Bikes, Bridges, & Economic Development

Photo Credit: M.V. Jantzen on Flickr

The debt cutting debate in Washington has now zeroed in on excess flab in the bloated transportation funding bill. To be specific, bicyclists are about to see their funding and infrastructure vanish.

Around $40 billion a year is shoveled out of Washington every year for transportation projects. Out of this, transportation enhancement projects for bike infrastructure (rails to trails, bike lanes, etc.) are allocated about $928 million.

During the summer, House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) fired the first shot across the bow by putting the Washington Metro area’s Capitol Bikeshare program on the Youcut chopping block.

Way it works is that people vote on projects that are listed on the Youcut site, and then funding for the project that gets the most votes is targeted for termination via house legislation. Now, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) adds his voice to the debate, telling the Washington Post that these are silly priorities getting in the way of real needs.

For a minute, let’s set aside the politics and the non-economic benefits (congestion, air quality, safety, obesity, etc.) of promoting bike usage. Even if you consider only the economic benefits of bicycling infrastructure to the local community, it actually is a better way to create jobs and generate returns on federal funding than building roads and bridges.

Bike trails add value to real estate, and attract people to move in. Not to mention that it makes the destination more attractive for tourists. From a purely jobs point of view, a pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure study of data provided by 11 US cities published by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the Univ. of Massachusetts shows that bikes beat roads and bridges by a mile, and then some.

The study says that, “For each $1 million, the cycling projects in this study create a total of 11.4 jobs within the state where the project is located. Pedestrian-only projects create an average of about 10 jobs per $1 million and multi-use trails create nearly as many, at 9.6 jobs per $1 million. Infrastructure that combines road construction with pedestrian and bicycle facilities creates slightly fewer jobs for the same amount of spending, and road-only projects create the least, with a total of 7.8 jobs per $1 million.”

Starting with the stimulus funding, the Obama administration has been busy trying to create more jobs by funding construction projects that focus on bridges and roads. Just last month, President Obama introduced the jobs bill at the Brent Spence bridge in Cincinnati, OH.

The President often highlights the need to put people back to work repairing bridges and roads. It is no doubt an admirable intent, and necessary too – there are 70,000 structurally deficient bridges nationwide, and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimates that $70.9 billion is needed to clear the backlog of dangerous bridges.

But from a purely economic point of view of returns on federal investment, bikes are a much better bet for creating jobs than roads and bridges.

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