New bike laws help all commuters


Right now, there’s plenty of political will behind environmentally friendly legislation, especially for bicyclists, who feel they’ve been left on the side of the road when it comes to green commuting perks.  Minnesota, however, is trying to deflate the incentive imbalance against bike riders.  The hope is to make their commutes easier, safer and cheaper.  As a byproduct, all travelers will enjoy reduced congestion and pollution.

This spring, the legislature passed “the unchanging red light bill,” which allows cyclists to go through weight-triggered lights – after stopping and checking for traffic of course – if the light stays red for an “unreasonable amount of time.”  This law responds to complaints from cyclists who say bikes are too light to activate the weight-triggered signals. (The law also applies to motorcycles.)

Hitching on to a national movement, Minnesota has also passed its own Complete Streets law, which prompts transportation engineers to consider the full range of users from semis and farm vehicles to bikes and pedestrians.  Roads will be designed “in a manner that is sensitive to the local context and recognizes that the needs vary in urban, suburban, and rural settings.”  For cyclists, this will have an immediate and recognizable impact. Minneapolis will construct 40 miles of new bikeways in 2010, consisting of about 35 miles of bike lanes on city streets and 5 miles of off-street bike trails. (See the complete plans for 2010 bikeway construction in Minneapolis here).

In addition to laws that are aimed at safety, cycling enthusiasts have been advocating for measures that balance the tax incentive structure. For years, bicycle commuters have pointed out the lack of subsidies for bicycle commuters. Though federal subsidies for commuting to work are aimed at encouraging carpooling and use of mass transportation, auto commuters also benefit from hidden subsidies every day through the use of free parking. This lack of tax benefits for bike commuters all changed in 2009, when stimulus funding became available for bike commuters. The 2008 stimulus bill provides up to $240 per bike commuter per year in tax benefits.  Employers may either reimburse their employees – tax-free – for “reasonable expenses” incurred, or they can deduct money spent investing in cyclist-friendly facilities, such as bike storage and showers, from their taxable income.

With the implementation of new legislation that makes bike commuting easier, safer and less expensive, Minnesota has taken a strong pedal forward encouraging environmentally friendly commuting. But with large, hidden subsidies remaining for auto commuters and a lack of bikeways in many communities, we have a long way to ride.