Forget high-speed rail, how about bike-friendly trains?
The path to a truly renewable national transportation system may just start with a bike rack.
Thursday, May 12, 2011 - 13:49
TRAILS-TO-RAILS?: While many cities like New York have integrated public transportation, traveling between cities with a bike can be difficult. (Photo: Chris Tittle)
Biking from New York City to Washington, D.C., may be the easy part. At least I can ride my bike.
As part of the 2011 Brita Climate Ride, I'll soon be bicycling 300 miles to raise awareness about the need for more comprehensive bike infrastructure and alternative transportation. Organizations working to achieve this have typically been active at the city level by increasing bike lanes and changing local transportation policy. Several of the beneficiaries of this year's Climate Ride are transforming cities like San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., into some of the most innovative biker-friendly cities in the country. At the national level, organizations like the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (another Climate Ride beneficiary) have been incredibly successful at developing more recreational bike trails, spurring local economic growth and creating healthier communities.
What seems to be largely absent from this discussion, though, is how to integrate this emerging bike infrastructure with currently existing transportation infrastructure.
Riding a bike is surely one of the cleanest forms of transportation around — but it has some obvious limitations. It's great to cover short distances around a city, but what if you want or need to go between cities and don't have five days to get there? Trying to get myself and my bike to New York to begin the Climate Ride, I came across a large gap in our intercity public transportation system. And I don't mean the lack of high-speed rail or a comprehensive commuter rail system on par with Europe, Japan or even China.
It turns out it can be really expensive and difficult to transport a bike any way other than pedal-power.
What we lack as much as green tech transportation infrastructure (high-speed rail, light rail, clean-burning buses) is integrated low-tech transportation infrastructure. By this, I basically mean intercity buses with bike racks or Amtrak trains with bike storage.
Many cities across the U.S. have highly integrated public transportation systems with bike-friendly subways and buses. Even Pittsburgh, despite significant cuts to public transportation in recent months, is in the process of outfitting the entire fleet of city buses with mounted bike racks. Cleveland is also getting in on the action, with a sleek new rapid-bus system to complement expanded bike lanes. These are all making it significantly more efficient to travel larger distances within cities at much less cost to the atmosphere.
Traveling to another city with a bike is another story. Many bus companies do not transport bikes even when disassembled and boxed up. Some, like Greyhound, do accept boxed bikes but at a significant extra charge. And more surprisingly, Amtrak will only transport bikes — boxed or not — on a very limited number of routes and trains. Thus, it is nearly impossible to make my entire Climate Ride experience from door to door completely carbon-free. I can cycle 300 miles from this country's financial heart to its political heart without the use of fossil fuels, but I can't even get my bike from my apartment to the bus station in Pittsburgh without the use of a car (try carrying a boxed bike over your head or on a public bus — it's not easy).
That said, New York City has an increasingly comprehensive system of bike lanes (though not without controversy), and it's generally easy to take bikes on the subway. At the other end, I will be able to take my bike on an Amtrak train back to Pittsburgh. But imagine if I could simply ride up to the train station and wheel my bike onto a train like many do in Europe. Instead, I'll have to disassemble, box and then drive my bike to the train station and repeat once I arrive in Pittsburgh.
It's evidently possible to outfit buses and trains with bike racks at relatively little cost. Increasing the number of alternative transportation options for intercity travel can be as simple and low-tech as just adding a couple racks to the front of a bus.
Congress had approved almost $10 billion to invest in high-speed rail over the next few years, but the recent budget deal cut that to $0 in 2011. As we wait for our country to gather the political will to truly invest in alternative transportation infrastructure, integrating already existing alternative and conventional transportation will make it that much easier to transition to a post-carbon future.
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