A Vision for Non-Motorized Transportation

Remarks by Congressman James Oberstar, April 10, 2006


Hubert Humphrey, speaking to the Urban America Conference about cities in 1966, said:

Just men, just money, just material—no matter how high the level of each—will not be enough to make our American cities what we want them to be. The way lies open to cities filled with green and open space, to transportation that is safe, comfortable, rapid, to neighborhoods once more filled with neighbors, to schools and universities that truly care about the future of our children, to rural areas, towns, cities, suburbs where people, because they are citizens, because they are people, can live together in harmony and cooperation, no matter what their age, the color of their skin, their religion, or their last name.

I am pleased to speak with you today about the possibilities and promise non-motorized transportation brings to the vision we all have for our communities. Imagine communities all across the United States where greater transportation safety and efficiency is achieved every day. Imagine communities in which people have the choice to bike and walk without the worry of traffic safety dangers or inconvenience.

Imagine if we all had the ability to safely bike or walk to our jobs, community centers, transit facilities, or while running errands or visiting family and friends. Imagine easing traffic congestion, saving energy, reducing air and noise pollution, conserving land, and other environmental benefits. Imagine an active, healthy nation of schoolchildren and families.

This choice—this lifestyle—is possible. At stake is our quality of life, for urban, suburban, and rural centers alike. The goal must be the development of livable cities.

In a town or city structured on principles of balanced transportation, the transportation planner sees more clearly that his job is not about movement of vehicles, but about people and accessibility. He considers all the members of the population—children and older people, the handicapped, poor and well-to-do; he considers the varied trips that they need to make—to school, work, shopping, the library, or theater; and he makes these trips as pleasant, economical, safe, comfortable, simple, and autonomous as possible.

This is an insight that has been guiding the majority of transportation planners in Germany, the Netherlands, and other European countries for 20 years, and is now beginning to reach transportation planners in the United States. American cities are experiencing tremendous growth and face enormous challenges. The greatest of these challenges is livability: today’s transportation congestion is making cities unbearable, if not unlivable.

Fortunately, there are resources available to plan and invest our way out of these challenges. We must unravel past inadequacies and policy misjudgments to plan and implement change.

Surface Transportation Legislation and SAFETEA-LU

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System. For most of the past 50 years, planning and policy decisions regarding surface transportation took place within a framework in which the motor vehicle roadway was central. Pedestrians and bicyclists were often viewed as afterthoughts.

In 1991, this way of thinking began to change when Congress passed landmark transportation legislation, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). ISTEA put the focus on developing choices for people so that transportation will take individuals where they want to go, not just where the roadway takes them. ISTEA established non-motorized transportation as an integral part of a balanced, intermodal system by providing new and dedicated sources of funding for bike and pedestrian facilities.

In 1998, Congress passed the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), continuing the integration of bicycling and walking into the transportation mainstream. TEA-21 enhanced the ability of communities to invest in projects that can improve the safety and practicality of bicycling and walking for everyday travel. In addition to expanding funding eligibility, TEA-21 broadened federal planning requirements to include consideration of bicycles and pedestrians in state and metropolitan planning organizations’ (MPO) long-range transportation plans. And, these projects must be considered in conjunction with all newly constructed and rehabilitated facilities.

In July 2005, Congress passed the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). SAFETEA-LU reaffirms the federal government’s commitment to make America a safer, healthier, more mobile nation by reauthorizing—at higher funding levels—programs that fund bicycle/pedestrian efforts and authorizing new programs, particularly the Safe Routes to School Program and the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program. Under SAFETEA-LU, bicycle and pedestrian projects are eligible for funding from most of the major federal-aid highway, transit, and transportation safety programs, including the Congestion Mitigation Air Quality Program (CMAQ), the Surface Transportation Program (STP), the National Highway System (NHS), and the Recreational Trails Program.

According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), in Fiscal Year (FY) 1992 there were 50 new federally funded bicycle and pedestrian projects, with $22.9 million spent. By FY 2005, the number of projects and amount of funding grew significantly, with over 1,000 new bike/ped projects valued at $388.2 million. (FY 2006 numbers will be available in October 2007. The FY 1992 and FY 2005 numbers include high-priority projects as well as other program funding sources from ISTEA and TEA-21.) These numbers are greatly underestimated since they only include projects specifically coded as bicycle/pedestrian projects, and likely exclude many bicycle/pedestrian components of larger highway projects.

