Commentary: Drive a Car in the City? Time to Embrace Bike Infrastructure

Though I bicycle, walk and take transit for half my trips, the other half, which usually involve shuttling children in carpools, for now necessitate driving a car. So there are days when I am on the streets of San Francisco behind a windshield, sometimes for hours, negotiating city streets. I know exactly how complex urban driving is and how aggravating congested traffic can be. And I grew up soundly in the midst of our car culture.

The American Dream...

As a teen, I adored “Thunder Road.” From Bruce Springsteen to Madison Avenue, our society glorified the status, freedom, power, identity, safety, protection and even redemption that cars offered. Cars were our Iron Man suit extending our physical abilities to unprecedented levels. We could eat, sleep, and live in them. Anyone over the age of 16—especially anyone male—without a car was a loser of the first degree, to be scoffed at and ridiculed. Given this heritage of the last sixty years, it’s not surprising that we Americans are now resistant to trading in our all-powerful motorized conveyances for a bicycle or a seat on the train.

Though times are clearly changing and an energy-scarce future means the internal combustion engine, with its extravagant inefficiency, will fade away, some people will continue driving no matter what. Especially people who are 55 or older, who have a substantial income, and who have a decent nest egg saved for retirement—some of them may indeed never ride a bicycle or take public transit.

...and the American reality. Flickr photo: ##http://flickr.com/photos/cbcastro/2504873088/##cbcastro##

So how to convince well-to-do, aging urbanites who will drive until their car keys are pulled from their infirm hands that it is in their best interest to support the creation of good, safe bicycle infrastructure that allows people ages 8 – 80 to bike confidently and without fear, especially when at times this infrastructure will come at the expense of car parking or a lane of car travel? Such reallocations of space strike a chill in many a car driver’s heart. There will be traffic nightmares! The economy will collapse! If more space is given to bicycles, before you can say “Harvey Milk,” crazy liberal cities like San Francisco will outlaw cars altogether.

Or so the protestations go. But the truth is that even car drivers should welcome and support bicycle infrastructure. Here are six reasons why, drawing heavily from the theory of Other People.

1) Congestion is mostly caused by Other People in cars and will only grow the more Other People keep driving. When you drive in a city, what holds you up, slows you down, wastes your time, keeps you from where you want to go, are Other People. These Other People are sometimes on foot or bicycle, but mostly these Other People are in cars, though as car drivers we may not want to admit it.

What we have to understand is that Other People in cars take up an enormous amount of space. Other People in cars are, in fact, the biggest hogs on the road by a factor of at least ten. In addition, as the cost of gasoline and other energy increases, people are growing more interested in urban living, so population density and congestion will continually increase in most cities until complete gridlock is reached and no car driver can get anywhere except perhaps in the dead of night. It has been proven worldwide that car infrastructure induces driving and bicycle infrastructure induces bicycling. If you want to have room to drive, inducing Other People to travel by foot, public transit, or bikes means a lot more room for your car. On space issues alone, as a driver you want as many Other People as possible not in cars. In addition, as the ranks of bicyclists are swelled by ordinary Other People who are more risk averse than the early-adopter cyclists (who had to be aggressive and even daredevils to cycle on car-dominated streets) bicycle traffic will grow more orderly, predictable, law-abiding, and calm.

But, you might counter, if Other People stop driving, then all cars will go away, and that can’t be good for me. On this point you can relax. Cars are not going away in our lifetime. Some dense, downtown areas might become pedestrian-only, but pedestrianizing dense downtown areas won’t impact 99 percent of driving trips (but it will make shopping or going to a restaurant downtown much more pleasant). If vast numbers of Other People stop driving, there may be some reduction in the number of lanes dedicated to cars on city streets, but since cars will still be useful for some activities, Other People will still own enough of them (or rent them via a car-share program) that roads will continue to be open to them for the foreseeable future. Road speeds may be a little slower to increase safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, but it’s not road speeds that slow you down right now, it’s all the traffic. Get rid of the traffic and even 20 mph will get you around swiftly.

