Saturday, March 15, 2008

What does Congress have to do with bicycling?

In this election year, it is important to consider what the candidates say about city and transportation issues. Yet quietly Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., has introduced legislation aimed at increasing the importance of cycling as part of overall transportation policy. This is a very good idea, as cycling has many benefits that extend beyond trip and modal substitutions. Cycling increases health in the long term (though accidents may diminish some of these gains in the short term), creates better and more pedestrian friendly neighborhoods because of lower speeds, quieter movement and greater ease in stopping and taking part in the community (no need to cruise for parking).

However, like many transportation alternatives to private autos, cycling advocates are promoting the idea of new bike lanes and roads. This undoubtedly will increase the attractiveness of cycling for a few people, but two main concerns remain. First, it's not at all clear that the bike trips on the new infrastructure would be substitutes for trips that would otherwise be made by car. It's likely that many of the trips would be new purely recreational trips. Who should pay for these new fitness facilities? We certainly wouldn't advocate for public intervention to subsidize gym memberships, which might result in even greater health benefits (but more driving to and from the gym).

The second problem is the construction of new infrastructure at all. If roads are going to be rebuilt, it may prove better overall to build dedicated bus lanes rather than dedicated bike lanes. In order to improve our transportation infrastructure and investment, we have to consider the potential alternatives and opportunity costs of policy actions. This is the essence of transaction cost economics. If we are going to invest in new transportation infrastructure, we need to choose the most efficient alternative among many. It may well be that bicycle lanes are the most cost effective way to go about reducing auto trips. We just don't know, and the evidence so far suggests that the market for bikes as primary transport is small for a variety of reasons.

Taken together, these two problems are significant obstacles to federal bike policy. Biking is a very localized activity, and the required facilities are relatively inexpensive. I doubt that federal policy towards bikes will ever get past platitudes, but bike planning will be most effective at the local level. Congress could do much for transport alternatives by increasing the flexibility and local autonomy of surface transportation reauthorizations.
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