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The case for funding bike infrastructure

It’s about climate change, public health, and economic development.

A person on a bike, seen from above, pedals along a green-painted strip on a cement road.
A person rides a Citi Bike in Kips Bay on March 19, 2021, in New York City.
Noam Galai/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Jake Moffitt, a 38-year-old data center technician in the Dallas area, was used to biking to work.

He did it all the time when he lived in Albuquerque, and thought he’d try the same when he moved to Dallas five years ago. Moffitt says he lasted six months before he threw in the towel.

“It was really just scary,” Moffitt told Vox. “Driving is pretty much the only option I have.”

One of the largest cities in Texas, Dallas doesn’t have much in the way of street biking infrastructure. According to city officials, it currently has 74 miles of bike facilities, including painted guidance on streets, buffered bike lanes, and just 5.3 miles of on-street protected bike lanes (which include a physical barrier that shields riders from car traffic). As a point of comparison, Austin has more than 50 miles of on-street protected bike lanes and Houston has at least 22 miles.

“Dallas’s street infrastructure is still woefully behind and inadequate,” says Heather McNair, president of the advocacy group BikeDFW, who attributes this lag to a lack of political will.

The gap is evident to many cyclists in Dallas, including Moffitt, who said there simply wasn’t a way for him to get from home to the office by bike without fearing for his safety.

“If you want to commute, you gotta be hyper-vigilant or have nothing to lose,” he told Vox. Another local biker echoed this sentiment in a Reddit post: “In a former life I would ride for coffee, beer and groceries, but here that feels like a death wish.”

Dallas and other cities, however, are facing increasing pressure to change. As interest in biking has grown — due in part to the pandemic and climate concerns — demand for better infrastructure and safer routes has surged across the country.

The benefits of better biking systems are evident: Cities like Portland, Oregon, and Boulder, Colorado, which have built out expansive biking networks, are poised to see big boosts for public health outcomes and economic development. Well-developed biking infrastructure could also prompt larger-scale lifestyle shifts that lead people to become less dependent on cars and more open to different modes of transportation, spurring reductions in congestion and pollution. And better biking networks mean that the activity is safer for those who already do it and more accessible to those who have yet to try.

Replicating the success of a place like Portland, however, will take a lot of investment — the sort of money many cities and states don’t have to spare. Congress’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill doesn’t provide the funding needed for such a transformative change, but it does offer support that could help cities — including Dallas — cover some of the costs.

For any federal infrastructure funding to make a significant difference, though, the city, and others like it, will have to treat these plans as a priority — something that hasn’t necessarily been done in the past.

Dallas’s on-street infrastructure is lagging

One of the biggest challenges that cyclists in Dallas face is a lack of street infrastructure.

The city’s trail system is robust and growing, but the presence of bike lanes on the road is sill relatively rare. Much of what exists now was only built in the past decade: Until 2012, Dallas didn’t have a single dedicated or shared bike lane, former bike transportation manager Jared White told Bloomberg.

The city has made some strides since then, according to officials. It’s put in a handful of protected bike lanes and is developing a new comprehensive plan for revamping its on-street bike facilities.

Still, it’s very much behind — even compared to other car-centric places in the state.

“Dallas was later than most cities with even starting with a bike lane network,” says Robin Stallings, head of the advocacy group BikeTexas.

Local advocates hope the city’s new proposal will see more success than a similar effort in 2011, which would have expanded bike infrastructure significantly — establishing 833 miles of on-street facilities — but suffered from slow and halting implementation. According to Philip Kingston, a former city council member and supporter of more bike infrastructure, the 2011 proposal and subsequent efforts were never given the investment required to be fully effective.

“City management never took it seriously and it was never funded properly,” Kingston told Vox. As of 2021, McNair estimates that only about 20 percent of that plan has actually been completed.

Without enough on-street bike lanes, the city has serious issues of connectivity, meaning it doesn’t have a network of safe bike routes extensive enough to allow people to get where they need to go. Many advocates stressed that the need for more protected bike lanes, in particular, is huge, since the added physical barrier helps make cycling a more secure and welcoming experience.

