Bike Writer Elly Blue Discusses the Economics of Cycling

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Elly Blue at City Lit bookstore. Photo: Serge Lubomudrov

On Friday I had the pleasure of moderating a discussion of cycling and economics with bike writer Elly Blue, author of the new book “Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save The Economy,” at City Lit bookstore in Logan Square. Blue’s work has appeared in various biking, sustainability, and feminist publications, and she’s also the author of “Everyday Cycling,” a great beginner’s guide to using a bike for transportation. She blogs at TakingTheLane.com.

“Bikenomics” looks at the current cost of transportation for individuals and families, as well the economic toll of our car-centric transportation system on municipalities, states and the federal government. The book also tells stories of people, businesses, organizations and cities that are investing in bicycling. Here are a few excerpts from Friday’s conversation, which included plenty of input from the audience members, largely people who bike commute regularly.

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Protected bike lane on Franklin Boulevard. Photo: CDOT

The value of protected bike lanes

John Greenfield: A big thing here in Chicago is protected bike lanes. The mayor has promised to install 100 miles of protected lanes — they’ve sort of adjusted it to be 100 miles of protected and buffered bike lanes — within his first four years in office. It’s been a little bit controversial. Some of the lanes involve road diets, narrowing or removing travel lanes in order to make space for the protected lanes. So what would you say to Chicagoans who question the value of protected bike lanes? What are the economic advantages?

[Elly asked the audience what they think about PBLs, and a few people expressed skepticism, citing issues with maintenance, sight lines, and cars parking in the lanes.]

EB: I’m a believer in good bike infrastructure and building a proper bike city, but I think you can’t just put in certain kinds of bike infrastructure on some roads and leave it at that. I mean you also have to take the cars off the road, make them smaller, make them slower and make sure that you have to be going slow enough to be paying attention when you’re driving them and do all sorts of other things as well.

I think the real benefit of protected bike lanes is, on the one hand you have a much better riding experience. You still need to pay attention. You can’t just pretend you’re off in the country by yourself, but they do make it possible for people to bike on a road that they would not have considered biking on otherwise. It brings people and it sort of is, as I say in the book, like a vaccine for a neighborhood, where you can take the first steps needed for transforming a place, making the businesses along the street do a little bit better, making the street something that other people in the neighborhood will use as well.

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The Dearborn Protected Lane. Photo: The Green Lane Project

One of the biggest arguments in favor of them is safety, and it’s not just bike safety. They’ve done studies in Philadelphia and New York City and a few other places. When a protected bike lane comes in, it has a traffic calming effect. This results in slower travel speeds and also fewer crashes involving everybody by all modes of transportation, so fewer bike crashes, but also car crashes and fewer pedestrian injuries.

I think the number of all injuries to all users in Philadelphia went down 65 percent [the number is actually a still-impressive 44 percent] after they put in their protected bike lanes. And that’s huge. You’re always going to have someone saying, “This was a safe city until those bicyclists came in and started rampaging all over the streets,” but those people are not speaking from a place of statistics.

And the safety advantage is a huge economic one. It’s not just in terms of somebody not going to the hospital today when they were going to go to work or going to go shop at a store, and crews not having to come out, but also the general feel of the neighborhood improves. So you’ll have more people shopping at stores and spending money.

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Divvy rider on Wells Street. Photo: John Greenfield

The economic benefits of bike-share

JG: Anything you want to say about the economic benefits of bike-share?

EB: Yeah, it takes away several of the barriers to riding a bike. Some of that is economic. For the cost of ten or twelve taxi rides per year, you can basically get anywhere in the city. You don’t have to own a bike and you don’t have to store a bike. I think one of the biggest barriers to riding a bike, among people I’ve observed, is they have a bike sitting in their living room for years with a flat tire. Bike-share really takes that away. Or they’re like, “Oh, I don’t know, I have this bike light but I think it needs batteries.”

JG: One thing we’re going to see a lot in Chicago this winter is, road salt is a huge thing here. A mayor [Michael Bilandic] lost an election because he didn’t clear the snow in time. So nowadays mayors are paranoid. They salt the road if there’s even a prediction of snow. So I think there are going to be a lot of Chicagoans using bike-share instead of using their own bikes on the road, to spare them from winter grime.

EB: Which is going to be really interesting for the people managing the bike-share.

JG: Yeah, they’re going to have a lot of maintenance work to do. I hope they’ve got a lot of chain lube.

