Publication Detail

The Regional Response to Federal Funding for Bicycle and Pedestrian Projects


Research Report

Sustainable Transportation Center

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Suggested Citation:
Handy, Susan L., Barbara McCann, Linda Bailey, Michelle Ernst, Lanier McRee, Emily Meharg, Reid Ewing, Kate Wright (2009) The Regional Response to Federal Funding for Bicycle and Pedestrian Projects. Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Davis, Research Report UCD-ITS-RR-09-15

Since its initiation in the early 20th century, the federal surface transportation program has focused on highway construction and continues to do so to this day. However, over the past three decades, views of non-motorized modes and of federal interest in promoting them have changed dramatically. As is now widely recognized, a shift from motorized to non-motorized modes could produce abundant environmental benefits, including less air pollution, less water pollution, less noise, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Economic benefits could come from reduced household spending on transportation, given the low cost of non-motorized modes. Non-motorized modes could also improve equity of access to jobs, healthcare, services, and other activities, especially for low-income households, the young, the elderly, and the disabled, who have more limited access to cars. Pedestrian infrastructure is also an essential component of an effective public transportation network. The public health community has raised awareness that “active travel” helps individuals meet recommended levels of physical activity, with significant benefits for health, as well as reductions in health care costs. Pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure is increasingly recognized as a critical component of a safe and efficient transportation system.

Such benefits have provided justification for a national interest in funding for bicycle and pedestrian (bike/ped) infrastructure, such as sidewalks, safe pedestrian crossings, bike lanes, shared-use trails and bridges, and bicycle parking facilities. Provisions of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) led to a dramatic increase in federal funding available for pedestrian and bicycle facilities. The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), passed in 1998, continued this trend, with the result that spending went from less than $7 million per year before ISTEA to over $400 million annually by 2003; over the six-year life of TEA-21, more than $1.4 billion was spent on bicycle and pedestrian projects, more than twice what was spent in the six previous years under ISTEA (Ernst, 2004). The latest federal transportation bill, known as SAFETEA-LU, signed into law in August 2005 and set to expire in 2009, offered the potential for an even more dramatic increase in federal transportation spending on bicycling and walking to more than $4 billion over the life of the bill.

However, while Congress made it possible to spend federal funding on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, it did not mandate spending on these transportation modes. Instead, the decision to spend this money is made by metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) in metropolitan areas of over fifty thousand and by state departments of transportation (DOTs) inside and outside of metropolitan areas. This raises several questions.

  • To what degree have MPOs and local governments taken advantage of the opportunity to invest in bike/ped infrastructure?
  • What factors explain the variation in bike/ped investments across MPOs?
  • Has federal support for bike/ped infrastructure led to increased attention to these modes throughout the transportation planning process?
  • Have bike/ped investments stimulated by federal funding had a positive impact on walking and bicycling?

With the next federal transportation authorization bill now under consideration, as well as tens of billions of dollars in transportation funding as a part of an economic stimulus program, understanding the efficacy of federal funding for non-motorized modes is of critical importance. This paper explores these questions through an analysis of patterns of spending of federal funds across metropolitan regions, in-depth case studies of policies and projects in two metropolitan regions, Sacramento, California and Baltimore, Maryland, and an analysis of the impact of these investments on bicycling and walking behavior.