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Voting with your pedals

March 12, 2011

In New York, people are getting excited about bike lanes, which are taking road space away from cars. The transportation commissioner of New York City, Janette Sadik-Khan, has added 250 miles of new bike lanes in the last four years bringing the total network to 400 miles. The new bike lane on Prospect Park West is just one mile long, but that was enough for the former transportation commissioner, Iris Weinshall, to file a lawsuit challenging this last mile.

A new bike lane in Brooklyn

This community fight has drawn the attention of superstar bloggers with a national audience. John Cassidy, from The New Yorker, has blamed the city’s “bike lane policy as a classic case of regulatory capture by a small faddist minority intent on foisting its bipedalist views” and calls for a cost-benefit analysis on the opportunity to open new bike lanes serving a small group of bikers. The economics behind the Cassidy’s post of March 8 enraged many economists, who wrote in the following two days a bunch of searing hot posts. The most vociferous was Felix Solomon from Reuters, who argued that Cassidy was not aware of the role of the negative externalities associated with car driving. Cassidy took it personally, he just wrote a book about the subject, and reacted by publishing two posts in a row that were meant to offer a defense and a détente. That was not enough to prevent the broadside from The Economist’s blog, free exchange, which ridiculed Cassidy’s economic perspective. The kiss of death came from Paul Krugman on the New York Times.  Other notable bloggers also contributed to the debate.

Evidence gathered by Chalrles Komanoff, condensed in his Excel spreadsheet Balanced Tranportation Analyzer with tons of data on New York City traffic, suggests that cars have a massive amount  of free space and cheap parking at their disposal, which provide a powerful incentive to drive and to drive more, imposing costs on others without bearing any consequence. These costs take two forms: air pollution and traffic congestion. Smaller road capacity would bring fewer cars on the streets and lower revenues for the city. However, revenues from parking meters do not cover the full costs of driving, while building and maintaining bike lanes are virtually free for the city’s coffers. Comparing the costs with the benefits suggests that taking precious road space away from cars is a good thing.

Now, what if New Yorkers could vote according to their usual mode of transportation? Less than 30% of New Yorkers travel by car; the majority takes the bus/metro and walks.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 17, 2011 19:11

    Great post. I recently read another thought provoking OpEd from the NYT magazine, drawing parallels between the partisan rhetoric of the Tea Party and how the very language framing the bike-lane debate has become hopelessly dichotomous:

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