A decade ago, we wrote that the bicycle is one of the world’s seven everyday wonders because it’s so simple, effective, affordable, and pollution-free. To that list, we might have added “enriching.”

Bicycling for transportation pumps money into local economies. Bikes are wheels of fortune. If your community spends money building bikeways, you and your neighbors will cycle more. Your cycling will put extra money in the local economy. (I’ll explain how in a moment.) The extra money will make the community rich enough to pay for more bikeways. More bikeways will induce more cycling, and the virtuous circle will continue.

Let’s break the process into steps.

  • Our work is made possible by the generosity of people like you!

    Thanks to Allen & Laura Puckett for supporting a sustainable Cascadia.

  • Building bikeways costs money.

    Bikeways are cheap, especially compared to roads and trains, but they’re not free. In the Puget Sound area, construction can easily cost more than $1 million per mile for a new trail or lane—not counting land. Seattle’s 10-year Bicycle Master Plans sketches a citywide network of cycling routes estimated to cost about $240 million. Retrofitting all of Cascadia’s communities for Bicycle Respect—integrated systems of separate, signaled bikeways as found in parts of northern Europe—would cost billions of dollars. (Sort of like RTID/ST and Pacific Gateway.)

    At present, as best I can discern, Cascadia is spending tens of millions of dollars a year on facilities for cycling—well under 2 percent of public-sector transportation funding. In contrast, bicycle-respecting Copenhagen devotes one-third of all road dollars to cycling infrastructure and services (large PDF).

    Building bikeways increases cycling.

    Because many people mistakenly consider cycling on roads unsafe, building bikeways is a great way to boost cycling. As I’ve noted many times, places such as Amsterdam that have more bikeways also have more cycling. But skeptics may wonder whether bikeway construction itself causes cycling to increase, or whether northern Europeans would ride anyway. Analysts have examined this question. The answer is: if you build it, they will ride. For example, this journal article shows that safe trails induce some formerly sedentary residents to begin walking and cycling for exercise. Other research (cited by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute) shows that every mile of bikeway added to a community per 100,000 residents bumps up bike commuting’s “market share” by a tenth of a percent.

    David Ogilvie and a team of researchers in Glasgow, Scotland, scanned the academic literature for well-designed studies on what types of changes in policy and government program actually increase cycling and walking at the expense of driving. The only controlled study of bikeway construction—one that examined change in a control group as well as in the test group—was in Delft, the Netherlands. There, households in a community where a bikeway network was built shifted 3 percent of their trips to bikes in three years; in a similar community that didn’t get a bikeway network, car trips increased instead.

    Todd Litman estimates that building bikeways can shift 5 to 10 percent of motorized trips to walking and cycling.

    Biking Generates Money.

    At rush hour, in town, a mile you bike rather than drive saves you a quarter dollar, plus the cost of parking, and adds about a quarter hour to your life. The same rush-hour mile biked provides even bigger benefits to your community: some 50 cents, just for quantifiable gains. (All of the monetary estimates in this section are based on Todd’s keystone paper “Quantifying the Benefits of Non-Motorized Transport.”)

    The benefits to you mount even faster if your community is bike-friendly enough to let you shed one of your cars. Then, you’ll save at least an additional $5 a day in car payments and other costs of ownership. (It’s astounding how much we spend on transportation, mostly cars: 19 percent of all consumer spending in the Northwest states and 14 percent in British Columbia.)

    The benefits to your community proliferate. Here’s a list (courtesy of Todd) of some of biking’s quantifiable benefits to communities:

    A few of the public benefits from biking—and the estimated economic value of these benefits to the community (per mile biked rather than driven, at rush hour in a city).

    Less Congestion 20 ¢
    Reduced Roadwork and Policing 5 ¢
    Cleaner Air 10 ¢
    Quieter Communities 3 ¢
    Saved Energy 5 ¢
    Safer Streets 5 ¢
    48 ¢ 

    How do analysts put a price on such things? Consider congestion. They estimate the extra fuel that others burn idling in traffic when you add your car to congested streets. They add in the wages others lose because your car slowed them down. To figure the benefit of cycling, they subtract the much smaller dollar values of fuel and time wasted that adding your bike to the road would have caused in added congestion. The difference between the two is the community’s congestion benefit of you biking rather than driving.

    Analysts do the same thing for other benefits of biking: Smaller, lighter, slower vehicles necessitate less road repair and fewer traffic cops, for example. Cycling cleans urban air, because bike trips substitute for the dirtiest kind of car trips: short ones, when the engine is cold and “riding dirty.” (Oldsters, that’s a pop culture reference made to impress my teenagers; if you’re lost, here’s the music video and its funnier spoof). Todd estimates that every 1 percent of car trips replaced by bicycling limits pollution from cars by 2 to 4 percent. Better air quality boosts local economies by trimming medical expenses, raising nearby crop yields, and elevating property values.

