Sunday, March 27, 2011

Do Bicycle Users pay their fair share?

Whenever news articles cover bicycle issues there is a common reaction from drivers who are frustrated with the intrusion of bicycles added to the traffic stress:  Not only are bicycle riders in the way, but they don’t pay their fair share.

                              Photo Credit
A very short story of my experience living on both sides of this traffic question:
Having been a delivery driver in a medium sized college city, I know what it is like to get frustrated by things that delay one’s ability to meet a schedule.  I had a boss who upbraided me for taking too long on my assignment compared to the driver I replaced.  This led me to take some notes for my own defense.  I kept a tally to track delays that were out of my control: railroad crossings, stalled vehicles, accidents, and, especially of note to me because this was a college town, slowing down for crazy bicycle riders.  I was surprised that my record of delays had no correlation to my own sense of length for those delays.  The bicycle events were mere seconds a day, and each railroad crossing delay was much shorter than my previous perception of the huge delay that I felt.  My cheat sheet of timed excuses was embarrassingly short.  (I eventually also learned that my boss used the same talk on every new driver.)

The big value of attempting to keep those traffic delay notes was that it gave me the opportunity to learn to relax a bit more about some of the perceived problems in the daily traffic challenge.  It helped me keep things in perspective.  In light of that, I would like to summarize a bit of what I can find about the costs of bicycle street facilities.

·    Discovering the first maxim of traffic planning:
I had another delivery job, the business I worked for was located on a street with growing pains.  The city put in a major expansion: adding lanes, turn lanes, new lights, increasing speed limit, etc.  For the year that the construction went on, getting in and out of the business was a mess, very frustrating, but I always assumed the end result would be a big improvement.  Shortly after the street upgrade was finished I realized I was now dealing with even longer lines of stopped traffic than ever before, and as a pedestrian and bike rider getting to and from work, I felt much less safe.  The huge multi-lane intersections were a nightmare on a bike, and walking across all those lanes to a nearby lunch cafĂ© was only possible by diverting a long way to find a traffic light to cross the street.  From my perspective as a commuter and commercial driver, the huge street project expense was a net loss.  That was when I started reading about the long known but never mentioned (at that time) maxim: “traffic expands to fill the space.”    As an aside: a huge international corporation eventually bought out the business I worked for, and everything about the business changed.  The staff was reduced and the boss/owner was far away instead of in the front office near the door.  Was all this connected?

·    How are city and county road costs financed?
I have looked at simple budget statements for a few municipalities, notably Portland, OR and Seattle, WA and Bellingham, WA.  With that research and by reading some articles of news, the first important statement is that gas taxes are primarily state and federal fees, and though they do get somewhat distributed to municipalities as grants, they are not the majority of the funding for the typical municipal transportation budget.  It is not easy to tell what proportion of the city money that comes from grants and other programs is actually money from gas taxes or vehicle registration taxes that were collected by the state or federal government.  In the case of Seattle, even a liberal guess at combining the stated gas tax revenue with the proportion of other revenues that are probably paid for with state and federal gas tax money, those taxes still do not put the number above 1/3 of the total revenue.  Other city revenues make up the larger share of the funding, property taxes, sales taxes, special assessments and so on.  It should also be noted that in many areas, because sales taxes are not assessed on gasoline sales, gas taxes represent a loss of revenue from sales taxes that is then ameliorated by the grants from the state and federal governments.

·    Who pays those costs?
Property owners and people who buy things that get taxed pay most of the taxes, as do renters by paying the property owners.  Businesses pay taxes, and thus the people buying those services and goods pay for the streets too.  It is a rare bicycle rider who does not also own a car or contribute to the costs of car ownership for their family.  Everyone buys things.  So, essentially everyone pays.  

·    What percentage of road budget is given to facilities for bicycles and pedestrians?
In most cases 1% or less of a municipality’s transportation budget goes to pedestrian/bicycle facilities.
I am lumping expenses together for pedestrian and bicycle facilities.  Most budget statements do not quickly reveal the spending precisely on each type of cost.  Several news articles have made the statement that Portland spends about 6% of its transportation budget on bicycles, and also that about 6% of the commuters use bicycles.  Portland is considered the upper limit in both bicycle infrastructure outlay and bicycle use.  Those numbers do show a balance, a sort of pay-as-you-go fairness.  Seattle is probably a median case, and using the data below and making guesses about the expense of the listed projects, I calculate that bicycle and pedestrian facilities are in the range of 1/10th of one percent of the city transportation budget.  If my guesses about actual costs of those listed projects are off by a factor of 10, the outlay is still below 1% of the budget.  I would not go so far as to say bicycle riders subsidize the car drivers, because the reality is that the bicycle riders are the car drivers.

In the case of Bellingham WA, looking at their 2011 current budget report, they list pedestrian and bicycle projects proposed, and they list a “street fund” budget item.  The proposed budgets seem to be compared with actual budgets in various years and the actual budgets are always larger than the proposed budgets, so the plans for 2011 seem to show that the pedestrian/bicycle plans are somewhere between 0.7% to 2% of the street budget, depending on whether you compare to actual or projected budgets.

