What *The Economist* Got Right, Got Wrong About NYC Bike Lanes

by Marc Scribner on March 15, 2011

in Features, Mobility

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New Yorker econ writer John Cassidy created quite a stir last week with this blog post that attacked bike lanes in New York City. Many were outraged by Cassidy’s vitriolic attack on eco-friendly transport infrastructure, but mostly for nonsensical reasons. The Economist‘s Free Exchange blog drafted a fairly detailed response, and corrected several errors in Cassidy’s logic. However, they also missed a few key points that I’ll now discuss.

What The Economist Got Right

  1. Given the way upkeep is currently financed, driving on existing road infrastructure in New York City produces negative externalities. The marginal automobile driver produces some congestion cost, which not only affects other personal road users, but goods delivery as well.
  2. More automobiles in traffic ceteris paribus result in decreased air quality.
  3. Unpriced parking drives inefficient land uses and distorts transportation choices. As UCLA economist Donald Shoup has argued, minimum parking zoning limits should be abolished and curbside parking should be adequately priced.

What The Economist Got Wrong

  1. Expanding bike lanes does not necessarily decrease traffic congestion. In fact, removing auto lanes or narrowing them to accommodate dedicated cycling infrastructure tends to have a traffic calming effect, which often significantly increases traffic congestion. While drivers will forgo more auto trips due to “calmed” traffic, meaning their will be fewer cars on the street, the level of service in terms of traffic flow will not improve.
  2. More congestion and slower average speeds will result in more emissions, not less. Emissions are a function of speed, and lower speeds mean increased emitted pollution/mile. Expanding dedicated bike lanes by eliminating and/or narrowing auto lanes will likely increase emissions and decrease local air quality.
  3. Reduced road capacity and slower traffic increases emergency vehicle response times. Very likely, far more people will die as a result (of, say, cardiac arrest where seconds count) due to more congested roads than pedestrians/cyclists will be saved by slower auto speeds and separated bike lanes.

Given their inaccuracies and omission of important facts, The Economist‘s conclusion seems a bit ridiculous:

As things stand, given that cyclists help alleviate some of these externalities (a cyclist takes up dramatically less road space than a car, doesn’t use on-street parking, does not emit ozone, and does not contribute to climate change) it seems quite sensible to allocate a larger share of New York’s roadways to lanes for cyclists. From an economic perspective.

The Economist is essentially saying: increasing subsidies to transport mode A that worsen congestion addresses the problems that result from existing subsidies to transport mode B that worsen congestion. There is nothing “sensible” about that — “from an economic perspective.”

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