Economics Professor Takes Aim at Bike Lanes at City Watch

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 Svorny.

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.”

  • I am glad I did not have any classes at CSUN with this “economics professor”. If I did I perhaps would have thought that the law of supply and demand is that the rich people that drive cars have a superior need for more road space than anyone else.

    Thanks Damien for taking the time to rip that opinion piece apart.

  • It’s tremendously annoying when “experts” in a field attempt to use their authority to argue their personal interest. The veil of economic argument she’s using is quite thin and transparent. Clearly this is someone who is upset that they can no longer speed through a residential neighborhood on the way to work and is looking for a scapegoat. Thanks for making that so clear.

    One nitpick, I don’t think you meant “demolishes the idea that having public roadways designated exclusively for car use is a colossally bad idea,” because the Economist piece thankfully bolsters rather than demolishes that idea.

    Economic writer Olof Storbeck also makes a great case for yielding road space for non-automotive uses here:

  • Thanks for taking the time to refute Svorny’s incredibly lightweight piece. After reading it, my first thought was that I hope she does a better job of preparing her lectures, or her students would have legitimate case to request a refund.

    This is always the problem when an authority in one field attempts to address a matter outside their field of expertise. Had she legitimately attempted to address the economic cost/benefit of bike lanes and road diets, she might have contributed to the conversation. Instead, she merely trotted out the same old arguments that anyone who lacks the most basic knowledge of street planning and traffic safety could have made, and used her professorship to give it an undeserved cloak of authority.

    We can only hope that the blowback from this article will encourage her to look a little deeper into the subject, and refrain from shooting from the hip without a legitimate understanding of what she’s talking about.

  • DanaPointer

    Lately there is lot of talk of increasing the quality of primary education in the US, while simultaneously argument is often made that US higher education is doing well.

    Fact that Dr. Svorny wrote an article about bike infrastructure without even cursory glance at existing literature, quoting sources or following any other academic standards, makes you wonder about the hiring and other standards at CSUN and maybe even rest of the Cal State system.

    Ofcourse this is not the first time CATO institute’s academic standards are questioned…

  • Yuri

    In fact I feel much safer riding my bike on Venice Bl when cars are backed up and sitting still than when they are whizzing by me at 50 mph. Slowing cars down is always going to be safer for everyone: cars, bicycles and pedestrians. Hopefully she can eventually recognize that simple fact and correct her faulty logic.

  • I had the impression that Svorny based her conclusions on conjecture and supposition, without doing any research into the issues. My response tracks closely with Damien’s, and is posted at my site (link at my name).

    I think Damien is right about this being only the first of many such arguments. The lawsuits and sniping in New York City are instructive, and will come here when (and if) the new bike plan actually does anything substantive.

  • patrick

    I would ask the good professor if she considered the potential economic gains (savings) to our health care system if more people felt safe riding bikes thereby improving their health. I would also ask her to if she considered the economic gains (savings) to the LADOT of less wear and tear to the street in

  • I think its pretty hilarious that she makes the assumption that our current use of streets maximizes the benefit:cost ratio. And that the tradeoff between safety and speed has already been worked out and is beyond debate. That CRACKS ME UP.

    Since she is an economist she is probably familiar with the economic valuation of a life saved – I think it’s about $400,000. So if a road diet like Wilbur saves even one life, it pays for itself, what, like ten times over?

  • Fart Box 3000

    There isn’t much you can do but count on this crew of intellectual heavy weights fighting against the bike lane to grow old and die soon. The chances of that happening would actually be higher if we took out the bike lane so …

  • UrbanReason

    Why not share some facts with her…

  • Donald Knepper

    All of these comments are personal attacks on a well-regarded and highly respected economics professor at Cal State Northridge. I especially take umbrage at printing her photograph, when none exists for the other individual who wrote an article for City Watch (the pro-biker). What was the purpose? So that you could recognize her at Ralphs or any of the other local stores and continue the verbal attacks, no doubt with fingers jabbing at her chest?

    Whatever happened to civility?

  • patrick

    Just what in my comment do you consider a personal attack? She claims to be an economic professor and I asked her to consider highly economic factors. Your comment is a personal attack on me, a person who actually employs economics in my profession.

  • Shirley Svorny

    To internalize the congestion externality referred to by The Economist, you would need a road tax. In other words, the way to discourage congestion is to have drivers bear the full cost of their actions.

