Bicyclists still don't have their fair share of road space in New York City

Bicyclists on the Prospect Park West bike lane. From  Inhabitat .

Bicyclists on the Prospect Park West bike lane. From Inhabitat.

Today I was pointed to this post by Brad DeLong, in which he summarizes the Wall Street Journal's strident war on bicycles in New York City. You really just need to read it, but here are some choice quotes from a few featured editorial writers:

"The most important danger in this city is not the yellow cabs... it is the cyclists, empowered by the city administration."  
"The bike lobby is an all-powerful enterprise." 
"The city is helpless before the driven, ideological passions of its leader."  
"Let us have some bike lanes on heavily used and clearly defined routes to and from the city—and on popular biking routes within the city and the boroughs. But until and unless there is a referendum on the subject—or a much more expansive public debate, at least—it is time to call a halt to Sadik-Khan and her faceless road swipers."

And so on. (I'm totally saving "faceless road swipers" though, that one's great.) The latter quote is from John Cassidy (here), who also said this:

From an economic perspective I also question whether the blanketing of the city with bike lanes—more than two hundred miles in the past three years—meets an objective cost-benefit criterion. Beyond a certain point, given the limited number of bicyclists in the city, the benefits of extra bike lanes must run into diminishing returns, and the costs to motorists (and pedestrians) of implementing the policies must increase.
It doesn't look like we've reached the point of diminishing returns just yet. From .

It doesn't look like we've reached the point of diminishing returns just yet. From

DeLong notes that the argument here assumes that the limited number of bicyclists in New York won't or can't increase significantly, which, based on the experience of every other city that's made investments in bicycle infrastructure, is clearly untrue. It's not even true in New York City itself, where the share of bicycle commuters increased roughly 50% from 2006 to 2011.

The most ridiculous assertion in Cassidy's commentary, however, is that the city is "blanketed" with bike lanes. It's not true, and here's why:

The NYC DOT is responsible for approximately 6,300 centerline miles of streets and highways. According to the New York State Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness, "centerline miles are calculated by measuring down the center of all lanes of traffic," and "the number of lanes is not taken into account." Many roads in the city are one-way, single-lane corridors, but almost all of them have parking on at least one side. The number of lane-miles--including parking, which is an even more car-centric use of road space than the travel lanes--is at least double the number of centerline miles, and probably closer to triple.

The number of miles of bike lanes in NYC is closer to 300 at this point, but they have no impact on centerline road miles because bike lanes never actually exclude car traffic on a road--at most they take away one lane from a road with two or more, or carve out space from one excessively wide lane. They reduce the total number of lane-miles for cars, but by a 1:1 ratio at most.

One-way road with bike lane and zero reduction in automobile lane-miles. From  Complete Streets .

One-way road with bike lane and zero reduction in automobile lane-miles. From Complete Streets.

Deducting all 300 miles of bike lanes from the highly conservative estimate of 12,600 road lane-miles still leaves 12,300 miles dedicated to serving car traffic and storage in the city.

The share of residents who bike to work in New York City is low compared to other large American cities at roughly 0.83% in 2011, but has been on a significant upward trajectory. 26.7% of residents drove to work (including carpooling) in 2011, and this is on a downward trajectory from 28.7% just two years prior.

One percent of commuters represents about 36,000 people, so the 0.83% of commuters who bike to work represents roughly 30,000 people. Divide those 300 miles of bike lanes by the total commuters and each one gets about 0.010 miles of road to themselves, or about 53 feet. The 26.7% who commute to work represent about a million people, and when you divvy up the 12,300 lane-miles of road space between them, each driver gets about 0.0123 miles of road, or 65 feet.

These numbers are offered without consideration for:

  1. The difference in car vs. bike lane widths (bike lanes are of course much narrower, usually);
  2. The near-certain undercounting of total road lane-miles;
  3. The near-certain undercounting of bike commuters (bike counts tend to focus only on those entering Manhattan, and only take place a few days a year; other estimates range from 50,000 to 200,000+ daily cyclists in the city);
  4. The amount of damage automobiles cause to the pavement relative to bicycles;
  5. The amount of damage automobiles cause to humans relative to bicycles, and the improved safety on roads with bike lanes for all users--drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians alike;
  6. The inevitable increase in bicycle ridership that will accompany the introduction of CitiBike;
  7. The social equity concern that few people can afford to drive in NYC, but anyone can afford to ride a bicycle;
  8. The whole host of economic, health, and environmental benefits that accompany bicycles but not cars.

Far from being "blanketed" with bike lanes, the numbers indicate that the bicycle network in New York is still under-representative and relatively sparse on a per-capita basis, even in this very conservative analysis. As the share of bicyclists increases and the share of drivers continues to decline this disparity will only grow, so it'll be up to local advocates and politicians to ignore the shrill voices of Cassidy and others and continue to support and grow the city's active transportation network.

I just like this picture. From  Treehugger .

I just like this picture. From Treehugger.