Category Archives: Transportation

The Distillery: October 12, 2017

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.

The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.

In our September 18th post, we “distilled” a series of articles all regarding, as we put it, “the oncoming and inevitable demise of cars powered by the internal (or, some would say, infernal) combustion engine.” Yesterday, the Washington Post, made the same observation in both an article and an opinion column.

From The Washington Post:
October 11, 2017
Why 2017 will go down as the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine

October 11, 2017
Do automakers dream of electric cars?

And from a bit earlier in the month:
October 2, 2017
Death of gas and diesel begins as GM announces plans for ‘all-electric future’Do automakers dream of electric cars?

Image via CleanTechnica

EcoOptimism’s take: While we don’t like to boast, can say here that we scooped the Washington Post?

And gotta love the title of the op-ed.

 

 

The Distillery: September 18, 2017

EcoOptimism’s current selection of favorite posts

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.

The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.

While EcoOptimism’s Distillery picks don’t intentionally have themes, this confluence of posts that began over the summer warrants a topical selection. The topic is the oncoming and inevitable demise of cars powered by the internal (or, some would say, infernal) combustion engine. Places from Paris to India to China, and manufacturers from Volvo to Jaguar – no word from American manufacturers – are phasing them out.

September 11, 2017

From ThinkProgress.org:
Electric cars are about to get their biggest boost ever: China plans to ban new fossil-fuel powered cars.

EcoOptimism’s take: The significance here can’t be understated. China manufactured and sold more than 28 million cars last year (compared to the US’s 17.55 million) and yet still only one in five owns a car. It’s the world’s largest car market — responsible for around 30 percent of global passenger vehicle sales. Given that China has almost ¼ billion people, you can begin to guess the ginormous number of future cars – especially as the affluence of Chinese consumers grows – that this will represent.

Photo source: CleanTechnica.com

July 26, 2017

From Bloomberg.com:
France Aims to End Sale of Fossil-Fuel-Powered Cars by 2040

EcoOptimism’s take: This news goes back to July but, along with the news from China, the death of fossil fuel powered cars seems ever more imminent.

Photo: Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz) [CC BY-SA 3.0]


June 3, 2017

From CNN Tech:
India to sell only electric cars by 2030

EcoOptimism’s take: The air quality in India contributes to 1.2 million deaths a year, and “doctors have said breathing the air in New Delhi…is like smoking 10 cigarettes a day.” India will subsidize electric cars for a couple of years and, after that, believes electric cars – by the millions – will start paying for themselves. That’s both the ecological and economic sides of EcoOptimism.

photo: Mark Danielson – Flickr/Creative Commons

September 7, 2017

From BusinessGreen:
Jaguar Land Rover to make only electric or hybrid cars from 2020

The BusinessGreen post seems to sometimes be behind a paywall, but you can check out a related Treehugger post:
Jaguar Land Rover to phase out gas/diesel-only cars

EcoOptimism’s take: Given the low mpg of expensive SUVs and sportscars, getting rid of their gas versions is a big deal.

photo: Jaguar Land Rover

July 11, 2017

From Forbes:
Volvo’s Electric Car Announcement: Turning Point or Nonevent?

EcoOptimism’s take: There’s a note of skepticism in this post from a not-exactly-green source. They write that Volvo’s announcement doesn’t actually mean they won’t be making cars that use fossil fuels; they will still make hybrids. But still it’s a pretty big deal, especially since Volvo is Chinese-owned.

photo: Volvo

E-bikes in NYC: How Not to Solve a Problem

In the past few years, under the auspices of former transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, NYC has taken great strides in promoting “alternative” means of transportation. Bicycling is moving into the mainstream, courtesy of expanded bike lanes and Citibikes. Pedestrian safety is improving through street and intersection design improvements. Buses are actually becoming a viable means of getting around with the implementation of NYC’s version of bus rapid transit, Select Bus Service.

Electric-assist bicycles, however, have been banned from this expansion and improvement in NYC’s urban mobility, despite their adoption in other cities and despite the fact that they are an EcoOptimistic solution in that they simultaneously address ecological and economic issues.

