The state of California is a unique bird, particularly when it comes to transportation planning. A massive space populated with a mixture of booming metropolises, sprawling suburbs, and sparse rural areas, the Golden State's dire financial straits of late have made solving its intense congestion, connectivity and public health challenges all the more difficult, and important.
The good news is that Governor Jerry Brown's administration is conscious that active transportation infrastructure - trails, sidewalks, bike paths and pedestrian connections - can play an enormous role in improving California's transportation system, not to mention the health and wellbeing of its residents.
Enter RTC. Over the past few months, the director of our Western Region office, Laura Cohen, has been working as part of a powerful Caltrans working group of transportation experts tasked by Gov. Brown to make recommendations on how California should invest its funding from the new federal transportation bill, MAP-21. An important part of that discussion is how to make biking and walking a better option, to take some pressure off the state's overloaded roadways.
"One of the key issues for the governor and the legislature is how we can use the flexibility in MAP-21 to steer our transportation investments to achieve some major California policy priorities, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving public health and reducing traffic congestion," Cohen says. "Creating bikeable, walkable communities, and improving safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, will help us get there. In our state, 27 percent of all traffic fatalities are pedestrians and bicyclists - nearly twice the national average - and we need to address that. The new bill gives us a new landscape, and everyone is still trying to map out the best way forward."
Cohen says that while it is exciting to see the state government seek the advice of groups like RTC, Safe Routes to School National Partnership and the California Bicycle Coalition, it is also a nervous time for active transportation advocates.
"The Business, Transportation and Housing Agency has floated the idea of taking all the federal funds and the state level programs for biking, walking and trails and rolling them all into one account - an Active Transportation Account," Cohen says. "We expect this proposal will be included in the Governor's budget proposal, due out January 10. This could be a great opportunity to both increase efficiency and expand funding for active transportation investment from new sources like cap and trade auction revenue, so we are happy to be working with the administration on this proposal. But there is also real uncertainty with this. Will the state commit to maintaining and growing the state funded programs? Will the project selection process be transparent, inclusive and equitable? Making sure the state doesn't dilute these already thin funding sources is one of the challenges our coalition faces."
One of the strongest arguments for more investment in trails, biking and walking is the real-world success of existing trails networks in California. RTC played a prominent role in recently developed, and still expanding, trails systems in the San Francisco Bay region (above left), the San Gabriel Valley, San Diego and Santa Cruz, in addition to the enormous success of Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program investments in Marin County (top). These projects have boosted enthusiasm for more of the same, and demonstrated to planners and law makers, as well as local residents and businesspeople, the benefits of better options for biking and walking.
RTC and the coalition of active transportation advocates is due to send their recommendation to the state legislature later this month. How lawmakers respond represents a critical moment. At stake is many millions of dollars of investment in California's active transportation infrastructure, and potentially a path toward a healthier, more equitable, and more sustainable transportation system.