One comment common to many alternative transport advocates — including individuals like former Congressman James Oberstar — is that we need to push the idea that bicycles are transportation. One of the big challenges is to overcome perceptions that bicycles are toys or recreational. They can be, certainly — but so can cars and motorcycles.
The bikes-are-toys thought pattern is at the heart of statements like that of Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA), who believes that bicycling shouldn’t be a part of the House Transportation Committee’s work. In his own words, Hunter says, “I don’t see riding a bike the same as driving a car or flying an airplane…. I think it’s more of a recreational thing.” A panelist at a recent House Transport Committee public meeting in Indianapolis compared cyclists to hunters and fishermen.
There is a certain extent to which bike trails feed these notions of bicycles as recreational — and, in the case of many trails, there is a good and fair argument that they should not be funded from transportation programs, but rather from park and conservation funding.
The reasons are straightforward: Most bicycle trails are built with recreational intent. They aren’t designed for access to practical destinations, as would be necessary to classify them as “transportation” facilities. While there are certainly outliers that are contrary to this generality — like the Midtown Greenway and Cedar Lake Trails, which operate as bicycle expressways on a traditional hub-and-spoke model to downtown Minneapolis — the fact is that most trails operate in ways that make them more analogous to parks. Systems like the Gateway State Trail and the Hardwood Creek/Sunrise Prairie Trail can have incidental use for commuters, but it’s really not a primary use or intent.
That isn’t to say that there’s not reason to invest in bicycle trails. Far from it. Bicycles can be recreational. Many trail corridors promote tourism — the wild financial success of the Root River Trail network near Lanesboro, Minnesota, is proof of that. Urban trail systems provide recreational options close to cities and often help preserve green corridors near the urban cores. Users of trails both close to home and further afield provide economic benefits in areas the trails pass through — just go stand in line at the North Saint Paul DQ on a nice July day as proof!
Trail riding and recreational bicycle use can serve as lead-ins to more transport-oriented use of bicycles as well.
However, use of funds allocated to transport use for trails really needs to come down to context. A recreational trail system, defined by park-like structure and limited routing to functional destinations, is not a good use of transportation funds at a time when funding is an issue and likely to remain such as vehicles get better gas mileage, and legislative appetite to raise gas taxes remains low. Trails built on a transportation model, such as the Midtown Greenway, merit consideration for use of transportation enhancement funding. Via appropriate use of all funding models, both recreational and transportational bicycle development can be supported.