    A road diet is another way to reduce traffic. By increasing the drive time, it raises the cost of driving and shifts cars to nearby roads.

    But prior to the road diet, Wilbur did not have sufficient traffic for additional drivers to slow others down. The traffic moved fairly freely, so it is not an example of a congestion externality needing resolution.

    With only two lanes, the traffic is slowing, so there is a congestion externality now; additional drivers slow everyone else down. I’m guessing that the safety advantages associated with the middle turn lane are offset by the problems associated with traffic weaving in and out of the bike lanes. But that is an empirical question. It is possible that, although the new configuration is safer without congestion, the added congestion (and associated safety problems) offsets any safety advantages that were hoped for.

    Even if the bike lanes and the road diet were not connected from the onset, the biking community has connected them now. Unless there is a way to reverse the road diet without eliminating the bike lanes, they are connected.

  • @ Shirley

    I appreciate this more measured analysis. It seems you now can see why Box might say that the street is “better for everybody,” something you scoffed at in your first post. If all users are safer, that’s a benefit that accrues to everyone who uses the street. If the street moves faster, that’s a benefit that accrues only to drivers, and a cost in terms of a safety risk. We agree that both the distribution and the total sum of societal costs and benefits are an empirical question, not a rhetorical one. In particular, LADOT has studied delay on the street and found total travel times on Wilbur not to be much different (Don W., correct me if I’m wrong). What drivers perceive as a dramatic change in the spacing and speed between cars thus doesn’t actually represent a large change in travel costs. I hope you are willing to at least consider that what might seem like a dramatic effect from behind the windshield is actually just a slight decrease in travel times. Further, if that is the case, then the road was very poorly allocated before – it had excess capacity.

    I really appreciate that you are willing to come onto Streetsblog, a place that might have seemed a hostile forum, and consider the issue more evenhandedly.

    I hope we can all work together to create streets where more careful economic thinking comes into play. (And I think there are a lot of careful economic thinkers here who think that we have underallocated public resources to biking and walking, and that there could be substantial benefits from very meager reallocations of resources).

    I think you would find a lot of allies here at Streetsblog for very simple economic solutions to urban problems – things like internalizing externalities (i.e. congestion charges) or solving collective action problems with markets (i.e. market-priced parking).

    I hope you find Streetsblog a productive and thoughtful forum in which to apply the principles of economics to our public streets.

  • First off, Professor Svorny, I appreciate your responding to comments here and will place a link in tomorrow’s headlines roundup so that the receive high visibility with our readers.

    I usually don’t respond to comments in the comments section unless I majorly screwed up or someone asks or says something directly to me. I sort of feel the story itself is my place to talk.

    However, addressing Mr. Knepper. I don’t think anything written by me was a personal attack. I was responding to what was written. As for the picture, we often use pictures when discussing a person for the first time (or in the case of Congressman Miller earlier today) the first time in a couple of years. Stephen Box, the writer of the other City Watch article, has appeared regularly on Streetsblog and has been pictured many times.

  • Fart Box 3000

    One thing Shirley Svorny and others who apply a pseudo-economics to the study of traffic rely on is an unstated, but always implied, ever-present volume of car traffic.

    Take away a lane? All that traffic will spill over onto other roads. Use that lane to make other modes work better? The traffic will just eternally pile up.

    There is much to suggest that traffic is not, day after day, like a magic and infinite river of sewage – spilling over onto other streets, never changing in its volume, or only increasing over time.

    Traffic is a phenomenon of many individuals making choices as to how they move about in the carriage way. If we have a system designed only around private auto use, at the expense of the founding principles our local government was created to protect, then we will only have auto use.

    If the road is altered, in order to change the decision making process for those that are using the carriage way, then we will no longer have the unending stream of sewage spilling over onto our streets.

    People have lived in cities for millenia – with the street as the common carriage way for all sorts of activities. The taking of this space as the exclusive domain of through traffic of private automobiles is totally at odds with the charter of the City of Los Angeles, out of step with the needs of all people to be able to safely use the right-of-way, and makes a mockery of the idea that we are free to make choices in a free society.

    It is you, Shirley Svorny, in your demands and actions to maintain a car-based stranglehold on the streets that deprives us all of choice, of the right to make a rational decision to do something other than be stuck in “traffic”.