2) Healthier Other People cost you less. When Other People ride bicycles instead of drive cars, they are healthier due to the exercise, and all the people around them are healthier due to breathing cleaner air.  This means that your city’s health care costs, the nation’s health care costs, and your health insurance premiums will all be lower. Obesity and diabetes are leading causes of skyrocketing health care costs.  (In car-congested areas, we can add asthma to the list.)  The more people drive, the fatter they are. Health care now consumes 17.3 percent of our nation’s GDP. (France, a weak runner-up in the Let’s-Destroy-Our-Economy-Via-Health-Care pageant, clocks in at a paltry 11 percent.) Skyrocketing health care costs are one of the prime reasons why small businesses are reluctant to hire new employees. Though there are many other pieces to the health care mess that need to be addressed, by making Other People less sedentary and their air less polluted, you will directly benefit economically. And in terms of getting sedentary people fit, integrating exercise into their daily activity via walking or biking costs one-fourth as much as getting them to go to the gym.

Total health expenditure per capita in US and selected countries, 1970-2008. Source: ##http://www.kff.org/insurance/snapshot/OECD042111.cfm##Kaiser Family Foundation##

Providing safe routes for children to walk and bike to school is especially important to reduce epidemic childhood obesity rates, especially since 70 percent of obese children go on to become obese adults. In addition, children who walk or bike to school watch less TV and are less likely to smoke, girls who walk or bike to school have higher cognitive test scores, and children who are physically-fit have higher scores in math and reading than their less-fit classmates. More children walking and biking to school would also provide a huge benefit directly to drivers: right now parents driving children to school create 20-30 percent of morning traffic congestion in urban areas.

3) When Other People switch from cars to bicycles it improves the local economy. San Francisco, for example, benefits very little from money spent on gasoline, cars, and car insurance.  And, as we all know, roughly half of our national trade deficit is due to importing oil. When Other People free themselves of the $8800/year cost of car ownership, they have a great deal more money to spend locally, creating an economic boost for your city far more powerful than a temporary tax cut or (unless you live near Wall Street) various iterations of the Fed’s quantitative easing. In addition, the less oil your city uses, the more your city’s economy will be impervious to the economically destabilizing effects of Peak Oil.

The growing gap between oil discoveries and production. Source: ##http://www.energybulletin.net/primer.php##Energy Bulletin##

In the coming decades of tightening energy supply, the cities and regions that are able to produce the most GDP with the least energy will be the most resilient and stable. Even if you personally have the money to withstand economic crashes, a wealthier city with a healthier tax base will be a more pleasant place in which to live out your golden years. Last but not least, employees who bicycle to work have 15 percent less absenteeism than non-cyclist employees, making them more economically productive.

4) Good bicycle infrastructure encourages tourism. This concerns the ultimate Other People—tourists. Bicycling is a lovely way to the see a city, and parents especially appreciate an active, healthy way their whole family can participate in a vacation. San Francisco, for example, with all its natural attractions, could be a great city for tourists to bicycle in. Already the ride through Crissy Field over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito is world famous, and an equally nice ride someday could take visitors up Market Street, through the Wiggle and on to the attractions of Golden Gate Park. But the bicycle infrastructure at present is not safe enough or simple enough or pleasant enough for anyone not girded for the teeth-gnashing rigors that bicycling in San Francisco currently entails. Cities with tourist-friendly bicycle infrastructure will find that tourists on bicycles are more likely to stop at shops along the way than tourists in cars or buses. And they will also find that tourists on bicycles are less likely than tourists in cars to kill or maim their city’s citizens as they try to negotiate complex urban traffic. (Anecdotal, I know, but the two times my family members have been hit by cars, both cars were driven by tourists.)

5) Bikes consume far less taxpayer subsidy than transit or car driving. Though it’s true that not all Other People can ride bicycles on all occasions, each time one of them does take a bike instead of a car it saves you money. Since gas taxes have not increased for decades, they cover only half the cost of road construction, maintenance and repair costs. General taxes cover the other half.  (See the excellent report, Whose Roads? Also see Do Roads Pay for Themselves?) Factoring in the indirect costs of parking, crashes, congestion and land, cities also shell out $.28 for every mile driven on their streets. Bicycles, in contrast, cost cities one cent per mile traveled in indirect costs. To illustrate the point with data from Whose Roads?, let’s take two neighbors, Driver Dan and Biker Betty, who each pay $300 annually in local taxes that fund roads and traffic services. Dan drives 10,000 miles per year on local roads and also pays $24 in gas taxes that go towards local roads. The direct cost of his driving to the local community is $560 and the indirect cost is $2,800. Total cost of his driving to the public: $3,360. Net loss to the public taxpayer: $3,360 – $324 = $3,036. In contrast, Betty, who bikes 3,000 miles in a year and pays no gas tax, costs the city $48 in direct costs and $30 in indirect costs. Total: $78. Net gain to public taxpayer: $300 – $78 =  $222. It’s pretty clear who is the better deal for the public purse.

