John Dvorak/shutterstock
John Dvorak/shutterstock

Nearly three months into the coronavirus pandemic, an unexpected shortage has emerged in certain cities: An affordable bike has become as hard—or harder—to find than a roll of toilet paper.

Whether pushed by the need for exercise that meets social distancing mandates, pulled by the siren song of late spring, or forced by the need to get to essential jobs despite transit cutbacks, millions are getting back on the saddle. Sales of bikes—particularly basic, under-$500 models—have doubled or tripled for many retailers. Cyclists are out in force on trails and streets around the country. And government officials are starting to respond by temporarily closing streets to through traffic and, at least in Europe, putting in “miles and miles” of new bike lanes.

Seeing a window of opportunity, a small group of funders is racing to launch what organizers believe is the first of its kind: a national matching fund focused on what the transportation sector calls “mobility”—not just cycling, but also walking, scooters, wheelchairs and others. Their immediate goal is to support the urgent need for safe alternatives to public transportation as Americans return to work amid the ongoing pandemic. Their long-term vision is a new generation of equitable infrastructure that repurposes streets to best serve people instead of catering to cars. Mobility, they argue, is a vital but neglected area for philanthropic investment.

“If you care about equity, if you care about employment, if you care about healthcare, you need to care about mobility. It’s the unifying force. It’s what gets people to where they need to be to live their lives,” said Darryl Young, director of the sustainable cities program at the Summit Foundation, which is one of the catalysts behind the effort.

Young and the fund’s partners have a lot of statistics to back them up. One in three households earning less than $15,000 a year does not have a car, nor does one in five African-American households, or 15% of Native American households. Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist who has done pioneering work in social mobility, has shown that one of the highest barriers to economic opportunity is being able to get to a job. And as the pandemic limits transit options, it’s notable that one-third of all transit users are essential workers, according to an analysis of census data by the TransitCenter, a research and advocacy group that makes grants and is also a fund partner.

Called the Mobility Fund, the effort will focus exclusively on advocacy, with national funders providing matching funds to local foundations for grants to community groups. Their idea is to organize the grassroots—transit riders who don’t have time to show up to public meetings—while influencing the “grasstops,” the officials who make transit and infrastructure decisions. They will be looking for partners focused on equity, whose projects are guided by community voices and respond to those communities’ needs.

The fund grew out of the Sustainable Mobility and Equitable Access funder collaborative, a group hosted by the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities. The fund’s leadership committee consists of both national and local foundations, including the Barr Foundation, the Bullitt Foundation, the Houston Endowment, the Joyce Foundation and the George Gund Foundation.

“As we started to look at getting more progress, we started to look at activism,” Young said. “How could we nudge cities to do more work? That’s how this matching fund came about.”

The fund is starting small, with an initial fundraising goal of just $1 million. “We’re not there yet, but we’re optimistic,” said Young, whose foundation has contributed $250,000. The group had planned to launch late this year, but then the pandemic hit. They now aim to issue a request for proposals in July, albeit a limited one. “The plane wasn’t really ready to fly, but we took off anyway. There’s this immediate need, and just getting it going has a lot of value.”

Few Transportation Funders, But All Doors Boarding

“Very few funders consider themselves transportation funders, but many understand that it impacts their work,” said Martha Roskowski, a longtime cycling advocate, founder of the consulting firm Further Strategies, and the lone staffer behind the funder collaborative and fund. “It’s like the circulatory system of the body. It’s not a higher-level system. It’s not the brains, it’s not the lungs. But it’s important.”

The good news is that the intersectional nature of the field can attract a wide diversity of funders—so much so that Roskowski and Young use the transit phrase “all doors boarding” to refer to the many paths to entry. For instance, the William Penn Foundation’s significant investments in walking and cycling infrastructure come out of its program to protect the Delaware River watershed. The foundation believes the long-term fate of its region’s waterways is intertwined with residents’ relationship with them—and trails help build that bond.

Another example of mobility funders’ big tent can be found in Howard County, Maryland. In explaining why the Horizon Foundation, which is focused on health, invests in infrastructure, President and CEO Nikki Highsmith Vernick notes that nearly half of American adults are not as physically active as doctors recommend. Yet people in places with “safe, comfortable and healthy transportation options” generally do meet those guidelines, she told me in an email.

She sees infrastructure as vital to improving her community’s well-being. Howard County has many streets that lack crosswalks, bike lanes or even sidewalks. The gaps are worst in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which have historically been last in line for such improvements, and often also have higher rates of chronic disease. “More than half of all county deaths are caused by heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes—and the lack of physical activity is a major contributor,” she said.

