Self-Propelled

With Federal Help, Bike Paths Are Spreading Across America

Picture the ecosystem of a truly sustainable community. You'll breathe air that's clean, and never hear the roar of a revved-up engine or smell the deadly fumes of a speeding semi. That's because-among other things—there's a network of bikable roads, paths and trails that will get you absolutely everywhere you want to go—in a safe, serene and clean frame of mind.

Urban bike use is booming, and groups like New York's Transportation Alternatives are campaigning for more trails.

This world isn't exactly around the corner, but in terms of creating bikable communities, there's cause for hope. In Washington, D.C., the Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA) has created a “commuter mentoring” program. For those who dream of turning their automobiles out to graze and taking their bikes to work instead—but are afraid of traffic—WABA promises to provide a friend. Another program, “Wheelers, Not Dealers,” connects activists with multicultural inner-city youth. End result: long-distance recreational rides that give kids something better to do than use drugs.

Long Beach, California now has about 33 miles of bike paths, but few commuters were using them until the nation's first Bikestation opened. Commuters now enjoy free bicycle valet parking, a repair shop, changing rooms, restrooms, bike rentals, even an outdoor coffee bar. “There's no question that people who haven't ridden their bikes in years are using them now,” said Georgia Case, community relations official for Bikestation.

Farther south along the California coastline, Coronado has developed a monthly Bike-to-Work program supported by toll bridge revenues. On the first Friday of every month, the 600 members of the “My Other Car is a Bike” Club are invited to breakfast on the way into work. Local businesses contribute donuts, coffee, fruit and juice. “Coronado is in a perfect location for bike commuting,” says Richard Dial, manager of the program. “And we're trying to create a sense of healthy fun that encourages people to do their bit to reduce congestion.”

Massachusetts also appears to be waking up to the possibilities of biking. At least 50 miles of new paved paths are ready for construction to the north and west of Boston. When they are completed, says activist Andy Greene, they'll form an extensive web of paths that will allow cyclists to ride safely through some of the East Coast's most congested metropolitan areas, and ride all the way from Boston to Providence, Rhode Island. “Ultimately, these paths could exist throughout New England,” says Greene.

If Massachusetts state representative Anne Paulsen has her way, that vision will become reality. Paulsen recently helped pass groundbreaking legislation which has become a national model. The bill's provisions are quite simple: Whenever the state improves any automobile road, it must also make improvements for cyclists and pedestrians. Says Paulsen, “Communities have shut down and people don't even know their neighbors because sidewalks are so bad. Bike paths can help change that.”

In Arcata, California, home of the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium, bikes rule. Of the five members who sit on Arcata's city council (which has a Green Party majority), three ride bikes and do not own cars. According to Randy Ghent of the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium, Arcata bike activists are pushing for a free community bike program and the removal of car lanes to increase bike traffic on key streets. Seattle now has bike racks on the front of all buses in the metropolitan area's King County. According to Susie Stephens of the non-profit grassroots group NOWBIKE, “We took a test trip from Seattle to San Francisco and found that we could get 65 percent of the way on local buses with racks.”

In New York City, the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives (TA) is fighting for more bike-friendly streets. On Earth Day, it led a protest through Central Park, demanding more car-free hours, and sent a procession over the Queensboro Bridge, defying the recent closing of the bridge's bike lane. The group has succeeded in opening the subways to bicycles, and was instrumental in winning $60 million in federal funds to create new off-road paths, known as “greenways.” According to TA Executive Director John Kaehny, “Parts of New York are now very friendly to bicycles.”

Why this sudden explosion in cycling opportunities and activism? In 1991, the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA, known as “ice tea”) provided money that would otherwise have gone to building federal highways for such alternative forms of transportation as walking, light rail and cycling. ISTEA also provided money for pilot projects like the Long Beach Bikestation.

“The public is ready for it,” says Massachusetts state representative John Stasik, who bikes to the state house every day. “I compare it to the recycling explosion that happened about 10 years ago, when local communities finally began giving the public a place to take the recyclables. In just a year, people began recycling 30 percent of their trash. Many more people would cycle if they feel comfortable and safe.”

ISTEA reauthorization is being considered in Congress, with the Clinton administration asking for a substantial increase for cycling and other transportation alternatives. The Republican majority mostly opposes ISTEA, says Charlie Gandy, the director of advocacy programs for the Bicycle Federation of America, largely because it emphasizes the importance of citizen input. “Call your congresspeople and let them know that you want to see bikes in this bill,” Gandy says. Noel Weyrich of the League of American Bicyclists adds, “ISTEA helped set the table with some really interesting and innovative projects. Now the new bill has to provide the money.”