SAFETEA-LU opens doors to even greater possibilities. Clearly a wide array of possible funding is available from federal programs. However, eligibility does not guarantee that bicycle and pedestrian projects, plans, and programs will be funded. States and local communities must ensure that the availability of federal money translates into funding for programs that prioritize bicycle and pedestrian projects. We must continue to make the case to states and local communities that incorporating non-motorized transportation systems into overall plans is beneficial for many reasons. Constructing sidewalks, installing bicycle parking at transit facilities, providing the means for safe and efficient transportation as well as teaching children to ride and walk safely at an early age, installing curb cuts and ramps for wheelchairs, striping bike lanes and building lanes and trails all contribute to our national transportation goals of safety, mobility, economic growth and trade, healthy and active lifestyles, and enhancement of communities and the natural environment.

All of these activities, and many more, are eligible for funding under SAFETEA-LU, and enable communities to encourage more people to walk and bicycle safely.

Safe Routes To School Program

SAFETEA-LU also provides $612 million for a new national Safe Routes to School Program designed to enable and encourage children to walk and bicycle to school. Each state is guaranteed a minimum of $1 million each year to implement this program (with additional funds allotted based on student enrollment levels).

Each state will also hire a dedicated, full-time Safe Routes to School coordinator to oversee the program. As of last week, 20 states have hired a permanent, full-time coordinator; 14 states have designated an interim point of contact while choosing a final candidate; and the remaining 16 states have not yet hired a coordinator or designated an interim contact.

SAFETEA-LU also calls for a National Safe Routes to School clearinghouse that will develop educational programs, provide technical assistance, and promote effective strategies. The law also directs the Department of Transportation to establish a Safe Routes to School task force to provide leadership and strategic guidance at the national level.

The Safe Routes to School Program will help reverse the disturbing tendency of America’s school children to develop a more sedentary lifestyle at an earlier age. Our children are watching TV more and playing outdoors less. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly one American child in four is overweight.

Fewer than 10 percent of school children ages 5 to 15 walk to school, and fewer than 2 percent bicycle to school. Safe Routes to School funds will be used to plan, design, and construct infrastructure-related projects that will improve the ability of students to walk and bike to school, including: sidewalk improvements, pedestrian and bicycle crossing improvements, bicycle parking facilities, and traffic diversion improvements in the vicinity of schools.

Funds will also be used for traffic education and enforcement, and for program promotion. Safe Routes to School is designed to empower communities to make walking and bicycling to school a safe and routine activity once again. The program will help galvanize school children to get fresh air and exercise, and will also reduce fuel consumption, air pollution and congestion. Safe Routes to School has the potential to improve the living habits of an entire generation of schoolchildren.

Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program

SAFETEA-LU also authorizes $100 million for a Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program in four communities to construct a network of non-motorized infrastructure facilities to demonstrate the potential for shifting drivers from their cars to bike lanes, paths, and sidewalks. The four communities are: Marin County, California; Columbia, Missouri; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

The new infrastructure facilities will connect directly with transit stations, schools, residences, businesses, and other community centers and will show the extent to which bicycling and walking can carry a significant part of the transportation load, and represent a major portion of the transportation solution.

Safe Routes to School was piloted in two states before we created the national program. With successful results in the four non-motorized pilot site communities, perhaps we can envision a more widespread non-motorized effort in all of your communities one day. These four communities have an exciting opportunity before them to show that safe and convenient bicycle and pedestrian facilities can lure people out of their cars, and that it is possible for people to function in a community setting without the internal combustion engine.

I understand Marin County, California, is creating an advisory committee, with representation from bicycle and pedestrian advocates, business interests, transit providers, planners, engineers, schools, environmental interests, Caltrans, FHWA, and local cities, to make project recommendations. The Marin team is also creating a map detailing all existing facilities and planned facilities to show the gaps in the non-motorized transportation network as a tool for helping the advisory committee make recommendations on pilot program funding. The Board of Supervisors for Marin County will take final action on the approval of projects for funding, after a public hearing, in the fall of 2006. Marin County will hold an official public “kick off” meeting for the pilot program to generate more local involvement.

The Minneapolis team, led by Transit for Livable Communities (TLC), has also begun recruiting members for an advisory committee to help guide the program and advise the TLC board. TLC has met with city, county and state-wide bicycle advisory groups, local leaders, and advocates to learn about the current status of programs and facilities in the region. The group has also begun an independent assessment of existing facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists to determine opportunities for low-cost improvements that can be implemented in 2006.

I hear that Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and Columbia, Missouri, are making similar progress, and that all four communities are working together to ensure that data collection, measurement, and evaluation are done effectively so that America can truly benefit from the results of this exciting program.

I look forward with much anticipation to successful results in these four communities.

Beyond Recreational Biking

Bicycling is predominantly a recreational activity in the United States. Data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) Omnibus Survey for 2002 reveals that 14.3 percent of adults rode a bicycle in the previous month. Of those, 53.9 percent did so for recreation and 31.2 percent did so for exercise. Only 4.9 percent bicycled for commuting to work or school and 7.5 percent for personal errands.