Under current conditions, cyclists say that navigating the city by bike can often be anxiety-inducing. “It’s really, really hard [to ride] from my side of Dallas without having to come into contact with cars,” says Alexandra Sizemore, a project manager in sports marketing and a local cyclist. “If you can plan it out and you’re in the right part of the city, you could ride to a [Dallas Area Rapid Transit] station and do a combined commute.”

Such infrastructure gaps are exacerbated in low-income parts of the city, a dynamic evidenced in a 2019 review on walkability. “A study by George Washington University’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis found Dallas to have only a handful of sufficiently walkable areas, comprising less than 0.2 percent of the metro region. These areas—affluent neighborhoods like Uptown and Oak Lawn—are 37 percent more expensive than the regional average,” Bloomberg’s Mark Dent reported.

Overall, Dallas trails most other US cities when it comes to the accessibility of resources like public transportation, schools, and grocery stores via bike, according to rankings done by the advocacy group PeopleForBikes.

Dallas’s infrastructure gaps stem from a lack of funding and prioritization. McNair says the budget for bike funding could soon get bumped to $2 million a year, up from the $1 million per year that’s currently allocated. She says, however, that it took time for lawmakers to recognize this need. For years, just $500,000 of the city’s more than $3 billion annual budget was put toward this issue, an amount that would barely cover a few miles of protected bike lanes, says Stallings.

McNair believes it would cost the city tens of millions of dollars to develop a comprehensive network of protected bike lanes. City officials declined to provide an estimate for what the total expenses might be, but agreed that this characterization was likely fair. Initial estimates indicated that Austin would spend about a third of the $151 million — or roughly $50 million — allocated for its biking plans on 200 miles of on-street needs, for example.

Money from Washington has been instrumental to the progress Dallas has made so far — and it’s typically central to many cities’ efforts to expand their biking systems. In the 2020-2021 fiscal year, Dallas received about $22 million in federal money related to projects that included biking facilities like shared-use paths and buffered bike lanes.

Officials say they plan to pursue additional resources in the bipartisan infrastructure plan as well. “This funding helps bolster city funds, especially on higher-cost projects that are comfortable for all ages and abilities,” they noted.

The infrastructure bill boosts funding for transportation alternatives but won’t revolutionize biking in the US

One of the biking boosts in the infrastructure bill is more funding for “transportation alternatives.”

The Transportation Alternatives Program, also known as TAP, was established in the 2010s as a way to get federal money to states and other regional authorities to use for biking and pedestrian projects. As it stands now, different entities including states and metropolitan planning organizations receive annual TAP funding, which they then dole out to localities that apply for it. This program currently represents the largest proportion of federal funding for biking and pedestrian needs.

Currently, there’s $850 million allocated for TAP per year, and the infrastructure bill increases that by a sizable 60 percent for the next five years. In total, the legislation includes $7.2 billion for TAP over five years, compared to the $4.25 billion that would have otherwise been dedicated in that time frame.

The entirety of this money is not dedicated to biking infrastructure, but a hefty chunk of it is typically used in this way: TAP projects in the past have included everything from protected bike lanes to pedestrian walkways to preservation of historic sites. According to an analysis by Rails to Trails, biking and pedestrian needs have accounted for about 85 percent of the money allocated via TAP between 2014 and 2020.

In 2020, the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which is in charge of distributing TAP funding to Dallas and other cities in the area, allocated more than $25 million in TAP funding to 12 projects, some of which mentioned bike lanes explicitly.

Although advocates welcomed the increases in funding for TAP, they note that allocations for certain provisions in both the program and the broader bill could have been more robust. The Recreational Trails Program — an effort that helps cover maintenance of trails — did not get any boost in annual funding, for instance, and will continue to receive $84 million a year. (Advocates had pushed for it to receive upward of $200 million given a recent review of its funding sources.)

Another provision included in the bill establishes the Active Transportation Connectivity Program but leaves the actual funding up to congressional appropriators, meaning it’s not guaranteed. This program would dedicate money to connecting disparate bike trails and lanes in cities and towns, so that places could build out networks for residents to use. It’s authorized at $200 million a year, though advocates had pushed for $500 million annually.

The omissions to these two programs are significant since they focus on strengthening different aspects of cities’ biking systems, including major trails and connections that would offer more continuity across neighborhoods.

