Biking and Walking Get About as Much Research Funding as Chicken Trucks

When traffic engineers don’t want to install protected bike lanes, they’ll often say that more research is needed to prove their safety (because any results from outside America don’t count, of course). But then when opportunities arise to study the safety of protected bike lanes, the engineering establishment doesn’t take advantage. And so the cycle repeats itself.

A study examining "husbandry" vehicles, or trucks that carry livestock, received almost as much research funding this year as walking and biking. Photo: Wikipedia
A study examining “husbandry” vehicles — trucks that carry livestock — received almost as much research funding this year as walking and biking. Photo: Wikipedia

Case in point: The National Cooperative Highway Research Program recently approved $30 million for transportation research, but hardly any of that will go toward studying the biking and walking infrastructure that many American cities are seeking to implement.

Just $750,000 of the $30 million will go to study bike and pedestrian infrastructure. That’s a measly 2.5 percent. For comparison, nearly as much money — $600,000 — was awarded to a single research project about vehicles that carry livestock.

This research funding matters. When an influential trade group like the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials refuses to officially endorse protected bike lanes, the excuse you’ll often hear is that there isn’t enough data to prove the designs are safe. But the same cadre of engineers also decline to fund safety research into those designs.

The National Cooperative Highway Research Program is overseen by the Transportation Research Board, AASHTO, and the Federal Highway Administration. These same groups appoint most of the members of the powerful National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which has been slow to adopt new templates that can improve the safety of cycling.

Ray Derr, a project manager with NCHRP, defended this year’s distribution, because “there is a large amount of variability from year to year.” Last year, research related to walking and biking received more than $3 million in funding, he said. Of that, $400,000 was for the development of an AASHTO bicycle facilities design guide.

Peter Koonce, a transportation engineer for the City of Portland, said more research would definitely be helpful in his work. The city is lucky to have a good partner in Portland State University, which does a lot of the leading research nationally on bike infrastructure. For example, he said, Portland partnered with PSU to study bike signals.

“We thought we were one of maybe two or three or four places in the U.S. that had implemented bike signals,” he said. “When we did the research we found it was well over 20.”

The PSU research helped Portland and other cities “standardize” the signals — in much the same way the predominant engineering guides have standardized treatments for motor vehicles.

Koonce said he thinks the obstacles to more bike and pedestrian research are structural. NCHRP is managed by state departments of transportation, which are mostly focused on highways.

“They’re just responding to the state needs,” he said. “Cities are not as plugged into that process.”

Every state has a research coordinator, for example, but cities generally don’t have much money to devote to research. Koonce did say the national research funding picture is improving with respect to biking and walking.

But it’s not keeping pace with cities’ appetite to improve biking and walking infrastructure.

Anne Lusk, a public health researcher at Harvard, said the bias toward car infrastructure also comes from the feds.

“For FHWA, we have safer cars made by the car manufacturers and safer roads for the drivers,” she said, “but we haven’t served anyone as well as we have served one mode, the vehicle.”

  • Maybe we ought to all wear chicken suits on our bicycles. Seriously, I should be shocked by this lousy bias towards the meat industry and highways instead of safe multimodal transportation, but I am not. I suspect the money is put where it is for reasons mentioned in the article: bias by state and federal bureaucrats, and lobbying by the industry.

    There needs to be more money spent on city infrastructure by those truly interested in Vision Zero because that is where traffic is complex and busy. Sadly, its cities where DOTs do the most damage in their building of high speed multilane stroads, which are not the most compatible facilities on which to mix cars and bikes.

  • Adam Herstein

    Streetsblog: simplified reporting of a complex issue using irrelevant data.

  • Irrelevant? Disagree. That’s very little money to study what to transportation planning is a big issue–how well do these NACTO designs work, what are the root causes of crashes, and how to best mitigate them. At something like 150-150k a pop, maybe three to five grants to universities? Really, are chickens more important than people? Its completely fair game to compare where transportation funding gets spent and why.

  • Funds for transportation research as paltry as for transporting poultry.
    (Sounds better said out loud)

  • tbatts666

    As someone who thinks it’s wrong to torture animals, I am sad that my tax dollars is being used to subsidize status quo meat production. It should be simple. Let the people who buy the product bear the actual cost.

    Those same hidden subsidies occur for for drivers over peds and bikers. Let the people who use the roads bear the actual cost.

    How do we have optimism about the future when we get so much feedback that our government is not working?

  • GutterBunny

    Actually there is tons of data on bicycles, bicycle safety, and traffic planning for bicycles. It’s just few of these studies were carried out in the US. Many of the European and Asian governments have, and continue to- study bicycle infrastructure fairly extensively.

    These studies are largely ignored here in the US for a couple of reasons. The whole “that wouldn’t apply to the US” excuse is a common one, or more often I think is that infrastructure improvements only actually “improve safety” by marginal increments. And lastly most these studies were carried out by the governments themselves, whereas the US seems to prefer it’s data gathered from the private sector – most of which also have an interest in their studies having specific outcomes.

  • HuckieCA

    NCHRP is just one source of transportation research funding, and a small one at that. There are transportation research projects/programs within US DOT on single topics that match or exceed $30M. Also, as the article says, funding topics vary from year to year, and there’s definitely been no shortage of published research in recent years on topics related to bicycles and pedestrians.

    It’s especially difficult to really tally the research dollars because many of the research projects involving bicycles and pedestrians are tied to infrastructure improvements, which generally don’t come from the research budgets. As an example, a city may decide to change a number of intersections to better accommodate bicycles or pedestrians, acquire funding to do the improvements, and then when the research project is awarded, it’s a small dollar amount to look at the effects of those changes.

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