·    Are there benefits to the economy from bicycle facilities?
The city of London has put forward the idea that money spent for pedestrian and bicycle facilities is more than offset by accrued saving in health care costs.  Of course for cities in the US there is no direct correlation in these budgets, and the benefit of a non-expense is a wiggly proposition to prove.  Some places have relied on the statistic that bicycle riders are often wealthier than the average, so encouraging their business is a benefit, but this would be difficult to claim in a large municipal setting compared with the myriad of businesses that could be affected by changing traffic flow or parking space.
·    Are there benefits to traffic flow by having people bicycle?
A person on a bicycle is not taking quite the room that a car takes, but they are also going slower and causing delays due to allowances for traffic and movement.  The only big benefit I can see is that they save the parking space for a car at work and shopping and perhaps at home if they have fewer cars because of the preference for a bike.  Of course bicycle users are not wearing out city streets, so each bike trip may be saving some very small cost of wear and tear on the street.
·    Do bicycles need to be assessed for costs?
Most municipalities that look at this revenue opportunity find that the cost of implementation would outweigh the benefit.

·    Should bicycle riders have insurance and licenses?
As noted above, the cost would be high relative to benefit.  Both pedestrians and bicycles can cause accidents, but the relative direct harm potential is small.  Other strategies of traffic flow and limits are more effective protections. New York quickly realized that a plan to require licenses for bicycles was very difficult to make realistic with the consideration of children and a myriad of users. Education is a huge challenge, but the types of solutions that work for drivers may not work for educating both bicyclers and drivers. 

·    What are some of the car infrastructure costs that don’t attract much attention?
1.     Parking spaces provided.  Every vehicle needs about 1.5 parking spaces.  This actually adds up to a lot of paved land compared to the space needed for bicycles.
2.     Sales Tax is not applied to gasoline sales, so gasoline tax is unusual in that it is a rare tax that is preferentially collected for a very specific benefit.
3.     Most extremely expensive infrastructure costs, such as freeways, bridges, and tunnels are dependent on huge grants from state and federal sources, and these projects are primarily done to benefit motorized traffic, even if they include walkways and bike lanes.

·    We all need transportation to work for the benefit of the economy.

·    Every form of transportation analysis shows that “you can’t build your way out of traffic congestion.”  Starting with the earliest attempts to solve traffic problems with expanded boulevards and expressways, back in the early 1950’s, city planners quickly learned that real world traffic expands to fill the space, and new facilities are all too soon overwhelmed with new traffic.  Traffic (and transportation driving) has grown much faster than population growth.

References (Quotes from referenced links are in italics.)

SDOT 2009 budget

              General Fund $42.3 (12%)
              Gas Tax $13.4 (4%)
              Debt $77.4 (23%)
              Cumulative Reserve Fund $7.6 (2%)
             Bridging the Gap $60.9 (18%)
             Reimbursables $42 (12%)
             Grants & Other $96.9 (29%)

Major Projects $121.5 (36%)
ROW Management $111.7 (7%)
City Central & Claims Costs $16.4 (5%) 
Engineering Services $2.3 (1%)
Dept Management $3.0 (1%)
Major Maint/Replacement $62.9 (18%)
Bridges & Structures $7.0 (2%)
Urban Forestry $4.4 (1%)
Mobility Operations $35.8 (11%)
Mobility-Capital $47.3 (14%)
Street Maintenance $28.5 (8%)
Sum  $3247.3 (millions)


Bike lane and “sharrow” miles striped (miles)
Bike route signs installed
Pedestrian/Bike trails built
Trail maintenance requests completed
Trail inspections (miles)
Pedestrian and bicycle spots improved
Bike racks installed
Bike maps issued
New sidewalks built (blocks)
Sidewalk blocks rehabilitated
New single crosswalks installed
Crosswalks remarked
Curb bulbs installed
Curb ramps constructed
Curb ramps retrofitted
Stairways retrofitted
Walking routes to schools improved for safety
Signage of school zones improved

My $ estimate (x1000)
$2475 sum (x1000)

5.     Freeway Signs Don’t Come Cheap Installing a freeway exit sign is a fairly big undertaking and expense: It can cost anywhere from $33,000 to $77,000 to install a new sign on a major interstate.
6.     Portland, OR 2011 requested budget In Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT)'s requested budget we find 5.9% of all spending dedicated towards bike projects and programs.
7.     Portland leads US cities in bike-friendly culture, top cycling ...‎ - Jeff Mapes Overall, among the nine cities, Portland has the highest share of commuters -- 5.8 percent -- who cycle to work. Minneapolis is second with 3.9 percent and Vancouver, B.C., is third with 3.7 percent.
Bellingham sales tax increase for transportation projects = 2/10ths of 1 percent
2011 spending $ 380,000
2012 spending $160,000 plus “Costs to be determined”
      2011 Street Fund 111 = $18.8 million (pg 31)
      2009 comparison of adopted and revised budgets:  $26.8 million vs. $50.9 million

No comments:

Post a Comment