    Energy savings lessen political entanglements in oil-exporting regions of the world. They also keep dollars circulating in the local economy. As Todd writes, “Each million dollars in automobile expenditures shifted to a normal bundle of consumer goods creates about 9 regional jobs and increases regional income by about $250,000.”

    What’s more, the list above omits some of cycling’s largest community benefits, because these benefits are hard to express in dollars and cents per mile. Devoting urban land to car parking, for example, prevents more-productive uses such as buildings full of workers, sapping the economy by as much as $4 per roundtrip by car. Exercise not only lowers your own medical expenses, it lowers your neighbors’, since we’re all bound together through our insurance plans. Just so, exercise reduces sick days, which increases productivity and grows the economic pie for all.

    Besides, lots of cyclists on the street make for a lively, inviting community—the kind of place where families want to live, where business owners and retirees want to stay. And those things make a huge difference to local economies. Every retiree who stays in a neighborhood effectively creates a local job through his or her spending, as I noted in Green-Collar Jobs.

    The way the bicycle pays dividends both to its rider and to its neighbors is a pretty nifty trick. It’s like juggling while unicycling: either activity is impressive; the two together strain belief.


    Biking Generates Enough Money to Pay for Bikeways.

    Bikeways’ economic benefits exceed their costs by wide margins:

    • University of Minnesota professor Kevin Krizek recently reviewed 25 evaluations of the economics of cycling facilities. Every single study that calculated a benefit-cost ratio for bicycle infrastructure found the benefits exceeded the costs by at least fifty percent. The most rigorous of the studies put the benefits of bikeway networks in three Norwegian cities at three, four, and fourteen times the costs.
    • In Lincoln, Nebraska, the public cost to install and maintain a network of five bike and pedestrian trail was about $100 per year for each person who became more physically active as a consequence, according to an article in the journal Preventive Medicine. The cyclists and walkers who used the trail paid another $100 each per year, on average, for running shoes or bikes, bringing the total cost of the trail to about $200 per user. Meanwhile, the health benefits of using the trails—largely, savings on medical bills—were above $550 a year per trail user, according to a related journal article.

    Put the matter this way, for context: Cascadians will drive about 140 billion miles this year (my estimate, based largely on this). Assume that Todd’s right and building lots of bikeways could shift 5 percent of Cascadia’s car and truck trips to bikes. Five percent of 140 billion miles is 7 billion miles. At a low-balled figure of 15 cents’ worth of community economic gain per mile, the region would be better off by more than $1 billion a year.

    That’s enough to pay for a lot of bikeways.

    Of course, this economic benefit would be widely shared, not deposited in the bicycle accounts of transportation agencies. So it will take political will to win Bicycle Respect. To redirect road funds or to raise new revenue—perhaps from pricing congestion or greenhouse gas emissions—we’ll need strong leadership and effective advocacy.

    How to get that? I’ll write about that another time.

    Notes about data: To estimate how much Cascadia currently spends on bike facilities, Sightline asked city, county, and state/provincial cycling coordinators in British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington, and reviewed a variety of official reports. Unfortunately, bike funding is hard to track because bike facilities are usually built as part of larger road projects and the costs are not recorded separately.

    In my final paragraph, I made a simplifying assumption. I assumed that car trips shifted to biking equals car miles shifted to biking. In fact, bike trips tend to replace only the shortest car trips directly. Replacing 5 percent of car trips with bike trips would probably only substitute for 1 or 2 percent of miles driven. Still, there’s a compensating force at work. People choose different destinations and reorganize their trips when they’re in cycling-oriented communities. Every mile of cycling for transportation, as opposed to recreation, tends to reduce driving overall by about seven miles, as Todd points out. I assumed that the shortness of trips and the displacement of extra miles cancel each other out, so that a 5 percent reduction in trips is equivalent to a 5 percent reduction in miles.

    The benefits of cycling tallied in this post do not all convert directly into new dollars in someone’s hands in the local economy. For example, savings on medical care from increased fitness is a large benefit, insofar as people would prefer to spend their money on things other than medical care. But it does not automatically increase the money circulating in the local economy for those dollars to be spent on other goods and services than medical care. In contrast, the increased productivity that stems from fewer sick days does, in all likelihood, increase money circulating in the local economy. And funds not spent on gasoline are typically spent on other goods and services with higher “local content,” that is, for which a larger share of the expenditure stays in the local economy. To be cautious, I estimated that only half of the benefits of cycling become actual dollars in someone’s pocket or portfolio, as opposed to nonmonetary benefits.

    Juggling unicycle lane photo courtesy of Flickr user SpiralShannon under a Creative Commons license.