Not long ago, I was giving a presentation at a business forum about the relationship of bicycling to transportation. A young man in the front stood up with the first question. “How can we justify spending money on bikes when we can’t even afford to pave our roads?”
Guess he didn’t like my presentation.
Actually, this is a common question these days, particularly here in Portland, where the local paper, the Oregonian, has pegged the City’s commitment to bicycle transportation as a major factor in our transportation funding woes. Yes, this is bicycle friendly Portland OR, where our investment in bicycle transportation of less than 1% of our transportation budget over a 20-year span has paid itself back in numerous ways.
Back in the early 1990s, less than 1% of Portland was bicycling regularly. Today: 8% of Portland commute trips are on bicycles. More than 15% of Portlanders bicycle some of the time, 30% in some neighborhoods. As bicycle use has soared, the crash rate has plummeted. Bonus: improved health and air quality, a $100 million bike industry, and 1500 local, green jobs. Rides, races, and events – 4000 a year!
The entire 325 miles of bikeways and all encouragement activities could be had for around $60 million dollars, the amount it would take to build one mile of urban freeway. Heck, the Oregon and Washington departments of transportation have spent twice that studying replacement of a bridge, without paving one inch.
Thus and obviously, the Oregonian’s accusation is patently ridiculous. The answer is: “how can we not afford to offer a balanced, sustainable transportation system? How can we justify spending the lion’s share of transportation funding to perpetuate old habits, when we can do so much better?” Yes this message is for you, congressional leaders, as you deliberate our transportation future and whether to defund the Safe Routes to School program as well as all federal sources of money for walking, cycling, and transit. Don’t do it! We all deserve healthy transportation options.
This isn’t just Portland’s good news. Just about every community that has invested in bicycle transportation has seen stellar results. Just look at the list of studies on the Bikes Belong website, showing enormous economic payback from Minnesota, Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado, California, Maine and beyond! Jobs created from building trails or creating cycle tracks are just as valuable as jobs building roads. At least one study has found that bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects create up to double the jobs (11-14) of road infrastructure projects (7) per $1 million spent. Plus, the long-lasting ancillary benefits go well beyond construction jobs.
Y’all in Greenville are on the right track. From your fountains and lovely downtown to the bike lanes and the Swamp Rabbit Trail to the recently adopted visionary bike plan, you are quickly becoming the bicycling gem of the Southeastern United States. This is no small feat considering that the South Carolina Department of Transportation owns 85% of the roads, severely limiting local control and pitting the goals of moving cars against sustainability, urban form, and economic development. Yet, Greenville is succeeding. And the economic, health, and livability benefits are right there for the taking.
Stay engaged. Support your local bike shops. And enjoy the ride!
Mia BirkMia had the pleasure of visiting Greenville last year on the Palmetto Joyride tour, sponsored by the Palmetto Conservation Foundation and Palmetto Cycling Coalition. She is the award-winning author of Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet; president of Alta Planning + Design; principal, Alta Bicycle Share, Inc.; and co-founder of the Initiative for Bicycle & Pedestrian Innovation at Portland State University. For 20+ years she has been transforming communities and empowering people to bicycle for daily transportation, one pedal stroke at a time.She, her husband and 2.5 children (baby due in May) live and ride in Portland, OR.
Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet is available at Cycle Chic and through Amazon or www.miabirk.com.Twitter @miabirk
President, Alta Planning + Design
Principal, Alta Bicycle Share, Inc.