Cleaner air, quieter streets, and more people biking and walking outdoors – the pandemic has created a bit of a silver lining for communities willing to capitalize. Throughout this article, we share eight benefits of investing in non-motorized infrastructure, including economic development, public health, climate resilience and more.
COVID-19 has confirmed what many planners and engineers have been advocating for years: walking and biking are critical modes of transportation and recreation that deserve more attention as well as funding. The pandemic has tragically left schools, businesses and many modes of transportation either closed or significantly modified. However, it has also brought to light the strategic value of non-motorized infrastructure.
Understandably so, trail use is up more than 200% compared to last year. We will eventually reach a post-pandemic way of thinking and living, meaning some things will return to “normal,” but many habits – like the rise of outdoor recreation and trail usage – are likely to remain long term.
The benefits of investing in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure cannot be denied as communities seek to attract residents, build their tax bases, spark their economies despite limited budgets and an unknown future, ensure transportation equity for all, promote public health and address climate change. If properly planned for and executed, here are eight benefits of investing in non-motorized infrastructure within your community.
1. Cost savings
Bicycle paths and complete sidewalks are comparatively less expensive than building new roadway infrastructure. While still a large investment, their narrower widths make them a much smaller price tag per linear foot.
In addition to lower project costs, such efforts can also improve safety and comfort for people walking, biking and driving. Specifically, markings like those shown below can be added at relatively low cost to existing streets to encourage drivers to travel at slower speeds by narrowing their lanes. This can also make them more aware of bicyclists. The addition of the buffer between modes also makes the street more comfortable for people biking.
For example, the City of Farmington in New Mexico has made building new bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure a priority. According to Traffic Engineering Administrator Isaac BlueEyes, before each road paving, overlay or improvement project, the City checks right-of-way and pavement widths to see if there might be room for bicycle lanes. The City often finds room for bike lanes because many of their streets are oversized for the existing traffic.
In addition to making it safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, officials have found that narrower driving lanes result in less speeding and lane swerving as well as fewer traffic accidents. A recent project to remove existing striping and restripe a critical connecting street cost just $4 per foot (or $8,000 for 2,000 feet of road).
The City of Minneapolis has found similar opportunities to repurpose auto lanes for people walking and biking; including temporary conditions through their pandemic response (snapshot shown in the image below), and also permanently with projects such as the historic 10th Avenue SE Bridge rehabilitation. The new bridge deck will reduce the number of auto lanes from four to two while widening the bicycle lanes and sidewalks. A curb is also being installed between the bicycle lanes and auto lanes to further increase comfort and safety for the 1,500+ people who bike or walk across this bridge over the Mississippi River each day.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board closed off various parkway segments to auto traffic to accommodate the rise in pedestrian and bicycle demand as a result of the pandemic, while also increasing physical distancing.
2. Increased public health and safety
The 2018 Benchmarking Report on Bicycling and Walking (published every two years) reports that bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities "may be reduced through proactive infrastructure, policy, education and other community investments in bicycling and walking." Here are four of the many examples representing how:
Curb extensions (or bump outs) are an effective way of increasing safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. By "bumping out" the curb area at an intersection, the crossing distance for pedestrians is shortened. At the same time, visibility is increased between driver and pedestrian. Traffic calming measures like decreasing four-lane roadways to three or two lanes can also help to increase safety by eliminating vehicle weaving and also by reducing the potential for the multiple threat pedestrian crash. This crash occurs on a multi-lane road when a driver stops to allow a pedestrian to pass, but the driver in the adjacent lane cannot see the pedestrian as the line of sight is blocked by the stopped vehicle – exposing the pedestrian to being struck by the second vehicle.
Traffic signal timing is another method for increasing pedestrian and bicyclist safety. When using leading intervals for bicyclists or pedestrians (LBIs and LPIs), traffic signals are timed to give both parties a head start. This allows either the bicyclist or pedestrian to become established in their space and thus more visible to drivers. For example, a pedestrian may receive the walk signal 3-5 seconds before any conflicting turning vehicle movement begins.
Rectangular rapid flashing beacons (RRFBs) can also increase safety at pedestrian crossings. These are the bright, flashing, strobe-like indicators activated by pedestrians wishing to cross a roadway. According to the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, pedestrian crashes are reduced by 47% when using RRFBs.