The Economics of the Bike Boulevard

12_8_09_4sbb.jpgLive the dream. Photo: Mr. Rollers via Ingrid Peterson/Flickr

There’s an interesting piece in today’s Los Angeles Business Journal by Richard Risemberg on the economics of the Bicycle Boulevard and why the city needs to begin installing them immediately . While it’s trues that Risemberg is a bike partisan, he writes the excellent Bicycle Fixation Webzine and is part of the Bike Coalition’s 4th Street Bike Boulevard committee, he deserves bonus points for taking the campaign to a new audience and speaking to them in their language.

Risenberg trys two rhetorical attacks to make his point.  First, he re-frames typical cyclist arguments in economic terms.  For example, he takes the typical argument that car travel lanes are a waste of space and instead argues that they’re a waste of money to build and maintain.

Second, he shows that, across the world, Bike Boulevards are good for business.  In his bulleted points arguing for Boulevards, these two stuck out to me:

• Money in retailers’ pockets. Studies in San Francisco and Toronto
showed that while merchants believed that 70 percent of their customers
came by car, when traffic was counted, it turned out that only 30
percent did so. Cars take up vast amounts of room; a street or
structure filled with cooling metal doesn’t always translate into
hotter sales. Each car, in real life, represents only one shopper. You
can park 12 bicycles in the space of one car.

• Integration with
mass transit, drawing more people to buses and trains. As the
Transportation Research Board found in 2004: “Studies suggest that
developments that incorporate bicycling and walking infrastructure in
proximity with public transportation can reduce fiscal outlays of local
municipalities towards roads and other infrastructure expansion by 25
percent.” This means lower taxes for you.

For the curious, a discussion on the Streetsblog Network mailing list ferreted out some of the information Risemberg mentions.  For starters, our friends at San Francisco Streetsblog have written two stories covering business trends and cycling trends in their city with The Myth of the Urban Driving Shoppers and Only 17% Drive to Shop in Downtown San Francisco.  Transportation Alternatives in New York City also crunched numbers from a lot of different sources for their report Streets to Live By.

Risemberg, naturally, wants to see the city focus on making Fourth Street between the Downtown and Fairfax the first Bicycle Boulevard in city limits.  Anyone interested in joining the LACBC’s Bicycle Boulevard Campaign for Fourth Street can join their mailing list by visiting their "google groups" page.

  • DJB

    “[T]hrough car traffic filtered out by diverters and roundabouts, and dedicated bicycle-pedestrian crossings put in place at Rossmore Avenue and Highland Boulevard”

    Does this mean no through motor vehicle traffic at all? What about parked cars? What about ambulances? I’m having trouble visualizing it, and seeing how you would make the case for that to the people who live immediately adjacent to 4th street.

  • MU

    Bicycle Boulevards “discourage” through traffic and give priority to cyclists. The name often gives people the wrong impression that cars would no longer has access to the street.

    I’m not too familiar with 4th street, but these are usually set up on roads that are heavily residential and not well suited for through traffic anyway. Most residents like installation of these due to calmer, quieter, safer streets. They still have full access to their road, but it also becomes a safe route for cyclists because you remove the high speed through traffic that was using the small residential street like it was a major arterial.
    They have been put in successfully around the world.

  • DJB,

    The way I’ve seen this “discouraging” done is to create permeable barriers (bikes and peds can get through, cars can’t) every three or four blocks.

    I’ve also seen mini-traffic circles and “chicanes” (bumped out curbs to make cars do a slight S-turn) to prevent high speed cut-through traffic.

    At the end of the day, I think that a lot of this “bike” stuff is really about making it cheaper for government to operate, making more people happy with where they live, and making our city safer (saving loads of money otherwise spent in emergency medical treatment and services, judicial system costs, etc.).

  • Evan

    DJB, there were visualizations of a proposal for the bicycle and pedestrian crossings your quote mentions that were linked to from here a few months ago. Not sure if it was the Bike Coalition that came up with them or not.

  • DJB

    I like the idea of permeable barriers every 3 or 4 blocks. I live near a section of 4th that has a lot of 4-way stop controlled intersections. Seems like you’d want to get rid of some of those east-west stop signs (because cyclists all follow traffic rules, right?) without encouraging too many cars to take the street.

  • This was a great article, I thought it was actually some Business writer who was finally getting it, but when I checked and saw Rick’s name I was sort of disappointed. But these are the arguments we all need to learn and help create; where is the LA version of the SF and NYC studies that comprehensively lay out the economics of these issues? Anyone interested please contact me or point me in the direction of anyone already undertaking these efforts…

    When I was in school, we fought a successful campaign against administrators wanting to build a parking lot on some of the last open space in Claremont. We went straight to the Admin and said “listen, you’re going to blow upwards of $40,000 dollars per parking space on this thing, and you’ll never recoup any of those costs (that’s the price of multi-story parking structures; on college campuses–and I would assume most other facilities–the pay back period is so long, combined with the opportunity cost of the land, that it totally negates any actual revenue generated…correct me if I’m wrong but immense capital/opportunity costs make essentially all parking revenue negligible?). Further, you’re gonna be just another college with a hulking parking lot, instead of the college on the front page of US News and World Report with a new bike sharing program, a car share fleet, access to open space unlike any other college in a similar setting, things to truly set yourself apart and make you a competitive recognizable name”…It was so easy, it took two meetings for the admin to take over the whole idea, and we were left with almost nothing to do the rest of the semester!

