Arguments Against Non-Motorized Transport Development Beginning to Lose Steam

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Juliellen is a senior planner with Simple Solutions Planning and Design. She telecommutes and rides her bike from her home in Richmond.
January 11, 2013

Why are the relatively modest costs of sidewalks, bicycle lanes and paths, and pedestrian improvements met with suspicion and hostility by the conventional auto-oriented transportation community? What are the true costs and the true benefits of these projects?

Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute has provided many of these answers in his latest publication, Evaluating Non-Motorized Transport Benefits and Costs.

Litman challenges the perception that non-motorized transportation improvements (for travel modes such as walking, bicycling, and wheelchairs) only benefit a small subset of users. He claims that they, in fact, benefit nearly everyone, even the most dedicated motorists. After all, people who consider themselves motorists must get to and from their cars and benefit from accessible, convenient, and efficient connections between their cars and their destinations.

Conventional cost-benefit analysis heavily favors car-oriented projects at the expense of considering the importance of a diverse and dynamic transportation system that includes non-motorized modes as integral to the overall system.

Litman meets the typical arguments against non-motorized transport projects with well-considered and practical responses, summarized here;

  • Inferior Good: Road projects are an indication of wealth, according to critics of spending on non-auto transportation projects. One look at many wealthy communities – those with many walkers, bicyclists, and pedestrians – proves that providing an array of transportation options is the key to and an indicator of community well-being.
  • Slow and Inefficient: While walking and bicycling are often slower than traveling by car, non-motorized transportation is often very efficient, and those transportation options actually increase efficiency through cost savings and the benefits of connecting places, people, goods, and services.
  • Excessive Costs and Subsidies: The true costs of roadway projects are rarely considered by the models typically used to justify them. These include increased crashes resulting from higher speeds and volumes, and the decrease of physical activity due to car travel. Similarly, the true benefits of non-motorized projects are rarely considered when arguing against such projects.
  • Unfair to Motorists: Non-motorized transportation projects do not benefit motorists and should not be funded with transportation dollars. The true cost of road subsidies, however, is rarely considered by proponents of this view. Litman also argues that non-motorized facilities offset the negative impacts of roadway projects such as air pollution and water-quality issues.
  • Inefficient and Wasteful: The lack of demand for bicycle and pedestrian facilities is often cited as a reason to not “waste” funds on such projects. The most successful places, however, are those that provide diversity of transportation options and connections. Those places become centers of social and economic life by attracting people who arrive by or use the non-motorized facilities.

So Litman concludes: Diverse and robust transportation networks – including motorized and non-motorized facilities – are the most efficient and cost effective when the true costs and benefits are calculated. Litman provides specific cost and benefit categories and explains how non-motorized transport projects can be more accurately analyzed and justified, which should be a big help going forward as researchers like all of us at Simple Solutions Planning & Design continue to make progress on showing what a great return-on-investment non-motorized transport is for officials and developers.

Photo by Victoria Transport Policy Institute

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Kirk Short March 15, 2013 at 5:35 PM

I think some important points are overlooked by the critics of bike and pedestrian lanes. First, public rights of way are owned by the public, not just car and truck drivers. I think that people who walk and ride should be legally entitled to get where they need to go safely on public rights of way. A white line at the edge of the road does not qualify. They should be separate from the highway. Secondly, the argument that pedestrian and bike travel is slower and less efficient is not necessarily true, especially when you figure the time taken looking for parking and waiting for traffic lights. In Lulea, Sweden, the university is about 5 miles from town. The bike lanes are wide and inviting and go either over or under highways. They are not slowed by traffic signals. They are also plowed in winter and used even though Lulea is almost at the arctic circle. Generally speaking you can get to town faster by bicycle than by car and save money and air quality in the process. Third, streets and road used for motor vehicle traffic are most often used to bury utilities. When there is a problem with the utilities, a leaky water or sewer pipe, a broken wire, repair crews have to restrict traffic and dig a hole resulting not only in traffic jams and great expense for flaggers and risk to the lives of the workers, but the inevitable bumps and dips remaining after resurfacing. If, instead, utilities were placed under pedestrian and bike lanes, the inconvenience and costs of repair, and, except where the utilities must cross the road, eliminate most of the pavement irregularities that result from utility repairs. It would save a lot of money that is written off as an inevitable cost of maintenence Forth, I am not a big fan of sidewalks, but in an urban setting, they are appropriate. I believe that casting sidewalks in forms that can be removed for maintaining utilities placed below would save both money and pavement. Street crossings could be provided in vaults that allow removal of plates to allow access. Fifth, I believe the main reason that people get in their cars to drive to work or to the corner store is not because they are fat and lazy, but because they do not feel safe walking or riding on public streets. Fat and lazy and unhealthy are the result of the only physical exercise being walking between the TV and the garage.

Kirk Short
International Real Estate Consultant
http://www.inter-realestate.com, http://www.parkingsolutions.org
530 582-0556 530 400-0556
12513 Pinnacle Loop, Truckee, CA 96161
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avatar Kirk Short March 15, 2013 at 5:49 PM

I did forgot one important point, and that is if bicycle and pedestrian lanes are successful in getting people out of their cars there would be a reduced need for pavement for cars and trucks. They could result in huge cost savings and directly improve the quality of life for drivers by reducing street congestion. Better urban planning, especially reducing “leapfrog sprawl” would be a step in the right direction.

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avatar Paul Mackie March 15, 2013 at 11:20 PM

Some good points, Kirk. Your final point reminds me of the pictures I’ve seen that show cars jam-packed onto a highway. Then the next picture shows what the drivers would look like on the same highway but without their cars. There is a lot of space and open road between the people. Cars take up an incredible amount of space, which is space bicyclists and pedestrians (and buses too) don’t use.

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