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Posted at 12:49 PM ET, 03/ 9/2011

Love driving? Buy your neighbor a bike.

By Ezra Klein

You have to admit that John Cassidy’s anti-bike lane screed is beautifully written, but it remains an odd piece of argumentation. Like a lot of transportation rhetoric on both sides, it’s decidedly either/or: Either you’re for bikes, or you’re for cars. But Cassidy’s own case contradicts that approach. He complains of “motor traffic snarled on avenues that, thanks to bike lanes, have been reduced from four lanes to three, or three to two,” which I take as a complaint about congestion. But what is he expecting to do about congestion?

There’s no further room for roads in Manhattan or its environs, but given the city’s comfort with tall buildings, there is room for more people. If each and every one of them decides to buy a car, as Cassidy has, the streets will become essentially impassable. The question, for drivers, is one of survival: How do you persuade the maximum number of New Yorkers not to drive?

The answer seems obvious: You give them other options. Bike lanes are one such option. Washington is friendly enough to bikers that, in even halfway decent weather, I tend to ride my bike into work. If biking weren’t possible, perhaps I’d purchase a parking spot downtown and drive my car. But far from that solution being a victory for other drivers, it’d be an awful defeat: The worst thing for a Beltway motorist is another Beltway motorist. On the rare occasions when I do drive to work, I am grateful for every single Washingtonian who decided to make a different choice.

I see the Bloomberg administration’s aggressive pursuit of bike lanes and related alternatives as an almost radically pro-car position. If driving is to remain half as pleasant as Cassidy wants it to, it will only be because most New Yorkers decide against purchasing cars. And they’re only going to do that if the other options seem attractive. Early in Cassidy’s piece, he recalls his bike trips of yore, where “part of the thrill was avoiding cabs and other vehicles” and the danger left him “shaking.” That’s fine for a hobbyist, but not for a commuter. If the walk is too long, biking is too dangerous and the subways and buses are inconvenient, then cars are the final answer. That means a world in which the roads are more clogged and Cassidy spends more time in traffic. I’ve seen that future and it’s called Los Angeles. New Yorkers should want no part of it.

By Ezra Klein  | March 9, 2011; 12:49 PM ET
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Bike lanes are simply not the answer. They can't move as many people as fast as other transit modes.

'Good' public transit is one answer. NYC has it in the form of the subway and cabs. It also is small enough that biking can be a reasonable solution. Most places do not have that luxury of size and density. Certainly not suburbia.

Dedicated bus lanes on all roadways will significantly help. Most people won't take the bus simply because it sits in the very same traffic they would be in if they drove. Why sacrifice your 'freedom' for the same basic delay? (Yes I know this isn't entirely accurate, but it is the prevailing view about a bus transit network)

The only other solution is teleworking. Nothing else allows for such a significant reduction in traffic while having almost no infrastructure effect at all. Buses lanes and rail require real estate. You can't create more of that.

Teleworking simply requires a retraining of workers and managers and companies. Inertia all that holds that back. It *can* be fixed with appropriate incentives to not get in the car.

Posted by: rpixley220 | March 9, 2011 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Forgot one thing:

Bikes have a distance limitation. Since most people are driving probably 15 miles or more to work, biking simply isn't an answer at that distance.

Posted by: rpixley220 | March 9, 2011 1:03 PM | Report abuse

it's called Los Angeles and Houston.

Posted by: genericOnlineID | March 9, 2011 1:14 PM | Report abuse

I feel as though Cassidy is simply griping here, complaining about the personal inconvenience bike lanes cause him. He's certainly free to do so, of course, but I am similarly free to NOT take him seriously.

Posted by: TrackerNeil | March 9, 2011 1:27 PM | Report abuse

Bikes do have a distance limitation. It's actually greater than the length of the average commute, though.

I do agree not everyone can or should commute by bike. The answer is not, however, that no one should. In fact, no single mode is the answer. It's possible to combine modes (bike and transit, bike and car, car and transit). It's also true that every single person not driving improves the flow for drivers, so if even some of those who could bike do, we have partially solved Mr. Cassidy's "problem" --with bikes.

