The transportation sector is the largest single generator of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. One big reason: Americans drive a lot, rarely use other forms of transportation, and emit a lot of carbon dioxide in the process. Only 1 percent of all trips Americans take, even those over short distances, are by bicycle.
There’s plenty of room for improvement. In the Netherlands, 27 percent of workers commute by bike thanks to accessible, safe, and clean cycling networks.
To see whether US cities can get more people onto bikes, we examined a recent philanthropically funded program designed to jump-start municipal bike infrastructure improvements. Initiated in 2018, the Final Mile program supported a combination of advocacy, communications, and engineering support in Austin, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Providence. The program did not directly fund infrastructure, which was largely constructed using local capital funds.
Our analysis shows the Final Mile approach successfully encouraged a rapid expansion of local cycling networks. This expansion was enabled through a combination of locally set, ambitious goals for infrastructure expansion; continuous pressure on political officials to achieve those goals; and external funding for communications and engineering support.
Program cities successfully expanded municipal cycling networks quickly
By the end of 2021, all Final Mile cities except New Orleans reached the ambitious cycling infrastructure mileage goals set by local officials: Austin and Denver completed at least 100 miles of improved bikeways during the program, significant expansions in investment compared with previous years.
To assess how common the experience of the Final Mile cities was, we collected data on the number of miles of secure cycling infrastructure completed annually between 2016 and 2021 in the five program cities and nine similar comparison cities. We also divided each city’s investment by its population to ensure fair comparisons between different-sized municipalities.
The results are striking: before the Final Mile launched, program cities were building similar levels of cycling infrastructure as comparison cities elsewhere in the country. But by 2020, each of the five funded cities were building at least 60 percent more high-quality cycling infrastructure per capita than the median comparison city. And by 2021, this difference grew.
Providence’s experience during the Final Mile program was particularly dramatic. Between 2019 and 2021, Providence funded improved bike infrastructure along major corridors across many city neighborhoods, which significantly expanded on the small existing network.
Reasons for the Final Mile’s success
We conducted interviews with stakeholders in each funded community to identify why the Final Mile cities were so successful in improving their cycling infrastructure. Three explanations stand out: local government leaders committed to an ambitious, public mileage goal; they were continuously held accountable for achieving that goal, thanks to the active involvement of nonprofits and media campaigns; and they received new technical assistance for engineering.
By setting a mileage goal for cycling infrastructure improvements, local political officials made clear they considered this work an essential municipal priority. But it’s one thing for a politician to make an announcement and another to put in the work.
Numerous interviewees noted how the program’s emphasis on improved communication between advocacy organizations and city staff helped hold cities accountable. One Pittsburgh advocate told us that “meetings went from haphazard to very frequent” and “relationships with city hall staff improv[ed] considerably.”
Media campaigns also helped with accountability by increasing public awareness of planned cycling infrastructure investments and making the case that the city’s projects would improve life for everyone. Promotions—which included social media, billboards, and even branded pizza boxes—illustrated the importance of cycling infrastructure in improving safety and expanding travel options.
An advocate told us these media campaigns “helped people understand the nitty-gritty of the project designs” and reduced community tension that could have resulted in pressure for the city government to slow its investments.
Lastly, the Final Mile program funded technical assistance by offering several cities engineering help to fill municipal capacity gaps. Cities face considerable constraints on their local staff, who are often overwhelmed by new projects. Engineering assistance provided best practices and answers to key questions about how to roll out new bikeways as effectively as possible. One city staffer in Providence explained that this support “made it possible to accelerate improvements in a way that would not have otherwise happened.”
How to encourage rapid municipal cycling infrastructure construction
The Final Mile’s multiple approaches of advocacy not only enhanced conversations about cycling infrastructure in each city but also led to the development of more connected, more extensive cycling networks.
Our research points to several key recommendations for other cities hoping to expand their cycling infrastructure and encourage a more rapid shift toward biking and away from cars.
- Local governments can lead the implementation of a large-scale expansion of cycling infrastructure if local leaders can commit to ambitious, quantified mileage goals that will help structure how capital dollars are spent.
- Local implementation goals should include metrics related to increasing equity, particularly for people of color and those with low incomes. Although the Final Mile program increased the number of miles of cycling infrastructure, it did not directly prioritize the people who could benefit most from improvements.
- Philanthropic funders interested in supporting climate-friendly infrastructure should ensure their funds help hold local policymakers accountable to achieving their commitments instead of funding infrastructure projects directly. They can also encourage collaboration between cities and nonprofit advocates while working to fill local capacity gaps, such as through engineering consultants.
With these changes, cities across the US can create effective cycling networks and reduce the environmental impact of the country’s current car-centric culture.
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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.