According to Caron Whitaker, the deputy executive director for the advocacy group the League of American Bicyclists, money from several other programs could be applied to biking infrastructure, too, though they are more expansive in what they cover. The Surface Transportation Block Grant Program, the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program, and the Highway Safety Improvement Program, which will respectively be allocated $72 billion, $13.2 billion, and $15.6 billion over five years, are among those that could also be leveraged for biking needs. All of these would be distributed by state- or regional-level bodies as well, and will likely be more competitive than TAP since they cover other transportation areas in addition to biking.

Separately, there are some provisions of the budget bill — including commuter benefits for cyclists, an e-bike tax credit, and grant money that could be used to fund biking infrastructure — that would promote and incentivize biking.

All in all, advocates note that the bipartisan legislation is an improvement on existing funding for biking infrastructure, which had been neglected by the federal government entirely until the 1990s. It doesn’t take a bolder approach to making biking more accessible, though. Historically, biking funding has only constituted about 1.5 percent of federal transportation funding, and though it’s increased in this legislation, it still makes up a very small proportion of the bill.

“The overall funding for bike infrastructure is far from transformational and far from what’s needed to match the level of biking that’s growing across the country,” says Noa Banayan, the federal affairs director for PeopleForBikes, adding that she believes the federal funding required to properly expand biking infrastructure across the country is likely in the “hundreds of billions of dollars.”

Biking investments are about mode shifts

The payoffs from investing in biking are wide-ranging and include everything from reduced carbon emissions to public health benefits.

Many places across the country and world have already seen how expansions to biking infrastructure can dramatically shift how people approach the activity and the dependence that individuals have on cars.

In Seville, Spain, the number of bikes used daily grew from 6,000 to 70,000 after the city established an expansive network of protected bike lanes, the Guardian reports. In Davis, California, which had one of the country’s first bike lanes, bikes outnumber cars on the roads, Wired reports.

A recent study found, too, that European cities that expanded their biking infrastructure during the pandemic — when interest in the activity soared — saw up to 48 percent more people taking up biking than those that did not, according to the New York Times. Cities with better biking infrastructure also have much higher proportions of commuters who bike in general: 62 percent of Copenhagen’s workers commute by bike, for instance; domestically, over 20 percent of Davis’s do, compared to just 0.6 percent of commuters in the US overall.

Key infrastructural changes can help residents move away from cars as their sole means of transportation, and help address a major source of pollution. As Gabby Birenbaum explained for Vox, curbing this dependence is important, as cities like Dallas are outsize contributors to the pollution that causes climate change:

According to a 2021 study published in Frontiers, Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles have some of the highest per-capita emissions totals in the world. The study broke down cities’ emissions based on sector, using the most recently available data (from 2009 and 2010), and found a large portion of those emissions come from transportation.

Data from the EPA shows that the transportation sector is actually the biggest source of pollution in the US, and that light-duty vehicles (or passenger cars) are responsible for 58 percent of those emissions. Overall, the EPA’s research — and the 2021 study — reinforce the fact that the transportation systems of American cities over-rely on cars in ways that are not sustainable should the US actually want to approach its stated greenhouse gas reduction goal of 50 percent by 2030, a number it has to reach in order to limit global warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius or less.

Researchers have found that switching from a car-based commute to biking for one trip a day can cut down an individual’s transportation-related carbon emissions by 67 percent, Bloomberg reports. Additionally, there’s evidence that biking commutes are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular illnesses and could help reduce pressure on cities’ health care systems.

To change their reliance on cars, cities and towns need biking infrastructure designed to make the activity more available to people as both a recreational option and a practical one. Many advocates see infrastructure investments as opening up biking to more people, making them view it as an easier and safer way to get around than they currently might.

Additional infrastructure will also make the practice safer for those who already bike regularly: According to Pew, biking fatalities have increased in recent years, especially in urban areas; government data shows they’ve grown 49 percent since 2010, with 846 deaths in 2019. Expanding the number of protected bike lanes would help cut down this figure and bolster resources for many people — including low-income individuals who rely on biking as their primary form of transportation.

“It gets people out of cars when they have this mode shift, when they have a safe route to get from point A to point B,” says Rails to Trails vice president of policy Kevin Mills.

Moffitt agrees, saying he’d definitely bike the 12 miles to the office as long as he had a safe way to do it: “I would only drive if I absolutely had to.”