    As with all of these debates, the truth of the situation is on the bike lane’s side. It was a stupid mistake that the LADOT tried to demonize bike lanes by introducing them to WIlbur in this way, but perhaps it will be a precedent setting moment for those arrogant douche bags running the Operations Divisions across LA. Yes, douchebags, the tide has turned. You can try to do these projects poorly and we’re going to bring the heat. There aren’t enough Shirley Svorny’s and Mitch Englanders out there to stop what has started in LA.

  • The dude abides

    @fart box 3000 is spot on. People that don’t live or need to do business on Wilbur don’t have to use the street. It is a choice to congest the road. Whatever voodoo economic principles you apply to operating a vehicle, you will always come out with a negative value. No matter what you people think, streets are not designed to be intercity freeways. The are designed for people to get to their homes, schools and businesses for all road users. To make cars a priority because it is the perceived value added method is just plain stupid.

    We live in communities not speedways!

  • UrbanReason

    Some very thoughtful comments by @Herbie Huff and ….@Fart Box 3000 (who should really change that handle to something matching the intellectual clarity of your comments ;)

    With all due respect to Prof. Svorny (and I don’t intend that to be taken in a sarcastic tone), I am disappointed that an article by such an esteemed professor is so filled with what I can only describe as statements of pure conjecture masquerading as fact. You cite no sources for what I can only conclude to be unresearched claims, but make broad statements about the “truth” of issues.

    I understand that this kind of change is difficult for many people to embrace, particularly the older generations in LA. But I wish that before you fire off an article based on your personal frustration with perceived afflictions placed on drivers, you would take into account all road-users and back your claims with research and citations. At least, I wish you would avoid phrases like “can’t be true” and make clear that your statements are based purely on your perception and conjecture and not on actual facts. As a professor I believe you have a responsibility to intellectual integrity to make these things clear.

  • norm

    I have to post here to express my appreciation for @Fart Box 3000’s depiction of traffic as “a magic and infinite river of sewage” – I have to disagree, I think this is a perfect metaphor for traffic.

  • Yuri

    “Traffic is a phenomenon of many individuals making choices as to how they move about in the carriage way.”

    FartBox is right, traffic is an example of a complex system. It is nonlinear, so it doesn’t necessarily keep growing forever. It adapts to circumstances and it learns. It has emergent properties so you can’t describe it completely by looking at any one component (think of ant behavior versus ant colony behavior). This often leads to nonintuitive system behavior so making simple assumptions about it just isn’t going to work.

  • @Shirley Svorny

    You make several erroneous assumptions in your post.

    A road tax is only one means of internalizing the congestion externality. Making it faster, safer and easier to travel by bicycle, walking or mass transit are several other ways as people measure their opportunity cost. In a recent survey the number one reason given by people choosing to bicycle in Copenhagen is that it is faster and easier for them than by other modes of travel.

    A road diet does not raise the cost of operating a car. Lower speeds increase fuel mileage, reduce the odds of having an accident and in general creates much less wear and tear on the vehicle.

    As for increasing cost by time lost, if the average car speed before the road diet on this 2.5 mile stretch of Wilber Ave was 60 miles an hour it would take 2.5 minutes to complete the journey. Taking that down to an average speed of 30 miles an hour increases the travel time by 2.5 minutes. That would hardly be a great disruption in most peoples lives. Perhaps some would try to recreate that seemingly unrestricted speed they had before by checking out other roads nearby. Some might even choose a different mode of transportation by the simple inclusion of bike lanes and the creation of a safer walk across the street.

    The purpose of a road diet is not to slow traffic by creating congestion,it can improve the flow of traffic and safety albeit at a slower average speed. To see how a road diet can benefit drivers, bicylists, pedestrians and communities read one of the excellent articles from LADOT Bike Blog

    People will naturally drive slower on a two lane road compared to a wider four lane road. The buses on the carless two lane Orange Line busway move at an average slower speed than the Rapid buses on Ventura Blvd with it’s four lanes and many cars. Much of that has to do with the drivers ability to see the cross traffic at intersections. A narrower road impedes their peripheral vision. The car traffic adjacent to the Orange Line Busway on the four lane Chandler Blvd also travel at average slower speeds than traffic does on the much busier four lane Ventura Blvd. A big reason for that is that Chandler Blvd has a wide center divider than narrows the field of vision of drivers to two lanes only. Put the four lanes of Chandler Blvd together by eliminating the center divider and the drivers will take advantage of their increased comfort for higher speed of travel by depressing their accelerators closer to the floor. Again, nothing to do with the amount of traffic.