To induce change, we must understand why bicycling is not used more extensively as a mode of transportation in the United States. In many surveys, lack of facilities, trip distance, and safety concerns are cited as the main reasons. The bottom line is that the United States makes driving a car almost irresistible, even a physical necessity, compared to walking and cycling.

Clearly, however, the biggest impediments to more walking and cycling are the appallingly unsafe, unpleasant, and inconvenient conditions faced by pedestrians and bicyclists in most American cities. Polls indicate that about one-half of all active bike riders would commute to work by bicycle if they had access to safe and convenient bike lanes.

“If You Build Bike Lanes, Commuters Will Come”

With growing concern over traffic congestion, pollution, and public health, it makes sense to promote bicycling as an alternative for commuting and other utilitarian purposes. Data clearly shows that higher levels of bicycle infrastructure are positively and significantly correlated with higher rates of bicycle commuting.

A 2003 Transportation Research Board (TRB) paper, entitled Bicycle Commuting and Facilities in Major U.S. Cities: If You Build Them, Commuters Will Use Them, examined data from 43 large cities across the United States. The TRB paper concludes that the percentage of people commuting by bike is significantly correlated with bicycle infrastructure, with the most significant correlation being the number of Class II bike lanes per square mile. (Class II means an on-street striped bike lane.) If you build bike lanes, commuters will use them.

The TRB analysis also shows that within a typical U.S. city with a population of more than 250,000, each additional mile of Class II bike lanes per square mile is associated with a roughly one percentage-point increase in the share of workers commuting by bicycle. Increasing the share of workers commuting by bicycle by one percentage point would more than double the average share of bicycle commuters for many cities.

Trip Distance

Even in the sprawling metropolitan areas of the United States, 41 percent of all trips in 2001 were shorter than two miles, and 28 percent were shorter than one mile. Bicycling can easily cover distances up to two miles, and most people can walk at least a mile. Yet Americans use their cars for 66 percent of all trips up to a mile long and for 89 percent of all trips between one and two miles long. Clearly, there is enormous potential for increased walking and cycling over these shorter trip distances.

Public Health

Trends in travel behavior in the United States could not be worse for public health. The United States is gripped by a worsening epidemic of obesity. Studies show that lack of physical activity is one important reason for this alarming trend. Some studies predict that obesity will soon overtake smoking as the most important cause of premature death in the United States.

During the past 20 years, obesity among adults has risen significantly, with the latest data showing that 30 percent of U.S. adults 20 years of age or older—more than 60 million people—are obese (National Center for Health Statistics). This increase is not limited to adults. The percentage of young people who are overweight has more than tripled since 1980.

Although one of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ national health objectives for the year 2010 is to reduce the prevalence of obesity among adults to less than 15 percent, current data indicate that the situation is worsening rather than improving. Medical and public health journals have advocated in favor of more walking and cycling for daily travel as the most affordable, feasible, and dependable way for people to get the additional exercise they need. The U.S. Surgeon General specifically recommends more walking and cycling for practical, daily travel as an ideal approach to raising physical activity levels.

The public health community has begun developing programs and partnerships to encourage higher levels of physical exercise. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has financed a family of Active Living programs, including Active Living by Design. This program funds 25 community partnerships throughout the country to demonstrate how changes in urban design, architecture, land use, and transportation will encourage more walking and bicycling.

Active Living by Design has spurred many notable achievements, including:

  • The South Bronx is working with the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance to decommission the Sheridan Expressway to open up 28 acres for alternative community use including a four-mile greenway.
  • Logan Square in Chicago is working with partners to open up “Sunday Parkways,” where miles of Chicago’s beautiful boulevards will be closed to cars and open to pedestrians and cyclists on weekends.
  • Upper Valley Vermont/New Hampshire has implemented a nationally recognized physician prescription for physical activity program in conjunction with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Doctors now prescribe physical activity to their patients and connect them with local trails and places to be active thanks to the partnership. “Take two miles and call me in the morning.”
  • And last but not least … every Tuesday morning Alf Stratte and fellow seniors in the town of Cambridge, Minnesota, gather at the Cambridge Lutheran Church for the senior walking program. The Isanti County Active Living partnership engaged the Cambridge Lutheran Church to form the senior walking program and assisted the Cambridge Medical Center with their obesity program, which has included providing “Walk the Town” maps for distribution in waiting rooms and examination rooms.

These efforts have pointed many communities in the right direction, but our nation has a long way to go.

United States Compared With Europe

The European countries with the highest levels of walking and cycling have much lower rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension than the United States. Of course, many factors affect differences between Europe and the United States. Nevertheless, the dramatically higher levels of walking and cycling for daily travel certainly contribute to better public health in such countries as the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and Sweden. Moreover, the average healthy life expectancies in those four European countries are 2.5 to 4.4 years longer than in the United States, although their per capita health expenditures are only one-half those of the United States.

