The amount of scrutiny placed on the public investment in a three-kilometre protected bike lane would never apply to the much larger costs the city routinely shoulders for automobile infrastructure.
By Ryan McGreal
Published March 20, 2014
Yesterday, the General Issues Committee unanimously approved the plan to implement a protected two-way cycle track on Cannon Street. Today, talk radio host Scott Thompson posted the following question on twitter:
Should #cyclists pay for using dedicated #bikelanes? #HamOnt #itsonlyfair
Okay, let's take this one step at a time. First of all, we must repeat that drivers do not pay for roads. City streets are funded through the municipal property tax levy, while provincial highways are funded through general revenues (i.e. provincial income tax, corporate tax, and so on).
It's true that drivers specifically pay several taxes and fees, including vehicle tax, gas tax, driver's licence fee, licence plate sticker, and so on. But even if we include all sources of revenue, like speeding tickets and so on, the total amount that drivers specifically pay falls short of the total cost of roads by billions of dollars a year.
(A Conference Board study published last year found that Ontario drivers contribute around $7.7 billion in revenue but the Province and municipalities spend $10-13 billion on roads.)
And that's assuming none of that money goes toward other costs. However, it costs money to maintain the system of drivers' licences and vehicle registrations, which is over and above the cost of roads.
It costs money to maintain police services that enforce the Highway Traffic Act and municipal driving laws - a lot more money than the state collects in tickets, despite motorists grumbling about speed traps.
It costs money to provide medical care to the people who are injured and killed in collisions - around 530 fatalities and 65,000 injuries a year in Ontario. Locally, that translates to around 20 fatalities and 2,250 injuries a year in Hamilton.
It costs money to provide medical care to people who are sickened by air pollution from automobiles. In Hamilton, air pollution is responsible for around 700 hospital visits and 100 premature deaths every year, and half of our air pollution is from automobile exhaust.
So let's put to bed the tired canard that "it's only fair" to start charging cyclists to use the road.
Now let's take the analysis further and look at things from the infrstructure cost side.
Road maintenance costs around $2,300 per lane-kilometre, plus around $3,800 in winter maintenance, for a total of $6,100 per lane-kilometre.
On top of that, roads must be reconstructed on average once every 25 years at a cost of $750,000 per lane-kilometre.
Divide that cost by the 25-year life of a road and you've got a lifecycle replacement cost of $30,000 per lane-kilometre per year - five times the total annual cost of maintenance.
How potholes get made: Heavy vehicles compact the roadbed. Water seeps in, then freezes and expands, causing the roadbed to erode and the asphalt to crack. Then the asphalt collapses into the hollow, leaving a pothole.
But wear-and-tear on a road is related exponentially to the weight of vehicles riding on the road. A subcompact car is around ten times as heavy as a bicycle but causes around 1,000 times as much damage to the pavement. A SUV produces 8,000 times as much damage as a bike, and a transport truck produces millions of times as much damage as a bike.
By extending the life of a roadway, protected bike lanes save the municipality money in lifecycle costs.
At the same time, protected bike lanes are proven to boost local retail business and lift nearby property values, which help increase municipal property tax revenues.
On top of that, by replacing some automobile trips with bike trips, protected bike lanes reduce air pollution, which reduces the number of hospital visits and premature deaths. Cycling also improves public health by getting more people to exercise.
And on top of that, the transformation from a fast, four-lane arterial to a complete street makes it measurably safer for all road users - including drivers. That means fewer and less serious collisions, with its own commensurate reduction in injuries, hospitalizations and deaths.
Of course, the amount of scrutiny placed on the public investment in a three-kilometre protected bike lane would never apply to the much larger costs the city routinely shoulders for automobile infrastructure.
For example, there was no outcry from fiscally-conscious councillors or populist commentators when the City decided, without any significant debate or public engagement, to spend $2.3 million replacing a single intersection: the grade-separated interchange of King Street and Kenilworth Avenue.
No one gasped at the lost potential for another $200,000+ in annual property tax revenue from the massive amount of surface area required to make room for all the on- and off-ramps necessitated by this highway-style interchange.
Land required for King/Kenilworth vs. Main/Kenilworth (Image Credit: Sean Burak)
No one fumed that we have committed future taxpayers to cover the comparatively huge lifecycle costs of an overpass/underpass interchange system where an intersection would do.
If we applied a consistent cost/benefit analysis to automobile, cycling and walking infrastructure, the shape of our public realm would be a lot different.
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