The story of this involves a combination of conflicting and poorly conceived regulations along with misplaced blame and political expediency. Let me try to break this down and make the case for correcting this mess.

Step 1: Start with a conflicting legal status

There are two main issues here: the definition of an e-bike and whose regulations apply. There are actually two categories of e-bikes. One is sometimes called a pedelec and requires that the motor be activated by pedaling. The other, which is confusingly called a motor-assist bicycle or, even more confusingly, an E-bike, doesn’t require pedaling at all; the motor does all the work. The problem is that federal, NYS and NYC laws define and deal with these differently and have created a morass of conflicts. The New York Bicycling Coalition explains:

[T]he issue is their treatment as motorcycles under New York State law, and motor scooters in New York City. This is in contrast to federal law, wherein an electric bicycle is officially defined as a “two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 hp).” This means that in New York State, electric bicycles are generally considered unregistered motor vehicles and subject to the same laws and penalties as automobiles. In New York City, electric bicycles that do not have the ability to be operated solely by its motor (pedal-assist bicycles) are legal, but those that do have that ability (motor-assist bicycles) are subject to fines and impoundment.

In short, it’s a mess. One blogger writes “e-bikers in New York may just want to keep a copy of the federal law with them, HR 727, which specifies that when it comes to e-bikes, the federal laws supersede all state and local regulations.”

Attempts to legalize e-bikes at the NYS level have failed in recent years. NYC, meanwhile, has taken the opposite approach with new laws to further restrict e-bikes.  And, of course, there’s a story behind that, too.

Step 2: Conflate the issue

Why, you may reasonably ask, would NYC want to outlaw the use of a congestion and pollution relieving mode of transportation? There are a few explanations. First is the confusion about the regulations. It’s been unclear what exactly NYC’s current reg’s restrict. So, rather than clarifying the rules to make them legal (and consistent with the supposedly superseding federal reg’s), the rules have been tightened so that it is easier for the police to ticket e-bike riders. And it’s worse than that; the police can actually confiscate e-bikes on the spot. Imagine if ticketed drivers had their cars confiscated.

Another reason is closely related to the ongoing debate and public perception of cyclists as dangerous and selfish law-breakers. In both groups, bicyclists and e-bikers, there are some bad apples. Riding on sidewalks is an especially egregious example, as is recklessly running through red lights and pedestrian crosswalks. But banning the entire mode of transportation is not the solution. In fact, a recent study shows that as more people are riding bikes in NYC, safety awareness has increased, and there’s every reason to believe that e-bike riders would follow the same pattern.

Step 3: Solve the wrong problem

The problem the city faces is not how to restrict e-bikes, but how to enable alternative means of transportation that relieve congestion, pollution and safety issues. Progress is being made in terms of beginning to reverse the car-centric approaches that were prevalent until recent years. But bicycling still faces opposition from a very vocal minority, and e-bikes have even less support since most New Yorkers have never ridden one.

A better route

However, e-bikes are eminently suitable for getting around cities. The goal should not be to ban them but to accommodate them, encourage them and integrate them into our streets. And there are ready means to do this. The primary question is whether they belong in bike lanes or vehicle lanes, and the simple, albeit slightly difficult to enforce, solution is speed limits — establish a lower speed limit in bike lanes than in vehicle lanes. Part of the reason for the stricter ban on e-bikes has been that the NYPD claims it is too difficult for them to enforce speeding in bike lanes, but that doesn’t stand up; there’s no reason that should be any harder than enforcing vehicle speed limits. (Not that the city does much of that in the first place; speeding in cars is hardly enforced at all.)

The speed restriction issue doesn’t exist for classifications of motorcycles. There are different licensing, insurance and operation rules for types of motorcycles based on their speed. What keeps e-bikes from being classified the same way? As far as I can tell, the problem is solely that e-bikes don’t have VINs (Vehicle Identification Numbers) stamped into them and, therefore can’t be registered and receive license plates. But that hasn’t prevented other places from legalizing them.

