Report: Active transportation (think walking, biking) boosts the economy, public health

Missoula already has invested in some bicycle-pedestrian infrastructure, including a bridge over South Reserve Street. (Missoula Current file photo)

The automobile isn’t the dominant mode of transportation that it was a few decades ago, and a new transportation study shows why that’s a good thing.

On Tuesday, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy released a report summarizing the increasing economic and health benefits of active transportation – walking, biking and other human-powered transport – as opposed to driving.

Rails-to-Trails Policy vice president Kevin Mills publicized the release by hosting a webinar with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks director Martha Williams, national transportation policy expert Jim Kolb and Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards.

Anyone who has biked past the slow-motion conga line of rush-hour traffic on the Orange Street Bridge or walked to First Friday art galleries while cars repeatedly circle the block knows the stress-free benefits of ditching the car. 

The health benefits are obvious: You get some exercise, which helps your muscles, lungs and heart far more than sitting in a car. 

And less money is wasted on gas, lost time and parking tickets. 

More than half of all car trips are within the distance of a 20-minute bike ride, and a quarter of car trips would take only 20 minutes to walk, according to a 2017 National Household Travel Survey. 

Over a month, the few bucks you save by walking or biking on each trip adds up.

But the key is having good routes for walking and biking. If trails extend for only a few blocks and then bikers or pedestrians must navigate car traffic again, it’s a little less safe and fewer people will bother biking or walking.

Connecting trails and going so far as to have separate lanes for bikes make alternate transportation more attractive so more people will be likely to use it. The report shows how more active transportation improves the air quality, reduces greenhouse gases and encourages more people to move in and start or join businesses.

While Missoula has made some improvements in that arena, not all towns are doing as well. Plus, there’s a need for connections between towns or between towns and nearby recreation areas.

As director of the state park system and wildlife management areas, Williams oversees trails that get a variety of use – from hikers to ATVs and trucks. She said that outside of towns, it’s often not practical to have separate lanes for different transportation modes. But where it can happen, it adds to safety, Williams said.

“(Trails connecting communities) draws talent to communities but also adds health benefits,” Williams said. “I’m thinking of Butte. The trail system there has had a real strong positive impact on health. Those communities that have been able to invest in trails have seen remarkable returns on what they’ve put in place.”

While roads tend to keep people separate, either by isolating people in cars or bisecting and isolating parts of a city, Richards said trails could bring people back together. She mentioned how plans to build paths over interstate highways in Philadelphia will bring people together and allow them to reach their rivers again.

FWP usually deals with trails in more wild areas, so Williams couldn’t really speak to city problems. But just like people, wildlife need to cross highways safely too, so crossing structures are important to all.

The study shows that a practical grid of trails and walkways helps both people and their cities. The problem is they cost money.

Up until now, funding for trails and bike lanes has mostly come from highway grants, which is an outmoded way of doing it, Kolb said. Congress started making some changes in the 1990s with a bill that included other modes of transportation, but not much has changed.

It’s actually gotten somewhat worse as Congress has been less willing to allocate money to many government programs.

“It all really begins with the revenue source – the highway trust fund, which is generated though car-fuel user fees. And it led to a period where more money was going out than coming in,” Kolb said. “Being tied to a legacy revenue source tied to the 1950s really narrowed the focus.”

In 2016, the most recent highway bill provided $70 billion in general fund money rather than gas tax money for transportation programs, but that has resulted in a shortfall of $74.5 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service. The highway bill expires in September 2020.

Kolb said Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, plans on getting a bill out early next year with money for alternate transportation to build resiliency into communities while preserving the highway system. But finding funding won’t be easy.

To get away from the 1950’s model, Mills said he wants Congress to pass a “visionary” federal transportation reauthorization and partner with states to create a nationwide network of trails and active transportation.

Congress should double the allocated funding, Mills said, which would include investing $500 million a year in active-transportation connections within and between towns. Congress should also triple the funding for the recreational trails program to reflect the recreational fuel taxes that have been collected and provide funding for trail maintenance.

“We need to send a clear message to Congress that America needs investment in active transportation networks,” Mills said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com