Should city cyclists feel bad about bike funding in the mayor’s budget?

Super short answer: No.

I have heard (and felt) some uneasiness about the inclusion of so-called alternative transportation funding in the mayor’s proposed budget, which slashes just about every department in the city. Bike Intelligencer posted an interesting reflection after attending the first budget hearing the other night, saying, “With everyone else hurting, we cannot feel too good about getting ours.”

I understand where this comes from. The library is cutting librarians from smaller branches, community centers are losing tons of hours, city employees are getting fired or are not getting raises, and on and on (pick up a copy of Real Change to read a short breakdown of the budget cuts I wrote this week). What’s a new bike lane in the face of all these other programs?

First, let’s take a look at this proposed bike funding. The mayor’s budget includes an increase in general road repair funds as well as increases in funding for bike, pedestrian and transit project funds by increasing parking costs and vehicle license fees. Of the money that comes from those car-centric cost increases, general road maintenance — which helps all roads users, including cars, buses, freight and, yes, bikes — is the central point of the proposal.

The funding is often categorized as bike funding, but bikes are only part of this package (though they are the part most often cited). The $5 million budget increase for 2011 includes goals like completing the transit master plan and nominally funding the (basically unfunded) pedestrian master plan and the (mostly unfunded) bicycle master plan. The budget also calls for an $8 million increase in 2012.

In times of financial stress on a city, it makes the most sense to remove a subsidy before instituting a fresh tax. Cars are subsidized by our city. Our roads are falling into disrepair and cars are not paying for their share of that damage. Rearranging the funding so that cars pay more for the roads (though still not close to their share) only makes sense in a more balanced city budget. Having roads fall into disrepair is not smart, even in such hard economic times, and those who are getting subsidies from the city should pay up for those repairs.

Here are some interesting numbers from a column by Portland’s Elly Blue in Grist:

The average driver travels 10,000 miles in town each year and contributes $324 in taxes and direct fees. The cost to the public, including direct costs and externalities, is a whopping $3,360.

On the opposite pole, someone who exclusively bikes may go 3,000 miles in a year, contribute $300 annually in taxes, and costs the public only $36, making for a profit of $264. To balance the road budget, we need 12 people commuting by bicycle for each person who commutes by car.

Josh at Publicola has previously reported on Seattle’s specific breakdown of roads funding, showing clearly that cars are not paying much more than other roads users, even though their costs to the city are so much higher.

I have also written about the potential cost-saving power of complete streets projects. You could call a complete street project a bike project because it typically includes some sort of bike amenity, but that would be missing the overwhelming good for all the comes from these projects (yes, they are also better for cars).

The city is facing a giant budget shortfall. Cars are expensive to the city, and the money to pay for the roads has to come from somewhere. Our parking costs are well below market rates.

When you have a city facing high unemployment, a bicycle can be a huge hand up to people who would hit broke otherwise. It is extremely cost-effective to ride a bicycle, but the biggest concern among potential bikers is that they do not feel safe. Many neighborhoods could be walkable if their roads were not built like highways. A roads project built for people not only employs roads workers, but also makes life more cost-effective for more people who may be struggling. As someone who has hit dead broke several times in the past few years, I know that I would not have made it through some of those times without my bicycle.

Community centers and libraries getting their budgets slashed is a separate issue from rearranging roads funding. The mayor’s budget is not taking the library’s money and giving it to bikes. He is proposing a smart pay structure improvement so that car users pay a little closer to what they cost the city while encouraging people to get out of their cars, which would save the city money.

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6 Responses to Should city cyclists feel bad about bike funding in the mayor’s budget?

  1. eldan says:

    I wrote about this on Sustainable Seattle’s blog recently:

    http://sustainableseattle.blogspot.com/2010/09/streets-for-all-social-justice-issue.html

    Shortened: infrastructure that helps people get around without cars helps those who can’t afford a car. which is substantively a Good Thing.

  2. brad hawkins says:

    It’s not going to play well with Joni Balter but cars are expensive and need to start pulling their own weight. I can only wait until the City Council members try to tie themselves in knots trying to petulantly oppose the Mayor while they too would benefit from better cycling infrastructure.

    Bring on Suzie Burke as our comic foil and we might just get this thing through the Council!

    Nice write up.

  3. Steve says:

    After being buzzed by a Seattle Public Utilities truck on Ravenna this morning, I no longer feel bad about budget cuts in certain city departments.

  4. Pingback: Why it’s not books vs. bikes, environment vs. economy, etc. : Great City

  5. Mickymse says:

    I don’t think you understand the problem many of us walk, bike, and transit activists have…

    “Community centers and libraries getting their budgets slashed is a separate issue from rearranging roads funding. The mayor’s budget is not taking the library’s money and giving it to bikes. He is proposing a smart pay structure improvement so that car users pay a little closer to what they cost the city while encouraging people to get out of their cars, which would save the city money.”

    I know this, and you know this. Other wonky folks know that we aren’t going to pay for library hours with parking meter revenues…

    BUT the average citizen simply does not get that. What citizens see is us paying for bike lanes and rechannelization projects while their local community center gets reduced hours, or building little sidewalk projects with the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund while shutting Neighborhood Service Centers.

    That makes citizens generally less trusting of the government and less willing to pay more in taxes.

    It’s not that bike funding is a bad thing, or that these are the wrong ways to fund it; it’s that now is simply not the right time to fund these projects if we want long-term support for bike, pedestrian, and transit causes.

  6. Yawn says:

    Streets are for cars.

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