RALEIGH — Census data show that new and converted bicycle lanes represent a “poor use” of limited state and local N.C. transportation dollars. That’s a key finding from a new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report.
“Leaders at the N.C. Department of Transportation and in North Carolina’s cities should rely on demonstrated widespread demand for bike infrastructure before spending tax dollars on these projects,” said report author Julie Tisdale, JLF City and County Policy Analyst. “And they should weigh that demand against the negative impact on the vast majority of employees, business owners, and consumers who choose to travel by car.”
Tisdale urges policymakers to rely on transportation data, not rhetoric. Raleigh’s bicycle plan serves as an example with statewide implications. Raleigh spent $4.62 million on on-road bikeways in 2015. The city increased its bikeway infrastructure from 73 miles to 179 miles from 2009 to 2015.
“What becomes apparent very quickly when reading Raleigh’s plan is that low ridership numbers don’t really matter to planners,” Tisdale said. “They might like numbers to be higher, but the language in the plan offers a mix of aspiration, moral superiority, and social engineering.”
The Raleigh plan points to policies that “can establish a new social norm” while supporting “healthy choices and active transportation,” Tisdale notes. The same plan expresses a “desire to increase bicycle transportation” and asserts the “importance and benefit of a shift from drive-alone automobile trips to biking trips.”
“There’s even language that seems downright punitive toward motorists,” Tisdale adds. “After mentioning that bicyclists commonly report parked cars and other obstacles in bike lanes, the Raleigh plan says the city should ‘target offenders’ with education and enforcement strategies.”
Raleigh is not alone in emphasizing bikes. Tisdale’s report documents more than $4 million in state DOT planning grants awarded since 2004 to help more than 160 communities “develop comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian plans.”
“Yet, despite all the money being spent on infrastructure and programs, bicycling remains a tiny, and largely insignificant, form of commuting,” Tisdale said. “Census Bureau data suggest about 1 percent of the commuters in America’s 50 largest cities use bicycles for their commutes. In North Carolina, the numbers are even smaller: 0.2 percent of Charlotte commuters, and 0.6 percent of those in Raleigh.”
The report distinguishes between biking for fun and biking for work, commerce, and family transportation. “When considering the investment of taxpayers’ money, it’s most important to consider transportation infrastructure that meets the needs of employers, employees, businesses, and customers. That is crucial for economic growth and increased employment.”
Cities with the largest numbers of bicycle commuters tend to be small or densely populated, with the most common commute time lasting 10 to 14 minutes, Tisdale reports.
“North Carolina cities don’t fit the profile for easy bicycle commuting,” she said. “Larger cities nationwide with the highest rates of bicycling to work have an average population density of 8,000 people per square mile. Raleigh has 3,000 people per square mile, while Charlotte has 2,700. Census data also show the lowest rates of cycling are in the South.”
Younger commuters and those with no children are more likely to commute by bicycle, Tisdale said. “As people get older, their preferences change, and fewer wish to bicycle for work or other business,” she said. “Some new, younger workers will enter the cycling group, but many slightly older workers will exit it at the same time.”
“This is especially true for new parents,” Tisdale added. “Most of them prefer to load their children in a climate-controlled car with space for all their stuff. In addition, those who move their families from the cities to the suburbs tend to live farther from the places where they work, shop, and do other business.”
The data should send a message to policymakers, Tisdale said. “Infrastructure, like bike lanes, either diverts money from other sorts of road projects or reduces the existing capacity for motorized transportation on roads by converting some portion of that paved space to lanes reserved for bicycle traffic,” she said. “This is evident in places such as Raleigh, which has converted four-lane roads into two-lane roads and dropped some central turn lanes, in order to add bike lanes to existing pavement.”
“The Census data show that converting roads in this way, or using limited transportation resources to build new bike lanes, is a poor use of those resources,” Tisdale said. “Government at all levels should meet the population’s infrastructure needs, not drive the population to change its behavior. Building lanes for which there is little demonstrated demand in order to promote a ‘green, healthy lifestyle’ puts government preferences above individual choices.”
Julie Tisdale’s Spotlight report, “The Cost of Bike Lanes: Millions of your money spent on vanity projects for the 1%,” is available at the JLF website. For more information, please contact Tisdale at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].