Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Write a Dumb Article About Bike Lanes, and the Internet Will Mock You

Over on the New Yorker's website, John Cassidy wrote a blog post about New York City's bike lanes. Oddly for the New Yorker, he paints the cycling advocates as a cabal of humorless Jacobins in league with the Mayor and his transportation secretary, crushing the freedom of those like himself who drive huge cars. And oddly for an economist, he seems unable to recognize any congestion-related externalities of automobile traffic. So, a number of other bloggers have pointed out various flaws in his piece. And rather than link to the piece in question, I'll just run down the most notable comments (I'm pretty sure you can find a link to Cassidy's post in any of the following).
First up, to provide a rather sarcastic bullet-point summary is Aaron Naparstek's “The New York City Bike Lane Backlash is Completely Irrational.” The meat of Cassidy's argument, such as it is, is probably the part summed up here:
  • Now that the city has striped 200 miles of bike lanes on its 15,000+ miles of roadway, we have clearly reached the point of diminishing returns for bikes and bike lanes. As for cars and car lanes — sky’s the limit. As an economist, I see no end to the number of cars and car lanes we can cram in to New York City.
  • Every New Yorker should be able to drive his Jaguar into Greenwich Village for dinner, as is my pastime, and find convenient, free parking on a public street near the restaurant.
In similar style, the New York Times Magazine's Adam Sternbergh runs through the “requisite rhetorical tactics” should one wish to write one's own anti-bike lane article, including:
Oddly self-contradictory declaration of support: “Generally speaking, I don’t have a problem with this movement; indeed, I support it.”

Invocation of meddling government apparatchiks: “A classic case of regulatory capture by a small faddish minority.”

Invocation of America’s long, sun-dappled love affair with cars: “Since 1989, when I nervously edged out of the Ford showroom on 11th Avenue and 57th Street, the proud leaser of a sporty Thunderbird coupe, I have owned and driven six cars in the city.”
Moving towards more serious criticism, we get to Felix Salmon, a prominent blogger on economics for Reuters starting to explain where Cassidy really gets the basics wrong (emphasis mine):
And you surely know, even if you’re loathe to admit it, that traffic expands to fill the roads available: if you build more road space, you don’t reduce congestion, you just increase the number of cars. And similarly, if you reduce the amount of road space, you don’t increase congestion so much as you reduce the number of private cars. Which is a feature, not a bug.

Cassidy is convinced that the addition of bike lanes has increased the time he spends stuck in traffic, or looking for his beloved free on-street parking.
And that's actually a rather subtle point to grasp in actual practice. If the people laying out our roadways had realized many years ago that adding lanes does very little to relieve congestion in urban areas, we could have done things a lot better. The fact is, when Cassidy is sitting in traffic on Third Ave. in Brooklyn looking at a bike lane that could carry some traffic if it were given to cars, he's wrong about the limiting factor involved. There's apparently no shortage of people willing to endure that traffic for whatever reason, and an extra lane would just get filled with more of them, until everyone was stuck in the same traffic.

Incidentally, this principle is why the Big Dig hasn't relieved as much congestion as was promised originally, and has probably increased congestion on some of the surface streets. Make it easier to get to the North End, you end up with more cars on its little crowded streets. Not that it hasn't been at all successful, by any means. But that's a whole other subject (and, really, one I'm not at all qualified to speak of).

Moving along, I'll note that Paul Krugman over at the New York Times echoes Felix Salmon's opinion of Cassidy's “awesomely self-centered rant.”

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein takes a slightly different approach to pointing out the same thing:
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.
And that's pretty hard to argue with. You simply can't build enough roads for New Yorkers (and everyone else who might be in New York) to drive everywhere they want to go. This is one of the issues that is going to be very important in urban areas all over the US over the next several decades. We are still growing as a country (I think by at least another 40 million in the next fifty years) and becoming more urbanized. Solutions for managing this are going to be hard to come by, and will require work, and trade-offs. Squeezing a couple hundred miles of bike lane into New York City is part of that.

Lastly, we come to Ryan Avent writing for The Economist's “Free Exchange” blog (which is mostly about economics and finance; he has his own blog at “The Bellows” where he mostly covers urban issues, and which I highly recommend). Looking at things “from an economic perspective” he finds that Cassidy's article “really is a doozy of a misstep” for failing to consider negative externalities in a number of areas:
When Mr Cassidy drives, he imposes a small congestion cost on those around him, drivers and cyclists included. Because he and others do not consider this cost, they overuse the roads, creating traffic…

Cars also release several harmful pollutants… It would be possible to account for these pollution externalities, to some extent at least, by taxing them. But at the moment, fuel taxes are too low to cover road maintenance, to say nothing of the costs of automobile pollution…

To give away valuable parking spaces for free is hugely inefficient. It encourages too many people to drive, and it encourages people to stay in free spots longer than the welfare-maximising amount of time…

[I]f drivers paid for all the costs they impose on others, there would be fewer drivers complaining about bike lanes and more people using them.
I don't really have much to add at this point that hasn't been covered in all the above links. There's all sorts of issues that touch on various aspects of what I've said here, and I'd like to get a little bit more in depth on them at some point. Non-automobile transportation in major urban areas is a subject near to my heart, after all.

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