  • @Shirley Svorny

    The number one reason that people give me for not bicycling on the streets in the San Fernando Valley is the average speed of cars increases their sense of indangerment to a level that a painted bike lane will not abate. By allowing cars to routinely travel 40+ miles an hour on streets in the Valley you are decreasing the likelihood that people will choose to walk or ride a bike even for recreational purposes. The cars essentially become lethal predators in the eyes of potential pedestrians or bicyclists.

  • Los Angeles has about 6,500 miles of streets. With many primary and secondary streets having four to six lanes, I’ll go out on a limb and say that there are at least 15,000 miles of travel lanes for motorized vehicles in the city. The total amount of lane miles that could potentially be removed for motorized traffic and given to bicycles is less than 5% of this total. If Los Angeles doesn’t get at least a 5% increase in modal share for bicycles after completing this bicycle plan then I will eat my shorts. Considering that it is projected to take 35 years to complete the bicycle plan I will probably not even realize that I am eating my shorts.

  • For those of us paying attention to the war of words in NYC over the bike lane(s), it’s not so much the anecdotal claims that are distressing but rather the rhetoric and framing. Cassidy’s final ‘closing word’ on his New Yorker blog raised as many questions about how this debate is conducted as his earlier posts, many of which I contest here:

  • Shirley

    I actually saw someone in the bike lane on Wilber the other day. A rare sighting ;) Totally worth giving up two traffic lanes (not). Dennis get ready to eat your shorts?

  • Not so Great Street

    Good god, what is your obsession with speed? It is incredibly difficult to understand why Angelenos such as yourself think the measure of a successful street is solely dependent on how fast it can shove cars through a space. Wilbur is safer now, but you will never get over your out-dated and selfish desire to speed uninhibited. Have you even tried walking or bicycling along Wilbur? Or on any collector or major street for that matter? It might help you gain some perspective, if you cared to see firsthand the hostile conditions non-motorists face.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Two lanes were removed from Wilbur ave to reduce the average speed of motor vehicles in order to increase the safety of pedestrians crossing the street and for motorists. Installing the bike lanes was not the reason for removing those two motor vehicle lanes. Since there was room after the motor through lanes were removed for the installation of bike lanes and Wilbur ave was on the bike plan for bike lanes, then that was included with the re-stripping. A center left-turn lane was also added to decrease rear end collisions.

    The bicycle share of commuters in the city of Los Angeles went up 20% in the 2013 Census Bureau American Community Survey (ACS) results. Although that’s within the margin of error, its buttressed by Metro’s count of bicycle boarding’s at rail stations increasing by 42% in 2013. Bicyclists boarding transit does not count as bicycle commuters in the ACS results. These would be classified as transit commuters.

    Looking at the ACS results from 2000 to 2013, bicycling increased its share of commuters as much as transit did (0.6 gain in share). The percentage of those who drove to work decreased from 80.5% in 2000 to 77% in 2013.

    Bicycling is increasing its share of commuters and the percentage of residents of LA commuting to work by primarily driving is decreasing. Then wouldn’t it make sense to reallocate some motor vehicle lanes for the installation of bicycle lanes in relation to the gain in the percentage of bicycle commuters?

    The problem with traffic congestion is that there is more demand from motor vehicles than there is supply of motor vehicle lanes in the peak commute hours. Keeping all of the essentially fixed amount of motor vehicle lanes for the movement of motor vehicles introduces another problem: the tragedy of the commons when people who are left to their own individual decisions will over use the limited supply.

    Caltrans will not allow the amount of motor vehicles to reach the maximum capacity on the freeways. This would bring the movement of motor vehicles to a halt. What Caltrans does is delay more vehicles from entering the freeways when maximum capacity is approaching by giving red light stop signals to vehicles on the on-ramps. That’s why you see vehicles lined up for blocks waiting to enter the 405 freeway to rush hours.

    Introducing more transportation choices can reduce the share of those that commute by driving. Transit alone is not nearly as effective in enticing people to not drive as it is in combination with bicycling. Like wise, the distance that people travel by bicycle can be extended if they use it to get to a transit station.


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