In order for our society to tackle the challenge of creating a more walkable and bikeable North America, with the appropriate devotion of money, resources and public space, we have to build a solid political consensus. Unfortunately, some of the compelling reasons to prioritize active transportation have been unnecessarily politicized into partisan issues. We can approach this dilemma by attempting to trek up the hill of overturning deeply imbedded political opinions, or we can find universal common ground and build up from there.
The fact that issues like deliberate policy measures to cap or tax carbon dioxide emissions as part of climate change mitigation are untouchably controversial in much of the United States doesn’t mean we can’t move forward on an active transportation agenda sold under less controversial banners. This is why I love the growing dialogue around the economic benefits of bicycling and walking.
When it comes to walking, many businesses understand pretty intuitively the value of fostering good foot traffic — the ones that are surviving, anyway. With bicycling, however, a lot of business owners and political decision-makers just don’t get it at all. When Elly Blue wrote “Why an additional road tax for bicyclists would be unfair,” which was later followed by a series of posts on Grist under the banner of bikenomics, I started to view bicycling under a completely different lens. This view and emphasis on economics has influenced my own writing and advocacy ever since.
April Economides, principle of Green Octopus Consulting, who headed up the program to create bicycling friendly business districts in Long Beach, is another voice in the bike movement who has been emphasizing economics. She was recently hired by Bike Nation to manage their bike share program proposed in Long Beach. Blue and Economides got together for the first time for a presentation at Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike titled “Bikenomics & the Business Case for Bike-Friendly Business Districts”.
Their presentations complimented each other very well, with Blue setting up some of the conceptual framework for why looking at the economics of bicycling is important, while Economides outlined the nuts and bolts of the outreach and programs done so far in Long Beach. April encouraged people early on in her talk “to engage the business community; we can’t just preach to the choir”.
Some of the most well known aspects of the Long Beach bicycle-friendly business districts are the discounts participating businesses offer for those arriving on bike, and the themed bike racks selected by and installed for businesses. Each business district also received its own cargo bike to be used by businesses for whatever use they may find for them. Given the difficulty of finding places to either buy or rent such utilitarian bicycles throughout most of Southern California (although there is Flying Pigeon LA of course), any program that enables access to and promotion of such bikes is a great thing.
Almost as valuable as Elly and April’s talks themselves were the stories from the advocates and planners in the audience of both struggles and local success stories around the country. My favorite was the story of a business in Maryland that had a lease expiring soon and was considering closing up shop. A bike lane road diet treatment was done to their street, and their business grew by about 30%. They decided to renew their lease.
There were other memorable moments that touched upon economic themes at the conference as well. In a later session titled, “Doubling the Number of Women and Girls Who Ride Bikes,” Elly Blue presented another angle to the economics discussion regarding the gender gap. She pointed out the economic inequality generally between men and women as well as the division of unpaid labor, and the role those factors may be playing in accounting for the significant gender gap within cycling. Given the disproportionate number of trips women make in service of passengers and performing shopping errands — and the sprawled nature of much of urban development — Blue may be on to a new way of thinking about this issue.
Streetblog Publisher Mark Gorton delivered a fiery closing plenary speech that hammered hardest on the issues of safety and economics in our transportation system. My favorite quote of the morning was, “Birds fly, fish swim, people walk,” and that our built environment being hostile to walking represents a “human rights violation.”
The most eye-opening portion of Gorton’s plenary was his discussion of a chart comparing United States and foreign metro regions by percentage of their GDP spent on transportation. Much of the United States is using a dramatically higher proportion of it’s economic output on transportation than multi-modal cities, but our system has not produced a higher quality of life, better travel efficiency, or better safety record.
Similar to America’s healthcare situation, the U.S. is spending a lot more of our metro region wealth on transportation than the rest of the world, but without good results. The poor maintenance conditions of our transportation system receives low marks across the spectrum. Spending more is no real fix, however, if what we are spending our resources on simply creates more liability later, a theme repeatedly pointed out by Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns.
We should be asking ourselves, does all this spending reflect our values? Should we be spending more of our collective public and private budgets on transportation than other industrial societies, and in exchange incur greater environmental costs, worse health outcomes, reduced social connections and more fatalities?
With an honest look over our situation, I think for many the answer would be no. It’s time to take a time-out on all the automobile capacity expansion and reassess what we are doing and where we are going as a society.