Mismatched incentives for cycling

[I’m leaving town in a few hours and NOT bringing a computer with me. Therefore, expect zero posts for at least two weeks!]

Alan Durning points out,
in another installment in his “Bicycle Neglect” series about cycling, an interesting cost-benefit analysis that examined just one of cycling’s many positive aspects and pitted it against one of the more obvious negative aspects — the purportedly unjustifiably high cost of bicycle facilities.

In Lincoln, Nebraska, the public cost to install and maintain a network of five bike and pedestrian trail was about $100 per year for each person who became more physically active as a consequence, according to an article in the journal Preventive Medicine. The cyclists and walkers who used the trail paid another $100 each per year, on average, for running shoes or bikes, bringing the total cost of the trail to about $200 per user. Meanwhile, the health benefits of using the trails – largely, savings on medical bills – were above $550 a year per trail user, according to a related journal article.

The trouble is that even if we know that the benefits of said facilities outweigh their costs, those benefits are far too widely dispersed across the economy to make sense to your average transportation policymaker — and to your average commuter with a choice. Indeed, the social benefits of cycling appear to exceed even the substantial personal benefits:

At rush hour, in town, a mile you bike rather than drive saves you a quarter dollar, plus the cost of parking, and adds about a quarter hour to your life. The same rush-hour mile biked provides even bigger benefits to your community: some 50 cents, just for quantifiable gains.

As with transit, this introduces a significant market failure: since the primary benefits are external and the primary costs (for most people, the fear of being hit by a car and the additional time involved) are internal, it doesn’t “seem” to make sense for any individual to take up cycling — unless society (those who benefit most from having people cycle) creates incentives to do so. In other words, governments has a responsibility to subsidize “good” behaviors (those that create significant social/external benefits, like cycling and transit use) to better balance individuals’ cost-benefit calculations — all while taxing “bad” behaviors (those with high individual benefits and high social costs), like driving.

Similarly, any discussion of the (de)merits of specific modes is incomplete if it solely examines that individual cost-benefit calculation.

Now that we’ve established that communities should spend lavishly on bicycle facilities, what should they do? The FHWA’s BikeSafe has a new “Bicycle Countermeasure Selection Tool” that will tell you with a few clicks!

2 thoughts on “Mismatched incentives for cycling

  1. Robert Goodman in a Times op-ed: “When some people drive fewer miles — or avoid the car altogether in favor of taking public transportation, walking or biking — they save everyone money. They help reduce our national demand for energy and our contributions to global warming. They also help lower fuel costs (by reducing demand), ease traffic congestion and bring down the cost of road maintenance. And they lighten the financial and social burdens associated with auto accidents.”

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