More bikes mean... More cars?

More bikes mean... More cars?

I commute by bike every morning. And the traffic’s just terrible.

I don’t mean car traffic—I mean the clusters of other bikes, squeezing into the bike lane. Bikes bumping into my back tire if I make a sudden stop. “If I hear one more bell,” I say to myself, “my next gesture won’t be a turn-signal.”

Shouldn’t I be celebrating, instead of bitching? It’s great that so many people are choosing two wheels instead of four for their commute to work. Especially in a city like Toronto, where the weather doesn’t always cooperate.

On the other hand, the crowding is a bitter reminder that my city’s cycling infrastructure is grossly inadequate. We don’t allocate the money needed to make commuting by bike an efficient, attractive, and safe option. So we end up making it miserable for the relatively few who do it.

Cities throughout the U.S. are facing the same dilemma. And nowhere is the tension more clear than in recent municipal meetings in Portland, Oregon.

Despite a long rainy season and a gray winter, Portland has instituted a bike-sharing program so popular that a whopping eight percent of all trips taken within the city are done via the city’s shared bikes; making Portland the national leader for this kind of initiative. Lots of people choose to ride their own bikes in Portland too, meaning the total percentage of trips travelled on two wheels is certainly higher. The city wants to raise the figure to 25 percent by 2030.

None of this happened overnight. It grew out of careful planning and adequate investment in infrastructure and education made by the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). But now, just as the PBOT is realizing success in switching people from cars to bikes, it is facing a severe funding crunch.

Like in most U.S. cities, much of the PBOT’s funding comes from the gas tax. However, as the Portland bike-sharing program grows in popularity, the number of citizens who have to buy gas drops, and the Bureau’s revenue along with it. Ultimately, that means less money for creating bike lanes, fixing potholes (every cyclist’s nemesis), and for public education related to cycling.

According to Tom Miller, Director of the PBOT, “Portland has a 21st century transportation vision they are trying to carry out with a 20th century funding model.” It must be fixed, and soon.

Raising the gas tax is one option, though widely unpopular with voters and likely inadequate if the PBOT achieves its 25 percent goal. The bureau is looking for new revenue streams to help it further invest.

Portland’s problem will likely travel east. There’s evidence that cycling initiatives continue to decrease the number of daily drivers in other Northeastern cities. This is something worth celebrating. But it will lead, I predict, to similar calls for new funding strategies. So let’s be proactive, for once. Let’s start decoupling revenues from cars to pay for bikes to ensure the right incentives are in place for long-term.

April 26, 2012