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January 26, 2021

What a Modern Civilian Conservation Corps Could Do for Bikes

By: Kimberly Kinchen, contributing writer

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In March 1933, only three weeks into his first term, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed a bill to Congress to create the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Congress funded the CCC in April, and by summer thousands of unemployed young men were enrolled in the program that would put them to work on environmental conservation projects to improve public lands and parks across the nation. Over the next nine years, at least 3 million enrollees fought forest fires, planted trees and built fish rearing ponds, bridges and campground facilities, gaining valuable job skills and education. The CCC rebuilt and renewed America’s national parks, a legacy that endures nearly a century later.

The economic challenges our country faces today are substantial, much like those of 1933. What if we founded a new CCC? One that places bikes at the forefront of its work, mobilizing their power to reshape our nation’s cities and towns while at the same time creating jobs, boosting the economy and creating new opportunities for sustainable transportation.

Lawmakers have recently drafted bills for inclusion in a new stimulus package with CCC-like components that would make big investments in outdoor recreation and public open spaces. The bills typically intend to jumpstart shovel-ready projects that have been placed on the back burner due to a lack of funding. Given that, by some estimates, every $1 million spent in wilderness restoration and outdoor recreation infrastructure generates up to 33 jobs, it’s hard to think of a better federal investment in job creation or economic stimulus.

At the 10,000-foot level, a bike-centric CCC — let’s call it a bike corps — could focus on the recreation and transportation opportunities bikes provide in both urban and rural communities, offering local people living-wage jobs that could enhance their skills and their communities, while also pumping money into local economies. It would promote active transportation and create more inclusive opportunities for biking by better connecting citizens to schools, homes, healthcare, jobs and each other. 

In the near term, a bike corps could start with shovel-ready and close-at-hand projects. One such project — accelerating the completion of the 3,700-mile Great American Rail Trail, a network of trails stretching from the tiny West Coast community of La Push, Washington to the nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C. Corps workers could close key gaps and build and refurbish infrastructure that supports bike tourism and travel, such as camping and lodging facilities, priming communities from coast to coast for a boom in bike tourism. 

Where trails pass through towns and urban areas, the bike corps could build or restore rest stops, bike repair stations and local trailside parks and facilities. From the inception of the corps, projects could be prioritized in historically underserved neighborhoods and complement existing infrastructure projects.

At the local level, a bike corps could create well-connected networks of protected bike lanes in thousands of cities and towns across the country. Connecting these networks to local and regional trail systems could feed bike tourism while giving more Americans the opportunity to try biking for transportation, in turn further stoking local economies. Recent studies suggest that retail sales increase by more than 10% and food sales increase by more than 50% on streets with newly installed bike lanes, significantly higher than increases on nearby streets. 

At the same time, these new connections could relieve households from some or all of the financial costs demanded by car ownership (an average of $9,561 per year, according to AAA) by making biking a safer, more reliable option for transportation. Finally, allowing citizens to comfortably replace even a modest number of shorter car trips with bike trips would reduce carbon emissions and increase physical activity, in turn building healthier communities and reducing the cost of medical care.

On the jobs front, all of these projects could connect bike corps crew members with union apprenticeships in construction and trades, corporate apprenticeships in related fields like architecture, planning or civil engineering or to a multitude of jobs in outdoor recreation, opening up these professions to populations that have traditionally faced high barriers to entry. 

Ultimately, a bike corps could connect communities, cities and our country, thanks to the help of bicycles. Giving hundreds of millions of Americans the ability to ride down their street, through their communities, onto a trail and into the great outdoors would be a legacy as profound and lasting as the one President Roosevelt’s CCC left on our national parks. 

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