Then there’s the amount taxpayers subsidize each gallon of gas through federal subsidies of corn, ethanol and oil companies that comes to $13.3 billion/year or $.10/gallon. (Corn subsidies = $3.6 billion/year, ethanol subsidies = $5.7 billion/year, tax breaks to oil industries = $4 billion/year.) And there’s also the largest military in the history of the world controlling the oil supply in the Middle East and North Africa, so Other People can have cheap gas. (If we estimate half of the US defense budget goes toward oil procurement—$331.9 billion—and divide that by U.S. consumption of oil—132 billion gallons, it comes to $2.51 for every gallon of gas put into an American gas tank.) You would be far better off with Other People paying the true cost of gas, which would result in lower taxes for you (perhaps as much as 25 percent less) and fewer cars on the roads.  You would be far better off economically if most freight were moved by rail, and roads were routinely tolled based on road damage inflicted by a vehicle’s weight. When the true cost of any kind of energy is masked, people continue to vastly undervalue things like efficiency, make poor investments in energy-squandering ventures such as far-flung suburbia, and fail to make investments that are truly economic like rail. If you drive less than the average American and pay more taxes than the average American, you should wince every time you see Other People filling their gas tank up because you are footing nearly half the true cost.

Even as Other People consume less oil, the price of gas will still climb due to Peak Oil and the Export Land Model (rising internal consumption of oil in oil-producing countries will sharply curtail their exports) but if you are wealthy, gasoline still won’t be entirely beyond your reach. Whereas, if oil continues to be subsidized in the face of declining supply, shortages will be inevitable due to the lack of an appropriate price signal to decrease demand. Contrary to what oil and car companies would like us to believe, if gasoline reflected its true costs (not even factoring in the damage it does to the environment) the economy wouldn’t end; we as a nation would adjust our economy to reflect reality. Masking reality doesn’t make reality go away—it only delays the inevitable at tremendous cost that we pay for one way or another, even if we refuse to acknowledge it.

In terms of road repair and maintenance, bicycles are preferable to buses because their negligible weight inflicts a micro-fraction of the damage. (Light rail, while requiring more initial upfront investment, is also far easier on the roads.)  Compared to maintaining roads, subsidizing oil, or building out transit, bicycle infrastructure is cheap, cheap, cheap. (For $75 million you could put in over a thousand miles of bike lane, say one that stretched from Los Angeles to Seattle. Or you could repave 3 miles of Interstate 710 in Los Angeles. Or you could rebuild about half (1.6 miles) of San Francisco’s Market Street. Or you could install 1.15 miles of high speed rail in California. Or you could extend Washington D.C’s Metro a little less than one-third of a mile towards Dulles Airport.) Of course, offering public transit that’s pleasant, frequent and reliable will be an important way of encouraging businesses to locate in your city to keep your economy afloat, but the more you can get Other People to bicycle, the lower the taxes you will have to pay for transit, roads and other transportation infrastructure. In addition, bicycle infrastructure also gives a city an edge in wooing companies over its car-centric counterparts. The city of Chicago is putting in bicycle infrastructure precisely because it attracts high tech start-ups with bike-riding employees.

Photo: I, PRA via Wikimedia Commons

6) Other People become happier, more energetic, more empowered and more connected to their community when they ride bicycles. How this might benefit car drivers may not be obvious, so let me explain. When Other People ride bicycles, they begin to feel better along a number of measures. Their health improves, they have less stress, they have more money to spend, they need to use less pharmaceutical drugs with all their debilitating side effects, endorphins are released naturally, and they being to feel empowered and self-actualized. Cars may make people feel psychologically powerful and privileged, but it is actually a physically inactive, enervating form of transportation that undermines basic self-reliance.

Driving a powerful car can be thrilling, but in the end the power belongs to the combustion of gasoline, not oneself. Most people cannot repair or modify their cars and must take them to a specialist, whereas bicycles are simple enough to allow mastery of their basic mechanics and further feelings of competence. And because in a car Other People are locked away from both their environment and their fellow citizens, car use tends to make them much more alienated than bicycle use. Without the armor of a car, Other People on bicycles are more vulnerable, but this means they also have more visual and physical connection with both their fellow human beings and their environment. There is no anonymity to screen their actions, no hiding who they are.

