‘Bikenomics’: Can cycling get the economy to spin again?
The bicycle can save many things altogether. Years in the lifespan, hours spent in traffic, the clean air in urban areas. Word is out that cycling can even save the world’s broken economy. Elly Blue’s ‘Bikenomics’ is the first book which attempts to prove just that.
My friend Petre moved from Bucharest to London almost three years ago and one of the first things he did was to buy a bicycle even though he hasn’t used one in Romania. He’s a guy in his 30s working in the banking industry, so he’s keen to process economic calculations even in ‘mundane’ contexts: ‘Some of my colleagues were already riding bicycles to work. So I made a simple estimation and I realised that if I rode every day a bicycle to work I could save a lot of money. I cycle less than half an hour to work, but in three months it already paid for the investment. The £300 I bought it for would have been spent on public transportation in just three months’, he tells me.
Most of us don’t usually do such careful and pragmatic calculations for the monthly transportation costs. But in times of economic crisis more and more people don’t want or simply can’t afford to drive their cars to work and begin to consider other alternatives for commuting. For better or worse, the bicycle is often a solution to the problem, as Petre discovered himself. His discourse appears to be more common that one would have initially thought. And the book ‘Bikenomics‘ (2013), authored by bike blogger Elly Blue, is taking the bull by the horns and follows the money in the whole cycling equation. As she asks herself why are more Americans not taking up bicycling, the answer, and the solution, she strongly believes, ‘is in our economy’.
I noticed that in every debate about bicycling, the arguments against it were essentially economic. There were direct financial arguments like the popular myth that people who ride bikes don’t pay for the roads. There were class-based arguments, like that only poor people ride bicycles, or that cycling is a peccadillo of wealth. There were opportunity arguments – that working families don’t have the time or resources to get around by bicycle, or that there isn’t enough room on the roads and that bicycling is unsafe and causes congestion.
How can ‘a poor man’s transportation’ go all the way to become a ‘gentrification agent’ in the city? It is within this paradox that Elly Blue operates throughout the book. It seems indeed a tedious task, but lucky thing she’s not the first to have written on the matter. Ever since the energy crisis of the 1970s there was an intense yet hardly noticed struggle to tackle the car-dependency in the Western world.
In his book, ‘Energy and Equity‘ (1978), Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich makes a compelling case for the economic efficiency of the bicycle when compared to the car. As the speed at which we travel and the distances traversed have increased in modern times, the cost of that transportation as a fraction of personal income has also gone up. The notable exception are the bicycles, argues Illich: with them you can travel much farther and faster, even including the time it takes to earn the bicycle and play for the infrastructure it requires.
More recently, dispersed studies or news articles are making the case for the economic value of cycling. At the European level, bicycle tourism is evaluated at more than €50 billion a year. In the UK, cycling was also estimated to contribute in 2010 with £2,9 billion to the country’s economy. Blue’s ‘Bikenomics’ is the first attempt of a whole book discussing the matter, being more than an up-to-date economic state of bicycling in the US. It is a tool that can inspire virtually anyone who’s encountering difficulties in promoting a cycling agenda elsewhere in the world.
What if I pay you to cycle, not to drive?
Elly Blue is a publisher with a focus on ‘feminist nonfiction about bicycling’ who lives in Portland, deemed the ‘bicycle paradise’ of the USA. Her voice became prominent in recent years on the national advocacy scene, historically dominated by men. ‘Bikenomics’ is Blue’s second book, after she has published ‘Everyday Bicycling: How to Ride a Bike for Transportation (Whatever Your Lifestyle)‘ in 2012.
The first chapter of the 172 pages of ‘Bikenomics’ starts with the story of a common fallacy: that cyclists are freeloaders, the ones using the road but not paying for it. This is common thinking not only in the US, but in the UK as well (see the road tax that was abolished in 1937) and happens often that a driver yells at you ‘Get of the road!’ just when you thought that ‘you were traffic’. Sometimes it is even impossible for cyclists to promptly respond to such non-senses while waiting at the red light. It would take more than 1 minute to explain the reality; by that time the lights would have already turned green. This fallacy, enforced at almost all levels, is of course faulty, as cars don’t pay for roads either. The roads are paid by every and each one of us through general taxes, and this is ‘a recipe for debt’, bluntly says Blue.
What if I told you that by driving a car you become a freeloader, a drain on the economy? That people who bicycle instead are subsidizing a road system that they are largely not welcome on? (…) (People in) Cars pay for about half of the cost of our roads, all told. (…) Driving is one the most heavily subsidized things we do on a daily basis.
She goes on discussing the transport infrastructure in the next chapters, with further focusing on the roads and parking spaces, both described as ‘vicious circles’ of borrowing money to have them set in place. This also creates an induced demand as every new amenities will only bring more traffic.
