I read yesterday in the News & Observer that Raleigh is planning to build 40 more miles of bike lanes over the next five years.  To put that in perspective, Raleigh currently has 33 miles of bike lanes, so we’re talking about more than doubling the bike lanes available throughout the city.

I live and work in Raleigh, and I never see anyone using bike lanes.  I’m really not exaggerating.  In the seven years I’ve lived in this city, I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually seen people using bike lanes.  I see people biking around neighborhoods or recreationally on greenways.  I saw folks biking as part of a triathlon near my home last weekend.  But actually using bikes as transportation, as a mode of commuting?  I never see that.

That said, it is conceivable that there are things happening in Raleigh of which I am unaware.  The fact that I don’t see it doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t exist.  Julie’s observations probably shouldn’t be the primary guide for Raleigh City Council policy.

So I started looking for numbers.  How many people actually do commute by bike in Raleigh?  What are the ridership levels like?  And I discovered that it is surprisingly difficult to find any actual data.  But here’s what I did find.  According to the Census, in 2000, 0.3% of workers in Raleigh bicycled to work.  Ten years later, in the American Community Survey covering 2008-2012, that had risen to 0.6%, a change that the Census Bureau did not deem statistically significant.  These numbers are in line with a Wake Transit report from last year.

So we have a tiny number of people using bikes for actual transportation rather than recreationally, but we’re more than doubling bike lanes.  And we’re doing that despite concerns about the impact that those bike lanes will have on on-street parking, lanes available for cars and buses, and congestion.  Why is Raleigh doing this?

If we assume that local governments like Raleigh’s are in the business of meeting the needs and demands of their residents, then this doesn’t seem to make much sense.  Almost everyone in Raleigh uses a car as a primary mode of transportation.  But what if that’s not actually what Raleigh’s doing at all?  What if the goal of this exercise is different?

And so, where better to look than the Raleigh Bike Plan Update proposal.  It opens with

Planning policies, regulations, and design standards play a critical role in fostering more bike-friendly communities by creating the conditions that support safe bicycling. Such policies can establish a new social norm where bicycling is seen as practical and appealing for people of all ages and abilities by providing for the infrastructure and amenities to support healthy choices and active transportation. (emphasis added)

If you believe that the local government’s job is to “establish new social norms” and to push people toward what the government has decided are “healthy choices,” then maybe this policy makes sense.  If you think it’s ok to use my tax dollars and those of other Raleigh residents to try to change people’s behavior, then maybe this is a right approach.

But I don’t think this is what local government, or indeed government at any level, should be about.  It really sounds a bit paternalistic to me.  The city thinks it knows better than I do what’s best for my life, what’s a healthier choice for transportation for me?  And it’s going to use my tax dollars to ensure I see the light?

I actually think I’m doing a pretty good job of making healthy choices for my own life, and I don’t own a bike.  I do, however, use a mode of transportation – my car – that allows me to live in a house and a neighborhood that meets the needs of my family while working at a job that’s miles away in downtown.  And the vast majority of Raleigh residents are making similar choices.  Almost everyone drives to work, either alone or as part of a carpool.  Most parents shuttle their kids around in cars.  Most people do their grocery shopping using cars.  Clearly, cars are the transportation that most people prefer most of the time.

Rather than trying to push people to make choices that the city thinks are superior, Raleigh and other local governments should respond to the demonstrated preferences and needs of their residents.  They certainly shouldn’t be sacrificing the car lanes and parking that the vast majority need to build bike lanes that they hope someday someone will use.