There was recently an article in USA Today about the efforts of major American cities to encourage commuting by bicycle. I was surprised to see a quote of Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, in which he was quoted as saying "I don't think encouraging cycling is going to reduce congestion or significantly change the transportation makeup of our cities."
I was familiar with Mr. O'Toole mostly as an oft-quoted rail critic. For example he was recently featured prominently in an article about Charlotte's light rail line.
Randal O'Toole, a rail critic from the Cato Institute who recently spoke in Charlotte, gave Denver's transit system a "D" grade in a report he wrote in 2004 called "Rail Disasters 2005." Most cities with rail lines received F's or D's, and only San Diego and Boston received B's.
I was surprised to see him branch out to cycling criticism. I was really surprised when I read this:
O'Toole is an avid cyclist who has never commuted to work by car
So I contacted him and asked him for an interview. He graciously agreed. The text, without comment from me is below.
Now this being our first interview - and with someone that might not be loved by everyone - I would like to ask that we all remain polite. It is acceptable to question Mr. O"Toole's facts, his deductions and even his motives, but let's avoid name calling or questioning his ancestry.
I now work at home, but when I have commuted to work I usually rode a bike. When I lived in Denver working for the Independence Institute, I commuted about 20 miles (round trip) per day. When I taught at UC Berkeley, I commuted by a combination of bike and BART, going as much as 30 miles a day on the bike.
Now that I work at home, I am ashamed to say I've become something of a fair-weather cyclist. But I try to make up with long rides what I lose by not riding every day.
2. In the USA Today article you said, "I don't think encouraging cycling is going to reduce congestion or significantly change the transportation makeup of our cities. There really is very little evidence that any of (these efforts) are reducing the amount of driving. They're just making it more annoying to drivers." What do you think American cities should do to reduce congestion?
I also support things like traffic signal coordination, low-cost bike routes, improvements to bus transit, and other cost-effective projects. The key is cost-effectiveness: if rail transit were cost-effective, I would support it. If bikeways were cost-effective, I would support them. If a particular highway project was not cost-effective, I would not support it. And by "cost-effective" I mean the lowest dollar cost per hour of congestion relief. While I think some cycling and bus projects might be cost effective, I don't expect anything but road improvements (and road pricing) will make a significant dent in congestion.
3. Cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam have bicycle use rates above 30%. This bike use rate is believed to have reduced congestion in both cities. Do you believe American cities can reach this kind of use and if not, why not?
4. You've called Portland the "City That Doesn't Work" and criticized their transportation planning. The city was given a Gold rating by the League of American Bicyclists, an honor which is very difficult to garner. What do you think of the city's bicycle program?
I am particularly disturbed by all the traffic calming done in Portland (curb extensions, rotaries, speed humps), most of which are bicycle-hostile. Long before Portland was considered bicycle friendly, I rode in Portland a lot. Today, when I ride there, I feel much less safe, particularly when a giant TriMet bus tries to pass me on one of the city's skinny streets.
5. Paris' Velib program has been a big hit and has moved people millions of miles already. What are your thoughts on modern bike sharing programs and their suitability in America?
I'd certainly use them when I was visiting another city that had them. I am not sure we have enough cyclists to make it economically feasible, and I would not be enthused about a heavily subsidized program. Probably a university town like Davis, Eugene, or College Station would be a better place to try it than a city like Portland.
Addendum: More about Mr. O'Toole's new book "The Best-Laid Plans"