Four areas that shared $100 million saw growth in biking and walking, with less pollution. spent on health care
If you build it, they will bike. A lot.
That, in essence, is the conclusion of a four-year, $100 million pilot project in four communities, including the Twin Cities, on whether investing in bike and pedestrian infrastructure pays off.
It does, the U.S. Department of Transportation said in a report submitted to Congress this week. Not only did biking increase by nearly 50 percent over the three-year life of the four projects, but there were 7,700 fewer tons of carbon dioxide emitted, 1.2 million fewer gallons of gas burned and a $6.9 million a year reduction in health care costs.
"This is something that people want," said Marianne Fowler, vice president of federal relations for the Bike-to-Trails Conservancy, a national advocacy group. "It is clearly one of the best, most cost-effective investments possible."
Minneapolis and its surrounding communities made up the largest and most populated area to receive a fourth of the grant. The others were Sheboygan County in Wisconsin, Marin County in California and Columbia, Mo.
The idea was to go beyond the usual dead-end patchwork of trails, bike lanes and pedestrian paths. Instead, each community got about $25 million to devise its own planned, cohesive transportation system for bikes and walking, along with education and other programs.
"It's only when you have a system that you get a dramatic shift," Fowler said. "It gets people to where they want to go without dumping them into a four-lane highway."
In Minneapolis and its surrounding communities, the nonprofit group Bike Walk Twin Cities ran the project, which has resulted in 75 miles of new bike lanes and trails, the Nice Ride bike sharing program and a "bike library," which lends bicycles to low-income people for six months at a stretch.
And the number of people who burn calories instead of gas to get around has soared, making Minneapolis one of the top bike-commuting cities in the country.
Bike Walk Twin Cities conducts annual surveys at 42 sites around the metro area, counting bikers within the same two-hour period on the same day each year. It found steady increases at most sites, totaling 52 percent more by the end of 2010.
For example, after the grant paid for a new bike connection link on the Lake Street Bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul, the number of bicyclists at that point increased by 218,000 people between 2007 and 2010.
The number of pedestrians increased by 18 percent overall between 2007 and 2010, according to the group.
That compares with a 15 percent increase in biking nationally between 2001 and 2009. In short, "in just three years the pilot communities achieved triple the expansion of biking that took the rest of America eight years to achieve," Fowler said.
There has been a measurable effect on air pollution. Though small, it's significant at a time when the Twin Cities area is getting close to violating some federal air standards and the state's pollution officials are concerned about how to meet new federal clean air rules that will be even harder to achieve, said Robert Moffitt, communications director for the Minnesota chapter of the American Lung Association.
"It's a step in the right direction," he said. "And it's a step we need to start taking in a serious way."
Overall, the air pollution not generated as a result of the shift to biking and walking would equal about 0.083 percent of the state's total air pollution load, said Greg Pratt, an air quality research scientist with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, who is also on the board of Bike Walk Twin Cities.
To make a serious dent in air pollution, the Twin Cities would have to increase its 3.5 to 4 percent bike commuting rate to 25 percent or more -- similar to that of many European cities, he said.
"Then you are talking about big numbers in the reduction of pollution and green house gases," he said.
The health effect in the Twin Cities is harder to measure, officials said. In the four communities, transportation officials estimated that the increase in biking and walking saved $6.9 million a year in health care costs by reducing premature death.
But a study by University of Wisconsin researchers last year found that if half of all short trips in the Twin Cities were done by bike in just the summer, each year 300 deaths and $57 million in medical costs would be averted.
Still, the report and its findings are not likely to affect how Congress funds transportation, Fowler said. The House and Senate are now wrangling a $100 billion federal transportation bill that does not include any new funds to build infrastructure for alternative modes of transportation. At best, she said, the bill will preserve most of the $821 million, about 1.5 percent of the federal transportation budget, that is now dedicated to building recreational bike trails, safe routes to schools and other programs.
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394