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Encouraging Bicycling and Walking: The State Legislative Role

An overview of trends in bicycling and walking and related transportation, economic, public and environmental health benefits, with state legislative activity in three key areas: funding, planning and safety.

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By Douglas Shinkle and Anne Teigens

photo of bike lane on street

Road marking is one of many tools to help encourage bicycling and walking

Executive Summary

Bicycling and walking historically have been important means of transportation and recreation in the United States. Since World War II, however, the development of automobile-oriented communities has led to a steady decline of bicycling and walking. These activities became lost in the dustbin of history and limited to childhood play. During the past few years, however, a renaissance has occurred with impressive increases in the number of people who bicycle and walk for transportation and recreation. Record gas prices, a gridlocked transportation system, increasing health maladies related to physical inactivity, and environmental concerns have led to a reexamination of the transportation choices available in this country and to a subsequent shift from driving to more walking and bicycling.

Today, people of all ages, income groups and fitness levels use walking and bicycling for everyday travel, recreation, and getting to and from work. It is important to remember that approximately one-third of the population is unable to drive—because of age, disability, choice or license restrictions—so bicycling and walking are important transportation options. Public transit, which is primarily reached on foot or by bicycle, also has experienced significantly increased use during the past few years. Pedestrians and bicyclists suffer the effects—sometimes fatal—of a transportation system that does not account for their needs. All road users— including motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians—must act responsibly and follow the rules of the road for their own and others’ safety. It lies with state governments, however, to play the primary role in ensuring that roads are safe and accommodate all users.

Many people are bicycling and walking more because of the many benefits these transportation choices provide. Walking and bicycling offer cheap, effective ways to reach a destination, especially with the likelihood of higher gas prices. Furthermore, they provide a variety of benefits to individuals and society. Both are clean forms of transport that emit no pollutants. With disturbing increases in diseases and ailments related to lack of exercise, active commuting also is an effective way to combat diseases related to inactivity, especially for those who have time constraints. Communities where destinations are easy to reach by bike and foot create a more balanced transportation system and more welcoming neighborhoods.

Research on government involvement in bicycling and walking has centered mainly on congressional activity. With increased flexibility and innovation, however, states have played a crucial role in developing and modeling successful strategies to encourage bicycling and walking. This report provides information about and examples of how state legislatures can and have proactively supported bicycling and walking, especially as transportation choices.

The report first provides an overview of recent trends in bicycling and walking and the related transportation, economic, public and environmental health benefits. A snapshot of the current state of bicycling and walking in the United States follows. Subsequent chapters examine state legislative activity in three key areas: funding, planning and safety.

The funding section reviews state efforts to provide money for bicycling and walking infrastructure and programs, including some funding stream mechanisms. The planning section examines how states have integrated bicycling and walking into transportation plans and projects and discusses the importance of these options within state decision making.

A visual tour of a bicycling- and walking-friendly community follows, with samples of infrastructure design elements that can increase bicycle and pedestrian safety and use. The final chapter discusses how states are increasing safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, including creating new laws; increasing penalties; targeting enforcement; and increasing responsibility for motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists.


During the last few years, cities nationwide have seen increased use of alternative transportation
such as mass transit, bicycling and walking. In a steady trickle and then a torrent, bike path,
sidewalk and bus use have risen, often in record numbers. High gas prices, thinning wallets and
rising obesity rates are among the factors causing people to consider alternative transportation.
This report provides policy options and discussion about how to increase walking and bicycling
as alternative transportation choices.

When the general public thinks of riding a bike or walking, it often is an afterthought or a childhood endeavor that has no relevance in a busy, 21st century world. Several factors during the last few years have encouraged more bicycling and walking, and today they are considered increasingly viable methods of transportation. People are walking and bicycling to and from work, shopping and other appointments. In the face of congestion, these alternative transportation choices can help address a host of challenges the nation faces.

Public transit also is becoming increasingly important. Ridership skyrocketed in the last year,
and many walk or bike to and from transit stops. The important connection between public
transit, bicycling and walking is addressed throughout this report.

Federal Involvement in Bicycling and Walking Policy

During the past 20 years, the federal government has taken significant strides to put bicycling and walking on more even terms with other transportation modes. In 1991, Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), which required all states to have bicycle and pedestrian coordinators. Before 1991, federal funding was restrictive and weak. States were not allowed to spend more than $4.5 million on a bicycle or pedestrian project that was not part of a larger highway project. This rule was changed, however, and federal spending for independent bicycle and pedestrian projects increased significantly, from about $6 million in 1990 to $422 million in 2003.

This does not account for transportation projects such as highway construction, which may include bicycling and walking facilities. In 2007, for example, all 50 states and the District of Columbia received $580 million total from transportation enhancement funds, which provide half the federal funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects. The funds include 12 eligible activities; bike and pedestrian projects represent a significant component of three of these activities, which account for 55 percent of transportation enhancement spending. Although 10 percent of federal transportation funds are set aside for each state for transportation enhancement, they often are the first target of spending cuts. State planning certainty and consistency suffer because specified amounts may have to be returned.

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