Columbia evaluates progress of GetAbout project

Among the rather ordinary and common-sense improvements undertaken by GetAbout Columbia is more bicycle parking downtown--when school is in session, available downtown bicycle parking is often overrun.
The Columbia Missourian recently featured a detailed analysis of the progress with Columbia's non-motorized pilot project, known as GetAbout Columbia:

This is where the city finds itself with GetAbout Columbia less than two years before the city presents its final report to Congress: No trails constructed, intersection construction beginning and officials worried a major change in the way Columbia travels might not be visible by 2010. As a result, officials are trying to conjure up new ways to measure evidence of progress.

“You’re always optimistic about how much you can get done,” GetAbout Columbia manager Ted Curtis said. “I think we’ve been going as quickly as we can, even though it seems like it’s taking forever.” . . .

The staff have also learned how to navigate through the bureaucracies at a quicker pace. Each project has to go through the same steps to be approved and takes about the same amount of time to be approved, Hindman said, regardless of its size. So the staff has started packaging smaller items as a large project rather than each small trail on an individual basis, Hindman said.

In total, $1.6 million is budgeted for planning, management and in-house design, including the planning and designing of bike lanes, bike routes and bike parking.

Along with the lessons learned, recent progress includes the beginning of construction on several intersections to make them more bicycle and pedestrian friendly, along with council approval of plans for at least three biking and walking trails. About a third of the on-street markings have also been finished.

Curtis said the project is heading to stage three of the experiment — getting more people riding bicycles or walking instead of filling the gas tank.
I'll be interested to hear what MoBikeFed News readers think about the progress of the GetAbout Columbia project, but here's what I think:

Although you can poke holes in the implementation of any large, new project like this, part of the problem really is unrealistic expectations. Even if federal funds and guidelines were not involved, planning and building a project on the scope of GetAbout Columbia would take years at best.

It's not like getting 10 bucks and going down to pick up a few pairs of tube socks at WalMart. Spending a lot of money fast without a pre-existing structure and knowledge base (ie, a whole team of people who really know their stuff and have been working together for years) is not any easy task.

Add in the complexities of dealing with MoDOT and the federal government funding and guidelines, and delay of a few years is really just to be expected before complicated projects requiring planning, coordination, and public input can hit the ground.

In short, GetAbout is just about on the schedule I would have predicted 3 years ago when the funding was approved. There is just no way complex trail, intersection, or street improvements could have happened much faster than they are happening.

Realistic time frame for change
Cities around the U.S. and the world have found that they can shift travel modes towards more bicycling and walking--and the cost is fairly low in proportional terms. But it takes years and some real long-term thinking to really change a city's design and people's travel habits.

European cities started re-tooling themselves in the 1970s and change occurred on the scale of decades, not years. But now it's common for European cities to have twice the walking and bicycling of U.S. cities (and that makes it 4 times or more what we have here in Missouri).

The changes Portland made starting in the early 1990s led to moderate change in the first 5-10 years but it is only now (more than 15 years out) that the really large shifts are becoming apparent--for instance, Portland now has six to ten times the amount of bicycle trips it did in the early 1990s.

The cost in context
And let's face it--$22 million over the course of 6 years seems like a lot if you're thinking of the average household budget, but in terms of transportation budget it's pretty much peanuts.

To put it in context, MoDOT's annual budget is about $2.7 billion, or $466 per year per Missouri citizen. (And keep in mind that cities and counties spend a lot of money on transportation projects as well--MoDOT's spending is just a portion of total transportation spending in Missouri.)

GetAbout Columbia is spending about $41 per year per Columbia citizen.

Putting that in perspective--nationally bicycling and walking amount to 9.5% of trips.

So spending 9.5% of transportation budgets on bicycling and walking seems completely justified. So spending the proportion of the transportation budget on bicycling and walking that GetAbout Columbia is, shouldn't be a special, one-time event.

It should be the norm.

Radical change vs the gradualist approach--which is GetAbout?
If you really wanted to radically change the environment for bicycling and walking, for just a few years you would spend an equal amount on bicycle and pedestrian connectivity to what we spend on highways--in other words 10 times what the GetAbout project is spending.

You wouldn't need to do that forever, but doing it for 5 or 6 years would go a long way to erase the neglect of bicycling and walking infrastructure in our nation's transportation budgets for the past 75 years or so.

And if you want to take the gradualist approach, you could do what Portland has done for the past 15 years: spent just under 1% of the city's transportation infrastructure budget on bicycling.

At the start of the period the bicycle mode share was just below 1%; now it is about 6%.

Spending less than 1% of the budget to handle 6% of the trips--that's not a bad payoff.

So what Columbia is doing is really just the start. And it will take another year or two before we can really tell if they are off to a good start or not.

And in terms of budget, GetAbout is positioned somewhere between the gradualist approach like Portland and a real radical approach.

That means we we won't see radical, fast change. That would take radical amounts of money.

But we should expect modest changes in the amount of walking and bicycling--perhaps an unmistakeable if small change by 5 years from now and then larger changes 10, 15, and 20 years out if the city keeps moving the plan forward through that entire time frame.

We're interested in hearing what you think about the GetAbout project--is the money being spent well or should priorities be different?

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