Like it or not, we are all interconnected, and the well-being of others affects our own. Biking is an inherently pleasant and easy activity that most people find enjoyable, so it’s not surprising that the top cities for bicycle commuting are also the cities with the top levels of happiness and well-being. In general bicyclists are a pretty happy bunch as long as they have smooth pavement, not too many stops, and aren’t physically threatened or intimidated by cars. The beauty of well-designed bicycle infrastructure is that it reduces the conflict between car drivers and bicyclists, leaving everyone more peaceable.

The plain, simple bicycle is one of the most efficient machines ever devised and one of the best tools we have to prosper in a lower-energy future. (And for people who live on hills, adding an electric-assist is also very energy-efficient, if not quite as simple.) Bicycles induce good health. They create self-reliance that can expand to other areas of people’s lives. They are cheap to own and operate. They free up money for the local economy. They do little damage to our expensive roads. They don’t take up much space. They don’t pollute the air. They increase people’s feelings of well-being. Their infrastructure is the cheapest of any form of transportation, including walking, and requires the least subsidy. They are fundamentally empowering and democratic.

Repurposing some city space now dedicated to car storage or car travel to bicycle infrastructure may seem like it will induce congestion, but it is a proven way to get Other People to convert — happily — to bicycle riding in droves. Unhappy conversions through rising gas prices or shortages under conditions of bad or no bicycle infrastructure will result in unhappy Other People who are likely to make you unhappy in a multitude of ways. Based purely on enlightened self-interest, urban car drivers stand to gain much from the installation of bicycle infrastructure in our cities.

Karen Lynn Allen is the author of Pearl City Control Theory, a novel of city Buddha-mind walking, love, and breaking free (Cabbages and Kings Press, 1999) and Beaufort 1849, a novel of antebellum South Carolina (Cabbages and Kings Press, 2011). She lives up a big hill in San Francisco and rides her Xtracycle cargo bike (with an electric-assist) for utility trips and her regular (non-electric) bike to get around town.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, great article. Pretty much sums up everything I believe. They only thing I would say you overlooked was noise pollution. Noise is the most underrated problem of living in urban areas, yet it is also the easiest to fix. And the number one source of noise in cities is cars. Not just the roar of the engine (especially those with amplified mufflers), but the whooshing sound of the air and tires that actually dominates near freeways and high-speed roads, the over-used car horn which has become a way of indicating frustration rather than emergency, the thumping of ridiculously over-powered stereos operated by self-centered people who think we all want to hear their (muffled and distorted) music, and the useless car alarms constantly going off and which I swear have never once stopped a theft.

    And the thing is, solving most of the noise problems are so easy. All we need are laws which ban behavior which creates noise above a certain level and — this is key — enforcement by the police (who currently essentially ignore violations of these laws). Those self-centered fools in cars and motorcycles with amplified mufflers that set off car alarms and give people heart attacks as they drive by should be given a huge ticket and that behavior would stop overnight. Similar for car horns that are never used for anything but expressing frustration (try living across from a school where all the parents drive their kids to school and turn your quiet neighborhood street into a parking lot while they all get angry and honk at each other).

    And in the end of the day, all car drivers live in a house and nobody wants to hear all these noises by their house, so by working towards having more people bicycling, they too get a quieter city.

  • I am 60. I have some kind of chronic leg pain than no doctor has been able to help me with. I can manage a 20+ mile loop around the city on my bike, including some hills _for exercise_, but man, sometimes I have trouble facing my hill if I just need something from the Walgreens.

    Interesting that you ride an electric cargo bike. I’ve been riding recumbent bikes since 1982, and the electric bike scene is a technological star wars bar compared to  recumbents. Any bike shop could work on my ‘bent, not that they would… I can’t imagine what I would do with a $3000 e-bike when the store front I bought it from disappeared.

    City Hall has a bunch of plug in CARS in front of it. Hel-LO-oo e-bike people! I think I talked to David Chiu about e-bikes, and he said stay tuned, or something to that effect. Electric cars are still cars. E-bike people hedge when you talk about getting up one of SF’s 18% slopes. _Someone_ needs to make it _clear_ what works _here_. No hedging, and no resorting to 1000 watt motors.

    One of the great things about San Francisco is the leaving of it. In July, when the fog is thick, I can get in my car and be in Sonoma sunshine in no more than an hour. I suspect it would take considerably longer by other means. (Not that I wouldn’t consider making an overnight trip by bike, if there was a decent bike route – but I digress.)