From “New York Moped Laws,” http://moped2.org/laws/new-york.htm. But e-bikes are not considered mopeds.

From “New York Moped Laws,” http://moped2.org/laws/new-york.htm. But e-bikes are not considered mopeds.

Then, having sorted out the legal morass and the short-sighted reactions to the few “bad apples,” let’s take it a step further and add e-bikes to the Citi Bike program. A commercial ZipCar-like version of this using electric mopeds is already expanding in San Francisco (where electric assist is probably greatly welcomed amidst the hilly streets).

E-bikes are a logical expansion of urban-friendly transportation. They relieve congestion, diminish pollution and create more alternatives, especially for those who may not have the ability to pedal a conventional bicycle. Banning them is simply the wrong way to go.

 

 

Density Part 3: Kenneth Jackson’s “Future” of New York

[This post is part of a continuing series within EcoOptimism analyzing the pros and cons and different types of urban density, beginning with the post Height vs Delight and continuing with Density: It’s Not the Sky that’s the Limit.]

The urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson is a towering figure among New Yorkologists, so it seems appropriate that he’d be a supporter of towers themselves. In an Op-Ed this Sunday in The New York Times, he takes to task the opposition to the proposed upzoning of East Midtown in Manhattan.

Illustration from the Municipal Art Society in its response to the rezoning showing “how the height of the new buildings the City is hoping to see realized around Grand Central Terminal will impact the area.”

Illustration from the Municipal Art Society in its response to the rezoning showing “how the height of the new buildings the City is hoping to see realized around Grand Central Terminal will impact the area.”

Historic preservation, he says, has gone too far. “Its goal seems to be to preserve anything that will maintain the streetscape, whether or not the individual structures have significance….Presumably, its leaders would be happy to stop any change at all between 59th Street and 125th Street.”

New and taller construction is necessary, in his vision of NYC’s future, in order to maintain the city’s pre-eminence. Buried in this belief are two huge and, I believe, mistaken assumptions. The first is the basic premise that NYC must be pre-eminent.  While it sounds irreverent and disloyal to say otherwise, the fact is that NYC is but one of many major 21st century urban centers. We are no longer in a world dominated by New York, London and Paris, and haven’t been for a while. (Though midtown Manhattan is still the largest central business district in the world, at least according to Wikipedia.) True, NYC is still seen as the financial capital of the world, but in many ways this is vestigial in a digital and globalized scenario and, furthermore, it’s highly questionable whether it’s in the city’s best interests to remain focused and therefore dependent on a single “industry.” Many have argued for the economic diversification of the city, with an eye to the income and job generators of the future: creating more baskets for the eggs, etc. Potential growth sectors that have been discussed, in addition to silicon alley, include sustainable design and related industries, distributed manufacturing (MakerBot originated in Brooklyn), biotech, urban agriculture and, of course, the arts.

The second assumption Jackson makes is that the solution to securing the city’s future is in the clouds. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mean the digital cloud, in which information is dispersed, but the physical clouds encountered at skyscraper heights, in which people are concentrated. Jackson laments “Of the 100 tallest buildings in the world now under construction, only three are in New York and only one is in East Midtown.”

But why are height and the city’s ranking in numbers of tallest buildings the determinant of growth and importance? The essential defining property of a city is density: a concentration of people that enables commerce, community and exchanges of ideas.  But like most things, there is a point at which density (of people, buildings and traffic, not to mention bank branches, Duane Reades and Starbucks) reaches diminishing returns and begins to undermine the attributes that constitute the vitality of a city.

Jackson claims that density in Manhattan has decreased from a population of 2.3 million in 1910 to 1.6 million today. But that’s a very misleading way to define density. It excludes the additional 1.6 million people who commute to work in the city every day, as well as the number of tourists. And the East Midtown upzoning plan is not designed to increase residential space; it’s for commercial towers. This will effectively worsen a basic problem of Manhattan and many cities in general: the separation of working and living areas. This results in what are perhaps the two greatest problems of modern cities:  expense of living and transportation congestion. According to an NYU Wagner Rudin Center report, “Manhattan is the top work destination in the country for ‘extreme commuting,’ work trips that are more than 90 minutes long each way.” And as many of us are all too aware, NYC is the most expensive place to live in the US, all of which would lead to the conclusion that the city needs more living space, not office towers.

