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.
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.
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.