Can We Intersect the Politics of Bikes and the Politics of Thrift?

While we avoided a government shutdown a few weeks ago, it seems clear that the 2012 Federal budget is going to involve some heavy cost-cutting. And infrastructure dollars have been getting harder and harder to find at the local level for some time.

So I’d like to suggest that we consider promoting cycling as a “do more with less” strategy. Portland has demonstrated that if we build it (good cycling infrastructure), they WILL come.

And cycling infrastructure is some of the cheapest infrastructure available. Portland Afoot computed this very interesting comparison (via Twitter):

Regional spending per new commuter, 1995-2010: bike/ped $5,538, auto $18,072, transit $84,790. Yes, read that again.

So can we get policy makers to shift a greater share of transportation investment toward bikes in this time of thrift?

I tried out that idea when Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was in Portland last month for a BTA event and asked him a question about whether we could hope for a Federal program that would match bicycle expenditures they way New Starts does for transit. He bluntly told me it wasn’t going to happen any time soon. Congressman Peter DeFazio jumped in and made it clear that the battle now is to defend existing programs.

And that point is not lost on me. As the Transport Politic reports, the budget proposed by Chairman Ryan would completely eliminate the New Starts program that funds both light rail and streetcar construction (hint: urban districts are almost exclusively “D”).

But is it all pure politics, or is there some room to insert rationality and make the argument for delivery inexpensive mobility via bicycle infrastructure?

How would you frame the message?

[And to avoid being misconstrued, let me be very clear that I am not in any way advocating a reduction in transit funding.]


15 responses to “Can We Intersect the Politics of Bikes and the Politics of Thrift?”

  1. We can try, but I’m not sure how successful we will be. Most republicans are in love with their cars, which they view as a key to mobility and economic growth. They will destroy anything that gets between them and cheap mobility (gas tax increases, EPA, slow cyclists). Trading one mile of freeway expansion for 100 or even 1000 miles of added bike lanes is a non-issue, because they don’t plan on using them.

  2. The problem is that, while Republicans are framing the whole thing as “cost cutting” – what they are really doing is using it as an excuse to cut anything they don’t agree with, rather than cutting programs which benefit their personal pockets, and the pockets of those who support them (big oil, automobile industry, banks, insurance companies, etc), but cost everyone else a ton of money.

    Bicycles are such a heavily politicized issue that in the U.S. right now, it’s very difficult to support them politically without half the country getting up in arms about feeding special interests and partisanship and whatnot. It’s ridiculous, but that’s where it is.

    I couldn’t agree more though, that the emphasis, in a time when money really is absent from our governments, that we should be absolutely focusing on getting people walking and biking for as many of their trips as possible. It just makes the most sense, not only because the infrastructure is cheap and easy to maintain, but because it removes the huge financial burden of one or multiple automobiles from the average family, giving them more money to pour back into the economy (that is, the non oil/insurance/automobile economy).

    I don’t see it happening en masse until there is no other choice though.

  3. I assume that the expenses mentioned include busses and trains–public capital expenses–but not private capital expenses–bikes or cars.

    If so, these would be numbers for policy analysis of projects, but not real world capital costs. Most capital costs for personal motoring are in the cars. I expend about $250 of personal capital every year on “economic cycling,” for necessary equipment, including helmets, gloves rain gear, other clothing.

    I am retired, and certainly not a “new commuter,” whatever that is. Have I used up my $5,538 in bike projects yet? I do not know.

    Personal expenditures good, public expenses bad. That’s the dominant attitude.

  4. The Ryan budget, of course, is DOA–the only way anything like that gets passed is if the GOP re-takes the Senate and White House in 2012.

    That said, the big question is what might be in a compromise budget–transit does seem to be a chip the administration is willing to trade away. If the US is going to have an austerity budget, my hope is that all new forms of infrastructure are treated on an equal footing.

    The wild cards in the equation:

    1) The price of gas, which is once again heading north of $4 a gallon. The only suggestions that seem to come from the political right are naked imperialism (“invade XXX and take all their oil”) and drill baby drill; neither of which are serious positions. The left has solutions which at least address the problem in a serious fashion, but which are likely politically unpopular. The population seems to view cheap gas as a birthright, but at some point or another, we’ll reach the point where political/diplomatic solutions to high prices are no longer available. The last bout of expensive gas did change commuter behavior, both in their willingness to use transit and in their choice of automobiles–we’ll see how that plays out this time around.

