How Big Investments in Walking and Biking Could Pay for Themselves

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The potential benefits of walking and biking in Colorado are immense, but the lack of safe infrastructure is holding us back, according to a new study prepared for the Colorado Office of Economic Development and Trade [PDF].

BBC Research and Consulting found that the statewide economic benefits of walking and biking total $1.6 billion annually, a figure that includes all activity linked to the manufacture and sale of equipment like bikes or boots, as well as tourism and events related to biking and walking.

The health impact is larger. Using research tools from the World Health Organization, BBC concluded that the health benefits of biking and walking, in terms of years of life saved thanks to physical activity, are worth $3.2 billion annually.

There is room for these benefits to grow substantially if Coloradans walk and bike more. A 60 percent increase in walking and biking could prevent as many as 240 premature deaths each year, the report found.

“If you assume, as we do, that accessibility to bicycling and walking is one of the key mechanisms for getting people out to walk or ride, it would stand to reason that participation rates would increase with more infrastructure — especially infrastructure like protected bike lanes and detached sidewalks that offer improved bicyclist and pedestrian safety.”

But despite the obvious health and economic benefits associated with biking and walking, Colorado’s streets aren’t designed for safe walking and biking. People think the state’s walking and biking infrastructure has a lot of room for improvement, according to BBC’s survey of 2,255 Coloradans:

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The public’s opinion of walking infrastructure, measured on the Net Promoter scale.
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The public’s opinion of biking infrastructure, measured on the Net Promoter scale.

The report states:

With all [biking] components rated a 6 or lower, these scores demonstrate that Colorado residents are unsatisfied with the presence, availability, and conditions of bicycle lanes and trails as well as vital support infrastructure. With many [walking] components rated about a 6 or less, these scores demonstrate that Colorado residents are unsatisfied with the support infrastructure connected to sidewalks and trails, including the availability of trip facilitates; sidewalk and trail connections; length of time to cross at intersections; pedestrian-friendly traffic signals; and clear signs.

The report makes the case for serious investments in “bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure including crossing signal improvements, crosswalks and sidewalk improvements, trails, and safe connections,” as recommended by the State Transportation Commission, a Hickenlooper-appointed body that shapes transportation policy.

A report from Colorado PIRG and SWEEP published earlier this year identified nearly $500 million in unmet annual needs for walking and biking infrastructure. Imagine if the Hickenlooper administration set aside those funds to prioritize walking and biking on streets and trails. The investment would pay for itself in no time.

  • JZ71

    I agree with most everything that he says, in both parts 1 and 2, except for his dissing of RTD’s regional structure and focus. While the suburbs DO receive more service than they probably “deserve” or consume, they’re also the golden goose that makes the denser service in urban areas financially possible. If Denver wants to “go it alone” and tax themselves for more, that’s a very real political discussion for city residents to have. But like any other new tax, it’s one more thing that will make the city even less affordable to its current residents, especially those at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Taxpayers are not stupid – most have little patience for paying taxes for services that will never benefit them, directly.

  • R.W. Rynerson

    A difficulty in carrying this out: RTD’s route structure pays little attention to city limits, mainly due to the public’s interest in freedom of choice. One of the reasons that RTD was created, rather than transit remaining a municipal responsibility, was the sprawl of jobs and homes across the metro area.

    When the City and County of Denver initially controlled the RTD board, much of the service improvement money went to establishing low ridership Express routes for white collar workers. There was little attention paid to economics. Night and weekend service (which is cheaper to operate than peak hour runs) was neglected until the elected board was inaugurated. Denver will gain little unless it starts with strong standards so that the allocation of service is a transparent process.

    Proposals that are confined to one city have to be designed in a manner that does not interfere with service to adjacent cities. This works for Boulder and Longmont because they had undeveloped land around them as their route structure evolved. It worked when Golden wanted to have its own service connecting with the W-Line because it only trashed existing Rte 17 in that city. It doesn’t work very well turning back at Sheridan Blvd. or Yosemite St.

    In relation to JZ71’s comment, Denver tends to contribute about as much in RTD taxes as its service and capital projects cost. Around the country, municipal systems may be found that provide good service within their boundaries. What is different in Denver (or Portland or Seattle, also with regional systems) is the responsibility to get people to places outside the city limits. In contrast, it took a well-touted Federal grant to get a bus route across the Dumbarton Bridge over SF Bay — years after it became a major commuter road link.

    A few years ago, a friend and I enjoyed a Sunday afternoon excursion on lightly-traveled Rte 402Ltd. We were the only English-speaking customers for most of the journey through Highlands Ranch. Based on their transfers, they were coming from or going to Denver and the older doughnut-ring suburbs. That is just one of the tangles that concerns me.

    Or perhaps it’s because I’m a veteran of the U.S. Berlin Brigade. Even with a Wall, the logic of a great metropolitan area built on an open plain is a powerful long-run determinant for network design.

    • neroden

      Bluntly, most of the US needs some serious reform in city borders. Annexations, mergers, and *de-annexations* of rural areas. We’d get better government if the city borders corresponded to natural borders, which they do not.

      The city borders in the UK make sense now. They were fixed by, of all people, Margaret Thatcher.

  • garbanzito

    fascinating interview, thank you

    here’s my escape from the prison of Walker’s geometry via “sub-mass” transit: dynamically dispatched and routed minibuses, able to show up nearby very quickly and go anywhere, while optimizing shared portions of trips, and connecting to trunk routes, could reduce personal car ownership to the point that much less parking is needed … cut parking demand in half and you free up a whole lane on many streets, which can be dedicated to transit or bikes, or grow the sidewalk

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