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March 7, 2016

Economic effects of cities becoming more bike-friendly

Elyse O'Callaghan

Elyse O’Callaghan

In recent years, metropolitan areas world-wide have started to embrace cycling for a variety of reasons; cities want to provide new, viable transit options to reduce vehicular congestion and emissions, improve economic activity, and/or to change the perceived city atmosphere.

While all of these have been (and continue to be) valid reasons for policy makers to encourage more cycling within city limits, in order to achieve popular adoption of cycling, greater investment in bicycle infrastructure and bike-sharing systems is required. Although the direct capital, operations, and maintenance costs of bike infrastructure are substantially smaller than those of motor vehicle infrastructure, the re-allocation of space from vehicle right of way (ROW) for lanes and parking to bicycle lanes and parking can be controversial. The attempt to shift cities designed for vehicles to alternative transit methods has been consistently met with push-back from motorists because the change in ROW is seen as causing an increase in vehicular congestion and therefore an economic deterrent.

Current efforts to invest in cycling infrastructure in Sao Paolo, Brazil have been pushed forward by the mayor but met with severe skepticism by the superintendent of the city’s chamber of commerce for increasing “the difficulties for businesses”.

Alternatively, businesses in Albuquerque, New Mexico have provided nearly the full investment of up-front costs to launch a bike-sharing service within the city. In this case, the city’s businesses are looking to cycling to help increase exposure and foot traffic to stores by revitalizing the city center.

While the two examples may seem disparate due to city size and demographics, they motivate a common question: does increased cycling have a positive or negative impact on a city’s economy? The League of American Bicyclists compiled a report in 2012 to document the various ways in which cycling can boost a local economy; while this and the example of Albuquerque make it clear that cycling in addition to the status quo of motorists provides clear economic value, it still begs the question of the economic impact when the car/bicycle trade-off is required. In more congested cities, a trade-off is required as a 2012 study of bike sharing in Beijing found that a major deterrent and reason for people to stop utilizing bike-sharing services was out of fear of riding on congested and combined roadway lanes.

As cities continue to grow, the impacts and viability of different forms of transit such as bicycles will continue to capture attention and controversy and will therefore serve as interesting and important research topics.

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