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Riding in the northbound protected lane on Vincennes near 99th Street. Photo: John Greenfield

The current bicycle infrastructure building boom

Audience member: What’s driving all this cycling infrastructure? No pun intended…

EB: I wish I knew. This is basically a book about cars and kind of the failure of the world that we have built for cars and the investments that we have made. Those investments are failing. There’s a guy named Charles Marohn that has a blog called Strong Towns that I highly recommend. He’s a small-town Midwestern Republican and a big bike advocate, and his whole reasoning is if you do the math behind the big infrastructure projects of the past century, they’ve all had a limited lifespan. When they failed, cities have had to figure out how to repay them and take out massive loans. When they reached the end of their life again, those loans still aren’t paid off, so you have to invest even more deeply and dig even more deeply, and as the economy has burst we’ve had less access to that kind of money.

And also by doing all of these things, like building outlying suburbs, which involve new roads and new utilities, we haven’t just bankrupted ourselves civically, we had the whole housing bubble and we bankrupted our families as well. And we basically lost our ability to have access to exercise, access to good education, access to groceries, access to community. We built these places that are really not nice to live in. There’s kind of a growing class divide. The suburbs are becoming much poorer and the inner cities are becoming much wealthier. There’s just this sort of desperation.

People want and need a major change, and bicycling is one of the things that really can give you that in a way that you can afford, that the city can afford, and that actually brings wealth back into the economy. That’s sort of my highfalutin answer to your question. People are really hungry to do things like change light bulbs, but changing light bulbs is not satisfying and doesn’t change your life. But riding a bike gives you all of that and it’s fun.

  • CL

    Bike lanes are nice — I like them. They keep bikes safely out of my way. But I don’t think we should just “take the cars off the road” and “make them slower” in a huge city, with months of bad weather, like Chicago — doing that will have negative consequences for a lot of people, especially for the parts of the city that are least connected to the north side and downtown. Getting from one end to the other by car is already excruciatingly slow during rush hour — and yet still faster than the alternatives.

    Cycling is great if you’re able-bodied, and you have a relatively short commute, and you live near everything you need, and the weather is okay, and you don’t have to cart kids or equipment around. . . but we still need a feasible way for everyone else to get from A to B. If we keep building bike lanes and slowing down traffic without building transit alternatives, the already-awful travel times by car are just going to get worse, and that’s not good for the city. I think the key is fast, reliable public transit, such as BRT and good train service. If we build that, there will be less car traffic and conditions will be better for cyclists. The goal should be good choices that make people want to get off the road. Anyway, I know that nobody on this blog is against great public transit, but focusing on cycling (“biking can save the economy”) instead of transit seems strange to me. . . of course maybe I’d see it differently if I lived in a smaller city with warm weather. Some of these concerns are unique to Chicago.

  • Alex_H

    Yes, this is why I’m nervous about the possibility of Ashland BRT being a failure that results in backlash. A comprehensive BRT network would be incredible, but a lot of things have to go right for us to get there.

  • CL

    I think change has to happen in increments — and I’m okay with that. I’m okay with giving road space to bike lanes and BRT, because those are steps in the right direction. They slow down cars, but they add a good alternative. I just don’t think slowing down cars should be a goal in itself right now.

  • I agree with you – I hear this often: “You can’t make it harder to drive without creating good alternatives first.”

    That said, there’s a problem in that there aren’t a ton of people who I would say “advocate” for half of the equation: improving public transportation. I believe that too often we see people who don’t want any change to the roadway for cars, and will fight to maintain the status quo, and say “you have to have better alternatives if you’re going to make it harder to drive,” then… they’re absent when it comes time to ask politicians for more funding for better alternatives.

    It’s also geography. You can’t just live in neighborhood X and work in Y unless they’re along desirable and efficient lines that would make sense for transportation services. I don’t really know any examples that are backed up in data, but I can think of all the times I want to get to Wicker Park or that area from my home in Uptown. Either have to take the Damen bus, or take rail downtown, or take it to North Ave and take a bus… all this would be more efficient were there more bus lanes, of course… But we probably have a lot of people saying, “well, I live here, but I work here, and those two just aren’t transit accessible.” Well, the city shouldn’t exactly be subsidizing this sort of inefficiency by allocating a disproportionate amount of the public way to private automobiles just so you can get around. Maybe the person has to deal with this reality, and if other people in the area would benefit from a new bus lane taking up half the roadway (taking away car lanes for bus lanes), that’s tough – they may have to deal with that.

