Active Transportion in Cambridge, Mass. | Photo CC Dylan Passmore via Flickr

Engineers and planners have developed numerous types of infrastructure to make walking and cycling convenient, pleasant and, most importantly, safe. However, not all infrastructure changes are created equal!

  • There is no one-size-fits-all infrastructure treatment.
  • Users’ needs differ across age, gender, trip purpose, personal preference and other criteria.
  • The weakest link along a route determines its quality and who will use it.

As more communities make easy investments in trails, bike lanes, pedestrian streetscapes and cycle tracks, more places are ready for the next step that comes after this harvest of low-hanging fruit: assembling the planning, creating innovative designs and securing funding to build a complete active-transportation network.

Convenience and Connectivity

Transportation implies movement from one place to another. If transportation relies on infrastructure, then the infrastructure should always provide convenient pathways. This is true of roads and transit as well as sidewalks and bike paths.

Planning researchers in recent years have learned to characterize connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists by more than just the shortest or fastest routes. True connectivity of active-transportation networks is determined just as much by how pleasant the routes are, their exposure to heavy traffic and whether a trip requires crossing a dangerous road. New planning concepts like low-stress connectivity—routes that do not require excessive detours or considerable traffic stress for the user—enable communities to measure the performance of their existing infrastructure for different users and to identify gaps (Figure 1).

Active-transportation-network planning should focus on providing maximum connectivity at the lowest possible exposure to traffic risks to maximize usability for all potential users. Trails provide the backbones of such networks. On-road facilities should mimic a trail-like experience as much as possible to create a sense of safety and to make active transportation fun and convenient.

Connectivity is not limited to a specific mode. Features that connect users to public transportation are crucial for a good walking experience. Offering secure bike parking, good signage and bike-friendly transit options can create truly comprehensive networks that make active transportation a real option for more people.

New Technologies

In addition to new infrastructure, recently developed technologies are making walking and bicycling easier than ever:

  • Bike sharing systems: They blur the distinction between active and public transport and allow users to hop on a bike at their convenience.
  • E-Bikes, bicycles with electric assistance: Riders can go further, get a boost over terrain obstacles and haul more; they are perfect for those with age- or health-related barriers to conventional cycling.
  • Apps and maps: Tracking apps let you tally your total miles of active transportation; why not get motivated by competing against yourself, your friends or your family, or other app users?

Integrated Systems

Building for active transportation has evolved to a level where the focus is about bringing elements together into one integrated system. Dedicated trails have often proved to be the beginning of convenient, quick, safe and fun active-transportation options. Building whole networks that connect people to the places they want to go in a safe, convenient and enjoyable way will multiply the potential of current infrastructure.

While fixing gaps may sometimes mean investment in costly features such as bicycle and pedestrian bridges, these investments need to be judged with the full active-transportation system in mind.