January 10, 2008
Last June, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that my former hometown of Portland, Ore., had the highest percentage of bicycle commuters of any large city in the country: 3.5%. By comparison, the national average is only 0.4%.
Even 3.5% is an overestimate, however. The Census Bureau asks commuters how they "usually" travel to work. A U.S. Department of Transportation study found that people who say they usually drive to work virtually always drive. But people who say they usually bicycle actually ride their bike only about three-fourths of the time. On any given day, the number is closer to 2.6%.
My point is that increasing bike commuting from, say, 0.4% to 2.6%, or even 3.5% on a good day, will not do much to relieve Los Angeles congestion. Should cities encourage bike commuting? Certainly. Should they spend gobs of money trying to encourage that commuting? Probably not.
Far more people telecommute than cycle to work: 3.6% nationwide, and more than 6% in cities such as San Francisco and Seattle. Telecommuting is growing faster than cycling or transit riding, so if cities could do only one thing to promote less driving, telecommuting would be a better bet than cycling.
Still, there are many low-cost things cities can do to enable bicycle commuting as an alternative. The most important is to provide safe bike routes along or parallel to all major corridors in the city.
Safe bike routes do not require exclusive bike paths or even exclusive bike lanes. Only about 4% of auto-bike accidents consist of the auto hitting the bike from behind. Instead, more than half of all auto-bike accidents take place at intersections. This makes it more important to provide for cyclists at intersections than between them.
Another important step is educating motorists and cyclists about the rules of the road. The basic rule is that bicycles are vehicles just like automobiles and should obey the same rules and yield and be yielded the same rights of way. Cyclists who understand how to safely ride in our cities will be more likely to do such riding. So schools should offer high school students and others training in safe, effective cycling.
A third way to encourage cycling is to remove many of the "traffic calming" devices that planners have inflicted on our streets. Speed humps, curb extensions, rotaries and other blockades that narrow roads and streets make those streets less attractive to cyclists.
Promoting cycling will never eliminate traffic gridlock, so I oppose spending hundreds of millions of highway dollars to build a network of exclusive bike paths. Although popular among recreational cyclists, there is no evidence such paths significantly increase bicycle commuting, so it is more appropriate that bike paths be funded out of recreation dollars
Yet cycling is a valid transportation choice. Transportation planners must make appropriate allowance for bicycles, not because they will relieve congestion but because cyclists have as much right to safe streets as anyone else.
Randal O'Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and the author of "The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future."
Randal, I'm 98% certain that your percentages are wearing me out. I'm sorry, but I just can't get all fired up about 3.5% being 2.6%, which won't be much better than 0.4% especially when 3.6% work where they sleep.
What I can get fired up about is getting more people on their bikes and riding in the city, and I say cities have an obligation to support and promote that. But then you go and pull out telecommuting as the better program for municipalities to encourage. Certainly, working from home has its benefits for those whose employment lends itself to that type of environment, but bike commuting is more than getting people on their bikes strictly to go to and from their jobs.
For the better part of two years, I freelanced out of my house and regularly adhered to a five-mile-radius rule: If an errand's location fell within that perimeter and I could transport whatever I was taking or getting on my back, then my truck stayed in the garage and I made the trip either by bike or on foot and not on that $100-million network of exclusive paths you're so afraid of, but on the streets where bikes belong. Randal, you might look upon my little trips to the market, the library or the bike shop and bank and calculate the infinitesimal percentage effect it had on traffic congestion, but there's much more to it than that.
So the questions shouldn't be whether cities should spend gobs of money building an impractical two-wheeled transit grid to encourage bike commuting, or whether we should choose a telecommuting program over one focused on bicycling; it's whether our elected officials should actively advance alternative transportation on a more personal, local level.
Some have done just that already. Three weeks ago, Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes introduced a motion to make his district more bike-friendly "by creating a bike network linking people to key spots like work, school, shops and museums." And a few months before that, Councilman Tom LaBonge rode the length of 4th Street with a bunch of cyclists (myself included) to see for himself its potential as a future "bike boulevard." These are refreshing and invigorating first steps, but that's all they are. Without further action, they could be last ones too.
Or, if we're lucky, they ultimately could lead cyclists to whole new era of inclusion and empowerment, one in which incentive programs are developed that reward businesses in some way for establishing programs committed to getting a certain number of employees' cars off the road, and one that revives the long stagnant city bike licensing program and actually enforces the still-existing law that a bicycle sold in Los Angeles must be licensed. The fees gathered could fund citywide awareness campaigns as well as specific projects such as Safe Routes To School, or build regional bike stations.
And while I'm daydreaming, what I'd really like to see is the city's bike advisory committee some real power, which would give cyclists a stronger voice in transportation matters. All these things I can get behind 100%.
Silver Lake resident Will Campbell beat his 2007 goal to bike 2,007 miles across L.A. by nearly 1,100 miles. He blogs at Wildbell.com and Blogging.la and is an editor with Ascend Media.
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