Too Few Bicyclists? Build More Bike Lanes!

An op-ed Julie Tisdale in July 2016 in the Raleigh New and Observer decries the 4.62 million dollars spent on bike lanes as an unjustifiable expense. In order to reach this conclusion, Miss Tisdale has to use creative accounting and arguments that are too full of flaws to be promoted sincerely.

Puzzling Math

The most puzzling calculation is the $4,000 Tisdale argues was spent on each Raleigh cyclist in 2015. This number was reached by dividing bike infrastructure spending by total number of people in Raleigh indicated on the census that they commuted by bike. This accounting is transparent in that it lets the reader decide how much weight to assign to the unaccounted for, namely people who bike to restaurants, libraries, grocery stores, and for pleasure. But what isn’t disclosed is that the bulk of the money spent was on new infrastructure.

In October of 2014 Raleigh began construction on 28 new miles of bike lanes which were completed in December of 2015. In other words a significant portion (perhaps all) of the 4.6 million expenditure cited in 2015 went to the building of new lanes rather than the maintaining of existing lanes. This newly built infrastructure will be used for years, yet Tisdale decides to lump the entire cost onto one year rather than over the life of the infrastructure in order to arrive at her $4,000 figure. It’s not as though the city plans on building 28 miles of bike lanes a year. The project began in 2008, though most of the construction was done in 2015. To leave out this information is at best a crucial oversight and at worst a disingenuous twisting of the facts.

Puzzling Logic

Tisdale concludes her article by critiquing bike lanes in Raleigh for a number of reasons. The first is that “bike lanes displace lanes for motorized traffic,” which is true in most cases. She goes on to conclude that traffic in Raleigh should be reduced by more car lanes, not fewer. While it may sound counterintuitive, this isn’t always correct.

Anyone stuck behind a left-turning car on a two way road can tell you that street design (which includes turning lanes among other things) can make as much of a difference as number of lanes. On many new streets with bike lanes, second lanes have been converted into shared turning lanes, equaling or in some cases increasing traffic flow.

Excerpt from the Raleigh Bicycle Pavement timeline.

Demand Follows Infrastructure

Another criticism Tisdale has for bike lanes is that “they reduce the space for cars but not the number of cars,” but this is far from certain. In Minneapolis, biking and walking to work increased 25 percent from 2011 to 2012, now accounting for 11 percent of total commuters. This rise is not due to some newfound bike enthusiasm but investments in infrastructure that makes biking more enjoyable.

This point further invalidates Tisdale’s argument that Raleigh spent too much per cyclist on bike lanes. The census data was almost certainly taken before the bike lanes were completed, meaning that it didn’t account for the increase in ridership.

People choose transit options based on convenience, safety, and cost, not personal preferences independent of those things. Throughout her article, Tisdale seems to assume that the number of cyclists is an unchanging constant independent of infrastructure. But that simply isn’t the case. Nobody thinks 5.5 million people ride the NYC subway every weekday because the Big Apple is full of subwayphiles. They chose this option because it’s the most convenient, safe, and cost effective.

Infrastructure Demands Paternalism

The final argument that Tisdale makes is that the addition of bike lanes are a form of government paternalism or overreach. She argues that by foisting bike lines on a largely unwilling public, City Hall has overstepped what should be their job by encouraging people to participate in cycling rather than having them decide for themselves. It could be the case that the public is not all that unwilling (the jury is still very much out for reasons discussed above) but this argument also ignores the fundamental nature of road construction.

That is to say that by designing for cars rather than some other method of transport the government has already acted paternally. City Hall could dig up the streets and put in canals to encourage boat use, like in Venice. They could mandate hitching posts outside of local buisnesses to encourage horse ridership. Roads as they currently exist are largely designed to encourage car use (mandatory minimum parking requirements on buildings further encourage their use and burden builders). But however roads are built there is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) way they should be used. Instead of leaving the roads unpaved and unmarked and declaring it a free-for-all, most cities have decided to design around cars.

Cyclists are left to fight for their space on roads that often were not designed for them. As a result, biking is often unsafe and unpleasant. By adding bike lanes but still keeping space reserved for cars, Raleigh has decreased its paternalism, not increased it. For the first time residents can chose between biking and driving without one of those options being fraught with danger.

A Good First Step

There are significant benefits to increasing bike ridership. It improves overall health, something North Carolina needs considering in a 2012 survey by the CDC only 24 percent of people surveyed were active for an hour a day the during past 7 days. 15 percent hadn’t been active for an hour any of the past 7 days.

More bikers also means fewer drivers, leading to less air pollution that contributes to the poor health of citizens and the atmosphere. Perhaps most notably, bike ridership can encourage drivers to obey speed limits through a processes called traffic calming, leading to safer streets. While the evidence is new and limited, multiple studies have suggested significant increases in local economies with increased bicycle infrastructure. Bikes are also cheaper to buy and repair than cars, lowering the cost of mobility and opening it up to those who can’t afford a car. If people are able to commute farther (and not search for parking), they are better able to find jobs that meet their skills and businesses are better able to find employees that meet their needs.

There is no shortage of reasons to invest in bike infrastructure. The only question to answer is: Where should the next 28 miles of bike lanes go?