As the number of bike riders seems to increase dramatically in cities across the country, there’s been a backlash from people who say bikes are dangerous, and that the added infrastructure that comes with them — namely bike lanes — is an unnecessary burden in a time of large budget shortfalls.
But a new study — the first that analyzes several different models of how bike infrastructure affects cities — concludes that policies and projects supportive of bike lanes are worth every penny, and then some.
The study, published by several researchers at universities in New Zealand in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, argues that for every dollar spent on bike-related infrastructure, cities can receive anywhere from $6 to $24 in cost savings in the form of reductions to pollution and traffic congestion, as well as lowered health care costs from decreased traffic fatalities and increased exercise.
The researchers used Auckland, New Zealand as their model city and applied five theoretical interventions to its infrastructure to see how bikers and other commuters would be affected. They found that the larger the investment in bike infrastructure, the more people would be encouraged to commute by bike, and therefore the larger the return on investment would be.
One of the most effective ways to increase bike traffic is to build separate bike lanes along major roads. The study found that these lanes could increase bike commuting by 20 percent by 2040. Separated bike lanes alongside car traffic also decrease injuries by 50 percent, the study said.
The researchers posited that the fastest and most cost-efficient way to get bikes on the road, cars off the road, and better the public’s health was for a city to go all out: creating separate bike lanes on most roads as well as slowing car traffic on shared roads. That intervention was predicted to increase bike traffic by a whopping 40 percent by 2040, and decrease car traffic by the same amount, leading to the biggest cost savings of all: $24 dollars for every dollar spent on infrastructure.
The biggest cost savings would come from an overall increase in physical activity, leading to fewer public health problems that weigh down government budgets.
Unfortunately, a common bike strategy in cities — sporadic improvements to roads, and the creation of bike lanes on only some routes — was predicted to only increase bike traffic by 5 percent. And this approach did not affect car use at all, meaning that residents of a city wouldn’t get the health benefit of less pollution.
But the biggest problem with instituting this all-out strategy might not be government money but public perception.
According to one researcher who talked with Bloomberg News, people think bike lanes are “giving privileged travel to the few at the cost of a lot.”