Regarding transportation, Jackson blithely puts aside another extreme: the crowding on the existing east side transportation infrastructure, claiming the MTA “could handle more, not fewer, riders” based on the statistic that ridership has fallen since 1947. Try telling that to any rush hour rider. In a breath, he ignores the fact that there were two more train lines on the east side then (before the Second and Third Avenue Els were demolished) and merely says that the long-awaited and far from finished Second Avenue subway will relieve some of the congestion on the crammed Lexington line.

There’s a more convincing argument for upgrading midtown’s office spaces. A study by the eco-consulting group Terrapin Bright Green concluded that the bulk of the mid-century office buildings in midtown are outmoded in terms of both space and energy efficiency and, more significantly, cannot be viably upgraded. The singularly most devastating finding, from the point of view of either environmentalists or historic preservationists, is that these buildings would need new skins – the old curtain walls are energy sieves – but the structures of the buildings cannot support the weight of better insulated facades. That’s in addition to the fact that their low ceilings with many interior columns are not “Class A” spaces, the most desired type. (At least, that is, for conventional financial institutions with trading floors and old-school work cubicles. The newer growth sectors have more varied needs.)

The city’s thinking is that replacing these buildings is not economically viable for developers given the existing zoning limitations. Given the coziness between developers and the Bloomberg administration, one has to take with this a grain of salt.

Like the city (and most economists and politicians), Jackson seems to wholeheartedly swallow the “growth is good” Kool-Aid. We have to be very careful how we define growth. Growth is not the same as betterment, and the opposite of growth is not stagnancy. Jackson writes:

Is New York still the wonder city, the place that celebrates the future, the city that once defined modernism? Or should it follow the paths of Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston and Savannah in emphasizing its human scale, its gracious streets and its fine, historic houses?

The answer for a metropolis competing on a global scale must be no, because a vital city is a growing city, and a growing city is a changing city.

Leaving aside the question of what’s wrong with the human scale and gracious streets (btw, I’d substitute “livable” for “gracious”) of Boston or Philadelphia – or, for that matter, Paris — Jackson has reduced this critical issue to a false dilemma. The choice is not solely between economic vitality and quaint neighborhoods. Nor is it between unbridled development and historic preservation. For cities to succeed economically, environmentally and socially, we have to look at a wider, more holistic picture than simply the one that gives us the tallest buildings and the most claims to the “greatest city.” We have to include affordability, reducing inequity, increasing livability and, yes, a sense of history. These are not the constraints Jackson seems to regard them as. They are the sources of our future “growth” and our flourishing as individuals, as communities and as a world.

 

The Great (and Not So Great) Bike Debates

Cycling is a great example of an EcoOptimistic solution, as I’ve written about before. It works on so many angles that it surpasses the win-win-win solutions that I often discuss here. It relieves congestion since replacing a car with a bicycle takes up much less space. It relieves pollution since it is essentially a zero-emission mode of transportation. (Not counting the incremental increase in food required to generate the human muscle power.) It takes a lot less energy and materials (some of them toxic, like PC and the nasties in batteries) to make a bicycle than a car. It improves health since, instead of sitting in a car, you’re powering the bicycle. And it’s good for us in another significant way by reducing both the number and severity of accidents; a bicycle and rider, at cycling speeds, constitute a lot less inertia than a one or two ton vehicle at driving speeds.

