Here in Massachusetts next month, the state Department of Transportation is holding meetings for local officials as a means of determining needs and to identify goals for the next 10 years.
I plan to attend and discuss a concept that every major city in the United States should be considering. At EfficientGov.com, we've written about the value of bike paths consistently (how they increase home values, and reduce health and transportation costs), with our most recent article on a bike superhighway in Copenhagen, where 50 percent of the commuting population rides to work.
Interestingly, as a means of commuting, biking is completely overlooked by transportation planners here in the United States. I find this curious, as maintenance of bike paths requires a pittance of support from government, compared with what is necessary to accommodate vehicle, train, and bus commuters.
Even more curious is why government would avoid supporting a healthy form of commuting, instead spending billions of dollars subsidizing transportation systems that promote pollution, weight gain, and significant financial cost to citizens. While I understand that not everyone who drives or takes a bus or train to work would immediately ride a bike to work, current examples prove why serious consideration should be given to infrastructure supporting bike commuters.
In Washington, the Capital Crescent Trail is an 11-mile rail trail from downtown to the northwest suburbs. Almost 100,000 people use the trail every day.
So, how can cities like Boston and other major population centers add bike "superhighways" when land is a limited resource? My solution is to use existing commuter rail tracks.
It is really a four-step process:
■ Pave around the actual rails and create a road with a width necessary for a right biking lane and a left passing lane.
■ Schedule outbound trains (which carry very few people) in the morning to leave a two-hour window (7-9 a.m.) for bike commuters to bike in from as far away as 30 miles (at 15 miles per hour, a two-hour ride).
■ Schedule inbound trains in the afternoon/evening (which carry few people) to leave a two-hour window (5-7 p.m.) for commuters to bike home.
■ Install gates at entrances to the bike path, closing it according to when a train is scheduled to run, and use cameras to detect and direct riders still on the path to allow them to exit and complete their commute on a train.
It doesn't take more than an inquisitive eye to see that a.m. outbound trains and p.m. inbound trains are highly underutilized. On the MBTA Commuter Rail trains in inverse routes, you'll often see a five-car train carrying fewer than 100 people.
DOT folks — think outside the box. Or, rather, think inside the rails. Your reward will be healthier commuters, a less polluted environment, and an efficiently spent budget.