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MN2020 - The Great Bicycle Debate
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The Great Bicycle Debate

June 28, 2011 By Riordan Frost, Policy Associate

Minnesota has been one of the nation's leaders in bicycling infrastructure. We've figured it out. If you want less congested roads and healthier people, take away two wheels.

But in other places big debates rage about these tiny lanes. Take the debate in New York City, which is pitting many different competing interests—from those in journalism to those in policy circles.

It has taken us off course from what should be great way to diversify American cities' infrastructure. The debate grew as New York's transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, increased the number of bike lanes in the city substantially. One particularly fiery debate erupted around the addition of bike lanes in an affluent neighborhood, which sparked a lawsuit from a former transportation commissioner.

In response to the lawsuit, a New Yorker blog argues that because bicyclists are a minority, bike lanes should exist on major routes but otherwise should not be built.

This falls into what Minnesota 2020's latest report characterizes as our car-centric culture, where roads are built with only motor vehicles in mind.  The New Yorker blogger is mostly upset by the fact that bike lanes occasionally take away precious parking.

The Economist jumped into the debate, criticizing the New Yorker blog with a piece titled "The World is His Parking Spot." It examines the externalities of driving a car, from congestion to environmental degradation to excessive space required, which is especially limiting and costly in urban environments. It goes on to argue that bicyclists are alleviating many of these externalities, and since drivers don't pay the full price incurred by their choice to drive, the argument for less bike lanes and more room for cars is flawed.

The Washington Post offers a simple reply: the worst thing for a motorist is another motorist. In a way, bicycle lanes are a pro-car policy because they provide an alternative to driving, which reduces congestion and makes driving at the very least bearable.

The Wall Street Journal provides another blow for the anti-bike lane crowd, declaring the 'war' won for the bicyclists. It explains that the myths and hyperbole about the 'elite minority' of cyclists are mistaken, and that the fears about bike lanes and bike sharing never come to fruition. Urban dwellers across the country have realized the freedom and simplicity of bicycling, and the utility of bike infrastructure, causing the not-really-a-war to end.

Minnesota's Twin Cities have more room to maneuver, and the number of bike lanes has been expanding without too many bumps in the road. As our report points out, bicycling is on the rise in the North Star State, and more infrastructure is needed for the growing mode—especially since 48% of all trips are three miles or less.

Still, we are not immune from the car-centric critique of new bicycle lanes unjustly taking space from cars. In response to these critiques, Grist has run an excellent series on Bikenomics pointing out that besides the positive health and environmental benefits, bicycling has many personal and societal economic benefits.

Ultimately, the argument around diversifying our infrastructure revolves around to whom the road belongs. Frequent car drivers regularly express frustration at being 'stifled' (as the New York Times put it) by alternatives which make driving more difficult. Driving a two-ton vehicle through densely populated areas should not be easy, however, and cities that are built around cars face numerous congestion and pollution problems. It could just as easily be said that cars are stifling other, less environmentally degrading, modes of transportation.

In the end, the places we build should be designed for people, and people use varying modes to get around. The road, and our cities, do not belong to cars; they belong to us. Since an ever growing proportion of people are choosing to bicycle, we need to provide the infrastructure and policy that they need.

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