Posted by: krickey7 | March 9, 2011 1:34 PM | Report abuse

If only biking didn't remain so incredibly dangerous because drivers feel entitled to act as if bikes didn't exist. I'm living with a partner who has had two life-threatening accidents in three months while trying to bike commute within San Francisco -- a tiny city where this should be easy.

Unless bike lanes mean dedicated, blocked off, bicycle only lanes (think Amsterdam), bike commuting will be limited to the very young and very agile.

Posted by: janinsanfran | March 9, 2011 1:49 PM | Report abuse

I feel for your partner--that is a bummer.

I'm 47 and not very svelte, so your conclusion is not wholly accurate. My secret? Flashing lights day and night, riding in the roadway about 1/3 out, and never, ever running red lights. A quarter century of biking 2-3,000 miles a year and never been to the hospital for a bike accident.

Posted by: krickey7 | March 9, 2011 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Is a 15 mile ride 'reasonable' before showing up to work? Not in a corporate environment if you don't have shower facilities it isn't. Shall we take into account hills and the exertion that requires?

While no single solution is the answer, cycling is not something that will significantly help except in extreme urban centers. It isn't viable a good portion of the year in many places. Using dedicated lanes for something that doesn't get used every week m-f is wasting valuable space. I'm in DC with EK and there are 2-3 months a year where cycling is not feasible unless you have shower facilities and another 2 where it's just too damned cold to be outside in the elements. Rain is another major problem.

And comparatively, how long does it take to ride 15 miles? Likely at least an hour. That's not a trade anyone is going to make considering the distances and weather.

Cycling is certainly good for the environment, but it isn't a viable transportation alternative in terms of scale or distance.

Posted by: rpixley220 | March 9, 2011 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Has this guy ever heard of the subway? That gets you downtown quickly too...

Posted by: parkercohen | March 9, 2011 2:57 PM | Report abuse

No one is saying longer distance commuters should or can bike. But a small percentage are long-distance.

I ride 10 miles each way, year-round, which is a fairly typical comute. It takes me only 5 minutes longer than by car. Some might consider it a net time saver because I never have to go to the gym. I save between $4,000 and $5,000 a year, my health is excellent (resting hreat rate near my age) and I never, ever think "I'm really unhappy about my mode of transportation." I'm not sure why you try so hard to dismiss this as a viable form of transportation for, say, 10% of the population. In transportation circles, that would be equivalent to adding billions of dollars in infrastructure at a tiny fraction of the cost.

Posted by: krickey7 | March 9, 2011 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Hey I just thought I'd say I know absolutely nothing about biking or bike lanes, because they don't come with trailer hitches for the shopping carts of us homeless people!

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 9, 2011 3:20 PM | Report abuse

krickey7 & rpixley220 - I commute 10 miles each way by bike too. Love it. It takes 25-30 minutes. You don't actually need a shower when you get to work. I keep a 3-4 day supply of clothes squirreled away in my office and some basic hygiene supplies. If that can't cover up the odor, you probably need to bike more, not less.

I can't say I ride every day. Probably 3 days a week on average over the course of the year. The other days I ride the bus and drive on very odd occasions. I tend to agree with Ezra - the point is to have choices. And choices that get you to work, save gas, save money, and improve your health seem like no-brainers.

Posted by: willows1 | March 9, 2011 3:33 PM | Report abuse

I'm not disputing the the health benefits nor the fuel savings of cycling. Perhaps those are significant savings. How long is your commute each way? How long does it take you?

My problem is the dedicated lanes for cyclists that take space that 90% of the people can't use. Add to that the lower throughput of the lanes in terms of people per hour and it doesn't offer the advantages that other ideas would.

I'd rather dedicate bus lanes that everyone can use. Or as my post really meant to suggest, we go the teleworking route for the majority of people since most can telecommute.

Now, perhaps we combine teleworking centers with cycling. Reduce the average commute to reasonable distances for cycling and it might be something that could work.

