Sidewalks, bike lanes and trails are essential transportation infrastructure
© Getty Images

Soon, we will see exactly what cards Congress is holding on transportation infrastructure as both the House and the Senate prepare to mark up their versions of the surface transportation reauthorization bill. We may finally be moving beyond infrastructure week and into infrastructure action.

In the final days of bill writing, we cannot stress enough the importance of fundamentally rethinking America’s transportation priorities. Half of the trips people take in the U.S. are within a 20-minute bike ride and one-quarter are a 20-minute walk. Making it convenient and safe for more people to make more of these trips on bike, on foot or by wheelchair would be transformative.

In both chambers, transportation and infrastructure goals are being defined in the context of real and present challenges facing our country — the climate, economy, safety and equity. But making good on these goals will require a different approach to transportation; a focus on how people get where they are going when they are not driving, not just how we move more cars more quickly.

ADVERTISEMENT

A generation ago, Congress advanced visionary change in our transportation system. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 signaled a significant shift in policies and priorities, moving America beyond the Interstate highway era. The bill introduced innovative new programs to provide funding to create the biking and walking infrastructure that is now the backbone of active transportation in our country.

Thanks to the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) and the Recreational Trails Program (RTP), multiuse trails, protected bike lanes and sidewalks have improved rural, suburban and urban communities across America. Despite the success of these programs in the decades since they were introduced, lawmakers have done little more to bolster them than to periodically replenish coffers. A failure to move beyond this innovation of 30 years ago has left us with lackluster federal transportation policy that is not keeping pace with the evolving mobility needs and priorities of Americans.

A trio of bipartisan bills pending in Congress offers the transformative vision we need. Two of the bills — the Transportation Alternatives Enhancements Act (H.R.463/S.614) and the RTP Full Funding Act (H.R.1864) — provide increased funding and necessary policy changes to secure the legacy programs that helped build the nation’s current multiuse trails, protected bike lanes and sidewalks. The third bill — Connecting America’s Active Transportation System Act (H.R.2991/S.684) — provides the dedicated, focused funding necessary to quickly create walking and biking networks. It’s a critical missing link in our federal transportation policy.

Connecting America’s Active Transportation System Act provides $500 million per year through federal competitive grants to build connected active-transportation systems — leveraging existing infrastructure to maximize its utility. This new program balances the broad reach of existing programs with focused investments to make active transportation networks functional in a reasonable time period. It also provides opportunities to create connections across state lines, ensuring interstate continuity and benefits to urban, suburban and rural jurisdictions.

Existing plans to fill strategic gaps in regional trail and active transportation networks will collectively require many billions of dollars in new investment. We know that competition for these funds will be fierce, with shovel-worthy projects ready to be deployed, creating new jobs and unlocking powerful benefits for those regions and the country.

ADVERTISEMENT

The evidence is on our side. Shifting short trips to walking and biking by investing in connected active transportation systems has the potential to generate $138 billion in economic value annually — including new jobs and direct spending across rural, urban and suburban communities. The transportation sector is the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions — shifting more trips to walking and biking could cut transportation emissions by 54 million metric tons of CO2 each year. For more than a decade, the rates of fatalities and serious injuries among pedestrians and people on bikes have relentlessly risen with a growing racial disparity as Black and brown pedestrians and bicyclists perish at an alarming rate.

The pending reauthorization of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act is a chance to be bold, investing in the future of U.S. transportation that Americans and our planet demand. The COVID-19 pandemic strained our communities and accelerated already rising trends in trail use, walking and biking. People are creating new transportation norms that center walking and biking in their daily routines, and local leaders predict that these behavior patterns will sustain. Communities are turning to active transportation as a strategy for economic development.

Like 30 years ago, the current context demands a new approach to federal transportation policy.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle say they are committed to a bill that meets this moment. The Connecting America’s Active Transportation System Act is what it will take for them to fulfill that promise. It provides the ongoing, focused investments needed to create the transportation infrastructure that makes it convenient, safe and equitable for Americans to get where they need to go without a car.

It is the obvious and necessary next step in our nation’s active transportation policy.

Kevin Mills is the vice president of policy at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and the founder of the Partnership for Active Transportation. Noa Banayan is the director of federal affairs at PeopleForBikes. Mike McGinn is the executive director of America Walks and the former mayor of Seattle.