In many ways, 2016 was a bad year for all commuters. Even as cities made vast expansions to their cycling networks, bike share programs, and pedestrian infrastructure, vehicle-miles driven grew to an all-time high. Consequently, after a decade of declining traffic deaths, the number of road fatalities jumped by 10 percent from the previous year. That doesn’t mean walking and biking investments aren’t paying off—rather it shows that the U.S. needs to double down on improvements to help even more Americans choose to get out of their cars.
Not surprisingly, traffic is getting worse, too. The average American commute time is longer than it’s ever been: 26 minutes. And more cities are seeing the rise of “megacommuters,” those who spend up to 90 minutes in the car each way. After decades of sprawling development forcing people further and further away from their jobs, many Americans don’t have a choice—they’re forced into single-passenger vehicles on overcrowded highways. Cities have a responsibility to provide healthier, more enjoyable options for those who choose not to drive.
While the U.S. is still a few years away from prioritizing people over cars, there were lots of inspiring moments this year that suggest the country is well on its way. Across America, active transit projects got top billing in the 2016 election. Biking was embraced as an economic driver. And just by carving out better places to walk, cities proved that simple changes could make streets safer and more vibrant for all.
Cities started giving bikes their own space
The U.S. cities that have the highest number of people who travel by methods other than car all have one thing in common: Separated infrastructure for cars and bikes. This is one idea that really began to gain traction in 2016. In addition to protected lanes on streets, cities across the country installed special dedicated bike signals, “bike boxes” to help cyclists make tricky turns, and creative bike parking solutions. Protected intersections—installed in only a handful of cities last year—started to gain in popularity, especially in the Bay Area. And Portland set the bar high for all U.S. cities by making the protected bike lane the default design on streets.
Voters said yes to active transportation
Election Day saw a record number of transportation initiatives pass, appropriating $200 billion to states and cities nationwide. Although big public transit projects like light rail and subway expansions snagged headlines, most of these ballot measures included hefty allocations for walking and biking infrastructure. Most notable: A special tax for Atlanta will pay for bike lanes, sidewalks, and purchasing the rest of the right-of-way for the city’s Beltline, and the passage of Los Angeles County’s Measure M will bring the region $860 million in transportation funding annually for decades, with about eight percent of those funds dedicated to walking and biking projects.
Pokémon Go got everyone exploring their cities on foot
When the augmented reality game Pokémon Go was released in July, not even the creators were expecting a phenomenon that would come to dominate the year’s conversation about public space. Cities reported huge crowds congregating in parks and swarming normally empty downtowns at night, as players took to the streets to “catch ‘em all.” While players are not hunting for Pokémon in the same numbers as they were six months ago, there’s plenty to be learned about how a single app could motivate millions of people to walk around their neighborhoods.
There was better education around how to share streets...
Once again the most controversial topic in transportation was how to get drivers, cyclists, and walkers to get along as they negotiate congested city streets. Some ideas included changing laws for cyclists or enacting stricter enforcement for vehicles that park in bike lanes. Thanks to a popular 99% Invisible episode, more Americans learned about a technique called the “Dutch Reach”—an almost too-simple way for drivers to keep cyclists safe just by reaching for the car door with the opposite hand, necessitating a body turn that would bring oncoming bike riders into sight.
Meanwhile, The Bicyclist’s Manifesto for an Autonomous Vehicle Future presented a “bill of rights” with ideas like reducing the speed limit to 20 mph on downtown streets (meaning all road users would have about a 90 percent chance of surviving, should they be struck). The manifesto provided a good technological roadmap for cities to start prepping for a more bike-centric culture, even before AVs become prevalent on streets.
...Yet cities kept rolling out pedestrian shaming campaigns
Even though impaired and distracted drivers cause a majority of crashes, some cities tried to pin the blame on walkers, targeting them with so-called “awareness” campaigns. These misguided campaigns aimed to warn walkers of the dangers of walking with their smartphones or—gasp!—walking at night. In some cases, cities spent millions on ads and posters that could have been used to fund street safety improvements.
In a similar vein, jaywalking crackdowns remained prevalent as a way to punish pedestrians for walking “dangerously,” yet few cities have similarly strict penalties for drivers who violate crosswalks or bike lanes.
Bike share became an essential part of urban transportation systems
In 2016, bike share systems became a ubiquitous part of big city life, and even proved successful in smaller towns and college campuses. Among the launches in 2016 included Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Baltimore, and Portland, while DC’s Capital Bikeshare and New York’s Citi Bike announced major expansions. Cities also got creative when it came to customizing systems: Los Angeles integrated its bike share into its transit system, and Seattle’s bike share was overhauled to offer riders electric assist (which makes more sense for the hilly city).
Tragically, 2016 also saw the first death on any bike share system in the U.S. (in Chicago), but the overall data proved that this was an anomaly: Cities with bike share systems are not only safer for all, but bike share also fosters economic development that can help Americans save $5 billion per year.
International cities proved that if you build it, they will come
By far the best news for walkers and bikers this year came from other big cities that can serve as models for how U.S. cities can change. Bikes now make up half the traffic in Copenhagen’s city center, while Vancouver achieved its goal of shifting half its inner-city traffic to modes other than driving. Also this year, London’s mayor announced an exciting proposal to spend $1 billion on bike infrastructure, while Paris continued to build bike superhighways and ban cars along popular thoroughfares.
More cities aimed for zero traffic deaths
Dozens more cities across the country signed on to the Vision Zero initiative, a global effort to eliminate traffic fatalities. A new conference and network were established for cities to share best practices. Even the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched a national Vision Zero effort focused on redesigning streets, which was mirrored in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s announcement of driverless vehicle rules pushing safety as the most important benefit of autonomy.
On the ground, the changes were noticeable. Not only are cities mounting high-profile makeovers of major streets with wider sidewalks and better seating, but infrastructure improvements, such as high-visibility scramble crosswalks that allow walkers to cross in all directions, proved that design changes could prevent crashes and save lives.