Three charts that show how bikes became great for local economies

January 16, 2014

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer

It's actually hard to blame bike-lane haters. Their ideas — that bicycles are either recreational toys or hazardous alternatives to automobile travel — are rooted in truth.

The thing is, they're rooted in a truth that's out of date.

Thirty years ago, when central-city economies had collapsed beneath the weight of disinvestment, crime and 90 percent federal reimbursements for new freeway construction, riding bicycles for transportation in American cities didn't make nearly as much sense as it does today. As crime rates spiked and even the densest urban neighborhoods carved out more and more space for auto lanes, those who could flee to the suburbs did so. Urban commercial corridors changed from being among the best places to spend time outside a car to being among the worst. Destinations became distant. Parking lots, a new requirement for every development, pushed things even further from one another, even as the expense of building or buying all that land made it easier for chain retailers to push out small businesses.

Using a car to get anywhere in a city seemed normal for a perfectly good reason: it was.

But as Mary Lauran Hall of the Alliance for Biking and Walking and I show in a new report this week, things have changed. Here are my three favorite infographics from the report that show why and how.

1) Youth driver licensing peaked in 1983.

The rapid decline in urban crime since 1991, the subsequent nationwide reinvestment in central cities and, later, the overwhelming convenience of mobile computing have changed low-car life from a character-defining shortcoming to a healthy, satisfying lifestyle, and the first people to notice have been the young. Driven by many factors — but clearly more than just the weak job market of the last few years — fewer young people are now bothering to get driver's licenses than ever recorded. One in three Americans aged 16 to 24 doesn't have a license, and 22 percent say they never expect to.

As the stories in the report show, sectors of the economy from homebuilding to human resources are looking at youth behavior and shifting to the consensus that relatively dense urban low-car life (and one of its essential tools, the bicycle) is the future of their industry.

2) Central cities now get most venture capital investments.

The big companies of the future are starting in cities. This is related to the trend above — new companies sometimes struggle to compete on wages so they attract young workers by offering the lifestyles they prefer — but it's consistent with the ancient truth that interaction drives innovation. People get smarter (socially, intellectually, technically) by living in proximity and meeting each other by chance. Because bicycles allow rapid mobility without congestion, they're essential to this formula. That's why bicycling for transportation is rapidly getting more popular in every metro area listed above.

"Silicon Valley proper is soul-crushing suburban sprawl," the venture capital industry's chief executive philosopher, Paul Graham, warned in 2006. "A competitor that managed to avoid sprawl would have real leverage. All a city needs is to be the kind of place the next traitorous eight look at and say 'I want to stay here,' and that would be enough to get the chain reaction started." It has.

3) A filled bike parking space is three times more lucrative than a filled auto parking space.

This isn't because people who bike spend more at shops than those who drive, though in some cases they do. It's because bike parking spaces are such an enormously efficient use of real estate.

Here's the catch to this last item: it only works if the bike parking spaces are actually filled. Whatever its intended purpose, an empty parking space is doing no good for anybody. That's why the thesis of our report isn't that bicycling is inevitable. It's that cities that are listening to cues in the economy around them and building the facilities that are proven to actually increase bicycling rates — protected bike lanes and other low-stress transportation networks — are finding it easier to ride these trends to prosperity.

As we work to spread this understanding, we're always looking for better ways to explain it. Which of these three do you find most compelling? Which do you think would catch the attention of your city's business and political leaders?

The Green Lane Project is a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for our weekly news digest about protected bike lanes. Story tip? Write michael@peopleforbikes.org.

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