    2) The expiration of the Bush tax cuts. The Obama Administration permitted them to be extended once, in exchange for some policy victories on other issues, back in the lame duck session. Assuming he wins re-election, he’s strongly hinting that he won’t do that a second time without a major budget restructuring.

    Too much commentary on the federal budget seems out of place here, but there are three stages of political (and popular) opinion when dealing with the federal deficit:

    1) Who cares?
    2) It’s a problem, and other people need to sacrifice.
    3) We all need to sacrifice, including me and my family.

    During the boom times of the mid-late 90s, and much of the aughts, the country was at step 1. Now, after the housing market collapse, the bailing out of the financial markets, and the Great Recession, we seem to be at….step 2. (And as often discussed in this blog, one of the favorite bogeymen who are being shoved to the front of the line to walk the plank, are public employees). The Ryan Budget, while touching the third rail of Social Security, is your classic starve-the-poor-feed-the-rich-and-rising-tides- will-lift-all-boats Grover Norquist dream. The Obama budget is a bit more centrist in nature, but likewise puts most of the burden on the wealthy–and as Rich Douthat noted, declines to touch the other third rail of US politics–tax increases for the middle class. And until the voters and the political class get to step 3 and demonstrate that they are willing to accept decreases in their own standard of living, and/or that of their constituents, I don’t expect we’ll get much further.

  5. The frame on bike infrastructure that has polled well for us with swing voters and suburban voters is about striping bike lanes so cyclists aren’t in my way as a motorist. Carrying that a little further, I would think an effective frame in this national political climate would be something like:

    “We need to fix traffic congestion. Striping bike lanes is the cheapest way to encourage some of the motorists in front of me to get out of their cars, onto their bikes, into the bike lane and out of my way so I can get to work on time.”

  6. I would venture that the solution to promoting bicycling is to find a way that is low cost to the taxpayers. Instead of viewing themselves in competition against other modes, why not look for ways to coexist?

    -Enacting certain traffic ordinances might make this coexistence possible. One example might be to allow bicyclists to use well marked sharrows on major streets, with a restrictions to use a crosswalk to accomplish a left turn on to an intersecting street. On a four lane, two way thoroughfare this would prevent weaving out of the sharrow to turn. Perhaps a lot of cyclists already do this.

    -Requiring bicyclists to be highly visible (which is practiced in other endeavors, for safety reasons as well) would increase safety if road sharing is the only fiscally viable solution.

    -Finding the LEAST costly routes to develop for bicycle paths—not just the ones that are most convenient. Sure, one might have to go a mile or two more, what’s wrong with that? In a city like Portland there are still areas to find unused roadways and vacated ROW’s. It takes some searching. What is Sam Adams thinking with his $600 million proposal?

    All modes of travel are going to be fiscally challenged in the coming years. But one of the reasons auto travel is becoming challenged is because of EPA (and similar) regulations which are no longer realistic. Even Ford Motors now has the technology to produce 80-100 mpg vehicles, but these won’t pass EPA ppm standards. Europeans have already been benefiting from high mpg vehicles and there are some incredible breakthroughs coming. Why can’t it happen here? Get the enviro. regs changed to adapt to 21st Century technology! Of course that will pose a challenge to road funding via fuel taxes, but that is another challenge that can be addressed through technological advancement.

  7. Can we get policy makers to shift a greater share of transportation investment toward bikes?


    We can try our damnedest and scream at the top of our lungs, but policy makers respond to their constituents, of which the overwhelming majority want cars, roads and cheap oil. Members of Congress probably want those same things, too. We can tout the financial, health and social attributes of bike/ped, but a great majority of the population has grown accustomed to suburbia and cars, and is very unwilling to change. AASHTO even just redacted a policy statement advocating bike/ped facilities because it believed them burdensome.

