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As bikes come of age in Cleveland, a debate swirls around their place

Marc Lefkowitz  |  01/24/14 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Transportation choices

Are bikes just nice-to-haves or are they essential for growth to Cleveland? Now that bike advocates are making inroads to the civic discourse—with Cleveland setting aggressive goals to ‘rightsize’ roads to fit bikes—naysayers have pushed back that bikes are just (fill in the blank...the latest fad, etc.).

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Defenders of the status quo say that cyclists don’t deserve dedicated space in the road because (again, fill in the blank...they don’t pay for the roads, there aren’t enough of them to warrant it, there are other priorities, road are for cars, etc. etc. We’ll address some of those points later in this post).

The latest target is bike share and bike lanes. This week, Belt magazine opened a debate that we are not looking critically at the cost-benefit of bike share. They charge journalists with being hoodwinked by advocates who want to see bike share at any cost. They point to the bankruptcy of Montreal's publicly owned bike share company, bixi, as an indicator of its financial instability.

While we agree it's important to have eyes open and strike the best deal possible for Cleveland, Belt didn’t really point out the benefits. We think it would be beneficial to think of bike share as an investment in a new City Beautiful movement. As a vehicle for attracting people back to the city.

Anyway, is it really any different than spending $16 million for a public art chandelier going into Playhouse Square? Hardly anyone questions the value of that decision (OK, maybe some did). The point is, bike share, like public art, has a purpose other than producing profits. It fulfills a commitment that the city made to be more sustainable (or more attractive as the case may be).

Admittedly, it’s hard to put a price tag on that, and with budgets tight it might sound fiscally conservative to question investments in the future. But, it would be hypocritical to not also put a stop to the $16 million chandelier or $100 million in sin taxes for big screen TVs in Cleveland’s sports stadia. No one expects that to happen. Or for those investments to recoup their costs. So $4 million to start-up and $200,000 annually to operate a Cleveland bike share system shouldn’t be held to a different standard. (Also, it is possible that the bankruptcy of bixi will quicken the emergence of new, lower costs systems like Social Bikes that is quickly gaining market share with systems in Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Hoboken, and give bike share a real shot at breaking even).

Back to the opening question—is biking a fad or is it here to stay? To help answer, a report this week helps frame why that question gets asked a lot. In the post "The Government Is Really Bad at Predicting Americans' Driving Habits" Atlantic Cities reports on the gaping chasm between official transportation policy estimates and what Americans actually need from the billions being spent in their names for highways and roads. For decades, we’ve been funding a self-fulfilling prophecy that has led to more roads than we can possibly find the time or interest to drive on. Road building is based on forecasts of infinite growth in driving miles. What this new report found is forecasts are way higher than the actual miles being driven by Americans. We reached a peak in driving around the year 2000. Americans drove fewer miles in the last decade than any time since the early 1990s. Perhaps biking feels like a fad because officially we’re treating it like one.

“But I don’t see any bikes on the road” is a common refrain, “so why should we invest road space that could be used for cars? Won’t that make traffic worse?"

The issue isn’t a lack of interest. It’s a real concern about safety which keeps the majority of people from trying a bike. A survey found that 60% of Portlandia—even though they see lots of their neighbors biking—are interested but not willing to bike until they know there are enough bike lanes to get them to most places. You can be assured Clevelanders are no different.

But those who want to try driving a little less and maybe biking a little more don’t get equal treatment. Ohio spends less than 1% of its transportation budget on helping cities that want to build bike lanes, even though, as mentioned, the forecasts of how much we’re driving is way off. Transportation planner Todd Litman engages those who debate the merits of bikes and devoting space in the road. He points to the data that when bike lanes are built, the bikers come in droves. It shows there’s “latent demand” for biking that is unleashed, inexpensively, with a painted line marking out dedicated space, he says. Rightsizing roads and adding bike lanes has this amazing affect of actually helping car traffic flow better, says Litman who notes by example a bike lane on Prospect Park on the very busy streets of New York added 15% to that road’s capacity. Litman says that his lens for making decisions is Least-Cost Transportation Planning. What that means practically speaking is transportation agencies invest in alternative modes of transportation if they are more cost-effective overall than expanding roads or parking facilities.

“This is simply rational resource allocation,” Litman writes, “and it tends to support increased transportation system diversity, which also provides social equity benefits by improving transport options for disadvantaged people. The main obstacle to least-cost planning is rigid funding restrictions...which allocate transportation funding to highway expansion even if there are cheaper alternatives.”

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