    So my roundabout point is that we could build greater public transportation, but it’s a sort of chicken/egg problem with a side of “everything has to accommodate me and how I do things now.” (see this for a laugh but kind of serious interpretation of what I mean: http://www.theonion.com/articles/report-98-percent-of-us-commuters-favor-public-tra,1434/) What I’m saying ignores some other factors such as affordability, segregation, etc… all of which I am aware of, but someone could write a book on it (not suitable for my long-enough comment here). For now, it does make sense to prioritize efficient modes of transportation, and unfortunately a car in a city is not usually going to be the most efficient.

    And finally: I do think slowing down cars is a worthy goal. Walking 2+ hours every day in this city I can see a lot of benefit to this. It makes places more walk-friendly, it makes sure drivers are paying attention… we aren’t particularly well at traveling 30+ mph and paying enough attention to be safe. And if I get hit by a driver at 20mph, I have a much, much higher chance of living than if I’m hit at 30mph, and you’re only going to lose a few extra minutes of travel time. I believe it’s a worthy goal.

  • “Take the cars off the road” doesn’t mean to eradicate cars, but to convert as many trips as possible that don’t have to be done by car to more efficient modes, so everyone can get where they need to go in a timely manner. “Make them slower” does not mean bring motorized traffic to a grinding halt. It means calming traffic to a safe, moderate speed so that we reduce crashes and casualties. 30 mph is plenty fast enough for car travel on city streets, and if everyone respected that speed limit, traffic would flow more smoothly and drivers would save money on gas.

  • CL

    Thanks for such a thoughtful response. I agree that there is not enough public support for alternatives that take space away from cars (like bike lanes and BRT) but I do think there is support for improving public transit generally. I remember how angry people were when the CTA made the big doomsday service cuts a few years ago. Even drivers favor better L service and more frequent, convenient bus service — things we could do right now (if we had the money) without complaints from anyone.

    I’m also probably biased because right now, my job requires me to travel to every part of the city — so I feel like I spend half of my life stuck in rush hour traffic, with no feasible alternatives, and when I hear things like “let’s slow down Lake Shore Drive” I want to cry. While many people can’t work near their homes for reasons you mention (plus just living situation reality — my significant other and I work very far apart, so one or both of us is going to have a long commute no matter what we do). . .many other people do have the option of living near work, but prefer to live elsewhere. I agree that we need to push those people to live near work — but right now, there are so many obstacles that I still think slowing down traffic is a bad, bad idea that will just make people’s lives suck a lot more with little benefit.

    However, you have a point about the benefits of traffic calming on residential streets. If we can keep the arteries moving, calming residential streets won’t be a big deal, and has benefits for pedestrians, cyclists, and residents. But a lot of proposals designed to slow car trips seem to be aimed at the big commutes on the arteries — that’s what I don’t like.

  • This is what I appreciate about talking to other people because so many people I know are more like me; work downtown, live near transit, etc… it’s good to get other perspectives on commutes. When I chose where to live I had to be close to transit, daily amenities, etc… and not everyone gets to have the same choice. In your situation part of it is that one person’s commute is going to suck either way, so there’s no real way around that problem. But for some people there needs to be more incentive to live closer to work, or live near a transit corridor that’ll take you closer to work directly.

    Part of it too is just the geography… our rail service is primarily for Loop commuters. Service at off-peak times is not that great, and most of it runs to the center. In Paris it was the opposite. No matter where I lived in that city, I could get to any other point relatively quickly. There was no “center.” No matter where I lived, my university was about 30 minutes by any train; if I was further away there was express train service that cost the same as “local” subway service. It was all about $40 per month, too…

    I am all for traffic calming on residential streets. I think it makes it more enjoyable to walk or bike. However I don’t think arterials should be all about moving traffic quickly. Mainly because our arterials are often also our great destination streets. For the sake of business, we ought to make these streets safe for everyone and not just for fast traffic. I think about Ashland up here and how I have been to maybe 2 businesses on Ashland. It’s just not enjoyable to walk on. But Clark St in Andersonville, which is relatively calm, is still a sort of “arterial” but it’s also filled with destinations, people walking, biking, etc… this is something that’s hard because all the streets with the great stuff are also the streets everyone uses to move… truck traffic, buses, cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, and people who just want to sit and watch it all go by!

  • CL

    30 mph would be fantastic. But congestion and lights means actual speeds are more like 10 mph during rush hour. I agree that there is no need to drive 30+ on most streets (except Lake Shore, where I need to go fast because it’s very important for my day). But when I think about traffic calming measures, I think about how slow I already have to travel due to congestion. The 30 mph speed limit is the least of my problems.

  • BruceMcF

    During rush hour, death cagers are mostly dangerous to cyclists while turning … its the other parts of the day when they start reaching speed that are unsafe to mix with other users of the public right of way.

