Saturday, March 28, 2015

What LA Monitor Opinion Writer Harold Morgon Does Not Understand About Bicycling Infrastructure

Bicycle "Cultist" and former Laboratory Director Harold Agnew
Although Harold Morgon's "Fixing Roads Is Better Than Building Bicycling Underpass" in last week's Los Alamos Monitor seems more political agit-prop than analysis (referring to cyclists as a cult, and to the funding of bike facilities as the spending orgies of liberal Democrats), it's worth, in its wake, reviewing a few things about bicycle infrastructure.

Morgon overlooks that transportation is about moving people to where they need to go.  To create an efficient system, the tool should fit the need.  For short distances, bicycles work well as people movers. By contrast, short distance driving is not particular good for the car, the human, or the built environment. Such driving is often referred to as "severe use" as it doesn't give the vehicle's lubricating fluids time to heat up and drive out volatiles. For the human, sedentary lifestyles lead to a host of health problems. Finally, someone (customers, storekeepers, the local government) has to pay to store cars; as land values go up, storing cars drives up the cost of government and of doing business. So building a "complete" transportation system that gives people maximum options, including bicycling, can have an attractive cost benefit ratio and lead to a culture where bike mode share can approach the level seen in some European cities. The League of American Bicyclists notes that many Bicycle Friendly Communities, including Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Denver and Lexington, Ky., have more than doubled their bike commuter share since 2000.
BombTown from the air: note all the space devoted to parking cars

As far as whether special facilities are needed to provide safety, New Mexico ranks second only to Florida in statewide fatality rates of bicyclists. This is due to a variety of factors including drug and alcohol use by motorists and poor facility design. Albuquerque, for example, has designed its surface transportation system around high speed, very wide arterials that attempt to maximize motor vehicle level of service but which make a cyclist vulnerable to being overlooked in fast traffic, where a crash can be devastating since impact speed directly correlates with bicyclist and pedestrian fatality rates. This sort of urban design, which overlooks non-motorist safety, has in retrospect, necessitated targeting key problem situations with separate facilities to provide a safety margin for cyclists. In this context, the occasional  million dollar bicycle facility that solves a problem created by the construction of multimillion to multibillion dollar fast arterials and interstate highways is a necessary part of the transportation system. 

Finally, it is misleading and inaccurate to say that we can fix our roads by cancelling a few high profile bike facilities. A recent FHWA report states that the U.S. needs to increase spending on our roadway network by some 25 to 50 billion dollars a year just to fix what is broken. Morgon admits that fixing one New Mexico highway alone will cost close to 200 million dollars. Cancelling a million dollar bike project would not even be noticed. Plus, such illogical thinking would result in putting more cars on the road in urban areas, increasing the pressure on a crumbling system. To fix those potholes and creaky bridges, we need to both prioritize what to fix and raise the funds to do so, either by raising the gas tax, which has not been raised since 1993, or tapping into the general fund, which bicyclists pay into via Federal, State, and local taxes.Or both.


Steve A said...

While I'm not familiar with the particulars, typically overpasses give more bang for the buck than underpasses. As I recall, back in the day, a Soviet leader was sacked for overspending on underpasses because they were more esthetically pleasing than overpasses.

Khal said...

Devils are in the Details. To build an overpass might cost more if it involves a far longer run to obtain favorable or legal ramp grades. Sometimes, as on Diamond Drive in Los Alamos, a tunnel is far more cost effective.