Commuting by bike begins to roll, lowering emissions and enriching cities

An unfinished billion-dollar urban planning project set to connect downtown Atlanta with green spaces, affordable housing, and trails for biking and walking may already be paying dividends.

The Atlanta BeltLine project -- which began in 2007, is scheduled to finish in 2030 and has cost about $360 million in private and public dollars so far -- will string together 45 neighborhoods with a 22-mile transit loop encircling the city. Employing abandoned railroad lines to carve new space, the designers have budgeted for 33 miles of trails and 1,300 acres of greenery.

Some of the prime movers driving this ambitious project appear to be local bicyclists, who have sparked a financial surge around the Eastside Trail, the only completed leg of the BeltLine. They have helped incite a $1 billion redevelopment boom, according to a recent planning report.

"That trail is driving the entire conversation that we're having," said Byron Rushing, the senior transportation planner for the Atlanta Regional Commission, an intergovernmental planning agency for the area. "Everybody here in Atlanta is holding their breath."

More Americans live in urban centers than ever before, but cities have found their attractions dimmed by mounting traffic gridlock. "We were the poster child for sprawl congestion and car commutes," Rushing said of his city. Now, Atlanta and others have started seriously investing in biking infrastructure.


"What cities are doing now is building all types of what we would call seamless, unstressed networks," said Tim Blumenthal, the president of PeopleForBikes, a trade group of bicycle retailers and manufacturers. "I think mayors are starting to realize that it's pretty tough to build your way out of congestion with new highways."

Atlanta; Memphis, Tenn.; Indianapolis; and Houston, cities not known for their environmentally sustainable legacies and policies, have all emerged as bike infrastructure leaders, Blumenthal said, with mayors leading local planning projects. The city of Portland, Ore., which has invested $70 million in bicycle efforts, has so far avoided constructing another bridge because enough people bike into work, he added.

Building bicycle-based infrastructure can be "quick to implement, cost-effective and inexpensive," Blumenthal said.

Fortifying downtown bike lanes

Constructing "protected bike lanes" -- barriers delineated by curbs, bollards, planters, concrete bumps, posts, dining tables, painted lines or even parked cars -- allows riders to feel safe and signals to drivers where they should expect cyclists.

Bicycle trips in the United States jumped fro 1.7 billion in 2001 to 4 billion by 2009, according to a survey from the League of American Bicyclists, an advocacy group. In cities the organization calls "biking friendly" -- New Orleans; Lexington, Ky.; Denver; and San Francisco, among others -- the percentage growth of residents who commute on two wheels is even more stark.

Bicycle commuting rates in those cities has climbed by 80 percent between 2000 and 2011, compared with 47 percent nationally and 32 percent in non-bicycle-friendly regions. In Portland, the survey's biggest biking stronghold, 6.3 percent of commuters pedaled to and from the office in 2011, compared with 1.8 percent in 2000.

A May 2014 report from the U.S. Census Bureau found bicyclists represent just 0.6 percent of American commuters but noted that biking, among commuting modes, experienced the largest percentage increase in the 2000 census and the 2008-12 American Community Survey.

Out of a growing national trend -- likely driven in part by urban renewal and the millennial generation's buying habits and lifestyle choices -- have sprung two cottage industries: firms that specialize in bicycling infrastructure engineering and bike-share companies.

Alta Planning + Design is one of those specialist urban planning businesses.

Recession-proof business

"Through the Great Recession, we continued to grow at a really incredible pace," said Steve Durrant, a principal at Alta Planning + Design, adding that the company, founded in 1996, has expanded from 20 to 30 employees to 130-plus people. "We had logarithmic growth."

That more Americans are living in and moving toward dense cities benefits business, Durrant said, adding that business offers that once came from parks departments are now coming from departments of public works.

"A lot of the work we do is retrofitting of existing infrastructure," Durrant said. "Both the planning and the implementation is affordable."

Alta has worked on projects in thousands of cities and 400 projects this year alone, he said. "They're the biggest of maybe three or four or five firms in the country that have really gone all in on this."

Bike-sharing programs, in which riders pay either per ride or on a long-term basis to access a pool of community bicycles, have recently ratcheted their businesses up a gear, as well.

"They've seen some return on investment after some starts and stops," Rushing said of the bike-sharing operations.

There are 84 bike-sharing programs in the country, according to the latest information from the Federal Highway Administration, many of which are specific to college and university campuses.

In 2013, New York City launched the biggest bike-share program in the country, called CityBike, which has 12,000 bicycles and 700 docking stations. Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and San Diego have the next largest programs with 5,000, 2,500 and 1,800 bicycles, respectively.

Easy bicycle commuting, according to Blumenthal, the trade group president, typically depends on a handful of factors: easy and secure bike parking, protected from the elements; a smooth enough trip for riders not to get too sweaty; access to a shower at their office; and a changing room.

Spinoffs include more walkers, fewer accidents

Some potential gains from protected bike lanes have played out at the intersection of Broadway and Third streets in Long Beach, Calif.

After installing a barrier of planters and a raised curb to carve out a special bike lane, city authorities found car volume decreased, drivers slowed down, foot traffic increased, bike-related accidents were halved and a third more riders used the two streets. Perhaps the most surprising result: The study reported a 50 percent drop in general vehicle collisions.

In the Deep South, a 2012 economic impact report on the Silver Comet Trail -- a biking and hiking system that stretches from Atlanta suburbs west to Alabama -- found the 1.9 million annual users generated $47 million in direct recreational spending and $10 million on tourist activities.

Environmentally, more bike paths nationwide would help lower long-term greenhouse gas emissions and could chip into inner-city pollution levels.

The average American commute is 16 miles in one direction, which takes 26 minutes in a car, and 13 percent of bicycle trips are for commuting, according to Blumenthal.

Yet, he said, half of all the trips Americans make using any type of transportation are under 4 miles -- a reasonable distance for many pedalers.

Blumenthal said the most frequently cited reason people do not ride or commute on a bicycle is because their destination is too far. And, he said, one leg within a commute is often enough to derail the possibility for a would-be bike commuter. "A bike ride is only as good as its weakest part," he said.

Urban greening and bike pathways in Atlanta and other cities were built with young consumers in mind, Rushing said. Yet he wonders whether cities will be able to retain the young, healthy and active demographic for decades to come.

"I think about it as bringing life back into our cities," he said. "This is an inexpensive way to do it."

Twitter: @benhulac | Email:

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