08 June 2015

The Money Cycling Saves

I'm no expert on public policy and budgets.  Of course, that's not going to stop me from saying what I'm about to say.

People are always saying "I can't afford X". Public officials and voters are always saying "We can't afford Y."  "X" and "Y" can be any number of things:  X might be a seemingly-expensive purchase (like a quality bicycle), "Y" might be an infrastructure expense such as public transportation or some other pubic expenditure such as a raise in teachers' salaries.

Yet money is spent on all sorts of other things that make me wonder what people are thinking.  Someone can't afford to buy vegetables and fruit yet can afford a two-pack-a day (here in NYC, about $30) cigarette habit.  A city might not be able to find the money in its budget to keep its streetlights on but can build a sports arena for some team owner who can easily afford to pay for it himself.

And, in study after study, it's shown that spending on things like transportation, education and even providing meals for needy families creates more jobs and other economic activity, per amount of money spent, than a stadium, megamall or weapons system.

I got to thinking about that after overhearing a conversation between two old-time Queens residents.  One is one of the few remaining US-born Caucasian taxi drivers left in this city; the other is the widow of a blue-collar worker.  They are both warm, generous people (I have been witness and recipient to their acts of kindness) who would never dream of voting for any Republican and who believe that we are all accountable to God (as they perceive him--and both perceive him as male) but will enter a church only under great duress.  Obviously, they are not part of the class of people who got theirs, or are trying to get theirs, and don't care about anybody else.

Their conversation took a bunch of twists and turns, as any really good conversation does.  Somehow they got onto the topic of bike lanes.  Both decried them, and both offered the same rationales--one of them being the cost of constructing them and of putting cops on the street to enforce safety.

Now, I didn't mention that I'm not in favor of creating separate bike lanes, especially given how poorly-conceived and constructed too many lanes I've seen are.  However, those two folks--one a good friend, the other a friendly acquaintance--talked about "priorites".  One of them complained, "How can they spend money on bike lanes when there are so many other pressing issues, like police and firefighters?"

Back in the Reagan years, people--perhaps not those two--would have wondered the same thing about "the arts" or, more specifically, the National Endowment for the Arts.  And I would give the same answer I gave to those two people who decried bike lanes:  They're such a small part of the budget.  If they were eliminated, it wouldn't save enough money to keep even one branch of the library open for longer hours. (In the NEA argument, I'd say something like "one Air Force bomber" or something like that.) Besides, all kinds of other money is wasted on truly useless projects or lost to graft and corruption.   

What I didn't mention is that just as spending on the arts generates economic activity in other areas, so does bicycling.  In fact, the "return" in both cases is much greater than the expenditure, whether at the household or national level.

I couldn't have cited any figures off the top of my head.  But I would've loved to have the following graphic on hand.  Even though the numbers were compiled for Atlanta, I think they could be scaled to New York and other cities.

From The Atlanta Bicycle Coalitiom

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