    Some people drive to the mountains, whatever. _Leaving_ the city needs to be taken in as a motivation to own a car _in_ the city. Recently there was an issue here on Russian Hill when a parking garage was going to be made into housing. It is going forward. The thing is, parking that is in the nature of storage satisfies those that use the car to leave the city, but since it is likely to be at some distance from where they actually live, it discourages use _in_ the city.

    I don’t think it is “well-to-do, aging urbanites” that are resisting bikes. Certainly as a bike rider and car driver, I am not. I don’t know how you got to “aging urbanites” from “shuttling children in carpools” in the first paragraph. I  think it is commuters and kid shuttle drivers that are most in a panic. If you want to know where the resistance is coming from, talk to your peers. The median age in this city is 36!

    BTW, coming here after 20 years in Toronto, SF transit is a joke.

  • icarus12

    Yes, a great article.  Thank you especially for elucidating the joys and benefits of riding bikes in the city.  Bicycling is always one of the best parts of my day.

    As an urbanite who can afford the thousands of dollars it costs to keep a car garaged in San Francisco, I can tell you what will get me out of my car for 90% of all trips —  excellent, fast, comfortable public transportation. A previous poster from Toronto is correct — SF’s public transit is a joke.  It gets the job done only if you are willing to sacrifice your time, usually because you can’t afford a car or taxi. People who cannot afford to drive and park take MUNI buses.

    This needs to change.  But unfortunately, the tactics I have seen thus far are all about punishing drivers with congestion and parking difficulties rather than luring us out of our cars by providing a better option.  And by better I mean a system that gets me from Point A to Point B faster than and nearly as comfortably as driving and parking.

    Here’s another aspect: once one invests in a car, it makes sense to drive it in the city, especially when carrying passengers.  Because even with paid parking it is cheaper than a cab, cheaper than renting a Zipcar, and yes, often cheaper than taking the bus.

    So here’s a toast to your excellent article and to working towards making and funding public transit to be the fastest, comfortable way of getting all over our city.

  • BTW, coming here after 20 years in Toronto, SF transit is a joke

    Toronto’s new Mayor and our future Mayor are probably both hell bent on changing that gap.

  • But unfortunately, the tactics I have seen thus far are all about punishing drivers with congestion and parking difficulties rather than luring us out of our cars by providing a better option. 

    Catch 22. The thing that makes transit so bad is – cars.

  • icaraus12

    Hi Murphstahoe, I have to strongly disagree with you about what makes SF public transit slow.  You say it is cars getting in the way, causing congestion.  While car-created traffic contributes to the slowness of bus transit, it is not the primary cause.

    A quick experiment would verify this: later at night when there is little car traffic, station people at the various and many stops along a bus route, so that the bus has to make its normal number of stops as it would during the busy part of the day.  Then see how long it takes the bus to complete its route with the many boardings.  I guarantee you the #1 California bus will take a really long time to make it in or outbound. So will the #38 Geary, or the #24 Divisadero, or the #30, etc., etc.

    We San Franciscans have become habituated to a bus system that stops every block at times, or every 2 blocks.  This is simply not the way to run the major lines.  So even if we eliminated every automobile in the city, the bus lines as they are currently configured could not deliver the kind of rapid transit I’m envisioning.  I believe we need dedicated tracks/lines/underground or raised track, a few stops (every 8 blocks or so), no having to stop for street level traffic signals, etc.

    Believe me, I want to ditch the car, and for 3 months I tried to live with a fast pass and my bike.  But good intentions were not enough to overcome the frustration of waiting for buses, missing connecting buses, and taking an hour to get from Bay to Ocean sides of the City.  Constant cab rides provided neither the freedom nor the economy of a private car.  Because I can afford a car and paid parking everywhere, that’s what I use now.  But it’s not the answer for the city as a whole, and it’s not even what I want for me.

  • Anonymous

    @4a82edafb0a7618838944f89d266ea0f:disqus I agree that we need to make public transit much better, but what do you need to do that? You need money, resources, and time. When you prioritize cars though and most of your transportation money and effort goes there (especially when you included all the externalized costs we excluded in our calculus of how much money it takes to keep the car culture in place), public transit (and cycling infrastructure) takes a back seat, which makes the system perform poor, which encourages more people not to use public transit and drive instead, which encourages them to support more ballot measures or candidates for office who are going to make driving better, which in turn means public transit has less money and resources for improvement, etc., etc.