    Frankly, the federal government has bigger problems to address and I doubt bike/ped interests are even on its radar. I also believe they shouldn’t be. The federal government should solely be investing in national initiatives, such as air/maritime ports, freight/pass regional rail and (intercity) interstates.

    How would you frame the message?

    With what transportation money remains, just give it to the states in proportion to population and let them do what they want.

    Those states/metropolitan areas that want to spend money on bikes/peds/transit could. Others should be free to spend money on highways. I think the latter is the wrong choice, but those areas need to realize their failures before they will WANT to institute change.

    Portland has been a pioneer, implementing alternative modes of transportation. Other cities are welcoming Streetcar with open arms because they have seen its success–not because the federal government incentivized it. Paternalism by the federal government will not induce the kind of investments we need.

  8. I hate to bring this up but until gas goes outta sight, the bicycle thing is gonna be a fringe mode of transport.

    We have a completely dysfunctional government that only represents the wealthy elite so there is no way to influence any government policy at this point.

    When things get bad, real bad, maybe there will be a window for change.

    For now we are all just sitting helplessly watching as the elites rob the future right from under our noses.

    Chris Hedges

  9. Regional spending per new commuter, 1995-2010: bike/ped $5,538, auto $18,072, transit $84,790. Yes, read that again.
    JK: What is the source of the money spent in each category? How much is from user fees of which modes?


  10. I’m not sure those numbers are a good comparison. It seems that much of the money spent on the transit side has gone to help existing riders. Plus, going back farther would capture more of the auto money, since lots of it had already been spent by 1995.

  11. Possible, I suppose, but the figures on Portland Afoot and being bandied about by the Mayor are badly misleading.

    The bike infrastructure costs do not include the cost for creating the roadbed, while auto and light rail include new roadbed and rail infrastructure.

  12. I don’t think it’s fair to say that, Paul. In most cases, the bike infrastructure is just paint. Many roads would have those shoulders anyway, so all they do is paint a few logos. In cases where they do widen the road for bikes (think of NE Cully), we don’t know exactly how they calculated it. How do you know they didn’t include the road bed for the cycle track? Lastly, think of an example like the springwater trail. I’m sure they would include the entire costs there.

    In the end, even added cyclists benefit from existing auto road beds, it’s no different from the added auto drivers that benefit from the massive system in place before 1995. If anything, you could argue that the existing road beds have skewed the numbers in favor of motorists.

    It’s really, really hard to argue that encouraging cycling is bad transportation policy. I have yet to see solid evidence that cycling infrastructure is a bad thing.

  13. Chris

    Your example illustrates my point exactly. When you calculate the “cost” of creating one mile of a bike lane, you are only including the labor and materials to paint the line (yes I know its more complicated than that, but as a working example). You are not including the cost of building and maintaining the road.

    When you compare that to the cost of one mile of light rail you include the original infrastructure (building the rail bed and laying the tracks) or one mile of highway (buying the right of way, laying the roadway).

    Sure, Springwater would include the full cost but that’s the only example. The figures being bandied about include “all” bike infrastructure and most of that was added onto pre-existing roadbed.

    I am not arguing that encouraging cycling is a bad thing. But we should use misleading statistics as a way to encourage it. The Portland Afoot numbers do precisely that.

  14. And you’re missing the point that the auto network, the vast majority oh which was build prior to 1995, is also not considered a cost. Widening a road is much cheaper than building a new one. Both busses and cars benefit from this, as do bikes. Bikes can often use ROWs that are already in place and cannot be used to move more cars (shoulders, parking strips). We don’t need to correct for anything in the study, as these spaces do not benefit “new commuters” if we don’t use them for bikes.

  15. “But is it all pure politics, or is there some room to insert rationality and make the argument for delivery inexpensive mobility via bicycle infrastructure?”

    It’s all pure politics. Haven’t you been paying *any* attention to the national branch of the Republican Party? Rationality went out the window a LONG time ago. They will pay for (well, borrow money for) things which are cultural signifiers of Republicanism, like gasoline-powered cars on asphalt, and try to slash anything which is a cultural signifier of Not Being Republican, such as anything to do with bicycles or trains.

    It’s just that stupid, and it’s frighteningly consistent. I hope sanity returns to the Republican Party, but I don’t expect it.

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