    Just last week, I read a story about all the music clubs in Hollyoowd going broke. Why? Because the more livable, walkable communities of Echo Park and Silverlake are stealing all their business, no one wants to drive or park to go see music when they don’t have to. All of those businesses should be swarmed by Bicycle Consultants with packages to build bike parking on site, promote bike riding to their locations, and lobby the city on their behalf to improve bicycle infrastructure…that one was free people, the next one will cost you.

  • Yeah, and I love the “How will Emergency Medical Services get through?” argument; what percentage of those EMT’s are needed because the speeds on our streets are too high, our streets disregard pedestrians, and the only way to get around is in a 2000 pound killing machine…Portland posted 0 bike fatalities in 2008, and is getting ready to do the same for 2009 while bike use has sky rocketed.

    We have a structure that is economically bankrupt, unsustainable, and we need to speak to that; let’s stop letting officials say the reason we can’t build bike facilities is cause the city is broke–that’s an absolute oxymoron, the exact reason why the city should be building bike facilities is because we’re broke!

  • Evan

    I tried to find the earlier post with the visualizations, but I couldn’t find it…Damien, help?

  • More worthwhile links for folks who would like to see what bike boulevards look and feel like:

    Also – if you want to see more about this, come and take C.I.C.L.E.’s “Creating Great Places to Bike” workshop. We’ll be offering it in mid-January, probably in Pasadena. See

  • the ‘ambulance’ argument is like the ‘ticking time bomb’ argument for torture — never happens in real life, so it’s not worth talking about. instead, we can talk about things that happen in real life all the time, like the fact that almost nobody rides their bikes because they’re scared to death of cars, which makes everyone fat and unhealthy and costs taxpayers a fortune.

  • ramonchu for frickin’ city council!

    Ramonchu, what are your plans when Ed Reyes terms out in Council District 1?

  • @Ramon has my vote tooooo!

    Another piece of irritating local bike boulevard trivia: the 2009 LA city bike plan draft has only one reference I’ve found to Bicycle Boulevards (other than references to other documents) – it’s on page 195:

    “Bicycle Boulevard – See Bicycle Friendly Street”

    then when we look at that leads us (same page), the definition is kind of there, but there’s no mention of bike boulevards:

    “Bicycle Friendly Street (BFS) – Streets which give bicyclists better access due to limited motor vehicle through traffic, lower speeds, and various design elements, to enhance bicycle safety and enjoyment.

    If someone is not familiar with a bike boulevard (for example, commenter #1 and perhaps #8 above, 90+% of L.A. bicyclists, and 99+% of L.A. residents), then it will be pretty confusing for them to try to get a sense of them from the draft bike plan. I think it could be made clearer if the BFS definition continued to say something like “In some places, BFSs are known as Bicycle Boulevards.”

    I understand the city’s reluctance to use the term Bicycle Boulevard (as previous attempts to implement so-named facilities were scuttled due to misinformed community resistance – in Burbank and in Santa Monica), but the way they’ve buried it, appears to me to be confusing and evasive. These are great facilities, very applicable to Los Angeles – because we do have bike-useful relatively-quiet through-streets in many areas. In some ways they’re the best part of the city’s otherwise disheartening draft bike plan… but as buried, they’re misunderstood and mistrusted by bicyclists.

    At this point, I think it’s up to those of us in LA who care about bike boulevards to get the word out. Part of this is happening as part of the LACBC campaign (which C.I.C.L.E. has played a supporting role in) for 4th Street Bicycle Boulevard. We’re getting the word out to stakeholders about what a bike boulevard is and what it looks like and why it’s wonderful. If you’re interested in getting involved in implementing bike boulevards in LA, please join our google group – linked at the very end of the article – or again here:

    It’s great that Long Beach is actually calling a bike boulevard a bike boulevard. Their Vista Street Bicycle Boulevard project is under construction and opening early 2010. See

  • DJB

    Hey, don’t underestimate the power of the ambulance argument. Fear is a powerful motivator (e.g. “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”), and far more people die of heart disease every year than of road deaths, which is only partially related to the fact that we don’t get enough exercise. Implementing this kind of stuff comes down to going into the community, which is largely composed of people who have no idea what the hell you’re talking about (barrier #1: language, barrier #2: jargon, barrier #3: no precedents around here that people know about), and addressing each and every one of their concerns with courtesy, professionalism and insight.

    Also, meaningful communication is a two-way street. If you want people to accept your ideas, you have to be willing to incorporate some of theirs.

  • Evan

    Thanks Joe, those were the links I was looking for.

    As someone who was born and raised in Long Beach, I’m really happy to see all the progress that’s going on there. The Vista Bike Boulevard has me really excited. But as I’ve said a few times on here, currently all of the innovations are taking place in downtown, Belmont Shore, and now Belmont Heights. I really hope that neighborhoods like Wrigley, the Westside, and North Long Beach aren’t left out.

  • Good arguments. I’d really like to see more bike boulevards in LA. I’m glad to hear that the economic arguments for bike blvds. is being made to the business community and hope they get behind it.


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