Which leads us to one of the two cycling topics filling my blog world this week. The first one is known as the Idaho Stop, a law that’s been in place in Idaho for 30 years and is now being considered elsewhere, that says a cyclist may proceed through a stop sign or red light after slowing or stopping to verify that there is no conflicting vehicular or pedestrian traffic. In essence, a cyclist can treat a red light as a stop sign, and a stop sign as a yield.

bikeredlight

The discussions this week arose largely due to an Atlantic Cities post by Sarah Goodyear, whose writing I usually enjoy and agree with. This post, though, was titled “Cyclists Aren’t ‘Special,’ and They Shouldn’t Play by Their Own Rules.”  The gist of her point, which I’ve heard from friends as well, is that cyclists should have to obey the law just as drivers do. Technically, legally, of course, that’s correct. But that’s close to where my agreement with Goodyear ends. While I wouldn’t say cyclists are special – that implies a category better than others – I think the relevant point is that cyclists are different, in the sense that a person on a 20 or 30 pound bicycle riding at single digit speeds is very different from a person in a one or two ton vehicle moving at double digit speeds. It’s basic physics: the much greater mass moving at higher speeds can cause magnitudes more damage. Plus cars and trucks are much larger and less maneuverable.

Which means that, yes, cyclists should have their own set of rules, and those rules should include the Idaho stop. It makes no sense at all for the same rules to apply to life-threatening and slower-to-stop vehicles as to puny bicycles. (I’m certainly not the first to make this argument. See here, here, here, here and here, among others.)

If this was recognized, and a more reasoned and applicable set of laws was created for bicycles, then the police could concentrate on true law breakers: the cyclists who ride unsafely and who endanger others; the ones who run red lights and stop signs without slowing and yielding; the ones who ride the wrong way. (I’m talkin’ to you, food delivery cyclists.)

Actually, I do sympathize somewhat with the delivery cyclists. When a delivery is four blocks away but the wrong direction, and because of one-way streets the alternative involves adding an extra three or more blocks, and you’re getting paid by the delivery, the temptation to take the shorter route is high. I’ll ride the wrong direction on occasion, too. I have a choice, when riding home, of going about 150 feet the wrong way on my low-speed lightly-traveled block, or going an extra five blocks, three of which are on much more trafficked and dangerous streets, and involve crossing a major street twice to get to and from the bike lane. I endanger no one in my brief sojourn in illegality and, in addition to adding a lot of time, endanger myself far more by taking the legal route. But, unlike the simple and clear Idaho stop, I’m not sure how to legitimize the good judgment I feel I exercise there.

I’d be willing, though, to trade off that example (and perhaps walk my bike that 150 feet) for the peace of mind of being to proceed slowly through a stop when all is clear without risk of getting a one or two hundred dollar ticket. In short, make the rules make sense and then apply them as rigorously as they are applied to drivers.

At the outset here, I said there are currently two cycling topics causing much bloggery. That second one is more New York City-specific and has hit both new media and traditional press, provoked by the rollout of the long-awaited CitiBike share system. (The racks have been appearing over the last couple of weeks. The bicycles come next and the system goes live on Memorial Day weekend.) Though the city held many public meetings to determine the locations of the bike racks, it now seems, to judge by the recent reports and letters, that people are surprised and aghast. Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that it’s a small percentage that’s upset by the racks.

The reasons for objection range from esthetic (the currently empty racks, the Citibank logo on the bikes and signage), to loss of parking spaces, to safety (concerns that there will be more rude cyclists or that they may ride on sidewalks – which is and should be illegal for adults). Some residents of one historic district claim the bikes and racks don’t belong because they’re not what would have been in the original streets — as if parked cars or, for that matter, paved streets and parking signs are more historically correct. The arguments often take very different tones – as, it seems to me, is often true of liberal versus conservative vocalizations. Check out this particular exchange in the New York Daily News which began with a diplomatic approach by Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives (disclosure: I’ve been a member for 20 years) and evoked a strident response by the editorial board, attacking White as “the smug spokes-man.”

There’s one note on which a friend who has serious bike share issues and I agree: couldn’t they at least have designed the information kiosks so they could stand up straight?

There’s one note on which a friend who has serious bike share issues and I agree: couldn’t they at least have designed the information kiosks so they could stand up straight?