We’re caught up in a vicious circle of debt. We borrow money to build a giant road project. That project attracts new development, which brings more traffic. Eventually the road needs to be expanded; the initial debt has to be fully paid off, so a new, larger loan is taken out to fund the new project and pay off the old one. The money is borrowed against the promise of further development to bring in new tax revenue. And so it continues.
Parking is as much subsidized as the roads are, says Blue, a ‘publicly-subsidized storage of private property’. She’s against giving away parking spaces for free and insists that ‘we are quite literally paying people to drive’. This very good observation from Blue raises one hypothetical question: Can this induced demand be worked out in the same manner with cycling instead of driving? Amsterdam, Copenhagen, even Portland, show this is possible. Can we all live the days when all cyclists are paid to ride their bikes (it is already happening in some ‘exceptional’ work environments!) the same way drivers are paid today? And what would be the consequences of such a thing for city transportation?
Against this car-shaped infrastructure prevalent not only in the US, but in most other Western countries, Blue mirrors the famed Dutch and Danish superhighways for cycling. By noting that Copenhagen’s bike path system is overseen by the same agency that runs public hospitals, she comments that the bicycle infrastructure must be as much a health investment as it a transportation one. ‘In this light, bicycling for transportation isn’t so much a lifestyle choice as it is a form of civic action’, says Blue as she’s convinced that bicycling is one of the few areas ‘where people can directly and concretely address our own health and the health of our community’.
The blessing of gentrification?
Two other chapters pay close attention to more recent developments in cycling amenities in the US: the bike sharing systems (BSS) and the bike lanes on ‘main street’. Spreading rapidly throughout the world, the so-called ‘intelligent’ systems are being framed within a compelling future vision by Blue:
The next generation of bike share is already here. Smaller scale systems without kiosks, many run on open source software, are being tested at universities and companies with sprawling campuses. Doing away with kiosks makes these programs infinitely cheaper to run. The bikes are sturdy and easily adjustable and have a built-in GPS locator and a lock. To use the system, you ask an app on your phone or computer to tell you where to find the nearest bike. When you select a bike, you are given a code to unlock it. You go find the bike – locked to a pole or a rack, wherever the last person to use it left it – ride where you need to go, lock it up, and let your app know that you’re done. Maybe it’s there for you on the way back, or maybe you find another bike close by.
Even though most of such developments are on prototype stages, some examples such as Lock8, recently featured in Wired magazine, show that the future of such malleable bike sharing systems is not that far, in fact.
The other argument, of opening the main roads for cycle lanes instead of confining them to more quiet roads, is backed by several recent studies showing how the retail industry is benefiting from this: ‘People who ride bicycles spend money. While studies around the world consistently find that costumers who arrive at grocery stores, convenient stores, bars, and restaurants by bicycle tend to spend more overall than people who arrive by car, the catch is that they spend less or the same amount each time they visit. They just visit more often’.
Both the bike lanes on the main roads and the BSS are not simply embraced by Blue as ‘tools for conviviality’ (in Illich’s words), but she also warns against the dangers of gentrification brought about by them. As with the car, the bicycle is not a ‘neutral object’; it can do good, but sometimes, yes, it can also do bad. In the latter case you have what it’s now called ‘bikewashing’.
It’s tempting for cities to focus on the low hanging fruit, improving a few streetscapes while neglecting the urgent transportation needs of people living in outlying areas. Bicycles can be a tool for building wealth and well-being, but when used as part of a flawed development plan, they can also be used to divide and segregate cities.
Let me do the math for you!
It’s all there in the book, the calculations that need be made to build up a strong case for cycling as the possible economy saviour. But the strong arguments often lay in details, so this is why Elly Blue gives a couple of examples of how state of the art bike-friendly enterprises should look like if and when the bicycle is more seriously ‘put to work’ for the economy’s sake.
Take the bold companies who already save money by encouraging their employees to cycle to work. Or take the bike friendly workplaces that provide secure parking, showers and changing rooms for cyclists. Or even better, the freight delivery companies who choose cargo bikes for their daily operations: ‘Most bike-sized businesses are by nature small or medium sized. With their low overhead and replacement of fuel with human power, they provide something that is sorely needed right now – jobs. Bike delivery can’t be automated or outsourced – you need a human being, hauling a human-scaled load all over town to make these operations work’.
Will the bicycle save our economies? It’s hard to say, and even Elly Blue admits it. The bike alone won’t be able to do just that. The post-apocaliptical scenarios hardly feature any bicycle rising above the flames of a Mad Max hell of post-car futures. Yet, says the author, ‘the bicycle is, at this moment in history, the rare tool that reminds us that we have the power to help ourselves and each other in exactly the ways that will allow us to face the worst of the disasters we find ourselves in’.