Driving is ubiquitous, convenient, and the default transportation mode choice for most Americans. While driving is convenient and efficient, vehicle emissions contribute to significant congestion and high concentrations of greenhouse gases. The Oregon Global Warming Commission found that carbon emissions from transportation sources comprise 40% of greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon and “policies that incentivize low-carbon choices” including bicycling are critical to reducing emissions (OGWC, 2018, p. 6).
Biking and walking are also important sources of daily physical activity. But driving has contributed to reductions in physical activity among adults (Rodriquez, 2009). According to the 2017 National Household Travel Survey, over a third (35.2%) of all vehicle trips taken were two miles or less; people are driving rather than biking or walking for short trips (NHTS, 2017). Dependence on the car is also evident in fewer children walking and biking to school. In 1969, 48% of school-aged children walked to school. By 2009, this number had decreased significantly to 13% (SRTS Guide, 2015a). With only 24% of school-aged children getting 60 minutes of exercise daily, encouraging walking to school can increase children’s amount of daily exercise (National Physical Activity Plan Alliance, 2018).
The evidence suggests that bicycling and walking are critical to human and environmental health. But in order for people to safely bike and walk, communities need sidewalks and bike lanes. In 1971, Oregon passed the Bike Bill (ORS 366.514, 1971) to ensure that transportation agencies include accommodations for people biking and walking in all road improvement projects. For the first 20 years, the Bike Bill was implemented inconsistently across the state until it was challenged in court (McCann and Rynne, 2010). In 1995, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance sued the city of Portland for not including bicycle lanes in the Rose Quarter road construction project. The successful lawsuit affirmed the intent of the law; that the requirement of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure applied to all road projects. This served as a turning point, shifting city and state policies to support bicycling and walking (Burkholder, 2013; McCann and Rynne, 2010). Since that time, bikeway miles in Portland have nearly quadrupled to 385 miles (Portland Bureau of Transportation, 2019). Bicycling rates in Portland increased significantly, peaking at 7.2% in 2014 (US Census Bureau, 2018). However, bicycling rates have since declined to 5.3% (US Census Bureau, 2018). Many communities across Oregon are experiencing the same trend. The current bicycling rate statewide is approximately 2.3% and has not seen significant increases over the past decade (US Census Bureau, 2018).
While several factors may have contributed, one thing that might help to stop the decline in biking is to amend and improve the Bike Bill. ORS 366.514 requires the provision of bicycle infrastructure, but the implementation of the law is still inconsistent and does not always result in the type of facilities that encourage more people to bike. For example, the Oregon Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) routine accommodations for bicyclists on urban freeways are shoulders. Highway shoulders serve multiple purposes but primarily they are a place for drivers to pull over to the side of the road in emergencies. The law requires that agencies spend a minimum of 1% of the state highway budget on bicycle and pedestrian facilities, but ODOT has not met the legal requirement in eight years between 1985 and 2016 (Oregon Department of Transportation, n.d.). On average, ODOT does meet the minimum 1% but it has served as a spending ceiling rather than a floor (Oregon Department of Transportation, n.d.). Since signed into law, there have been no changes or amendments. While the Bike Bill is not the only policy related to bicycling in the state, the law is approaching its 50th anniversary, providing an opportunity to recommend changes.