Most of the objections, I think, come more simply from our resistance to change. There’s a physical aspect of change: the street or the park is going to look a bit different, and that takes getting used to for some. Equally important is resistance to challenging the primacy of cars. Why is it okay to provide (sometimes free) storage of private cars, taking up valuable public space, but not okay to provide storage spaces for public bicycles?

I suppose it’s easy for me, a car-free person (“carless” sounds like I’m deprived and missing something), to pose this question. But really, why should so much public land be given away to those who own cars, especially in a city like New York where most people don’t have cars? If car owners had to pay the real cost of the land they use for parking (here comes my economist side sneaking in again), you can bet there’d be a whole lot fewer cars and more bicycles, mass transit and car sharing. And a whole lot less congestion as well as a whole lot more open space for truly public use.

I’m sure there a few Citibike rack locations that need rethinking and perhaps relocating, which is precisely why the racks are designed to be easily moved. Let that public process happen. Indications are that the city Department of Transportation fully expects this to occur in some instances. But let’s keep that perhaps innate resistance to change in mind. Let’s allow some time to try it and see how things go. The experiences in London and elsewhere prove the validity of this approach. My prediction is that 99% of the locations will be just fine once we get used to this new and highly useful part of our streetscapes, and bike sharing will soon be seen as an integral part of cities’ transportation networks. We’ll all — cyclists and non-cyclists – enjoy less congested, less polluted and safer streets.

 

Biking and the Fallacy of Zero-sum Environmental Thinking

The great James T. Kirk once said (or is it ‘will say’ since it takes place about 270 years from now?) “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.” My much less quotable version of this might be “I don’t believe in the zero-sum scenario” — at least not in the case of environmentalism, where I like to point out the many win-win and win-win-win scenarios.

A zero-sum game is “a situation in which a gain by one person or side must be matched by a loss by another person or side.” Because of misperceptions of competing interests, environmental issues are often seen as resulting in, at best, zero-sum results. Gains for the environment, for example, are seen as necessarily won at the expense of jobs or energy prices. Developed countries are pitted against developing countries. You get the idea.

On a smaller — and therefore perhaps more personal — scale, bicycling as an alternative form of transportation often ends up in verbal skirmishes with drivers (played out in the news and, sometimes, the courts), who see bike lanes as stealing space from vehicle lanes, and business owners, who fear shoppers won’t come if they can’t park in front.

(Yes, the bicycle light had just turned red.)

(Yes, the bicycle light had just turned red.)

There are, of course, some valid complaints about cycling. Here in NYC, there is a sort of Wild West legacy of riding in which cyclists until recently had no safe turf. Hence a fend-for-yourself attitude developed whereby many, especially delivery bikers, would ride wherever and however they could to get where they needed to be. Since drivers gave them no respect, the feeling became mutual. (I don’t, by the way, have any such rationale for cyclists who scare or endanger pedestrians.)

With the recent expansion of bike lanes here and elsewhere and an accompanying growth in cycling, both bicyclists and drivers are in a transitional learning period. Cyclists – especially the “old timers” – need to adjust to the fact that they are now a legitimate part of cities’ transportation networks and, as such, need to be responsible. (I’ve been cycling in NYC for over 30 years both for utility and recreation, and have more recently become more, um, law-abiding, in part to be a cycling “ambassador” and offset some of the ill-will generated by more selfish riders.) Drivers, for their part, should realize that every bicycle represents one less car and, therefore, that much less traffic congestion and that many more available parking spaces. Win-win, like I said.

A NYC safety campaign poster. (The real bike lane is on the left side of this street.)

A NYC safety campaign poster. (The real bike lane is on the left side of this street.)

 

Actually, it’s better than that, with at least three wins we can tally. But let’s back up slightly to a story that made headlines last week. Washington state Representative Ed Orcutt believes bicyclists get a literal free ride in that they don’t pay gas taxes while using roads. (The bigger headliner was that he also said that cyclists pollute because they exhale more carbon dioxide while pedaling. He later partially retracted that Onion-ready statement.) Never mind that gas taxes often don’t cover a lot of the costs of road construction and maintenance, or that the idea of person plus a 30-pound bicycle, utilizing a space maybe 2 feet wide by 4 feet long, contributes any sizeable wear to roads compared to a 4000-pound, 16’ long by 6’ wide car is ludicrous.

