

In our recent 2018 Benchmarking Report, the League found the U.S. is in the midst of a public health crisis of physical inactivity and deadly roads. The Bike New Deal addresses the urgency to act, and act in a big way to make biking and walking better for everyone.

Here are the five major investments a Bike New Deal should address to mobilize Americans around the goals of a healthier, more sustainable future for everyone. 

Connected, safe, all-ages bicycling networks in our communities

A major part of creating a Bicycle Friendly America for Everyone in a Bike New Deal is building the foundations of our communities: sidewalks and bikeways and other infrastructure that are designed for the safety of the most vulnerable road users. For walking, this would mean that there are federally-funded sidewalks or other walking infrastructure that meets or exceeds ADA-compliance and provides accessible, safe, and healthy transportation options to everyone. 

Similarly, the Bike New Deal would catalyze a culture of universalism for bicycling networks among federal, state, and local transportation agencies.This would mean bicycling networks are made safe and accessible for the most vulnerable based upon a comprehensive, federally-supported effort to create widely accepted standards adopted by every state DOT, MPO, and other transportation agencies. This investment in physical networks, and the research, engineering, planning, and community networks to accomplish those networks within the many agencies involved in our built environment, can transform how agencies approach transportation in a way that policies alone cannot.

Estimated cost: $10-20 per capita for 30 years, or $3-6 billion per year. This cost estimate is based on the per capita cost of the Los Angeles ADA settlement for its sidewalk network.

Bicycling mega projects like the East Coast Greenway completed in ten years, connecting our communities.

The establishment of the interstate highway system in the 1950s reshaped American culture and the way we think about transportation. It also established driving cars as the preeminent mode of transportation around which state departments of transportation were organized.

In our vision for a Bike New Deal, the League sees mega-projects as a way to reframe the status quo. Every state should be connected by a nationwide network of safe, long-distance bicycle or shared-use routes, providing an incredible cultural and recreational resource that connects Americans in a way to emphasizes the human scale and the impressive vastness of the United States. Core projects would include the East Coast Greenway (ECG), a 3,000 mile route from Florida to Maine; the Great American Rail Trail (GART), a 4,000 mile trail from Washington DC to Washington state; and portions of the US Bicycle Routes System (USBRS) for at least every state that is not covered by the ECG or GART.

Within 10 years, we could see a transformation in long-distance bicycling, tourism, and the idea of how people can experience America, connecting communities small and large, urban and rural. The bold vision of a safe way to make long-distance trips will pay off in thousands or millions of small interactions, human connections, and people experiencing the diversity and hospitality of America in a way that is simply not possible on a highway – and, of course, economic development opportunities.

Estimated cost: $5-10 billion over 10 years, $500 million to $1 billion per year. Based on $1 million per mile and assuming 1/3 of ECG and ½ of GART are already built, and that USBRS will be built to along existing right-of-way appropriate to the conditions based on new or available research. 

Commuter benefits promote active transportation and access to jobs for low-income and unemployed people, rather than higher income individuals at larger corporations parking in dense cities 

The United States currently provides over $9 billion per year in commuter tax benefits. These benefits are disproportionately utilized by the professional class of workers who work at large companies in the most expensive cities. The top 25% of earners are more than six times more likely to have access to subsidized commuting benefits than the lowest 25% of earners. This regressive tax benefit should be replaced by a progressive tax benefit that provides assistance to the most vulnerable, increases the ability of low-income people and the unemployed to access jobs, and encourages bicycling, walking, and transit use – rather than primarily encouraging car use in already congested urban centers.

Estimated cost: No new cost, unless housing assistance or other subsidies are pursued. Rather, this could raise revenue if we simply repealed the regressive tax exemption for employer-provided free parking and paid parking – potentially on the order of $7 billion per year. If we reinvested those tax receipts in subsidies for low-income persons and the unemployed, we would likely see a return on investment through increased access to jobs, healthcare, education, and other services that raise payroll taxes and reduce the long-term cost of public services.

The US is a leader again on vehicle and road safety standards

While car companies try to sell us on the idea that self-driving cars will make everyone safe, the United States no longer has the same safety standards for vehicles found in most developed countries that would protect other road users like bicyclists and pedestrians – including the testing of automated systems that could save lives today. The failure to ensure that vehicles are safe for all people is, in part, why the United States has about twice as many traffic fatalities per capita as other developed countries.

By meeting global vehicle safety standards, through NHTSA’s New Car Assessment Program testing, the United States could reduce traffic fatalities. This may be particularly true for people who bike and walk, because the United States is 5-10 years behind global safety standards for “non-occupants,” also known as kids walking and biking to school, people crossing the street, and people trying to walk to their car in a parking lot. For instance, in 2018 European regulators began testing vehicles for their ability to automating brake for people biking and walking, but the United States currently has no plan to implement such a test. 

Estimated cost: NHTSA currently gets $300 million per year for vehicle safety and safety research and development. Let’s double that, so another $300 million per year, for a total cost of $3 billion over the next 10 years. If we want to really be a leader, we may want to invest even more to become a leader in the safety testing of automated vehicles.

By 8th grade every child in the US has received bicycling education on a bicycle

A major barrier to getting more people bicycling and walking is that there is rarely publicly funded education that teaches people to safely make decisions between various transportation modes and the ability to safely use the modes available to them. By providing bicycle education in schools, a generation will be empowered to use a low-carbon, low-cost form of transportation.

Declining rates of youth cycling

As we found in the 2018 Benchmarking Report, biking and walking are becoming more and more rare for children ages 5-15 based on federal data. Without action to create a culture of physical activity, we will in effect be training a generation to sit, be sedentary, and rely upon driving or being driven in private vehicles as their primary mode of transportation.

Estimated cost: $100 million per year, for a total of $1 billion over 10 years (this would double the amount spent on “national activities” identified in this article).

Estimated Total Cost vs. Status Quo

Total estimated cost of a Bike New Deal = up to $74 billion over 10 years. This is less than 4% of the surface transportation needs identified by the American Society for Civil Engineers, a little more than double what is slated to be spent on nine “highway boondoggles” identified by US PIRG, and less than the estimated cost of California’s High Speed Rail.

Current expected spending = $13 billion over 10 years ($10 billion for biking and walking, and $3 billion for NHTSA vehicle safety testing & R&D). At this rate of spending, it will take over 50 years to make the investments discussed.

Note: These estimates do not include the current cost of or revenue raised by changes to the approximately $7-9 billion per year in commuter tax benefits that primarily support parking.

What do you want to see in a Bike New Deal?

We believe that these five investments would do a lot to overhaul our transportation system to create a lower-carbon, healthier, and safer transportation system. We also realize that they leave out a lot of potential opportunities. Please let us know what you would include in your Bike New Deal or how you might add to our list so that these investments provide the most benefit to society. Tweet @BikeLeague or #BikeNewDeal or email [email protected]