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Mullins: Transportation spending for biking and walking

Published January 26, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

International transportation expert Michael Ronkin recently addressed the issue of how much of our transportation budget should be spent on active transportation (biking and walking).

This issue is like many other budget conundrums public officials face; such as, how much do we spend on our health and safety, or clean air and water. Michael Ronkin provides some excellent insights into the transportation budget question.

First, many of the features that improve bicycling conditions and make them safer require minimal expense because they do not require the construction of additional "infrastructure." Most biking occurs on existing roadways in shared roadway situations where bikes ride in the road or on the highway shoulder. Making biking safer and friendlier is primarily a "mindset" where good road design with appropriate signage, pavement markings and speed control can accommodate all users. Even in cases that look like "something extra was done for bikes," such as painted bike lanes, these improvements are often implemented at no extra cost when the travel lanes are re-striped in a different pattern after a pavement resurfacing. Colorado Springs is installing all its bike lanes this way, without special "bike lane construction projects."

Second, when the goal is to design complete streets that accommodate all transportation users, including active transportation, there is no distinction between infrastructure expenditures for motorized vehicles and active transportation because good transportation design accommodates everyone. No one asks how much of a new road project budget was spent to make it safe for motorists. Safety features for all road users, both motorists and active transportation, should always be incorporated into a well designed transportation system.

Major investments in "active transportation infrastructure" become necessary when needed to mitigate poorly designed streets, which were designed to accommodate only motorized transportation. It is far less expensive to initially design roadways to accommodate all users, than to retrofit existing roadways.

It is difficult to pinpoint examples of appropriate levels of infrastructure spending for active transportation when there are so many variables. Two percent is considered a minimum spending level for state-wide transportation budgets. In urban areas the rule of thumb for the allocation of transportation spending for active transportation infrastructure is 20 percent or more. This figure may be higher if there is a need to retrofit sidewalks, which are significantly more expensive than typical bicycling improvements. If the urban area is built out with existing streets designed only for cars, the percentage could be much higher.

The issue is more complicated at the state level because many of the roadway miles under UDOT's jurisdiction are rural or interstate highways where active transportation facilities may not be needed or are inappropriate. However, designing streets to accommodate active transportation becomes critical when the state highway runs through a small city and becomes its main street, or when the state roads are urban arterials that connect communities and split neighborhoods.

Because of the concentration of the State's population along the Wasatch Front, Utah is the 8th most urbanized state. Utah's high degree of urbanization suggests Utah should be spending more than the minimum 2 percent of its transportation dollars on active transportation. Oregon allocates 5 percent of its transportation budget to active transportation.

Although there is not a simple answer to the issue of how much of the transportation budget should be spent on active transportation, it may be beside the point. A well conceived transportation corridor or system will integrate active transportation into good street design as naturally as a good highway engineer incorporates safety into her highway design.

In the final analysis, active transportation should not be treated as a separate transportation issue, but viewed as a vital component of a whole or complete transportation system.

Chad Mullins is the former chairman of the Salt Lake County Bicycle Advisory Committee.