THE BLOG
02/25/2016 11:52 pm ET Updated Feb 25, 2017

Climate-Smart Transit Means Walkers and Bikers Matter

Last month as the National Capital Region was digging out from our latest Snowmageddon, I had an "aha" moment cycling to work on Northern Virginia's ice-crusted, snowy Mount Vernon Trail. While cars sped by unimpeded on the adjacent George Washington Parkway, dedicated bike commuters struggled to navigate the uncleared trail. With all of the public benefits provided by human-powered transit, why don't we work as hard to serve these users?

The DC area has one of the nation's highest rates of bicycle commuting, so this issue really hits home here. The Mount Vernon Trail is a key safe route for bike commuters, runners, and pedestrians moving between highly congested Northern Virginia and DC. Yet the trail is not cleared of snow as a matter of policy.

This is no way unique to the DC area. Leaving critical bike linkages covered in snow and ice until Mother Nature decides to intervene is the norm in many cities. Sidewalks are similarly subject to a patchwork of strategies to keep them clear of snow, which can force pedestrians into the street.

This is too bad. Providing safe and accessible active transit--human-powered transportation like walking, biking and running--is one our best opportunities to slow climate change, reduce air pollution, improve public health, and promote social equity at the same time.

A study of California's Bay Area found that increasing walking and biking to an average of 22 minutes per day from the current average of 4 minutes per day would reduce carbon emissions by 14 percent and reduce health costs for cardiovascular disease and diabetes by 14 percent. These combined benefits offer a strong incentive for public investment.

Increasing access to diverse transportation alternatives is also critical to social equity. Important research has documented that low-income populations are the most active bike commuters and that access to diverse transportation alternatives is essential for equitable economic opportunity.

But if the United States wants to grab this opportunity, we need to develop a whole new attitude toward pedestrians, runners, and cyclists. Too often these users are overlooked or treated as second class citizens in how governments manage transportation.

This is not just a winter issue for the snowier parts of the country, like my story about the Mount Vernon Trail. Year round, bike lanes sometimes become de facto dumping grounds for road debris swept out of car lanes. That debris punctures bike tires, causes cyclists to swerve unsafely, and otherwise endangers travel.

Also, some cities and towns have failed to develop fully protected bike lanes that completely separate cyclists from car traffic in the most dangerous locations. As eager walkers, runners, and cyclists flood city streets, this absence of truly safe infrastructure means more accidents and even deaths.

Some communities--particularly low-income ones--lack even the sidewalks and other infrastructure needed just to support safe walking. As noted in recent Washington Post coverage, pedestrian deaths in low-income census tracts are more than double those in high-income ones. As we improve our active transit infrastructure, these neighborhoods need urgent attention.

To fully capture the many benefits of human-powered transportation, we should create "hyper-connected" networks of sidewalks, trails, and bike lanes--accessible year round--to show these users that their choices are valued and supported. Done well this can foster local employment building and maintaining these routes, particularly in disadvantaged communities where more job opportunities are urgently needed.

In tandem, we need to invest in public education and outreach to make active transit a celebrated part of our culture. Actor Ed Begley Jr.'s much publicized arrival at the Academy Awards by bike in 2015 offered an example of how we can foster the kind of transit culture here in the United States that is common in other countries.

There are hopeful signs. President Obama's budget for Fiscal Year 2017 advances a compelling new "21st Century Transportation System" with a major role for human-powered and public transit. Many states and cities are also taking action. Minneapolis, one of America's cycling hotbeds, has a model for keeping active transit routes clear even through the tough Minnesota winter. Each one of these efforts, from the national to the local, will help America build the culture of human-powered transportation that we want and need.