What biking across the country taught me about America’s transportation challenges

This article was originally published by Mobility Lab.
transponationBiking across the United States can teach one a lot about the different ways people get around it. It’s a huge place – an obvious concept that is difficult to really grasp until you’re using your legs to cross it, sometimes going a hundred miles without seeing another person. This size, with the geographical and social diversity that includes, affects how transportation evolves, especially in conjunction with planning that makes it difficult to connect the country in efficient ways.

Nationally, there is still a very car-centric culture that crowds out opportunities for multimodality, discounting accessibility as highways physically separates communities from each other. Most transportation solutions that I saw revolved around how to adapt to or supplement cars, rather than to prioritize other modes.

I noticed that, as I began writing about my experiences, the articles tended to stem from an underlying frustration in the difficulty of getting around without a car – as captured in the idea that the term for any other mode is “alternative.”

Even in cities known for their multimodality and active transportation culture, like San Francisco or Denver, I found myself traveling by car with my hosts as they guided me around their hometowns. And on my own, there were a few too many times that I couldn’t help but think, “this would be much easier if I had a car.”

Big ideas

It became a pleasant surprise, once I dug in, to find certain trends that show promise to gain momentum and improve transportation on a national scale.

What these same cities show is a growing awareness of the need to change how people move, and to mitigate the legacy of car-centric planning that has dominated the country. San Francisco’s surging bike population and infrastructure, Denver’s ambitious rail expansion (plus its adaption of the Flatiron Flyer rather than completely scrapping transit along that corridor), and different versions of highway teardowns in many cities reflect the growing sentiment among communities and planners that old paradigms need to be rethought.

Intercity passenger rail is also growing in a way that bodes well for connecting more communitiesthroughout the country by providing an alternative to highway travel. Amtrak’s ridership and popularity has been growing, with some towns along its long-distance routes even fighting for the stops to service their area, as it provides a vital connection to the national economy for communities. While most funding and attention goes to the busy Northeast Corridor, expanding service throughout its national network would benefit the communities through increased intercity train travel that takes more cars off the road.

What really excites me is how more communities are embracing active transportation. With the advent of complete streets and Vision Zero initiatives, and the growth of bikeshare systems in diverse setting, cities and towns are making themselves more accessible to both residents and visitors. San Francisco, in particular, struck me as a realistic leader in this trend, with Davis, California, representing more of a model to aspire towards once active transportation becomes firmly rooted in a community’s culture.

CAM00888Well-used, abundant bike parking: a common sight in Davis, Calif.

Small scale, big impact

Most interesting to me was my chance for a glimpse into local approaches to transportation that have big impacts on small communities. Generally, the majority of funding and attention goes towards larger cities, and therefore less populous parts of the country are overlooked.

An important part of this is the fact that smaller jurisdictions also tend to be more car-centric, lacking the same services as large metropolitan areas, and various factors make it more difficult to shift local attitudes. However, there are pockets of change that suggest planners are reconsidering how residents get around and pursuing more equitable transportation options. And in rural areas, even small changes can be impactful.

Carson City, Nev., exemplified the steep curve many smaller communities face in improving their transportation network. Between a lack of funding and stakeholders who are skeptical of projects like the city’s complete streets plan, it is hard enough to keep up, let alone initiate change. Even with elected officials who are friendly to infrastructure investment, transportation manager Patrick Pittenger explained the trials of selling the public on even one road diet in downtown. Planners and advocates need to be creative in order to take the first laborious steps in their communities.

Most exciting for me at the local level was the potential impact of initiatives like the Trail Towns Program in Western Pennsylvania and Maryland. For rural communities with historic downtown areas, supporting a long-distance recreational trail and developing business around it helps the area thrive. This can be a boon for travelers and locals alike, and the associated benefits should encourage other areas to pursue similar ideas.

Going the right way

Ft Point

Despite my frustration with many aspects of transportation systems across the country, there was a lot to encourage me. Strangers, drawn in by my bike, were curious about transportation issues, commenting that, yes, we do need better ways of getting around, asking, is there is anything meaningful they can do to have any effect in their own communities? Hopefully they have begun to follow these issues while changing a few habits for the better where it’s possible. In addition, those working in this area are creative and impactful in their approaches. There is a long way to go in addressing transportation challenges, especially while many jurisdictions continue to plan around maximizing traffic flow while carving only small spaces for mass transit or active modes.

Overall, there are good ideas whose proponents will work with what they have to positively affect their stakeholders. Many places are trying to improve their transportation network, but any successes within these individual spaces will be hard to replicate without support at the national level to truly change how we get around. There is a lot to learn from different communities, and incubating their ideas can help change the mindset nationwide that would allow the country at large to improve its transportation systems.

Photos: Top, the author’s bike on the Great Allegheny Passage (Andrew Carpenter). Middle, bike parking in Davis, California (Gerald Fittipaldi, Flickr, Creative Commons). Bottom, the author in San Francisco (Andrew Carpenter).


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