Smaller infrastructure investments help pave the way to safer communities

By Chris McCahill and Katya Spear

This blog post is a collaboration between the State Smart Transportation Initiative and the Mayors Innovation Project, both programs of the High Road Strategy Center at the University of Wisconsin.

Road safety is an urgent issue at all levels of government, especially for people walking and biking. Cyclist and pedestrian deaths have increased by 80% since 2010. This infrastructure week, we are encouraging more states, cities, and other local governments to help reverse this trend by prioritizing critical safety investments on streets and highways across the country.

The challenge—and the opportunity.

Although traffic safety is top of mind for many officials, most programs still resemble the traditional “three Es”—a 100-year-old concept promoting education, enforcement, and engineering—and have not delivered the necessary results. This is partly because they have not evolved to include principles like evaluation and equity, as some have suggested, and also because appropriate design features are often an afterthought. As SSTI recently wrote, educational programs aimed at vulnerable road users, while usually grounded in good intentions, often fail because the existing infrastructure doesn’t meet the needs of walkers and bikers.

By any measure, not enough funding goes toward infrastructure that could improve bike and pedestrian safety. At the federal level, the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) makes up less than 3% of funding under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Similarly, a recent analysis by Transportation for America suggests less than 3% of federal spending goes toward bicycle and pedestrian investments. Meanwhile, people walking and biking make up 20% of annual traffic deaths.

The historic influx of federal spending on infrastructure—and particularly on projects with a health, climate, and equity lens—presents an opportunity to align safety priorities with infrastructure spending. And state and city leaders who prioritize small, neighborhood infrastructure projects will have an opportunity to demonstrate and communicate the impact of infrastructure projects directly to those who use their roadways to access opportunities to play, work, and learn.

While the multi-million dollar highway project might sound impressive, it is the small-scale infrastructure projects—bike lanes, raised crossings, and the like—that are most visible and tangible to people’s lives. Localities often collect robust data (crash rates, injury counts, usage, etc.) on roads and intersections, but the data alone does not influence how people feel about a place or their level of support to change it. Psychologists tell us that people feel more connected when data is supported with a story: how will this project enable kids to safely reach their school, provide elderly residents access to the grocery store, or fix an intersection where someone’s child was struck? Small-scale infrastructure projects are a powerful tool to allow local leaders to tell better and more effective stories about how infrastructure investments are benefiting individuals and communities.

Making it happen.

When it comes to federal funding, local governments may be able to fold these smaller improvements into larger projects funded by programs like RAISE or Reconnecting Communities. Or they can pursue funding from Safe Streets and Roads for All, which Smart Growth America notes is easy to apply for and can go a long way in funding smaller, quick-build projects.

Selected federal programs with funding for bicycle and pedestrian safety improvements.

Local governments can also coordinate with their state or MPO and tap into eligible funding streams like HSIPCMAQ, the Carbon Reduction Program, and the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), a set-aside in the Surface Transportation Block Grant (STBG) Program. It pays to stay up to date on the inner workings of these programs. For instance, new rules require 15% of HSIP funds to be spent on vulnerable road users (VRU) if the local share of traffic deaths exceeds 15%. And local governments should be coordinating with states to identify eligible projects for August Redistribution, under programs like TAP.

In addition to these smaller programs, however, around 40% of all federal transportation spending goes through two large programs: STBG and the National Highway Performance Program (NHPP). Most of the other programs described above make up around 1% or less. These larger programs mostly fund routine highway projects, but each one is an opportunity to improve safety for people walking and biking. NHPP funds must be used for projects along the National Highway System. These are often limited access highways, but they also include major routes that run through many cities and towns and often serve as their Main Street. STBG is much more flexible.

FHWA has made its intentions clear, as Administrator Shailen Bhat noted last year:

“People who walk and bike are at the heart of our transportation system and thanks to historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding, we have an unprecedented opportunity to design and build a 21st century transportation system that meets the needs of all users. The law also provides more flexibility to help cities and states address active transportation needs. We are open to new ideas and committed to working with our partners to make this transportation vision a reality so that biking, walking and other ways to travel are safe, convenient and enjoyable for everyone.”

Leveraging these funds requires strong partnerships and collaboration between state and local agencies. NHPP funds are apportioned to states, while STBG funds are apportioned to states and MPOs. This often means having a bold vision and clear priorities at the local level, and enough guidance and flexibility at the state level to help realize that vision. As a result, however, these projects can offer a far greater return on investment than most highway megaprojects, not just in monetary terms, but in preventing tragic injuries and building community support.

Photo Credit: Kamaji Ogino via Pexels, unmodified. License.