  • Guest

    Your situation also illustrates the other half of the equation: where employers choose to locate. Without the massive historic public subsidies to private automobile travel, many employers would probably have made different decisions about where to locate.

    In the short run, this leads to painful decisions about how to go back on a century of deliberately favoring cars over other modes.

    In the long run, housing, employment, retail, etc. will realign to the investments that we make. It happened when we built interstate highways, it will continue to happen as we refocus on transit corridors. Unfortunately, as Keynes said, in the long run we’re all dead.

  • CL

    Yes – it’s a big problem, but I think in the short run, we can solve it with transit. Right now I’m interviewing for a fantastic job that is unfortunately located in a northern suburb 40 minutes from the city (making the commute situation even worse, since my GF works on south side!). The fact that it’s next to a Metra station makes all the difference, because if I get this job, I will have a reasonable commute as long as I’m near Metra. Otherwise, it would be a soul-sucking commute — and I don’t know what I would do when it snows. Living near work sounds amazing — but when it’s not possible, living near transit allows people to have long commutes without the car dependency.

  • Alex_H

    The problem you describe brings to mind Gabe Klein’s comments in Chicago Mag the other week, about cities becoming more focused on their neighborhoods or areas.

    I understand that employment opportunities are limited, but if your job opportunity were in California I don’t think you’d get much sympathy from the average reader about the burden on you or your partner’s “weekend commute” (or whatever). Most people would say, “Well one of you should take a different job.”

    Conversely, we seem to take for granted that, within a metro area, people should be able to travel massive distances in a short amount of time. Maybe sustainability demands that we reassess that assumption.

  • CL

    People are free to sympathize or not sympathize, but many people cannot simply “take a different job” in this market. This suburban opportunity is likely my only chance to stay in the Chicago area long-term without completely changing my career after 8 years of investment. I’m doing this so I don’t have to move to California. The economy is horrible, and many people have specific training that limits their options, especially in this market. This fantasy of everyone living near work just doesn’t match the reality of the economy and the current configuration of jobs, housing prices, family situations, and so on. I expect a slow trend where people with options are more likely to live near work, but many people are going to have to commute for a very long time.

    In theory, everyone is capable of ruling out commuting, but I don’t think we want to live in that world — where people have to say “Okay, one of us can have a career and the other will quit and work at Starbucks.” or “We have to send our kids to this horrible school because this is where my job is.” or “I can’t take care of my family member because my job is on the other side of the city.” or “We’ll just cram the family into a tiny studio so we can afford to live here.” Commuting sucks, but people do it because the alternative is a huge personal and/or professional sacrifice.

  • BruceMcF

    Slowing cars is not a goal in itself, its a tool for other goals, such as not killing as many people with cars. And cars can be made both slower and faster in the same policy package, if rush hour traffic speeds up while off-peak traffic slows down to a speed that does not take such a bloody death toll.

  • bedhead1

    The grandiosity with which Elly Blue speaks is comical, and it obviously plays well with her fellow fanatical auto-haters. Frankly the woman sounds like a religious nut job, one of these people who is unconditionally certain that her way of life should be everyone’s way of life.

    “…bankrupted ourselves civically…and we have bankrupted our families as well.”

    “failure of the WORLD that we have built for cars” [emphasis added]

    Overinflate things much? Geez. This is what people do all the time though, the more they build it up (eg the “war” on drugs, etc) the more legitimacy they think it gives their cause. No one would care unless you throw around buzzwords like “bankrupted” and equate driving with the end of civilization.

    Keep in mind I’m saying this as someone who rides a bike 365 days per year and hates driving. I might actually buy her book out of sheer curiosity though.

  • What do you mean when you write: “but focusing on cycling (“biking can save the economy”) instead of
    transit seems strange to me. . . of course maybe I’d see it differently
    if I lived in a smaller city with warm weather” Bicycling IS transit for me, faster than driving or PT at substantial savings. Riding properly dressed, cold is not an issue. What we truly need to address is that attitude that biking is somehow “not transit”.

  • Current traffic density makes 30 MPH effectively impossible on most Chicago streets. And the stretches where it is possible, people resort to kangaroo driving, far exceeding the speed limit. Many European cities have brought down speed limits to 30KM/H (ca.20MPH), and even then the roads are clogged. Serious moderation of urban speed could potentially allow eradication of current road slowing measures like stop signs/lights, traffic humps etc. However, even that will not resort to much as long as “one person per car” is taken for normal. Great article otherwise, Ms. Blue seems a thoughtful moderate on the subject.

  • CL

    I meant mass transit — specifically, busses and trains

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