Reducing Short Car Trips Could Provide Big Benefits, Trail Group Says

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A new study tries to put a dollar value on what it would mean if more Americans traveled distances in the one to five mile range by foot or bicycle.

Many of the trips Americans take in cars and other motor vehicles are relatively short and if people started traveling more of these distances on foot or by bicycle instead it could yield significant benefits, a group that advocates for trail infrastructure says in a new report.

Federal data the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy cites in a study released on Tuesday shows about 88% of one to three mile trips and 93% of three to five mile trips taken in the U.S. during 2017 were made using cars, trucks or motorcycles.

The report presents two scenarios, one “modest” and one “substantial,” where the number of annual vehicle miles driven declines as the share of bicycle, walking and transit trips increases.

Their report says that with the status quo the annual monetary benefits in the U.S. from walking and biking total around $34 billion. Those benefits, the study concludes, would grow to $73 billion under the modest scenario and $138 billion under the substantial one.

These scenarios involve a number of specific assumptions. For example, the proportion of trips under one mile completed by walking or cycling would rise from its current level of about 33% to 50% in the modest scenario and 62% in the substantial scenario.

The conservancy takes into account and assigns value to factors like fuel savings, reduced emissions, improved health outcomes and economic development tied to trails. 

“Our research is showing transformative benefits of active transportation,” said Kevin Mills, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s vice president of policy. “Active transportation,” generally refers to getting around by doing a physical activity, often biking or walking.

The conservancy is pushing for Congress to direct more money toward bicycle and pedestrian projects and says that only about 2% of federal transportation dollars now go toward this area, with these funds totaling about $20 billion all together over the past three decades.

States and local governments also have an important role to play as well when it comes to planning for and investing in trail infrastructure, the group says.

Leslie Richards, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, during an online seminar focused on the new report’s findings, explained that her agency tries to work with local communities to examine how state projects and assets align with the goals these places have.

“What we are seeing is a lot more active transportation requests,” she said.

Richards highlighted a road reconstruction project in Pennsylvania’s Pocono region that coincided with a three-county plan to build a multi-use trail.

PennDOT incorporated a retaining wall into the road project, which helped lay the groundwork for the trail, allowing the counties to start work on it earlier than scheduled and to save money.

Richards noted that when Amazon in 2017 and 2018 was seeking a city to host a second headquarters, the company demonstrated a special interest in places where workers would have a variety of options for commuting to work and where they’d have access to trails and other outdoor recreation opportunities.

“Housing, transportation and workforce are very tightly tied together,” she added.

Martha Williams, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, similarly indicated that the findings in the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy report mirror what she’s witnessing in her state.

“It’s hard to overestimate the positive impacts,” she said. “Those communities that have been able to invest in trails in Montana have seen just remarkable returns.”

“We're seeing the benefits to all communities, whether large or small, whether urban or rural, and really in connecting communities,” Williams added. “Not only the tourism business and draw, but also just general business draw and drawing talent to certain communities.”

A pending transportation funding plan in the U.S. Senate would raise the amount of money for cycling and pedestrian programs by about 40% to around $1.2 billion annually. But Rails-to-Trails Conservancy advocates have said this amount still falls short of the levels they’d like to see.

Among the conservancy’s priorities is expanding the number of trails that connect to routine destinations, while also building out segments of spine trail between communities and states.

The group’s marquee proposal is for a coast-to-coast bicycle and pedestrian path that would stretch about 3,700 miles, across a dozen states, and incorporate about 130 existing segments of trail.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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