Posted by: rpixley220 | March 9, 2011 3:43 PM | Report abuse

@rpixley220 - Bicycle lanes in DC take up approximately 4 feet (expect the cycle track on 15th) How will you fit a dedicated bus lane in 4 feet?

Posted by: joe_in_ledroit | March 9, 2011 4:20 PM | Report abuse

As with most commutes, the limit on a bike is about 30 minutes, which gives you a range of about 5 miles.

But Cassidy isn't talking about his commute. He's talking about his trips to lower Manhattan from Brooklyn (for which he should really be using transit). And that sort of short-range errand-running is exactly where bikes come in handy in cities. You can't guarantee that your job will be within 5 miles of where you live, but you can be pretty sure that local stores and restaurants are all within biking distance.

Posted by: constans | March 9, 2011 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Since an auto-lane is ~10 feet wide, we'll assume a 2.5 ratio.

Buses can easily transport more than 2.5x as many people as bicycles, and do it over long distances at substantial fuel savings.

My point is that 4 foot bicycle lane can only be used by bicycles and nobody else; and only used *some* of the year.

The amount of available roadway space is finite. Using a good chunk of it at the city center for bike lanes, prevents people from suburban places from accessing the city as easily.

Posted by: rpixley220 | March 9, 2011 4:40 PM | Report abuse

@constans wrote:
"you can be pretty sure that local stores and restaurants are all within biking distance."
Only in the city center. Suburbia does not offer such possibilities. So we're down to making the city center work for those who live there, but not those who just work there. Hence you'll have just as much congestion since far more people are driving in to than are driving within the city.

Posted by: rpixley220 | March 9, 2011 4:43 PM | Report abuse

*we're down to making the city center work for those who live there, but not those who just work there. *

(A) Getting cars off the road by having more bikers makes it easier for people who HAVE to drive to drive.

(B) Why are you commuting by car into the city center when other alternatives exist?

(C) You could live, if not in the city center, someplace with nearby amenities within biking distance.

Corollary: "the city center" is actually very small, and places that still have lots of possibilities within biking distance exist far outside the city center.

You seem to be grasping for straws, here.

Posted by: constans | March 9, 2011 4:49 PM | Report abuse

Plus, the cities' policies should be geared in large part to catering towards the people who live there (catering to the people who work there is a means of improving the lives and living standards of the people who live there). Of course amenities are going to help the people who live there-- that's what they're for.

Posted by: constans | March 9, 2011 5:06 PM | Report abuse

Glad to hear you bike too, Ezra. My commute in Chicago is about 8 miles each way, roughly 40 minutes (vs. 20-30 minutes by bus). I do it year-round unless it's too icy, too cold or (like today) rainy and I just don't feel like it. I'm lucky I have options; I know people whose commute doesn't lend itself to either bikes or public transit, so they drive. I don't envy them.

As for rpixley220 and the bus lanes, good idea; it would help. But at the expense of bike lanes? Why? The goal isn't simply moving the most people the fastest -- we'd rip out the sidewalks and parks if that were the case -- but offering the most options, both for commuters and visitors. I know people from the suburbs who'll drive downtown to work but ride their bikes downtown on weekends for fun.

Posted by: crosspalms | March 9, 2011 5:12 PM | Report abuse

@constans wrote:

"(A) Getting cars off the road by having more bikers makes it easier for people who HAVE to drive to drive."
- it does so only for short distance commuters. For long distance people, i.e. suburbs, it reduces the amount of real estate available for public transit options and roads. So yes, it makes it easier for city center people to cycle and harder for outsiders. And it does not move people as fast nor full time.

"(B) Why are you commuting by car into the city center when other alternatives exist?"
- there are no other options; I am outside DCs 'subway' and not near any VRE stations. As I have stated, buses sit in the same traffic as everybody else and take *longer* so that is not an 'option'. I have suggested dedicated bus lanes so that they go faster than traffic; in this case I'd take them in a heart beat.

