Commuting on 2 Wheels

Don Harvey is executive director of the Orange County Bicycle Coalition. He writes from Orange

Orange County has a serious congestion problem, and it's getting worse. Lots of solutions have been proposed--light rail, more buses, subsidies for living near work, flex time, even more bike trails. All probably would be good, but none sounds like the full solution to congestion.

Probably, there is no complete solution. If that's true, we need to get the best use out of the billions of public dollars we've spent on streets before we embark on expensive new transportation schemes.

My office is on Glassell Street in Orange just north of the Garden Grove Freeway. Glassell is a north-south county artery; south of the freeway, it's Grand Avenue. Mornings and evenings I see a few of the working poor bicycling to or from work. Only a few; most are driving, at great cost both to themselves (gas, maintenance) and to the public. Many are uninsured, which increases the public cost.

Lots of these poor people who drive to work would take the bus if it stopped near their homes or their workplaces. But often the buses don't. Light rail, if it existed, might be farther away, and cost more. But bikes, like cars, go everywhere--at least everywhere there's a road, and that's everywhere anybody needs to go. (That's why bike trails can't be the whole answer.) And riding a bike is cheap, so the working poor can afford it.

Then why don't the working poor commute by bike already? Some do. But most don't because they've got a car anyway--to go to the store or visit relatives--and so it's right outside, and they'd rather have the convenience of driving. Or because they're afraid of traffic.

Does that mean nothing can be done? No, I don't think so. Bikes are low-cost alternative transportation, and every bike on the streets is one fewer car there.

Bikes do two things: enable the poor to get to work, and cut congestion. Not only that, they help get the best return out of our massive public investment in roads. Users--adults as well as kids--get fit, not fat, which saves money on public health.

Bikes provide door-to-door transportation (unlike buses or trains), at essentially zero public cost, by using a rarely used part of the roadway--the shoulder.

The cost of automobile transportation used to be low, too, and in some ways still is. I don't think the public cost was ever low, but it was well concealed. Somehow, gas is still pretty cheap, and used cars are still cheap, though not as cheap as they used to be, what with smog testing and the consequent demise of the shade-tree mechanic.

That's the cost in money. There's another cost too: Time. It's a problem that doesn't seem to get noticed as much, but it will, as commuting takes more time out of the day.

Bicycle transportation can help with both private costs, time and money, at zero public cost. The shoulders are there now.

How much can bikes help? Surveys say 2% or 3% commute by bike now, but 25% would like to; maybe 15% actually would. How much would that help?

Well, during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, everyone noticed how well traffic flowed; it was later estimated that carpooling and rescheduling decreased traffic by 3% to 4%. So 15% would help a lot with everyone's time, both bicyclists' and drivers'. We might get years, or even decades, out of the present roads.

What has to be done to get this help? Governments should provide bike lanes on all arterial streets. Why on arterials? Because heavy car traffic shows where bicyclists need to be. Bike lanes will help trucks, too: Today, more trucks need to use streets because of freeway congestion.

What will happen if bike lanes are provided? Not much, at first. Benefits--and even new bicyclists--won't be seen for a while, as bicyclists get used to the unfamiliar idea that they're viewed with public approval.

At first, the bicyclists you see will be the working poor. Then kids will start to use them. This might annoy drivers, seeing kids using the roads as bicyclists--but they're really there now as passengers, with Mom driving. Then drivers will start to switch to bikes.

The change will take a long time because congestion is a big part of the motivation for changing, so each driver who changes makes it easier for the others not to. But it'll happen at an increasing rate, as we slowly approach gridlock. If, and only if, the road room is there.

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