Op-Ed

Raleigh bike lanes an unjustified $4.62 million expense

A sign, right, warns of changed traffic patterns as a bicyclist rides over the railroad bridge on Hillsborough Street near Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh. Center lanes on many Raleigh streets have been moved to left here, to the right there, as can be seen in the background. Automobile lanes have been made fewer or narrower. All to make room for miles and miles of new bike lanes.
A sign, right, warns of changed traffic patterns as a bicyclist rides over the railroad bridge on Hillsborough Street near Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh. Center lanes on many Raleigh streets have been moved to left here, to the right there, as can be seen in the background. Automobile lanes have been made fewer or narrower. All to make room for miles and miles of new bike lanes. cseward@newsobserver.com

I drive alongside bike lanes daily, but never alongside cyclists. Those lanes are always empty. So I started looking into how much has been spent on these lanes and whether they are used as little as they appear to be.

Raleigh spent $4.62 million on on-road bikeways in 2015. Given that total spending, you would think I could find information about the number of Raleigh cyclists. It was almost impossible to find.

Eventually, after digging through data, I found this: 0.6 percent. That’s the percentage of workers in Raleigh who commute by bicycle, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s about 1,200 people. Raleigh spent almost $4,000 per bicycle commuter last year alone.

Just so we’re clear, this spending is limited to on-road bikeways. It doesn’t count greenways. That’s additional money. The $4.62 million covers bike lanes on existing roads – bike lanes that displace lanes for motorized traffic.

Roads in Raleigh are congested. Some of them at certain times of day move at a snail’s pace. There is demonstrated demand for expanding roads, adding lanes and making it easier to move around by car. The overwhelming majority of commuters, as well as those conducting other business, choose to use private vehicles. There is no indication of any shift in that demand.

Yet Raleigh City Council is diverting scarce resources to building bike lanes. If council members are concerned about appearances, about looking like a cool, hip, green city, then by all means they should build bike lanes.

But if the goal is to facilitate smooth, efficient travel that allows people to get to jobs and shops and schools and soccer practice, then bike lanes are counterproductive. They reduce the space for cars but not the number of cars. That leads to increased congestion. That congestion slows travel times, lengthens commutes, makes it less convenient to shop locally and generally stifles economic activity.

I do not oppose bike lanes in principle. If significant numbers of people wish to travel by bike and need safe lanes, it is reasonable for the city to use part of its transportation budget to meet that need.

But I do oppose social engineering and paternalism. I absolutely object to Raleigh and Wake County using taxpayers’ money to push taxpayers away from one behavior (driving cars) that they prefer and toward a different behavior (riding bikes) that they have not embraced.

I am frustrated by the arrogance of elected leaders who think they know better than the people they are elected to represent. The people of Raleigh don’t need the city council or city bureaucrats to guide their choices or help them determine what’s better and healthy and green.

Let’s not forget that the $4.62 million spent on bike lanes all came from taxpayers. It could have gone toward improving city streets to make them safer for drivers or for other infrastructure projects. Those sorts of uses would have benefited far more people than the 1,200 or so who bike.

Read the Raleigh Bike Plan, and you’ll learn about miles of bike lanes that have been built, the amount of money spent and awards Raleigh has won for bike-friendliness.

What I haven’t found is data demonstrating demand for bike lanes or significant increases in use of those lanes. It’s almost as if none of that really matters. City leaders should switch gears and let data drive their transportation decisions.

Julie Tisdale is city and county policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

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