The Weekly Standard had a column yesterday critical of transportation investments made in anything other than roads. While it starts out criticizing Metro for the recent fire, that while tragic and avoidable does nothing to undermine the fact that transit is far safer than driving, they also turn their ire towards bicycling.
And yet we Washingtonians are encouraged to use mass transit as much as possible....Or ride a bike. Even though less than 5 percent of area residents bicycle to work, there are now 69 miles of city bike lanes, with more on the way. The section of M Street by our office had long carried two or three lanes of car traffic. With bike lanes plus parking rules in effect, it’s partly down to one. Rush-hour can be unbearable.
This is a pretty commonly repeated criticism of biking "Only a few people bike commute, why do we invest so much in biking?" And it is flawed in numerous ways.
First of all they didn't include enough information to solve the word problem (Is 69 miles too much?). We would need to know how many miles of road DC has. The number is about 1500 miles and about 4000 lane miles. So cyclists-only space is either under-represented (4.6%) or very under-represented (1.7%). But then, of course, that's just a linear measure, if you want to talk about square footage, you basically have to cut the percentage set aside for cyclists in half, because bike lanes are usually half as wide as traffic lanes.
But wait, there's more. It's true that only 4.5% of DC residents commute by bike, but then only 38.9% commute by car. Another 38.5% use transit, 13.6% walk and 4.4% work from home. If we assume that about 1/3 of all transit users ride the bus, then only 69.8% of all commuters are using the roads and sidewalks (bus, car, bike, taxi, motorcycle, walk, other). If we want to apportion that space by mode share, cyclists would get 6.4% of the space, pedestrians would get 19.5% and then 18.4% of the roadway would be reserved for bus-only lanes. Is the Weekly Standard prepared to call for 735 miles of bus-only lanes and 256 miles of bike lanes in DC (because that's the logical conclusion)? That would be awesome.
Of course, the whole exercise is silly. Cyclists can use most of the roadway (over 90% I'd guess) and so can drivers and buses. I don't think each DC road needs 20% of the space set aside for pedestrians either. And then the average percentage of bikes or cars or buses on the road in DC is probably different from the DC resident mode share. In other words, it's all very complicated, and no one likely knows if cyclists or motorists are getting their "fair share" of the roadway and certainly not the Weekly Standard writers or readers.
But the real problem is that an appeal to the fairness of road-space allocation misses the whole point of transportation. The point is not to be fair to people due to mode choices, it's to allow people to move around in a way that meets the community's goals. Fairness does have a place in planning when talking about transportation equity and making sure we have a system that works for everyone regardless of income or physical abilities. (Y'know what transportation mode works really well for the poor?). But even that is only one concern. Transportation planning should also consider congestion, public health, choice, environmental impact and sustainability, land use planning, cost, livability and more. The Weekly Standard writers probably know that when all these other goals are accounted for driving will lose, so they instead appeal to fairness, and even that they have to fudge to get the answer they want.
Or perhaps the Weekly Standard believes that it has won the argument by showing how few people bike and how much space is allocated to them. If so, they've actually demonstrated that they don't understand the complexity of the issue they're writing about. It can't be boiled down to two numbers, that's for sure, and anyone who thinks it can is a fool.