    As @twitter-14678929:disqus said, it indeed is a catch-22 because the resources for both public transit and cars came from the same pool, so developing one by definition takes away resources from the other. Even doing something as simple as what you suggest (consolidating stops on Muni buses) takes money and resources, and the city has no extra money to want to pay for the effort it takes to do this research. Now granted, I really don’t think something like consolidating Muni stops costs that much money, but consolidating bus stops is not going to get you to the point where people are living their cars in significant numbers. In order to do that, you need buses and trains that are clean, on-time, run frequently and all night, and hit all the parts of the city. There is no way you will find the money and resources to this properly without taking money from somewhere else, and the logical place is from car infrastructure. So to make public transit better, you need to take something away from the car culture; it’s a zero sum game.

  • I’m absolutely down with stop consolidation – I think it’s critical but it’s not the  primary problem on the lines I ride.

    The easiest counter to your argument re:Divis, is that drivers in cars – who don’t have to stop at any bus stops, consider Divis a pain in the butt to drive on. We live one block off of Castro and could take Divis to Lombard to get to the bridge, but we go over Clayton to Stanyan to Fulton instead, to avoid the traffic on Divis. The problem is magnified for a less nimble bus that has to go around double parked cars but then get back to the bus stops.

    Taking the 48 from our house in Noe Valley to Caltrain, the bus is *always* delayed by full on gridlock on 24th Street. Last Sunday it was a line of cars headed WB, and a single Starbucks patron double parked in front of the coffee shop EB. The bus was trapped. The driver honked to no avail, as the passengers in the car slouched down. Eventually the line of cars headed EB cleared out and the bus could pass. 3 minutes later, the car driver returned having scored her latte. Strangely the passengers seemed embarrased but the driver could care less how much she had made things difficult for everyone around her.

    Then you get to Dolores, Guerrero, Valencia, and Mission. Remove one left turning car from the equation and the bus makes the light cycle. Miss it, and that’s an extra minute.

    I don’t consider either of those lines to have “too many stops”. The only place where either line has stops spaced closely geographically is on the steep slopes of Castro above Noe Valley, perfectly reasonable given the gradients a rider would have to contend with if the bus didn’t stop at say, Elizabeth.

    I will say that the biggest problem in a lot of these cases is not the sheer number of cars but the rude behavior (double parking/standing/cutting off the bus) exhibited by the drivers.

  • icarus12

    Hi jd_x,
     I understand your argument, but I disagree that transportation funding is a zero sum game.  It is structured that way now, but it’s a logical fallacy.  It’s kind of like setting up two straw men.  For example, if we said that you can only have good public schools by cutting police, fire, and hospital services, then we would constantly be pitting one public need against another.  Since all of these services — schools, hospitals, police, and fire are necessary public goods, we fund all of them (though schools not enough in my opinion).

    True, bicycle infrastructure and public transportation share physical space with private automobile traffic, but that does not mean we need to draw the money for them from the same transportation pot that car infrastructure is built from.  There should be different pots and much bigger pots for bikes and transit.  I would be very interested in working to create support for transit funding on its own, separate from the overall transportation budget that thusfar has prioritized private car travel and truck transportation.

  • Anonymous

    @4a82edafb0a7618838944f89d266ea0f:disqus Okay, maybe I need to be more general to make myself clear. The city raises a finite amount of revenue via taxes (and however else). So everything — schools, fire departments, transit, etc. — comes from a finite pool of money. Given a finite pool of money for *all* services, if you want to improve something, it takes money, and therefore you must take that money from something else. That is a zero-sum game. If you want to spend more on one school to make it better (as in your example), then you have to take it either from another school’s budget … or something else, say the police department’s budget, the public health department’s budget, etc. But regardless, it’s gotta come from somewhere, so somebody loses in order for this particular school to get more money.

    I think one of the biggest problems with our society is that we don’t realize that everything is a zero-sum game when it comes to our budget. The reason we have so much damn debt at the federal, state, local, and personal levels is because we are trying to deny it is a zero-sum game and we keep borrowing money to buy more than we are actually able to.

    So if you want to improve public transit, and unless you raise taxes (which is another solution, but obviously one that most people resist strongly), then you have to take the money from something else. And I think it makes sense to keep money within certain sub-pools, ie, within transit. In other words, if you want more money for public transit, you should take it from other forms of transit, ie, not the police budget, or school budget, etc.

