Active Transportation for America

By Thomas Gotschi, PhD., Director of Research, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Several years ago when I moved to Los Angeles, I didn’t bring my bike along. Nobody bikes in L.A. Even after months of chronic back pain, it ultimately took some kids stealing my car to make me reconsider. It was then that I decided to ride a bike again, and to only buy a car when I really needed it.

Despite having grown up riding a bike almost all my life, it was quite a revelation to see what a bike could do for me in a city like Los Angeles—the car city. To be fair, most of my friends in L.A. owned cars and would give me occasional rides, but I never had to replace my own car and my bike was just fine for about 99 percent of my trips.

Then last year we moved to Washington, D.C., and I was pleasantly surprised by how bike-friendly the city was. And I was lucky enough to find a job with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national bike advocacy organization that converts old rail lines into trails, and promotes bicycling and walking in general. Bicycling has never been more front-and-center in my daily life.

Between my own personal conviction and my professional life, I’ve had my fair share of bike advocacy experience. At the local level, I volunteered for the Los Angeles Bicycle Kitchen—a true grassroots success story in getting people to ride bikes– as well as for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.

But on a national scale, the challenges are a little different. Support for bicycling and walking seems simply lacks Congressional support. Besides the few representatives who have publicly ridiculed biking, it’s not as if members of Congress have opposed biking and walking. They generally acknowledge that active transportation is clean, healthy, and fun. The problem is that, with the exception of a few steadfast and vocal supporters, most lawmakers have remained passive on the issue.

In the light of the reauthorization of the federal transportation bill next year, the biggest challenge for bicycling and walking, or active transportation, as we like to call it, is getting it onto the collective radar of our lawmakers. We need to galvanize their support.

It’s easy to point out that no damage results from increased active transportation, but what are the benefits? Sure, you probably save some fuel, don’t contribute to climate change, and shed some pounds in the process. But how much, how many, what is it worth? In Active Transportation for America: A Case for Increased Federal Investment In Bicycling and Walking we make a three-tiered case for why America needs and is ready for more active transportation—how it can save us fuel, time and dollars; improve our health and quality of life; and in the end, makes perfect economic sense. We illustrate our case with numerous examples from communities throughout the country that have or are ready to invest in active transportation, and are eager to provide the benefits to their residents. Most importantly, though, we took a stab at quantifying, for the first time, the benefits that our nation could expect from increased bicycling and walking.


The National Household Travel Survey provides the best information available on Americans’ travel behavior. Approximately 10 percent of all trips in the Unites States are taken by bicycling or walking. The most stunning numbers, in my opinion, are the following: 28 percent of all trips we take are one mile or less, and 48 percent of all trips are three miles or less. That means that basically a quarter of all trips we take are within 20 minutes walking, and another quarter within a 20-minute bike ride. Yet two-thirds of all trips one mile or less and more than 90 percent of trips three miles or less are done by driving an automobile.

In our benefits calculation we use these status quo figures, and assume both a modest and a substantial increase in the mode share of active transportation for these short trips under two future scenarios. The results are quite amazing: billions of miles in reduced driving; billions of gallons of fuel saved; millions of tons of CO2 emissions avoided; and sufficient exercise for millions of Americans to fulfill physical activity recommendations.

The bottom line is, bicycling and walking produce more than $4 billion in benefits every year, and modest increases in active transportation would yield $10 billion in benefits annually. Under substantial increases, this figure would increase to more than $60 billion in benefits every year.

Compare this to approximately half-a-billion dollars of annual federal investments in bicycling and walking currently, and no more than $5 billion in total, since the early ’90s when such funding made it into federal law for the first time.

To realize these benefits from active transportation, relatively modest investments are necessary to increase the safety and convenience of bicycling and walking. In communities that provide their residents with the option to ride their bikes or walk, the number of people that do so has increased steadily in past years, often showing double-digit percentage growth from year to year (e.g. Portland, Ore., Minneapolis, Minn.).

Investments in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure could not come at a better time. The economy is thirsty for a stimulus that will not only yield immediate jobs, but also long-term economic growth and benefits for Main Street. Investing in active transportation pays for itself in the form of fuel savings and reduced health costs. Active transportation is also essential to increase the efficiency of public transportation by improving access, and active transportation is a key element of smart growth—both are key pillars of a more sustainable urban development.

Further, more bicycling and walking opportunities have unmatched potential in getting Americans to become more active, and thereby reversing the obesity epidemic, which is nothing less than a ticking time bomb for our health care system.

Last but not least, active transportation can provide mobility to millions of Americans who don’t drive because they don’t have access to or ability to use an automobile. And while we put numbers to benefits like fuel economy and CO2 emissions, the increase in quality of life and social benefits from walkable and bikable communities are immeasurable.

To learn more about active transportation and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, visit

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