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Economics Professor Takes Aim at Bike Lanes at City Watch

11:54 AM PDT on March 14, 2011

In last Friday's City Watch, Cato Institute Adjunct Scholar and economics professor at Cal State University Northridge Dr. Shirley V. Svorny penned, People Who Want More Bike Lanes Need a Reality Check, an attack on on another City Watch piece, What a Difference a Few Years Makes, by Stephen Box.  Box's piece celebrated the passing of the city's bike plan.  Svorny's piece is a rather uninspired attack on bicycle planning.

Dr. Shirley Svorny

Svorny seems to have "moving people" confused with "moving cars" as she repeatedly talks about the purpose of roads "moving people" yet slams the city's efforts to provide people options on how to move themselves from A to B.  After the jump, we'll look at Svorny's article and respond.  The purpose of this article isn't to single out Svorny or City Watch, but to help everyone get prepared because as more and more bike lanes and other bike infrastructure are placed on streets, these same arguments will pop up over and over.

CityWatch columnist Stephen Box cheers the new Los Angeles Bike Plan. (Link)   I’m glad someone is happy about calming our road to make bike paths because I don’t see it that way at all.  The economist in me sees roads taken out of use, a huge loss of a capital investment (the city has fewer lanes for cars). “Traffic calming” and “road diet” are terms used by people who want fewer cars on the road. They seem unable to face the reality that their efforts will only increase congestion and pollution (as cars get backed up).

It's ironic that Svorny uses her background as an economist to try and make her point that "roads taken out of use" as "a huge loss in capital investment."  Did you know that if you google the term "economic argument for bike lanes" the first thing that comes up is an article from the Economist, published earlier last week, that demolishes bolsters the idea that having public roadways designated exclusively for car use is a colossally bad idea.  From the Economist.

"I hate to belabour the point, but driving, as it turns out, is associated with a number of negative externalities (Mr Cassidy, being an economics writer, will know the term). When Mr Cassidy drives, he imposes a small congestion cost on those around him, drivers and cyclists included. Because he and others do not consider this cost, they overuse the roads, creating traffic."

Box makes all kinds of statements that are not true.  He says the new bike plan will “make our streets work for everybody…streets that are good for cyclists are good for everybody.”  That just can’t be, a street that has fewer lanes is more congested. Taking road lanes out of service is like closing off roads.

We build roads for a purpose, to allow people to get places. They have a value to society and to the city. The roads are an asset to the city—that is why we spend money to build and repair them.  Taking some out is like shutting a sewer, a park, or a library.  If the ultimate goal is to reduce driving, a carbon tax would do the trick and it won't add congestion.

Here we see the base confusion about moving people versus moving cars.  First, by no means do I, or Streetsblog, take the position that the only use for public roadway is moving people, but let's accept that argument for a moment.  Nobody is talking about "taking out" roads or removing them or destroyig them, or anything of the sort.  They're talking about re-purposing some of the road for bicycles and also reducing traffic speed, making the road safer for drivers, pedestrians, and the people that live on or near them.

Box writes that “cyclists…prefer streets with moderate vehicle volumes and speeds, an environment that is likewise safer and more hospitable for both motorists and pedestrians.” However, speed limits on roads have already been set to trade off safety and movement.  It is unlikely that slowing traffic across the city is an improvement.

And clearly that adjustment is working.  Another couple of seconds on google reveals that more people die as a result of traffic crashes than as a result of terrorism.  More teens die in car crashes than as a result of cancer, suicide, and homicide combined.  Nationally, the cost of car crashes is $99 billion a year.

The tradeoff of putting some modest limits on speed of traffic for safety reasons is clearly failing nationwide, but that doesn't stop speeding traffic advocates for demanding their right to drive quickly through residential areas regardless of the fiscal and safety issues their behavior creates.

If Svorny had done any research, she would have found out that speed limits are set statewide based on the average speed of the eighty-fifth percentile of traffic under ideal conditions, hardly a system that puts safety concerns over the carefree speeding of traffic.  Thus, the only way to reduce average speed limits is to design streets for slower moving traffic.

And road diets make streets safer for all users.  A recent Federal Highway Administration report makes that point very clear. But Svorny continues:

My own commute includes a road that has been put on a diet.  Four lanes were collapsed into two, adding a bike lane in each direction. With only one lane, cars back up in long lines at the major intersections.  With the long line of cars, residents in the neighborhood have trouble turning onto the road. As drivers shift to nearby roads, they can be expected to be more congested as well (they are already congested).

What do all those major North-South roads except Wilbur have in common? No bike lanes. In other words, one major street has North-South bike lanes that has easy access to CSUN and that's one street too many for Svorney.

Now I get it.  Svorny is one of the mob that's angry at the Department of Transportation, which slowed down traffic on Wilbur Avenue to improve safety on a street that was literally covered with the blood of commuters and residents.  Svorny doesn't mention what street she is discussing, but given that Wilbur is not far from CSUN, where she works, and that it meets her description, we can safely assume it's Wilbur Avenue she's discussing.  Again, a couple minutes of research could have saved Svorny the embarassment of publishing a lot of things without knowing what she's talking about.

First, the new bike lanes had nothing to do with the diet on Wilbur.  If you don't believe the LADOT when they claim the diet was for safety reasons and not bike lanes (those are just a bonus) then consider these two points.

Here is the ugly reality of the safety issues on Wilbur Avenue in the "dieted" area -- roughly two miles, over a ten year period between 1999 and 2008.  Five people were killed in traffic crashes and there were approximately 200 serious crashes, i.e. those that were serious enough to be documented in a police report.

Second, the LADOT's compromise plan for the area that will be unveiled in a special meeting tomorrow night returns a portion of Wilbur Avenue to four lanes and keeps the bike lanes.  In plain English, the road diet on Wilbur and bike lanes are separate issues.  This reality has been a part of the public record for months now.

I see about two cyclists on the road each week and most use the sidewalks rather than the bike lanes. At the approach to an intersection, cars drive around the backed up traffic into the bike lane to make a right turn.  None of this can be safe.  Turning onto the road, there is only one lane, so cars making right and left turns onto the same road are aiming for the exact same lane.

It's true that less people bike than drive cars in Los Angeles.  However, that's not a reason not to have bike lanes on one of the north-south surface streets in a given area.  But of course, she's not complaining about the bike lanes.  Because she hasn't done the five minutes of research to discover that the road diet and bike lanes have little do with each other, she's complaining about the road diet.

While Svorny is certain that "none of this can be safe," there have been no traffic related deaths in the effected area since the Diet went in to place.

I get the idea that it would be nice if we all rode bikes. But the reality is that we don’t. Taking traffic lanes out of service means Los Angeles will be more crowded and the adjacent neighborhoods will be full of backed up traffic.

Here again we see the confusion between cars and people.  The city won't be more crowded if car travel lanes are taken away and the number of cars doesn't fall...just the car travel lanes will be more full.  Neighborhoods won't be full of backed up traffic, just the car travel lanes will.

In the end, providing a minimum of bike access to an area -- providing one bike lane in each direction on one street out of dozens -- is about providing a minimum of options so that people don't feel that they have to rely on their car to get from point A to point B.  As Congressman Earl Blummenauer said in a phone interview to GRIST this morning:

"It's all about choice," said Blumenauer by phone this morning. "In too many communities, people have to burn a gallon of gas to buy a gallon of milk. That's not freedom. That's tyranny."

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