    So it’s either a zero-sum game, or you gotta raise taxes. Personally, I’m all for raising taxes since I think there is a major discrepancy between what we want our government to do (even if one is so right-wing that they can’t admit they want government to do many things) and what we want to pay for. So I’d be down with that … but like I said earlier, good luck getting people who drive to pay more taxes for public transit they don’t use. Therein is the catch-22. Of course, they should be willing to pay more for public transit even if they don’t use it since, in the exact same vein as Karen’s article above for bicycle infrastructure, it will actually make their driving and living experience in SF more pleasant if we have better public transit. But most people can’t think this long-term or this generally.

    And assuming you can’t raise taxes to increase your pool of available money, then what? I would argue that we should look at the different transit options competing for that finite pool of transit money — public transit, cycling, pedestrian, and automobile — and decide which we think are the most important and which the least. I think it’s pretty obvious that automobile has to be the least important due to all the problems they cause. Therefore, if you want to improve public transit or cycling infrastructure, it only make sense to take the required money to make these improvements from automobile infrastructure. You both discourage driving and encourage other transit options.

    In the end, I think your point is valid that we need to improve public transit. But the point I would make make is that you also need to discourage driving, and I certainly think one of the best ways to improve public transit is to create demand for it. And to create demand for it, you make it so driving sucks, which means internalizing its true costs. You do this, and *very* quickly we will have excellent public transit. If you let people continue to drive and kindly ask them to pay extra (in the form of voting for tax increases), you will find that they will constantly refuse tax increases (or to give up money for their own infrastructure) and Muni will continue being a below-average public transit system.

  • Aaron Bialick

    I’d also add to the list here that many people just want to avoid conflicts with bicycles when they’re driving and would like them separated from motor traffic. I did some research last year interviewing taxi drivers about bicycles, and what I found is that whatever their opinions about the people who are riding bikes, they would just like them to be out of the way to make their job easier. Some said this means they would support physically separated bike lanes.

    Here’s an excerpt:

    Driver: “I just noticed on Market Street, there’s a bike lane with poles. I thought that was really good because that stops the bikers from getting in front of the cars and the buses, and the cars from getting too close to the bikers. I know you can’t do that everywhere, it costs someone money.”

    Driver: “I think bike lanes are a good idea, but because I drive a cab, when someone throws a flag up, you’re so hungry, you just turn quick to get that flag. And if you don’t look before you do that, there’s some guy on a bike that you just cut off.”

    A.B.: “Would you like the Market Street bike lane to be up on the curb?”

    Driver: “That would definitely be better than it is. But that’s gonna cost someone some money.”

  • The Greasybear

    The decidated motorist “disagrees” with the inconvenient fact that he and his fellow motorists are slowing down Muni buses. No matter that SFMTA can prove eliminating most cars from a roadway speeds up Muni service–e.g. the mid-Market test zone. No, the dedicated motorist just won’t give up driving around the city until those buses are faster than they currently are, buses stuck behind dedicated motorists like Icarus.

  • icarus12

    Hi jd_x,
    I better understand your argument about finite fiscal resources, so thanks for explaining.  I do think, however, that we should get away from thinking about transit as one pot that gets split among different modes.  I say that because I see and hear of so much SF money going to things I think are wasteful or over-emphasized.

    So I would be all for pitting more transit money against the overabundance of fire battalion chiefs and firehouses in this city.  And I would further gladly pit greater transit funding against massive funding to an ever-expanding drug-abusing population that comes to San Francisco from other parts of the Bay Area and the country, because services are so much more extensive here than in their home communities.  And I would be more than happy to enact thorough-going pension, benefit, and salary reforms and cut the city workforce to a more reasonable number of employees for a city of this size.  But as you can see from just a cursory list, such prioritizing would involve huge political fights.

    One more thing: I am voting against Ed Lee’s bond measure for streets, because it does nothing to identify steady sources of tax funding for transit and streets in the future.  I am all for higher taxes and even bonded projects to fix past problems, but not with a bloated city government that is refusing to re-think how it does government.  San Francisco government currently exists primarily to feed itself rather than provide services to the restless citizens like me who would gladly pay more to get more.

  • icarus12

    Hi jd_x,
    I better understand your argument about finite fiscal resources, so thanks for explaining.  I do think, however, that we should get away from thinking about transit as one pot that gets split among different modes.  I say that because I see and hear of so much SF money going to things I think are wasteful or over-emphasized.

    So I would be all for pitting more transit money against the overabundance of fire battalion chiefs and firehouses in this city.  And I would further gladly pit greater transit funding against massive funding to an ever-expanding drug-abusing population that comes to San Francisco from other parts of the Bay Area and the country, because services are so much more extensive here than in their home communities.  And I would be more than happy to enact thorough-going pension, benefit, and salary reforms and cut the city workforce to a more reasonable number of employees for a city of this size.  But as you can see from just a cursory list, such prioritizing would involve huge political fights.