"(C) You could live, if not in the city center, someplace with nearby amenities within biking distance."
- the discussion is about commuting and how to deal with urban traffic congestion, not about walkable communities.

I'm pointing out what does not work about bike lanes when dealing with the *existing* situation of people living 15+ miles from their jobs. Bikes work for short distances in nice weather; that situation is not reality for most people. Hence dedicating finite resources for a solution that doesn't work as efficiently and only benefits 10% of the people is a bad use of resources.

Posted by: rpixley220 | March 9, 2011 5:42 PM | Report abuse

@crosspalms wrote:
"As for rpixley220 and the bus lanes, good idea; it would help. But at the expense of bike lanes? Why? The goal isn't simply moving the most people the fastest -- we'd rip out the sidewalks and parks if that were the case"
- the goal is reducing congestion. I'm simply suggesting that can be done better through dedicated bus lanes that are used every day rather than bike lanes that aren't going to be used remotely near capacity for 20% of the year. And that capacity is lower than other available options. The space available is finite and we need to choose how to use it.

Regarding sidewalks, you don't have them on highways. If you want throughput, you don't allow 'slow' means of travel. Major thoroughfares (highways or major streets) give up significant capacity by using a bike lane compared with other options.

And as I've said, the bike lane is only useful for shorter trips, not the majority of commuters. Those commuters are your congestion, not the city folk just trying to get around. NYC is not a good example because they have another viable urban transit system in the subway.

Posted by: rpixley220 | March 9, 2011 5:59 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this. Just one question: Are you the only person writing for a mainstream publication in America who isn't a total f-ing imbicile? Seems that way.

Posted by: ibc0 | March 9, 2011 6:03 PM | Report abuse

Nobody is suggesting that most people with 15 mile commutes SHOULD cycle to work, you dumb-dumbs. The idea is, if 10% of people who only have a 5 mile commute take up cycling for commuting, then congestion is relieved for all commuters of all types into the city. Add to that if more long distance commuters take up public transportation, couple with a larger number of short distance commuters taking up cycling, the roads become a vastly improved for those commuters and road users that need to use their cars, and free up thousands of parking spaces to boot. Bicycles and trans help motorists!

Posted by: dukiebiddle | March 9, 2011 6:31 PM | Report abuse

At the risk of piling on, I'll note that bus routes require operating subsidies in nearly all cases. Bikes don't. What cyclists pay in taxes to the general fund more than pays for our minimal infrastructure and maintenance costs. In tight budgetary times like this, it's a no-brainer.

Posted by: krickey7 | March 9, 2011 8:47 PM | Report abuse

Urban streets have lane capacities of about 900 vehicles per hour. Bicycle lanes have capacities of about 350 vehicles per hour. While there is no question that a dedicated bus lane will carry more people than either bike or car, it is not at all clear that auto capacity exceeds bicycle capacity, since auto lanes are typically 2.5 to 3 times the width of bike lanes. Furthermore, auto travel in urban environments requires parking space, which is often potential transportation right of way. Oh - and bike lanes require orders of magnitude less upkeep, so frugal-government proponents should be all over them. And people tend to go farther in cars than on bikes, also increasing transportation infrastructure needs.

Posted by: grahamkatz | March 9, 2011 10:22 PM | Report abuse

@grahamkatz please search youtube for "Congestion in Copenhagen" and let me know how many bikes you think you'll count in an hour.

Only 350? You sure about that?

Posted by: cypherpunk1 | March 10, 2011 12:43 AM | Report abuse

One major issue is simply biking handling skills and etiquette. Its a sign of the times that there is now a market in NYC for companies like that have sprouted up to teach people how to bike - targeted specifically at commuters who want the option of biking to work without breaking a sweat or getting doored by a cab. Greater proficiency on a bike will yield better experience for all - cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists.

Sadly, NYC is battling the same obesity battle that the rest of the nation faces, and one would think that encouraging cycling and physical activity would be universally supported.

Posted by: pkiracofe1 | March 10, 2011 10:40 AM | Report abuse

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