National bike study’s effects unclear

Minneapolis was one of four communities in a pilot program for biking and walking projects.

Taylor Nachtigal

A recently published national study involving Minneapolis found that if proper infrastructure is available, people will switch from driving to biking and walking.

Despite the findings from the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program, some bicycle advocates and experts aren’t confident the study is enough to prompt the federal government to seriously invest in bicycling infrastructure.

In 2005, the NTPP, a federal entity parceled $100 million between four communities across the country: Columbia, Mo., Marin County, Calif., Sheboygan County, Wis., and Minneapolis. Each pilot area was able to shape a pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure plan tailored to its specific needs, and the NTPP monitored their progress through December 2013.

Results of the study found that in Minneapolis, biking increased by 60 percent from 2007 to 2013. Over that time, the city also added 66 miles of bike lanes and more than 1,500 Nice Ride Minnesota bike-share bicycles.

While some bike advocates say the NTPP’s research should prompt federal investment in similar infrastructure projects, they’re pessimistic about the prospect of actually obtaining that funding.

“Having these pots of money that come from the federal government is huge,” said Bill Lindeke, a University researcher who specializes in bicycling advocacy. “Even though this is a really good return on investment … I don’t think there’s much hope for the federal government to actually implement this.”

Greg Lindsey, a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and an expert in infrastructure planning, said he wasn’t surprised by the study’s results.

“Biking and walking is increasing,” Lindsey said, “[so] it makes sense to try and support that.

“There’s good research that people will go out of their way to use bicycling infrastructure and people perceive them as safer.”

The four communities included in the NTPP’s study each received $25 million. But in the vast transportation landscape, that’s not much, said Hilary Reeves, the communications director for Transit for Livable Communities, the program that administered Minneapolis’ pilot projects.

She said federal funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects is low, which tasks local and city governments with deciding how to finance new bicycling infrastructure if they choose to pursue these projects.

“This is a general policy question. … It comes down to whether or not the elected leaders in a jurisdiction perceive that their populations want these types of investments made,” Lindsey said.

Communities will have to tailor pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure projects to their own needs, said Marianne Wesley Fowler, senior vice president of federal relations for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

The pilot program showed that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, she said, pointing to the diversity of the four communities included in the NTPP study, which ranged in population from about 115,000 to Minneapolis’ 400,000.

“When the program was launched, Minneapolis was the most urban, it was the coldest … and it was the place with the most extensive bike infrastructure and strongest bike community,” Reeves said.

Over the project’s six years, Lindeke said, the Minneapolis Public Works Department’s outlook on bicycling has become increasingly proactive and forward-thinking.

“There’s kind of been a shift in the city culture around transportation policy,” he said. “They’re a lot more willing to try new things and kind of think outside of the car.”

For example, Lindeke noted that the city didn’t wait for public prompting before installing neon green bike lanes along 15th Avenue Southeast after a University student was struck by a semi-truck and killed while riding her bike in 2011.

“Campus had been neglected for so long,” Lindeke said.

Simon Blenski, the city’s bicycle planner, said while Minneapolis is still improving, many other communities are looking to follow its lead.

While Lindeke said he was excited about Minneapolis’ role in the NTPP pilot program, he said it’s too early to tout the impact of the resulting bike projects.

“We funded these projects, but they haven’t [all] been constructed, so it’s way too early to talk about results,” he said.