Making The Economic Case For Cycling-Friendly Cities With Bikeonomics
We all know that cycling is good for us and that it benefits the environment. But if you want to make the case for something, it helps to have numbers to back you up, especially in policy circles.
We’ve covered a few cycling-economics studies here at Co.Exist. But in Bikenomics: How Cycling Can Save The Economy, the Portland-based activist Elly Blue goes further. Her book is comprehensive account of all the ways cycling can save money, boost revenues, and help the economy broadly and locally.
Here are five key arguments she makes:
Health is the biggie. “Bicycle infrastructure makes so much economic sense that it can accurately be described as a health investment,” Blue says. Portland says health savings could allow it to recoup spending on cycling by 2015; by 2030, it could save $600 million a year. Blue argues that short trips by bike are a more convenient way for people to get daily exercise (more realistic than going to the gym all the time). Inevitably, she cites Copenhagen, that pre-eminent cycling city. It expects to save $60 million a year in health costs once its network of 26 cycling “superhighways” is completed.
BIKE INFRASTRUCTURE IS CHEAP, AND CREATES JOBS
On average, urban freeways cost $60 million a mile to build. The best type of protected bike lanes cost between $170,000 and $250,000 per mile and need much less maintenance. “Off-street paths cost less than a freeway project would spend on photocopying in a year,” Blue says. Bikeways also create more jobs per dollar than roads, according to one study.
Blue devotes a lot of her book to ways we subsidize car ownership—for example, in providing free parking downtown. “An astonishing amount of space in most urban cores is dedicated to the publicly subsidized storage of private property,” she says. When you throw in roads, many cities give up over half their area to cars: 65% of Houston is paved with asphalt, for example. Cites are losing a lot of potential income, Blue says. “Highways and parking lots represent a massive amount of taxable property that could yield thousands of dollars per lot, per year—representing millions of dollars of lost revenue for cities.”
Studies show that bike parking brings in more revenue than car parking—at least on certain streets. Blue cites a project in Fort Worth, Texas, where 160 bike spaces cost $12,000—about the same as a single car space. Bikers are more likely than drivers to stop and spend, and, of course, you can accommodate more people in the same space. There’s also a potential “green dividend” when people bike about town, rather than driving to suburban malls. Their cash goes to local businesses, not to oil companies and Middle Eastern sheiks. By driving 20% less than other cities, Portlanders contribute $800 million to the local economy, one study says.
CARS ARE EXPENSIVE—PARTICULARLY FOR PEOPLE OF LOW INCOME
The American Automobile Association says driving a sedan costs $9,122 a year on average, not including expenses like parking. Households earning less than $70,000 spend nearly 20% of their income on transport, Blue says. Bikes are much cheaper—just a few hundred dollars a year for maintenance, gear upgrades, and the annualized cost of a bike. She admits people living outside cities face “tremendous” opportunity costs from not driving. But she refutes the stereotypes that cycling need only be for white professionals, Latino laborers, and DUI offenders. Many other people could cycle and benefit from doing so.
In an email, Blue says she wrote the book to give bike advocates stronger arguments than “but bicycling is really healthy and doesn’t pollute.” “I was watching bicycling enter the national conversation as this sort of goofy stereotypical thing that liberals do, like drink lattes and shop at Whole Foods,” she says. “I kept hearing people make economic arguments against bicycling … but bike advocates didn’t have the tools to respond.”
While it has a strong point of view, Blue’s book is rational, fully footnoted—and, in the main, persuasive. There is a clearly a lot of economic benefit to cycling, particularly in and around cities. That doesn’t mean outlawing cars. But it does mean evening up the playing-field in debates. This book should help.
By Ben Schiller