From Small Grants, Big Infrastructure Can Grow

In attempting to leverage small investments into transformative change, the Mobility Fund is in good company.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s $2.3 billion endowment makes it one of the 50 wealthiest foundations in the nation, and its reach is national—the foundation makes grants in 26 communities where the Knight brothers once published newspapers. It is one of the few national funders that have persistently promoted more people-friendly infrastructure. Yet it has relied as much on small-ball strategy as big swings.

Since 2013, the foundation has been paying the way for annual delegations of its chosen communities’ leaders—mayors, planners, city managers—to take week-long study tours of Copenhagen, the storied cycling utopia. In the 1970s, the capital of Denmark was plagued, as are many American cities today, by the daily snarl of commuter traffic from surrounding suburbs. Today, more than half of city commutes are by bicycle.

“I’ve been surprised by the return on investment,” said Kyle Kutuchief, Akron program director for Knight. He says returnees come back with the mindset, “‘We’re not going to be Copenhagen tomorrow, but what’s possible?’”

Many Knight cities have advanced that conversation with low-cost, short-term projects, a strategy common to philanthropic pushes for people-first infrastructure across the nation. In Akron, for example, they have funded pop-up bike share stations and temporary “road diets,” converting two lanes of a four-lane road, for example, into areas for seating or recreation.

One $5,000 Knight grant paid for the paint to add a temporary two-way bike lane along three blocks of downtown Akron, as well as planter boxes to provide a physical barrier. The city is now overhauling that street and others with the help of a $17 million federal TIGER grant, a project that will not only make that bike lane permanent, but extend over eight total city blocks—and connect it to another bike and hike trail.

“I don’t believe it is the role of philanthropy to provide physical infrastructure,” said David Bragdon, the executive director of the TransitCenter and a former Oregon elected official. “There are not the philanthropic resources to provide transportation infrastructure at scale.”

The Horizon Foundation, whose annual grantmaking budget is around $4 million, offers a similar lesson. Like the Mobility Fund, it is largely focused on advocacy and building community support for a re-imagined infrastructure. Staff have published op-eds, testified at hearings, organized community outreach to policymakers, and helped build coalitions such as the 21-member Streets for All coalition. Like the Knight Foundation, it has also tried to give its community a taste of some of the changes for which they are advocating, including putting in temporary bike lanes and funding a pilot bike share program.

This year, they see some of that work coming to fruition. The county’s 2021 budget is expected to include $7.4 million for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, a significant increase.

“We believe that that healthy choices should be easy choices,” wrote Vernick, the foundation’s CEO. “We want everyone in Howard County, no matter who they are or where they live, to feel like they can safely, easily and comfortably bike, walk or take public transportation anywhere they need to go.”

The Pandemic Has Underlined Mobility Infrastructure Needs

How people get from place to place has historically not drawn the same attention from national funders as, say, how to help them find good jobs or improve their health (though transportation plays a role in both). Many ambitious, multi-million-dollar philanthropic investments in transit or mobility are one-off regional efforts, such as the downtown bicycle route spearheaded by the Central Indiana Community Foundation or the William Penn Foundation’s generous support of hundreds of miles of trails in Greater Philadelphia.

“There haven’t been a lot of long-term committed funders,” said Randy Neufeld, director of the SRAM Cycling Fund, another fund partner. “Cycling was not seen as essential. It was seen as a fluffy, bourgeois kind of activity.”

Ann Fowler, director of programs for the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities, points to Bloomberg Philanthropies’ $70 million American Cities Climate Challenge as the “biggest investment on city transportation policy that we know of.” Initially intended for 20 cities, it has been extended to 25 sites. Yet transportation is the program’s secondary focus after building improvements, and many suggestions focus on electric vehicles and improved mass transit.

The pandemic has shown the value of—and need for—a robust mobility infrastructure. Parks and other public spaces are seeing record levels of visitors. With transit service reduced, essential workers are turning to bike trails to get to their jobs. To respond, funders and their grantees are working on projects that include limiting roads to bikes, posting social distancing guidelines in public spaces, lowering bike share fees and making lists of shovel-ready projects. As communities begin to return to work, the current structures do not appear to be sufficient.

“Transit will recover, but its recovery path will be slow. So it will not have the capacity to carry as many people as it did before,” Roskowski told me. Mobility alternatives are desperately needed “in order to avoid this kind of hellscape of everyone crowding into cars and trying to social distance.”

The fund’s founders hope this moment could be a tipping point.

“There is widespread realization in the funding world—concern about the crisis around transit and what that means for cities’ sustainability in the long term,” Roskowski said. “We’re building this national matching fund just to get this out there, to get more people involved.”

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