    One more thing: I am voting against Ed Lee’s bond measure for streets, because it does nothing to identify steady sources of tax funding for transit and streets in the future.  I am all for higher taxes and even bonded projects to fix past problems, but not with a bloated city government that is refusing to re-think how it does government.  San Francisco government currently exists primarily to feed itself rather than provide services to the restless citizens like me who would gladly pay more to get more.

  • icarus12

    Another thought: What is so good about this article is that Karen identifies in a nuts and bolts way how bicycle infrastructure relieves congestion for drivers.  If we can keep driving that point home, I bet you we could get more drivers to support taxing themselves to make their drive more pleasant.  And those taxes would go to building out the infrastructure for other modes of travel.  I really do believe we have a huge public education project in front of us.  I can only thank Karen for making those connections so clear.

  • icarus12

    Another thought: What is so good about this article is that Karen identifies in a nuts and bolts way how bicycle infrastructure relieves congestion for drivers.  If we can keep driving that point home, I bet you we could get more drivers to support taxing themselves to make their drive more pleasant.  And those taxes would go to building out the infrastructure for other modes of travel.  I really do believe we have a huge public education project in front of us.  I can only thank Karen for making those connections so clear.

  • icarus12

    Murphstahoe, your observations about the 24 Divisadero were cogent and appreciated.  I hope we San Franciscans can get our act together and build a complete transit system that separates cars from public transit while favoring the latter mightily.  From your observations it would seem giving buses a dedicated lane on each major route would be a good start.  And enforcing laws on anyone blocking traffic (as that coffee-fetcher did) would be another good place to start.

    To Greasybear, though your argument may have merit, your example actually contradicts your point.  On Market Street, after a great deal of private automobile traffic has been eliminated, Muni is now 3% faster (I think that’s probably about 12 seconds saved per bus).  The emperor on Market Street is parading about without clothes, but few seem to have noticed.  Market Street is still an agonizing ride for bus riders, so clearly some other changes will have to be tried out to bring down travel times.

  • Sprague

    Great article, Karen.  As always, you are right on the mark.  Allow me to throw in my 2 cents worth, and please forgive me if you already covered this terrain.
     
    Just as drivers benefit from improved cycling infrastructure, cyclists benefit from improved transit.  Too many cyclists are only one distracted driver away from an accident.  If that acident happens, Muni might be your only way to get around.  Also, if it’s a poorly timed flat tire or mechanical problem or rainy weather, sometimes it’s great to have Muni as a choice.

    The recent rains in SF reminded me of how nice more cycle tracks or parking-buffered bike lanes would be… to keep from getting splashed and sullied en route to work.

  • Anonymous

    There’s no doubt in my mind that many of the things that would make “a system that gets me from Point A to Point B faster than and nearly as comfortably as driving and parking” involve, for example, creating well-enforced transit lanes and cycletracks, which may involve limiting the turns cars can make or removing parking spaces. But these measures are still denounced as “punishing drivers”. Even failing to build an “appropriate level” of parking is “punishing drivers”, regardless of whether it’s economically justified or not.

    Even charging market rates for street parking, which is intended to help drivers more easily find parking, is denounced as “punishing drivers”, because it is not the preferred solution of building massively subsidized parking garages.

    I don’t think it’s an argument that can be won. Anything you do to change the status quo will be criticized as being anti-driver.

    Take the central subway, for example. The Stockton St. tunnel was built to carry streetcars and could do so again, at a tiny fraction of the cost, but it won’t be done because it would interfere however slightly with auto traffic. So we get a tunnel  with many compromises at an incredible cost, and are told to be happy with it.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t disagree with you, icarus12– but what is it that prevents dedicated tracks from being made and enforced? It is a powerful car lobby which holds that any loss of a traffic lane or (worse yet) parking is an unacceptable affront. This seems to have killed the Geary BRT proposal, which incorporated many of your ideas.

  • James Figone

    Karen Lynn Allen for Streetsblog SF editor!

  • Admin

    Great article. The comparison photos are very eye opening.
    If you ride an electric bike you might find this useful. It’s a way to calculate your distances to your destination to stay in range of your battery.

    http://www.electric-bicycle-store.com/calculate-the-distance-from-your-home-to-any-destination/

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