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May 2011
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Myth Busters…the Los Angeles Business Journal

There are several common perceptions about cycling and cyclists – many of which just aren’t true.  Such as “cyclists don’t pay road taxes..and thus shouldn’t have “equal access to the road.”  Or “bike lanes cost too much.”  Or a biggy “reducing driving kills business.”

In a recent op-ed piece in one of the most widely read business journals in LA, Richard Risemberg takes on a number of these “urban myths.”  For example:

Cyclists don’t pay road taxes — According to Risemberg: This is particularly rich in hypocrisy. As a matter of fact, according to numerous studies (my favorite being one by the Transportation Department in good ol’ conservative Texas), car and fuel fees and taxes never pay for more than half the cost of building and maintaining roads for motorists. In fact, since 1947, the shortfall in user fees for these asphalt handouts has been $600 billion, making private driving the most socialistic program the United States has ever seen.

Bottom line…if you pay taxes…you pay for the use of the roads.

Bike Lanes Cost too much — In the article Risemberg looks at cost and usage data from one of the most bike friendly cities in the country, Portland.  All of the last 20 years’ worth of bicycle infrastructure put into place in Portland – including 300 miles of bike lanes, paths, and boulevards – cost no more than one mile of four-lane urban freeway, and now accommodates nearly 7 percent of all commuter travel in the city.

Being somewhat skeptical of the numbers…I did want to see if what Risemberg said was true…that the total cost of the bike infrastructure was in fact no more than the cost for one mile of a four-lane urban freeway.  And it turns out…I wasn’t the only one who wanted to know.  PolitiFact Oregon asked the same question – and the answer they came up with was — yeah this is pretty much true.  Over the past 20 years Portland has spent on the order of $60 million on bike infrastructure (for you wonks..that is in 2008 dollars).  The costs they found for a four lane freeway in urban areas range from just under $20 million/mile to nearly $80 million/mile.  And in areas with severe restrictions the costs are $68 million to nearly $300 million / mile.  The conclusion of Politifact…$60 million is in the ball park of the average cost for a mile of four-lane urban freeway.

So do bike lanes cost too much?  I guess it depends on how you view adding one mile of freeway versus 300 miles of bike lanes, paths and boulevards that accommodate 7 percent of all commuter travel in the city.

Reducing driving kills business — A common perception is that  business is driven by customers who drive to the area.  Thus…the common wisdom…if you reduce vehicle access you will kill business.  But recent studies are showing that in many urban areas business is in fact driven by people who live within a short radius of the business and get their by either walking or riding their bike. Quoting Risemberg: For most businesses, the addition of bike lanes and bicycle parking means better cash flow. Cyclists move slower than cars, can window shop as they ride, and can stop and shop on a whim. You can park 12 bicycles where only one car would fit. Shop owners in Portland clamor for more bike infrastructure, so that they can grab some of cyclists’ loot. There’s a waiting list for bike corrals in front of shops there since merchants have seen the effects of the first efforts.

A 2009 study in a Toronto neighborhood bears this out.

The issue as laid out in the study…

Almost every new bike lane in the older city – where streets are narrower than in suburban areas – has involved the removal of at least some on‐street parking. The removal of on‐street parking capacity is a big concern for some business owners who believe that the majority of their customers arrive by car. They are concerned that if there isn’t sufficient parking very close at hand, it will deter some customers from visiting the business.  In most instances, there is very little evidence to support or negate this concern.

What the study found…

  • Walkers and bicyclists visit the area far more frequently than drivers…
  • Most people who visit the area…live in the area
  • People who live in the area are most likely to walk or bike to the stores and restaurants (vs driving)

The bottom-line for the study –

The general finding from this study is that pedestrians, cyclists and transit users account for the bulk of retail spending on Bloor Street West in the Annex neighborhood. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that efforts to attract more pedestrians and cyclists will have a more positive economic impact on businesses than maintaining the existing parking on the street. On this section of Bloor Street, the existing parking demand can be accommodated by a reduced number of on‐street parking spaces combined with the existing off‐street parking spaces. It is clear that many merchants in the study area do not view on‐street parking as key to their business.

Does the elimination of parking kill business?  In many areas the answer is no.  In fact – eliminating parking and making the area more bike and pedestrian friendly in fact increases business.

So bust those urban myths and make your community safer and more accessible for cyclists and for pedestrians.  As Risemberg says at the end of his article “you can’t argue with lower taxes (it costs less to build and maintain bikeways than roads), less congestion (you can put 12 bikes in the space it takes for one car), livelier retail (bikers and walks visit more often and spend more money) and a happier work force.”

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