Monday, September 12, 2011

Bike-o-nomics: If You Build It, They Will Ride

Here is an interesting graph from an interesting opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times about Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City’s transportation commissioner, who has made big waves in NYC for her aggressive push for more bicycle infrastructure.  Whenever anyone talks about urban biking in the US, Portland is mentioned.  You can see why above.

What strikes me about this is twofold: One, 5.8% of all workers in Portland commuting by bike is an enormously large number and the growth over the last two decades is stunning both in absolute terms and in relative terms.  Two, I think it is pretty clear that building bicycle infrastructure works if the goal is to promote more biking, especially commuting.

I bring this up because the amount of city funds devoted to bike infrastructure is a hot button topic these days what with all the budget crunches.  The question of whether infrastructure matters that much is a good one, and this of course does not answer it - we will never know the counterfactual - but it seems hard to argue that this hilly town with lousy weather for six months would have seen the same explosive growth absent the infrastructure.  Look at the other cities listed and tell me what is exceptional about Portland other than the excellent bike infrastructure.  It is possible that lots of semi-employed hipsters account for it all, but I doubt it.

I also think it disingenuous for motorists to complain about bikes getting in their way and the spending on infrastructure in the same breath.  The infrastructure is precisely designed to separate the two.  I was reminded of both the sheer number of commuters and the effectiveness of bike routes the other morning when I was traveling north on SE 12th at about 8:30am and had to wait at a red light at Hawthorne.  The traffic was backed up to SE Clay so I stopped short of Clay to let the bikers pass.  Once the coast was clear the stream of bikers crossing 12th at Clay heading west toward downtown was impressive, there must have been 30 bikes in that one group.  I thought then about how much better traffic is without those 30 cars and how much better traffic is without those 30 bikes competing for space on Hawthorne.

Of course, it would be interesting to see this data plotted against per capita spending on bike infrastructure.   Anyone know if that data is easily available?


Jeff Alworth said...

Don't we have the counterfactual? Bikes have been around for decades, but the explosive growth happened only as a response to public policy changes. (Or anyway, simultaneously with public policy changes.)

A second point I'd make is that the spending on bikes directly benefits motorists. The more people who take bikes or public transportation mean fewer people competing with other drivers. Compared to cars, bikes are enormously cheap to support, and they end up unclogging the commute. Win win.

Zed said...

In response to Jeff Alworth : I agree with what you wrote. But I fear that too many motorists do not see it as a win: they do not like to slow down for bikes, wait for bikes, have to be alert for bikes. They feel that bike lanes and bike crossings and the like slow them down as much as automobile traffic. I think only statistics showing them how much faster their commute actually would be without the car traffic and with the bike traffic might convince more folks.