Amount of space required to transport 60 people by bus, by bike and by car. “The image succinctly illustrates the greater space efficiency of bus and bicycle travel,” spokesperson for the Cycling Promotion Fund (CPF), Mr Stephen Hodge said. “In the space it takes to accommodate 60 cars, cities can accommodate around sixteen buses or more than 600 bikes. Image source

Amount of space required to transport 60 people by bus, by bike and by car. “The image succinctly illustrates the greater space efficiency of bus and bicycle travel,” spokesperson for the Cycling Promotion Fund (CPF), Mr Stephen Hodge said. “In the space it takes to accommodate 60 cars, cities can accommodate around sixteen buses or more than 600 bikes. Image source

 

Orcutt isn’t alone in proposing bicycle taxes. Special fees have been proposed in adjacent Oregon (and I thought the Pacific Northwest was the bastion of treehuggers!), are in place in Hawaii, and sales taxes are actually being levied in Colorado Springs. I’ve written about perverse subsidies (here and here); these are perverse taxes in that they discourage an activity that is beneficial to society.

Let’s enumerate some of those beneficial aspects of cycling.

  1. Cycling is virtually emissions free. I say virtually because the human pedal power comes from calories which, of course, come from food. But the incrementally larger amount of food needed to generate that human power is negligible, especially when compared to the power required for other means of transportation.
  2. As mentioned above, cycling requires far less infrastructure and space than most other types of mobility. This also means that…
  3. Cycling reduces traffic congestion and saves time for all, including drivers. This is true even after accounting for traffic lanes removed for bike lanes.
  4. Bicycles have a weight-to-person ratio of around 1:5 as opposed to cars, which are something like 22:1 (if there are no passengers). Even with four passengers, the ratio is still around 6:1. That’s a lot more material and resources consumed per person. (Before you write in, yes, I know that doesn’t account for miles travelled.)
  5. Cycling also has public health benefits. Driving, as a sedentary “activity,” can’t make that claim. In an age of obesity and lethargy, we all benefit from the reduced health costs.

So we have a many-times win if we are looking at the supposed tradeoff between cycling and driving. How about the interests of businesses?  Here in NYC and, I’m guessing, elsewhere, proposals for bike lanes that reduce the number of parking spaces or make curbside access more difficult inevitably elicit objections from storeowners who fear that customers will choose other stores where they can get from their cars to the store more readily. The fallacy in their thinking is that, in urban shopping districts, most customers are local and are therefore on either foot or bicycle. So a bike lane serves to entice more customers, not fewer. This has been documented:

….businesses on Eighth and Ninth Avenues in New York saw a 50 percent increase in sales receipts after protected bike lanes were installed on the corridor. On San Francisco’s Valencia Street, two-thirds of the merchants said bike lanes had been good for business….[and there’s] a Memphis neighborhood where people, without authorization, spent $500 on paint and made their own bike lanes. Six months later, commercial rents on the strip had doubled, and all the storefronts – half of which had been vacant – were full.

That initial concerned reaction from storeowners is understandable in the context of our car-centric culture. And like the common but incorrect assumption that adding lanes to highways reduces congestion, it intuitively makes sense. You know all that advice about intuition and trusting your gut? It’s not always right. Data tend to be more conclusive.

Are there losers when space or funding is taken from cars for bicycles? Certainly. But all pointers seem to indicate that there are far more winners, including among drivers and storeowners. Since I started here with a quote from Star Trek, it seems fitting (if geeky) to conclude with one, this time from Mr. Spock:  “logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” The few here are a smaller subset of the small number who drive in cities, a fraction relative to the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists and the good of the public in general.

The basis of EcoOptimism is the win-win symbiotic ecological and economic solution. Environmental initiatives, when implemented well, result in more jobs, a stronger economy, a healthier population and, for our added convenience, a world we can still live in.