The Positive Nature of Bicycle Transportation

Automobiles are far and away the prime cause of New York City’s dangerously unhealthy air. But even mass transit consumes fossil fuels and creates pollution — directly in the case of buses, and indirectly for electric-powered rail transport. Bicycling, in contrast, is human-powered, or, if you will, a product of solar energy (mediated into food via photosynthesis, and into mechanical energy via the cyclist’s metabolism). Like walking, cycling is renewable transport, and therefore non-polluting; however, the mechanical advantage of the bicycle allows the cyclist to cover 4-5 times as much ground as the pedestrian. With a bicycle, a New Yorker can traverse the metropolis pollution-free — on the energy of an apple tart!

Apple Power
On 350 calories — one apple tart or a “special” slice of Ray’s Pizza — a cyclist can travel 10 miles, a pedestrian 3.5 miles, and an automobile 100 feet.

Of course, bicycles are many times more efficient in using street space than automobiles, and roughly comparable to buses operating at high load factors. Moreover, compared to cars, and also to buses and subways, bicycles are blessedly quiet. In crowded, noisome New York, the bicycle’s economy of space and sound is a powerful advantage.

Cycling is also personally liberating. On a bike, one can “transcend time, traffic and the regulated ordinariness of city life,” [21] wrote one bicyclist. Cyclists control their own schedule, largely free of the gridlock, breakdowns and bureaucracies that are the constant bane of motorists and transit riders. Hand-in-hand with the psychic benefits of autonomous travel comes the physiological benefit from cycling exercise — not to mention the sheer fun and exhilaration of propelling oneself on two wheels. With improved street conditions, especially reduced pollution and danger from motor vehicles, cycling could truly become a “health club of the streets,” providing free aerobic exercise as part of one’s normal daily travel, not in a sweaty gym but in the urban outdoors.

Much of the scenic and fun value of riding a bike comes from the ability to experience and interact with the vibrant street life of New York. Unlike motorists, who are separate from (if not intruders upon) the communities their cars rumble through, and transit users who are stifled underground, the cyclist can feel and observe the passing scene and stop casually for errands. And while nothing quite matches the intimacy of walking through a neighborhood, cycling at least comes close while affording far greater mobility. What’s more, many cyclists, especially women, feel less vulnerable to street crime aboard a bike than on foot or on mass transit. By making bicycle riding available to a broader spectrum of people in a wider set of circumstances, we can increase the affinity that New Yorkers feel for their city and for each other.

Finally, bicycling is affordable. Per mile traveled, bicycle riding costs the frequent cyclist less than half as much as mass transit and only one-quarter as much as driving — even assuming cyclists must replace their bicycles every three years due to bicycle theft and bad pavement.  The low cost of bicycle transportation is a big reason that many young and hard-pressed New Yorkers — students, artists, free-lancers — rely on bikes.

By extending bicycling to a fuller spectrum of the citizenry, the city could significantly lower the cost of living in New York. We estimate that the annual savings would average $575 for each transit user switching to bicycles, and $1,100 per motorist. The implied savings in outlays from a 10-fold increase in cycling are on the order of half-a-billion dollars annually for the city as a whole.  Clearly, by making cycling more widespread, city government could free up substantial discretionary income for entertainment, education, and other goods and services that are New York’s economic and social raison d’être.

Economic and Social Costs of Motor Vehicles

copyright Keith Haring 1985

Motor vehicles impose an extraordinary burden on New York City. Roadway construction, maintenance and administration cost the city close to $800 million a year more than is collected from motorists through fuel taxes, tolls and other charges (see next footnote); this amount, equivalent to $105 a year for every man, woman and child in the city, must be made up through higher taxes on personal and business income, property and sales.

But this subsidy to motorists is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg; transportation planner-engineer Brian Ketcham and economist Charles Komanoff estimate that the “hidden” costs of motor vehicle use — air pollution, time lost in congestion, traffic noise and vibration, national security costs to maintain oil supplies, land appropriation, and the human toll of car accidents on motorists, pedestrians and cyclists — total approximately $21 billion a year in New York City. About half of these costs are borne by motorists, but the other half is borne by the public at large. Averaged across the entire populace, the use of cars and trucks costs New Yorkers an astounding $3,000 per person per year, above and beyond motorists’ out-of-pocket costs including taxes and insurance.

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