Saturday, January 08, 2011

Bicycle Projects Score Big

The winds have shifted on the political horizons, or so say the demagogic pundits, as we usher in the new congress. The Elephants are prepared to parade through bills and proposals that the formerly Democratic, and thus heretic, majority session had crammed down the throats of the American people.

What that means for bicycling concerns is not so much certain death, but rather a banishment to the dark recesses of the farthest broom closet in the golden-domed edifice that houses the legislative floor; expenditures that will no longer be considered as viable to the new thought processes.

But, harken unto the words of a recently released report by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Estimating the Employment Impacts of Pedestrian, Bicycle, and Road Infrastructure, authored by Heidi Garrett-Peltier, that sheds (gasp!) positive light on public infrastructure spending that benefit bicycle projects. It is deemed that creations of, or additions to, bicycle facilities such as dedicated lanes actually create more jobs per million dollars than those beloved transportation projects the lobbying powers of Big Business (i e., Auto and Oil) adores and trumpets as a savior to the American economy.

How can this be? Simple. As borne out in the statistics, when you take a million dollars and invest it in bicycle projects you will lay down more miles of usuable space than you can on road projects. Given that the commonality of the two is moving bodies between points A to B to C, not A to AA to AAA, the bicycle project wins every time.

First, although the basic, common materials may not be used in the same way, the cost will be nearly equal per project. For example, a truckload of asphalt or concrete will cost the same; a truckload of gravel for a sub-base will cost nearly the same (even allowing for a heavier, more coarse, constitution in road projects that may make that load sightly higher). Also, greater quantities of these materials will be needed per mile due to the user weights being far greater for roads.

Second, the costs associated with the extemporanous add-ons, whether it be something like signage for traffic control, or fencing and landscape for barriers, will see less need in bicycle projects.

Third, and probably the greatest denominator is the costs of engineering. Whether that be for design or environmental impact studies, it will be significantly higher for road projects. The uses of those avenues will be far more invasive to the surrounding area, especially the natural resources of water and air quality.

Fourth, is the costs associated with purchasing land for a project. By the necessity of the expected traffic types, the sheer size of a road project, compared to a bicycle project, has to be far greater. Keep in mind that in many road projects, the very least you can plan is two lanes. Many small projects today even need to consider for turn lanes and wide (three-to-four foot) shoulders (which, even if 1/2 lane width is considered for each shoulder, makes for one whole lane). And, if a sidewalk provision is necessary to meet existing policy standards, there is another four-to-six feet per side (counting the green buffer space between walkway and roadway).

Finally, are the costs of the construction itself, especially in relocating land mass to make for a more level roadway. In Nashville, for example, a large portion of land, primarily rock, was displaced to connect Briley Parkway to I-65 North. Even for those who do not recall the construction period, an observation of the jagged cliffs (and the width of the roadway itself) that Briley is nestled between at the connection point is evidence of this activity.

(On another extensive widening project including this area, but not related to this project, my daughter was nearly a licensed driver before seeing a 10-mile section of I-65 North of Nashville without an orange traffic control barrel. That is sixteen years.)

However, in a bicycle project of the same length (again, the commonality between the two is moving people length-wise), there will be far less width, which equates to far less materials that are needed to do nothing more than provide space for a shell that usually has only one-to-two bodies per vehicle.

But the greatest benefit, as the study bears out, is that per mile the investment dollars will be more labor intensive. That means people, not materials, will be where the brunt of the money is spent to complete a project. Add to all of those costs the eventual repairs being less expensive overall; again people, not materials, gathering the lion's share of resources, and bicycle projects score another point.

Each $1 million spent creating on-street bike lanes directly creates 7.9 jobs and creates a total of 14.4 jobs when we include the indirect and induced effects. The two categories of road repairs have the lowest employment effects, with 3-4 direct jobs and approximately 7 total jobs created for each $1 million.

Still, citing facts here and analyzing the depth of the data is probably not something easily achieved. As the study was for the Baltimore, Maryland area, the actual costs will not be the same for perhaps a similar project in Albuquerque, New Mexico or even Nashville, Tennessee. To that end, the ambivalent anti-cyclist can state that the study cannot apply in the majority of situations. However, what is to say that, more often than not, greater value would not be found in bicycling projects. The overall idea is, that when we begin looking at these projects from the point of a resusable resource return-on-investment (i. e., people), we will see greater value in the projects than what are perceived, or even desired, by the anti-cycling factions in our society.

Granted, I'm not a transportation professional; just a poor, dumb cyclist who does what he does, likes the effect of what he does, and sees the clarity of the idea from the perch atop his saddle. So, while the opinions stated can be refuted, I'm not sure that they can be totally dismissed.

But maybe, just maybe, that view is more accurate than the recalcitrant naysayers want to believe.

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