No Car, No Problem: Connecting Car-less Americans to Opportunities

Posted 06/09/22 by Kevin Mills in Building Trails, Policy

Courtesy Getty Images

Most American communities are built around the assumption that everyone owns a car or truck and can drive. In reality, about 16% of American adults and nearly 100 million Americans overall do not drive because they cannot afford it, are legally ineligible or unable due to age or disability. Ensuring that these Americans can independently get around to jobs, classes, shops, services and other routine tasks is fundamental to enabling everyone to fully participate in society—and our failure to provide such opportunity is a key factor in growing inequalities based on race, ethnicity and income. Twice as many Black households have no access to a vehicle compared to the overall U.S. average.

To meet the needs of car-less Americans, communities must be retrofitted to make it safe and convenient to walk, bike and ride public buses and trains. Active transportation and transit work together to make it practical to get around without a car. With half of the trips taken in America within a 20-minute bike ride and a quarter within a 20-minute walk, active transportation can replace many short car trips. Further, safe walking and biking routes to trains and buses are critical to the success of transit and enable car-less Americans to reach more far-flung places. 

Related: Reconnecting Milwaukee Story Map: A BikeAble™ Study of Opportunity, Equity and Connectivity

Many federal transportation policies and programs could help redesign communities to work better for walking, biking and transit. One standout opportunity is to “flex” Federal highway funds—such as Surface Transportation Program Block Grants—to transit for purposes of addressing last-mile connectivity to public transportation. Such transfers are attractive because tapping into flexible highway funding can accelerate efforts to meet growing needs for safe places to walk and bike while increasing use of transit services. Park-and-ride strategies have proven unsustainable given limited space, and they fail to meet the needs of car-less customers. Transit systems could do more to relieve congestion and cut climate emissions if more riders were able to safely and conveniently access their services by foot, bicycle or shared micro-mobility.

Flexing funds can encourage a more integrated, network-based approach to regional mobility and coordination between agencies. It also can streamline project management, accelerate project delivery for smaller projects and remove barriers to using Federal-aid Highway funds for pedestrian, bicycle and transit projects. For more information, see the Federal Highway Administration’s guidance on the highway/transit flex authority (23 USC 104).

RTC is working to create another key opportunity by seeking an appropriation for fiscal year 2023 to fund the Active Transportation Infrastructure Investment Program that was authorized in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed late last year. The criteria for this program specify that integrating active-transportation facilities with transit services to improve access to public transportation will make an application more competitive.

The impact of the policy will be to encourage integrated mobility plans that provide options for Americans to safely and freely move about their communities; this includes strategies in which sidewalks, trails, cycle tracks, buses and trains are woven together to enable people to access the places where they live, work and play regardless of whether they have a car and without fear of getting run over.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law created many new opportunities to create a more balanced transportation system, but thoughtful and creative use of new policy tools and programs in communities across America will determine whether the law achieves its potential.

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