Capitol Hill is a flurry of activity as Washington transitions to a new administration and Congress—including the announcement this week that former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the Biden administration’s pick for secretary of transportation.
While this year has presented its own unique challenges that will be top of mind for incoming leadership, including slowing the rise of COVID-19 cases, jumpstarting the stalled economic recovery and seeking to mitigate the climate crisis, Americans are using trails at unprecedented rates as the pandemic continues and people take refuge in the outdoors for physical activity and mental respite.
“We re-imagined how vehicles and people move through the city, unlocking new economic vibrancy in our urban core. We built up partnerships from a regional collaboration to improve rail service, to the public-private partnership that put our city at the cutting edge of bicycle mobility.”
This year, millions of people have discovered the importance of having trails close to home, and the benefits of trails that connect to each other and to important destinations, especially as transportation options have become increasingly limited amidst the pandemic response. In that context, as the impact and opportunities of trails play out on the most local levels, there is optimism about the perspectives on active transportation that Buttigieg could bring to the role, coming from a state where trails have long been valued as essential community assets.
“Indiana’s trails have long been recognized as essential assets for economic development, cultural preservation, health and mobility. We are encouraged that Pete Buttigieg—the president-elect’s choice for secretary of transportation—witnessed the value of trails as mayor of South Bend and should be predisposed to recognize that trails and active transportation are necessary for effective multimodal transportation. We look forward to engaging Mr. Buttigieg and the administration around our federal active transportation agenda,” said Kevin Mills, RTC’s vice president of policy.
Buttigieg’s perspective will come into play quickly as Congress and the next administration prepare to take on federal transportation policy early. The current federal law guiding transportation spending—the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act—was extended for an additional year and will now expire in September. Further, congressional leaders and the president-elect are interested in using infrastructure investment to spur the economy. With the understanding that trails, walking and bicycling are uniquely positioned to address many of the challenges facing the country, RTC and our partners at PeopleForBikes recently released our “Federal Agenda for Active Transportation”—a blueprint that outlines how trails, walking and bicycling may serve as key components in America’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery, and details the policy changes and resources needed to maximize the benefits of the nation’s trail networks.
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“This year has found more Americans than ever walking, biking and using trails, accelerating a growth in trail use, outdoor recreation and active transportation that has been building for years,” said Mills in a November press release. “We have an unprecedented opportunity to work with federal policymakers to put Americans to work building the strategic connections that enable healthy and resource-saving habits, unlocking billions of dollars for the U.S. economy.”
Key components of the federal transportation policy agenda include the following:
- Prioritize investments that link existing trails, bikeways and sidewalks into functional networks that connect people to key destinations and communities to each other, with special attention to the needs of underserved communities.
- Reauthorize the FAST Act, and double dedicated project funding for trails, walking and biking through Transportation Alternatives and the Recreational Trails Program to ensure resources are available in every city and state to meet the growing demand for safe places to walk, bike and move.
- Establish an Active Transportation Administration within USDOT.
- Pilot strategies to make transportation planning practices equitable and responsive to neighborhood priorities, and revive the USDOT initiative to promote equitable outcomes.
- Prioritize and incentivize active transportation as a critical strategy in cutting carbon emissions from transportation.
- Develop regulations governing the use of electric bicycles on public lands that are consistent across federal agencies and responsive to the needs of local land managers and the public.
If fulfilled, the proposed framework could have a transformative impact on the trails we know and love—and connect regions via safe active-transportation infrastructure that could result in new economic, health, active transportation and environmental benefits for millions of people.
For example, in Maryland, the Baltimore Greenway Trails Coalition, an RTC TrailNation™ project, is 10 miles away from connecting the city via a 35-mile trail loop that could see huge returns on investment in economic growth—creating a more equitable transportation system that links 75 neighborhoods, while providing millions in health savings by making walking and biking easier and safer.
Prioritized funding for trail connectivity could also help other critical projects throughout the country, including cross-country spines like the developing 3,700-mile Great American Rail-Trail™ connecting Washington, D.C., to Washington State.
Congress and the incoming administration have a unique opportunity to accomplish several goals at once, simply by supporting trails, walking and biking. We’re optimistic that this agenda will help communities complete trail networks and increase walking and biking, but we need your help.