A 2003 study published in the American Journal of Public Health also shows that American pedestrians and cyclists are also much more likely to be killed or injured than Dutch and German pedestrians and cyclists, both on a per-trip and per-mile basis. The study shows that it is indeed possible to achieve safe and convenient walking and cycling conditions, as demonstrated by the experience of Germany and the Netherlands. These two countries have implemented a wide range of policies over the past two decades that have encouraged biking and walking while dramatically reducing pedestrian and bicycling fatalities and injuries. We can learn valuable lessons from these nations.

In some communities in Germany and the Netherlands, bicycling now captures as much as 30 or 40 percent of the transportation mode share. The Netherlands and Germany have made walking and biking safe and attractive alternatives to driving by:

  • Building better facilities
  • Designing transportation systems sensitive to non-motorists
  • Using traffic calming in residential neighborhoods
  • Rigorously enforcing traffic regulations protecting pedestrians and bicyclists
  • Educating the public about traffic enforcement efforts

Communities in Germany and the Netherlands have developed and implemented thoughtful transportation plans that will undoubtedly bring lasting individual and societal benefits.

Next Steps

Renowned architect and urban designer Jan Gehl once observed that “architecture and planning should fit man and man should not try to fit planning and architecture.” The same analogy can be made for pedestrians and bicyclists: transportation planning should fit pedestrians and bicyclists, and pedestrians and bicyclists should not have to fit transportation planning.

Many communities are beginning to understand this new paradigm:

  • The Pinellas Trail in Florida carries a million users per year over its 47-mile course, relieving congestion on U.S. 19. A recent survey showed that 17,655 cyclists put bikes on buses each year in the Pinellas area, and that figure is increasing at a rate of about 25 percent per year.
  • The Bike Station in Palo Alto, California, located at the nexus of trails, buses, light rail, and many walkable destinations, serves 902 cyclists per month, providing bike parking and repair.
  • In Wyoming, the Indian Springs Trail links four Jackson Hole schools with each other, with the town library, and the local post office. The trail system provides non-motorized school access to 350 elementary and 500 high school students per day.
  • Portland, Oregon, has a cast of 19,000 walkers and cyclists who use the city’s trails, bike lanes, and sidewalks every day.
  • On a rainy afternoon in Little Rock, Arkansas, over 1500 cyclists and pedestrians were counted enjoying the health benefits of that city’s “Medical Mile” segment of the Arkansas River Rail-Trail.
  • A trail paralleling Minneapolis’ Hiawatha Line brings people out of their neighborhoods to the corridor of the new transit system, providing the ability to walk or bike to the nearest station.

Much more could be done in the short-term here in the United States to improve walking and cycling conditions to make them both safer and more attractive. Transportation professionals, urban planners, architects, and private developers have the tools to provide improvements so desperately needed to encourage biking and walking and reduce the safety dangers that accompany these modes in American cities.

Public health experts must work more closely with bicyclist and pedestrian advocates, transportation professionals, environmentalists, community leaders, and government officials at all levels. Public policymakers must not only provide the necessary funding for better bicycling and pedestrian facilities but also adopt and implement a range of policies to encourage more compact, mixed-use development that permits and encourages walking and bicycling as a part of our daily life. And we must publicize more prominently the disastrous public health consequences of an automobile-dependent transportation system and a land-use pattern that make walking and cycling dangerous, inconvenient, unpleasant, and, in some cases, impossible.

States and local communities must maximize the opportunities created by SAFETEA-LU to better incorporate non-motorized modes into our overall transportation system. Every roadway project, where possible, must incorporate the needs of bicyclists and pedestrians, making the best use of taxpayer dollars in design, construction, and rehabilitation. States must take the lead by also creating policies that improve bicycling and walking conditions. Local leaders must publicize their success stories and describe how enhanced non-motorized facilities improve the overall quality and livability of their communities.


SAFETEA-LU provides the necessary structure and resources to ensure bicycling and walking garner a more prominent role in our nation’s transportation system. Non-motorized opportunities do not exist separately from other transportation options. They are integral to an overall mobility system.

Imagine a future in which most Americans live within a sensibly designed seamless network of sidewalks, trails, on-the-road bicycle facilities, and transit and rail that provides access to the majority of day-to-day destinations. Imagine the potential walking and bicycling have to help mitigate numerous societal problems. Imagine, and take action to fulfill this vision in your community.

Rep. Oberstar delivered these remarks April 10, 2006, at the fifth James L. Oberstar Forum, hosted by the Center for Transportation Studies and held at the University of Minnesota.