Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bike lanes in New York: are they working?

Are New York's Bike Lanes Working?
A Subsidy for the Few
New York Times
December 22, 2010

I may be dreaming but maybe, just maybe, the current controversies over bike lanes in New York City might drive some rational discourse over the proper uses and limits of bicycling as an alternative transportation mode in US big cities. This would be a rare occurrence in the US because passions tend to dominate the debate, with ideologically driven pro-bikers shouting over indignant and inconvenienced drivers, commercial haulers and small neighborhood businesses that lose entire segments of their market because of bike lane restrictions.

The hard, cold December reality of bike lanes in U.S. cities is that they will inevitably be a small part, even tiny part in most cases, of America’s solution to congestion and mobility. Bike networks represent concentrated, subsidized benefits for a small portion of the commuting public.

Oddly enough, New York City officials don’t have a ready numbers on bike commuting mode share. Instead, they rely on overall counts (see the press release from the New York Department of Transportation here), a misleading statistic since the investment in bike lanes is based in large part on the belief that an expanded network will shift significant shares of commuters out of their cars (and perhaps even buses) to relieve congestion, reduce air pollution, and lower carbon dioxide emissions. That doesn’t appear to be happening in New York.

In this respect, New York City is more typical of what we can expect in the rest of the nation. Despite adding 400 miles of dedicated bike lanes, the response from most New York commuters has been tepid at best. A small fraction of commuters or travelers who already use public transit or drive switch to biking, and many of the existing bike commuters still prefer the non-striped routes and avenues.

Regular bike commuters are a hardy bunch, and those committed few have often already overcome the psychological and practical hurdles necessary to integrate their preferred transportation mode into their lifestyle.

All this is not to say that dedicated bike lanes are a complete waste of time and resources. Rather, it suggests that programs need to be strategically focused and recognize bike travel for the seasonally limited, commuting niche it is rather than a broad-based travel alternative advocates want it to be. These programs also need to be rigorously evaluated to make sure their intended benefits materialize with measurable benchmarks to monitor progress.

Getting bike acceptance levels up to those of models like Amsterdam and Copenhagen takes more than striping lanes. It takes a focused anti-car policy that dramatically increases the costs of using automobiles. At this point, New York City’s experiment appears to demonstrate more the objective limits of a pro-bike strategy than a ringing endorsement of a major shift in urban transportation policy.

Sam Staley
is the director of urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation and the co-author of “Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century.”

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