Stop Griping: Bicycling Benefits Victoria

A transportation system must be diverse in order to serve diverse demands. Walking, cycling, public transit and automobile travel all have important roles to play in an efficient and equitable city.

 

Focus Magazine Publisher David Broadland’s recent column, “Mayor Helps’ 1.5 Percent Solution,” complains that Victoria’s downtown bikelanes are wasteful and unfair to motorists. His arguments reflect fundamental misunderstandings of cycling impacts and benefits.

If we listen to critics like Broadland, we will implement a weak bicycle improvement program which places cycling facilities where they are cheap to build and never conflict with motor vehicle travel, resulting in bike lanes that look nice but do little to serve cyclists’ daily travel needs. If we want useful bicycle facilities that help solve transportation problems we must implement a strong program which places cycling facilities where they are needed. Although more costly and disruptive, a strong bicycle program can provide large benefits.

In a typical urban community, 20-40% of travellers cannot, should not, or prefer not to drive, and this portion is probably higher in Victoria due to our demographics (lots of youths, seniors, people with disabilities and struggling artists) and geography (a compact downtown and walkable neighborhoods).

An efficient and equitable transportation system must be diverse in order to serve these diverse demands, so travellers can choose the most appropriate mode for each trip. For many decades streets were designed to maximize automobile traffic flow, with little consideration for other modes. This is inefficient and unfair to non-drivers. Transportation planning is now becoming more multimodal, in recognition that streets must accommodate diverse users and uses, including walking, cycling, public transit, private automobiles, delivery and emergency vehicles, local businesses and residents.

Broadland’s column reflects the old paradigm which considered cycling unimportant. Times have changed. Cyclists just want a fair share of public resources (transportation funding and road space). What would be fair? You could argue that it should be about equal to cycling’s mode share: if 5% of trips are by cycling then it would be fair to invest 5% of public resources in cycling facilities, but this is backward looking since it reflects the travel patterns that occur under current conditions, ignoring “latent demand,” the additional cycling trips that some travellers want to make but cannot due to inadequate facilities. To respond to these demands it would be fair to invest the portion of money and road space that reflects the mode share after those programs are completed; if comprehensive planning is likely to results in 10% cycling mode share, it would be fair to invest 10% of transportation funds and road space in cycling facilities.

Even this could be considered inadequate. We are now emerging from a century of automobile-oriented transportation planning: for many decades there was little investment in walking, cycling and public transit. This can justify additional investments to make up for past underfunding. In addition, we can recognize that cycling provides both transportation and recreational benefits – cycling ranks as one of the most popular forms of exercise and recreation – so cycling facilities can be funded through both transportation budgets and through parks and recreation budgets.

Critics like Broadland imply that cycling facilities only benefit a small number of serious cyclists – those who ride expensive racing bikes wearing lycra. These critics couldn’t be more wrong. Those of us who ride regularly are able to hold our own on busy arterials; protected bike lanes are needed to allow inexperienced, less confident people bicycle. It has proven successful – the lane is full of diverse users, including many new riders who would not otherwise bike downtown.

Broadland begins by criticizing travel surveys. He is right that most surveys are incomplete and biased, but not the way he suggests. Conventional travel surveys were designed to measure motor vehicle travel; they tend to undercount short trips, off-peak travel, non-commute travel, travel by children, recreational travel, and walking and cycling trips to access motorized modes (the census classifies a bike-bus-walk trip simply as a transit trip, and walking trips between parked cars and destinations are generally ignored even if they involve several blocks of walking on public sidewalks). As a result, the actual number of walking and cycling trips is much greater than conventional travel statistics indicate.

There is now good research showing that improving bicycling conditions can significantly increase cycling activity. For example, five years after a major U.S. Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program invested about $100 per capita in pedestrian and cycling improvements in four typical communities, walking trips increased 23% and cycling trips 48%, mostly for utilitarian purposes. Similarly, a review of travel impacts in several U.S. cities found that adding protected bike lanes increased ridership on that street by 21% to 171%.

We now have good success stories. Starting in the 1960s, Davis, California and Eugene, Oregon started developing an extensive bike network. Although there was no economic analysis demonstrating that these investments were cost effective, their local officials realized intuitively that cycling improvements are worthwhile. Since then, both cities have experienced high cycling mode shares and low per capita automobile travel compared with other U.S. cities, and both cities have experienced much lower than average traffic fatality rates, demonstrating that bike-friendly cities are safer for all road users.

According to the CRD travel survey, in 2011 there were 4,796 average daily cycling trips to, from and within Victoria, representing 7% of the total 72,667 trips. If the City’s comprehensive bicycle program can increase cycling trips by 20-170%, as research suggests, this can reduce a few thousand urban-peak automobile trips, and their associated costs. Virtually everybody benefits if the travellers who want to cycle are able to do so, because it helps reduce traffic and parking congestion and therefore roadway facility costs, saves users money and increases affordability (savings to lower-income households), reduces total traffic accidents, improves public fitness and health, and improves mobility options for non-drivers. Even people who don’t bicycle benefit from reduced congestion and parking problems, and reduced chauffeuring burdens.

Automobile travel requires far more road space than cycling or public transit.

 

Broadland criticizes the downtown bike lanes because, he argues, they can do little to reduce regional automobile trips. This confuses local and regional scales: downtown cycling improvements are justified to address downtown transportation goals, regional policies will be needed to address regional goals.

Broadland assumes that the only reason for increasing bicycling is to reduce climate emissions. This ignores the many other benefits that cycling provides, including direct savings and benefits to users, plus savings and benefits to non-users including reduced traffic and parking congestion.

In an accompanying video, Focus Magazine argues that bike lanes cause traffic delays that increase pollution emission, a silly argument. A typical car consumes less than one liter of fuel per hour when idling, or about 7 grams of fuel during 25 seconds of delay so each additional bicycle commuter offsets a couple hundred car intersection delays. Delays and emissions caused by bike lanes are insignificant compared with those that result form traffic congestion caused by too many automobiles driving on urban roads. The best solution is to reduce automobile traffic by making space-efficient modes more attractive.

Broadland is hyper-sensitive to delays that bike lanes may cause motorists but ignores the much larger delays and risks that automobile traffic imposes on cyclists, and therefore the justification for separated cycling facilities. Just as railroad companies have a responsibility to help pay for rail crossings to protect motorists, motorists should help pay for protected bike lanes that reduce the risks their vehicles impose on cyclists.

By extrapolating the Pandora bike lane cost to other downtown arterials, Broadland estimates that Victoria’s cycling program will cost $16 million, which is almost certainly an exaggeration since the first project is always more costly than those that follow. Described that way, the bike program sounds expensive, but you could equally say that its cost is equivalent to just 320 downtown parking spaces, 18% of the McKenzie Intersection improvements, about $6 annual per urban core resident, or less than two-cents-per-day per capita. Cycling costs are tiny compared with what residents, governments and businesses spend on vehicles, fuel roads and parking facilities in automobile dependent communities, and compared with the potential savings from reduced driving.

This is not a “war on cars.” A multimodal transportation system is no more anti-car than a healthy diet is anti-food. Motorists have good reasons to support cycling improvements.

 

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