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AARP AARP States North Carolina Livable Communities

Making roads safe for walking and biking


Do you ever wonder why more people don’t bike or walk to take care of their daily errands, especially when most of us have grocery stores, drug stores, and other destinations that are within easy biking or walking distance?

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, over half of all daily trips made in the U.S. are under three miles in length, and 28% of all trips are under one mile. Yet the great majority of these trips are made by car. Why? We will get into our cars and drive three miles to go to a gym, but embedding the walk there  into our daily life routine is something most of us don't think about. One to three miles is a distance that can easily be covered by walking or biking; and with e-bikes, even more so.

When surveyed, many say they do not try to bike or walk because our roads lack sidewalks and bike lanes, making biking and walking unsafe. They are not wrong. Pedestrian deaths are at a 40-year high, and North Carolina ranks sixth in the nation in pedestrian fatalities. It is a problem that our state needs to address.

Improving bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and safety would also support North Carolina's stated goals to lower the number of vehicle miles traveled and to work toward a cleaner tomorrow. Just adding electric vehicles to our roads will not solve our transportation problems. All roadway vehicles, electric or not, have to be accommodated. Continuously adding lanes is not a sustainable approach. Replacing some of those shorter trips with bicycling and walking would relieve some of the congestion on the roads, and would make us and our communities healthier at the same time.

One way to make walking and biking more attractive is to put money into our greenways, sidewalks, and bicycle infrastructure. North Carolina recently received some good news— it was awarded “Safe Streets for All” grants from the Department of Transportation, totaling $3.7 million dollars, for 11 cities and towns around the state to develop Action Plans. Similarly, the state Department of Transportation (NCDOT) awarded $2 million to several towns for feasibility studies for sidewalks and bike lanes, and also has a grant program to fund community bike and pedestrian plans. To date, that program has awarded $8 million to fund 254 planning grants.

We have a lot of plans out there that communities spent lots of time creating. Yet, the amount of money available for implementation of these plans is scarce. The 2020 budget for NCDOT showed that a mere .016%—less than $1 million of its $4.96 billion budget—was allocated to bicycle and pedestrian transportation.

In addition, a state law passed in 2013 restricts the use of state funding for stand-alone bike or pedestrian projects. That makes it nearly impossible for communities—especially smaller, rural, or poor communities—to seek federal grants, which require a 20 percent local match. (Prior to 2013, state funding could be used for all or part of that match funding.) Those who put the restriction in place argued that the money came mainly from gas and other car-related taxes and should therefore only be used on cars. Now that the state is taking money straight out of the general fund for NCDOT use, that argument no longer holds, and we can hope this restriction will be lifted as well.

North Carolina has designated 2023 the “Year of the Trail.” That’s exciting and will make outdoor recreation available to more people. But those people will need to get to the trails meaning we need safe infrastructure on our roads for active transportation users. Even the East Coast Greenway relies on roadways for almost two-thirds of its route. So, yes, let's build trails, but let's also build safe access to them that doesn't require us to get into a car just to go for a walk or ride. 

Every car trip that can be replaced by a bike trip or walking lowers greenhouse gases, reduces the need for widening roads, and improves an individual’s physical and mental health. Even someone who is car dependent should appreciate the benefits of having fewer cars on the road and in the parking lot.

Statistics show that most of us will outlive our ability to drive by almost 10 years. Wouldn’t it be great if bicycling and walking (along with decent transit service) allowed us to keep our independence beyond our driving years?

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Views expressed here are not by AARP.

Heidi Perov Perry is a Board Member of BikeWalk NC, a recipient of the APA-NC Marvin Collins planning award, and an LCI Certified Bicycling Instructor. She started riding a bike for transportation in the early 1970s, as a freshman in college. Heidi says, “Discovering the bike as a transportation mode was one of the best things that could have happened to me, a habit that has stayed with me throughout my adulthood. I commuted by bicycle for 40 years, and still use the bike as my main form of getting around. I also use it for recreation, along with hikes in the woods near my house. I give credit to this lifestyle—very different from that of my parents—for my good physical health as well as my mental well-being.

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